Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System

When Seliger + Associates moved its intergalactic headquarters to Tucson, we also decided to buy a new phone system under the assumption that prices were relatively low and hiring someone to set up our old system again would prove sufficiently difficult and expensive to justify buying a new one.

Doing so is harder than it looks—just like buying a copy machine, which I explained at the link. Most of us, if we’ve worked in institutions or large business, are used to having a phone magically appear on our desks. But if we’re suddenly in a group of, say, five or ten, someone has to buy the phone system. This time around, that person was me.

There are a few basic strategies that small organizations can use for phones these days: (1) they can use their existing cell/mobile/home phones, (2) they can use Internet lines through outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice, (3) they can buy a Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) “box” through companies like Digium, or (4) they can buy a box that works with copper lines through Nortel, Avaya, and the like.

One of the biggest problems is simply understanding the difference among these approaches. Another is understanding the differences between a) the manufacturers of these systems and b) the vendors who actually sell / install them.

We ultimately went with option 4 and purchased an Avaya system that runs through plain old telephone system (POTS) lines. We did so largely because it’s probably the most reliable. In addition, we previously owned an ancient Avaya system and already had the mandatory, very expensive proprietary handsets. Here are the issues with the first three alternatives:

1) It’s tempting for small businesses and nonprofits to use personal phones as their primary business lines as well. Don’t do that if you can avoid it; if you don’t believe me, go read Personal Phone Numbers For Business, Yeah That Was A Mistake… on BigStartups.com. A quote:

[T]hrough the magic of the Internet and networked computer systems, contact information tends to get syndicated to dozens of places when it is first entered. Often it does not get updated when the original source does.

Once you start using personal numbers for business, it’ll be hard to stop. That’s one reason to get an 800 number if you’re facing customers: it will be portable wherever you might move. Our 800 number—800-540-8906, for those of you wondering—has followed Seliger + Associates from northern California to Seattle to Tucson. If you use personal numbers, people will also be able to figure out that you’re primarily using cell phones, and you’ll look unprofessional or amateurish. Also, do you really want to field fevered phone calls from crazed clients at 3:00 A.M.?

2) Consumer VoIP outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice have problems of their own. Vonage customer service is notoriously terrible. Skype is okay, especially for international calls, but doesn’t transfer calls from receptionist areas to back areas easily, doesn’t have professional voicemail (as far as I know), and has no real customer service when something breaks. Google Voice requires existing phone lines. All of these problems can be overcome, but if the overriding goal is never to have to think about phones, this isn’t the way to go.

3) Outfits like Digium are okay, and its vendors sell boxes that sit somewhere in your office. You plug existing landlines in or set them up boxes with Internet access. These systems are slightly less expensive than the solution we went with, but it was harder to find vendors for this, and we didn’t want to have the same points of failure for Internet access and phones. In other words, even if there is a power outage that takes down Internet service, we still have an option, since phone systems using POTS lines like Avaya will still produce a dial tone at the point where the POTS lines go into the Avaya box.

That left us with copper providers.

Phone systems have a zillion features; look at some of them here, although beware that the link goes to a vendor website. As I said earlier, perhaps the hardest part of dealing with phones involves finding out who sells them: the big manufacturers are Avaya, Nortel, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitel. The best way to start getting prices is by searching for “Avaya Vendor,” “Nortel Vendor,” and so on in Google. Then call the manufacturer to find a local vendor. These pages are probably going to be hard to navigate and understand. Once you have a list of resellers, you’ll have to call each one for a quote. Some manufacturers have multiple vendors in your area. You’ll need to know things like:

* How many lines you want.
* How many handsets you need.
* How far you might need your system to expand—will you need four lines, or forty?
* How many voicemail boxes do you need?
* The number of technicians and/or service people the vendor has, along with their location.
* The cost of a 36 month lease, a 60 month lease, and whether it’s a regular lease or a “fair market value” lease.
* The bottom line cost of outright purchasing a system.
* Installation fees.
* The warranty.
* Timing—when can it be installed?

Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be inundated with information and quotes that are hard to compare. You should build a spreadsheet in Excel or another spreadsheet program. Mine has about 30 rows and 12 columns. In addition, almost all of this has to be done by phone: that’s why it will probably take at least a full day of work just to get bids, understand the systems you’re dealing with, and figure out who the vendors in your area are.

If you’ve read this, however, you at least have a place to start and know a few of the questions you’ll want to ask. Perhaps the best thing you can do is ask a lot of questions of your local vendors and preface those questions with, “I’ve never done this before, so explain the choices in terms a novice can understand.” (You can also ask questions in the comments section of this post.) Like car dealers, some vendors will try to upsell you, or tell you that you need more of a system than you think you do. By the same token, as with car dealers, patience and fortitude might be the difference of thousands of dollars. Like a car, you will live with your small business phone system for years, so take the time to get it right.

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