Business-grade voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers are a popular choice among small businesses and startups, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the cultural shit to hybrid work. VoIP excels at replicating the functionality of a big business PBX for a fraction of the money, with per-user monthly billing in most cases. But it’s also a great option for remote workers who need the same communications capabilities they once had in the office. On top of that, you get a whole new landscape of flexibility because your phone calls are now data. Throw in the various file-sharing, messaging, and even video-conferencing features and VoIP becomes even more essential for businesses.
If you’ve decided to upgrade to a VoIP service but you’re wondering where to start, the short answer is: Move slowly, do your homework, and don’t make cost the only consideration. There are many amazing business VoIP systems out there, but each one has a different set of features and a different pricing structure, which can make choosing difficult. RingCentral MVP is one of our Editors’ Choice picks from our most recent roundup, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other excellent choices. In fact, other systems might focus on different capabilities, like Freshdesk Contact Center with its specialization in call center features, or Ooma Office, which stands out for its versatility and deployment options. We’ve compiled this list of to help you pick from the business VoIP players.
1. Know Your Rates
Even though we just said not to obsess over cost, let’s face it: It’s important. What good is choosing a business VoIP service with all the bells and whistles if you can’t afford it? Intermedia Unite, another Editors’ Choice winner, has a fantastic selection of features at its $32.99 per user per month Enterprise tier, but its Basic tier might be more palatable at $19.99 per user per month. RingCentral offers similar basic pricing starting at $19.99, but that is limited to 20 users and lacks integrations. If you move to the Premium tier, you’ll be starting at $34.99 per user per month, but this level brings with it new capabilities, including multi-level auto-attendant, inbound caller ID name, call recording, and some identity management capabilities. And then there’s the Ultimate tier, which starts at $44.99.
There are cheaper solutions than our Editors’ Choices, however. One example is Line2, which begins at $14.99 per user per month, but you’ll trade features for the savings. For example, Line2 doesn’t offer any integrations and it lacks collaboration and video conferencing as of this writing. This type of entry-level service is still great for companies that do everything from their laptops or tablets, but they’re not as good as RingCentral or AT&T Collaborate for companies that handle a high volume of incoming and outgoing calls.
2. Look for Versatile Dialing Options
One of the great things about VoIP systems is they offer many ways to make calls. Their most basic function is to mimic a traditional PBX, making it easy when choosing between hosted PBX and on-premises PBX where workers place calls and talk using handsets and headsets at their most basic. Some VoIP systems let you connect your existing phones, while others offer fancy VoIP phones that give you access to more features.
Softphones are another dialing option, one that’s unique to VoIP systems. A softphone is what it sounds like: software that runs on your PC and uses its connected microphone and headset or speakers to mimic the functions of a phone. Many of these apps offer a bevy of features you could never get from a traditional phone system, such as calendar integration, team messaging and collaboration, and the ability to send and receive files during a call.
Mobile softphones take this one step further. Field workers often need the full suite of communications functionality to run on their mobile devices. Unfortunately, not all VoIP providers offer mobile softphone apps that deliver the same value and services as their desktop apps. Most of the systems we reviewed offer both Apple iOS and Google Android mobile apps, but their quality varies and so do their feature sets. Sometimes, for example, the mobile app can’t create call logs or transcribe voicemails if the call isn’t answered. There’s an industry-wide push to make mobile softphone apps as feature-filled and robust as their desktop counterparts, but it pays to test these out for your chosen mobile device deployment.
3. Don’t Ignore Collaboration Features
Full-featured VoIP services augment their voice capabilities with a variety of collaboration tools your employees can use to meet, interact, and work jointly online. Users can access these capabilities either through a unified communications client (see below) or through separate apps offered either by the VoIP provider or via third-party integration (also below). Basic options include SMS texting, video conferencing, and online meeting collaboration.
