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The cost savings, increased functionality, and improved productivity and mobility offered by voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is fast making it a priority among firms. But what are key factors to consider when evaluating and choosing a business VoIP provider? How can you be sure that the vendor you select will be flexible enough to meet the growing needs of your firm?

VoIP is the technology used to transmit voice conversations over the Internet or through any other IP (Internet protocol)-based network. With VoIP, voice conversation is broken up into packets of data that are transmitted over the Internet or over a proprietary broadband network before being reassembled on the terminating end of the call.

There are several selection criteria that your firm should use when evaluating and selecting a VoIP provider. Following is a short list of key selection criteria to consider when your organization is evaluating VoIP.

QUALITY OF SERVICE

Quality of service, which is critical to a successful phone implementation, is comprised of many elements – in-house wiring, router configurations, switch configurations and the ability of your carrier to deliver quality of service.

In addition to ordering quality of service from the carrier, firms need to consider design, equipment and wiring – ensuring that all of these components prioritize voice over data. This requires an end-to-end solution that is engineered by a qualified provider that can handle switches, routers, inside wiring and phones.

The VoIP solutions team at mindSHIFT Technologies recommends that you order quality of service on every voice circuit in your network. If you don’t have it, then call quality can degrade with echo, dropped calls and one-way talk paths. Most businesses can’t afford to have dropped calls or calls that fade in and out.

FUNCTIONALITY

Standard VoIP features include call forwarding, hold and transfer, and three-way conferencing. Advanced features include simultaneous ring and selective call forwarding. Other popular features are remote call forwarding, unified messaging, and the find me/follow me function that enables calls to be automatically routed to users wherever they are located, including branch offices, mobile phones and home phones.

EQUIPMENT NEEDED

With the implementation of VoIP, firms should purchase or lease VoIP-capable phones. Other equipment that will likely be required includes switches, routers, circuits and analog phone adapters designed for a VoIP environment. Buyers should make certain that the quotes they receive from prospective suppliers represent an end-to-end design and include all relevant equipment, to enable an apples-to-apples comparison.

COST OF LONG DISTANCE

Check to see if there are add-on fees for long distance calls. Consider long-distance calls in your evaluation. Make sure you have a sufficient number of minutes for both local and long distance, and purchase a package that is sufficient for your business needs.

SERVICE OPTIONS

In an industry of ongoing consolidation, it’s important to determine what type of ongoing support will be available. Even if you choose an on-premises solution, issues may arise which require the support of the provider. Two things to consider:

Do the providers have a dedicated customer service team to answer your questions after the initial setup and installation?

Are the providers stable and financially viable? How many customers do they have?

Having access to your provider after the initial setup may mean the difference between ongoing issues and technology peace of mind.

ON-SITE VS. MANAGED SERVICES

The choice of a VoIP provider is largely dependent on whether you implement an on-premises solution or whether you use a hosted service. Both types of implementations can be managed by an experienced managed services provider (MSP).

One key benefit to purchasing an on-premises system is the potential for customization that leads to greater integration of the phone with applications. But along with better integration comes responsibility and cost.

One key advantage of deploying hosted VoIP services is the ability to continue operations (specifically phone usage) during and following any disaster, such as a snowstorm or hurricane, which causes a power outage and makes your offices unusable. In such an unfortunate event, your employees can still make and receive phone calls using their main business number. As long as they can connect to the Internet, they can use and manage their phone service. The benefit to you is clear: your users don’t miss a beat. They can continue to work.

Other benefits of the hosted model are the following:

Ease of growth and expansion;

Simplicity and speed of deployments in multi-office environments; and

Savings in upgrades (upgrades are performed by the MSP behind the scenes).

In summary, an on-premises VoIP implementation provides organizations with greater control/ownership, a greater ability to customize and the ability to integrate third-party applications. The hosted VoIP solution is not only better if your organization has multiple offices or is expanding offices, but also provides better disaster recovery, enables easy upgrades, requires less staffing/expertise and costs less upfront.

Ideally, you want to work with a provider that offers both options (hosted and on-premises), so they are not biased toward one solution over another.

Several key considerations face organizations planning a VoIP migration, including quality of service, functionality, service options and vendor viability. By asking the right questions, you can be certain that you are comparing apples-to-apples and will get the best system for your firm.

EDWARD J. GRUBB is general manager, legal managed services, of mindSHIFT Technologies Inc., a provider of managed IT services, software- as-a-service (SaaS), VoIP, compliance and professional services to small and medium-sized organizations. The company also provides business applicationmigrations, storage area network upgradesand complex hosting applications. With more than20 years experience in law office computing, Grubb is the former president and co-founder of Network Alternatives Inc. in Langhorne, Pa. Contact Grubb at [email protected] .

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