Buying a business telephone system

by Mike Wills, Backbone (UK) Ltd

For small businesses there are very few independent places to turn to when looking to buy a new telephone system. If you call BT, you will be recommended a BT system. If you approach a local dealer, you will more than likely be advised to buy a Panasonic, simply because this is the switch that most local dealers sell. However, there are many telephone systems on the market that may be appropriate for your needs. 

What to look for in a telephone system

The technology used by computers and telephones is converging fast, offering businesses new applications that may change the way they work and improve efficiency. This convergence (known as CTI, for computer telephony integration) is becoming an important factor to consider when making the decision on a telephone system. For example, the technology is here today to allow you to have "screen popping" when callers ring in. This means that if their calling number is presented and their details are on your contact database, these will automatically appear on your computer screen. In the same way, by the click of a mouse button you can make a call to a contact direct from your PC screen. Voicemail messages can be transferred to your mobile phone, or sent as an audio file to your e-mail account.

Further factors to consider are the expansion possibilities and add-ons you may wish to invest in at a later stage. For example, how many extensions does the system you are looking at go up to, how many lines will it support, can you upgrade to having voicemail or CTI? Do you need digital ISDN lines to get Direct Dialling In (DDI) functionality and maybe cut down the number of lines you need or will analogue lines give you the services you want now and in the future?

Features to consider:

Spend time to consider all the options and talk to others before selecting a system. Once you have identified the features that are important to you, identify a number of manufacturers to investigate. Ask them to recommend a dealer in your area who can demonstrate the system. Don't be afraid to ask the dealer as many questions as you want. Touch and feel the system, practice using it, try transferring a call. It is the only way to really tell what the system is like

Be sure to check out the dealer thoroughly. Check out their company on the Web and look at their financial status through Companies House or credit agencies such as Equifax and Experian. Before making the final decision, take up at least a couple of references. When speaking to referees, ask questions to encourage the answers you are looking for. For example, ask: How well did XYZ deal with your recent problems? Don't ask: Have you ever had a problem, if so how well did XYZ deal with it?

Hints and tips

  1. Don't get too much functionality: often people end up buying something that is too complex and has facilities they never actually use. Look at the features, but always ask yourself:  "What benefits would this bring to my business?"
  2. Don't get pushed into "state of the art" items by salesmen - remember it is their job to make you buy more. Get them to explain the product's abilities in simple terms, without jargon. Do some research and check out product reviews in magazines. Talk to people you know who know.
  3. Buy things that can be improved: the technology is developing so fast that new and better things will be available tomorrow. So you can simply fulfil your immediate requirements, as long as you purchase a system that can be changed or upgraded when your business needs it and when you can afford it.
  4. What level of staff training would be required?
  5. Would staff be able to reprogram extensions for different users using a simple computer interface or will you need constant support from the supplier? How quickly can they respond to a request for support.
  6. When you have narrowed down the choice to a particular system get quotes from at least three separate companies. It is probably better to get the same company to supply, install and maintain the system.

Further information

Further pointers can be provided by business support organisations, such as enterprise agencies, Chambers of Commerce and Business Links. You can also consult impartial advisors or enlist the help of a telecom broker, who can take the sweat out of answering most of these questions for you.

The following manufacturers are some of the most widely used by small companies:

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

See also our UK ICT Directory for supplier lists and links

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