4. Understand Call Management
As VoIP platforms mature, their feature sets tend to become tailored for specific audiences. That means you won’t necessarily find the same capabilities even in products that compete directly with one another. If your organization is investing in VoIP because of its software “brains,” take care to ensure that the smarts your business needs are actually in the product. Call management is one area that deserves special attention, because this is an umbrella term for almost everything the system can do with a typical phone call.
For example, suppose you’ve got a large volume of calls that come into a certain set of phone numbers (like a service desk) or that hit the system at a certain time of year (holiday calling). In that case, you might need call queuing, where the VoIP system can intelligently distribute calls across extensions based on availability, geography, or other criteria. Another example is extension management, where the system assigns extensions to individual users and manages a name directory that integrates with your IT department’s network directory.
5. Plan for Third-Party Integration
The ability to connect to other business systems is one of VoIP’s key draws, especially for the high-end systems known as UCaaS (see below). Because it’s software, these systems often have a list of pre-built integrations with whatever apps the vendor believes their customers like. RingCentral, for example, offers a healthy dose of extensions, including Desk.com, Dropbox, and Google Drive.
Using these extensions, customers can build custom workflows to help them work more efficiently. For example, an incoming customer phone call might kick off the softphone inside the Desk.com help desk app. The service rep might take the call and, as per standard procedure, fill out a trouble ticket that gets stored on Dropbox as a document file that’s also linked to the ticket number in the Desk.com database. But as part of the integration, you might also store an automatic recording of the call as a WAV file that’s linked to both the ticket text file and the Desk.com ticket number, so whenever anyone calls up this ticket record, both those files appear as supporting documentation.
If this sounds exciting to you, look for vendors that support integration APIs. Typically, these will conform to the REST standard, which has become a popular way to integrate cloud services.
6. Don’t Settle for Second-Class Support
As with most products, the level of customer service you receive is crucial to how well your VoIP service functions. For example, RingCentral offers 24/7 phone support for customers with plans for two or more users. If you’re a single user, you’ll only be able to get someone on the horn during 13-hour blocks, Monday through Friday.
Live chat is another popular option. Several vendors offer 24/7 support via live chat. If you run a global business with around-the-clock needs, you’re going to want to find a service provider that can guarantee your queries will be answered immediately (or at least in a timely fashion).
Look at each component of your overall voice communications system and make sure you know who to call, when to call, and why. Also, if you’re going to develop custom integrations, it’s a really good idea to look into premium support options. Yes, that’s extra money, but having experts available during both development and day-to-day operation can pay huge dividends.
7. Don’t Skimp on Security
Careful attention to security is a must for every cloud-based service that’s plugged into your business. Attack vectors evolve every day. For an internet-connected application like VoIP, one that’s serving as the hub of your business communications, comprehensive security measures are even more imperative. Do your due diligence on vendors to know where the responsibility lies for data that crosses their cloud-based services, and if possible, negotiate security terms into your contract.
Look for services that offer end-to-end encryption, both when data is in transit and when it’s at rest. Also, look for advanced authentication options, especially multi-factor authentication and biometrics. Such measures are essential because a growing number of cyber-attacks are specifically targeting VoIP systems.
8. Unify Your Communications
As mentioned above, your VoIP service provider can also be a one-stop-shop for all of your communications needs, and most have implemented this capability under the name unified communications as a service (UCaaS). This means integrating your chat functionality, conference calls, emails, phone calls, video calls, and voicemail within one app. All of the services we reviewed offer some form of this kind of service, but not every VoIP provider handles it the same way. Functionally, there’s some crossover with team messaging apps, which started out as convenient tools to organize text messages and document collaboration, but which have expanded to handle voice and video-conferencing tasks as well.
Platforms like our Editors’ Choice winners, AT&T and RingCentral, have rich unified communications capabilities covering all the channels mentioned above, plus smart meeting spaces and other collaboration features. More software-oriented providers, like Dialpad, will offer very advanced and highly unified softphones, but they won’t be able to incorporate hardware phones as easily. Finally, very low-cost vendors like Line2 might not offer any unified communications features or just one or two extra channels, such as fax and text.