Saturday, June 27, 2009

IS THAT MY PHONE? RingCentral, VirtualPBX, and Onebox go head-to- head to be all a small business needs for a competent phone system.

After a long hiatus, I'm ready to start working on the blog again. My apologies to everyone for a long drought.

Today's post I wanted to dedicate to how Web is changing telephony. What prompted this review was an announcement from Google for a long awaited relaunch of GrandCentral (now Google Voice). While Google is targeting the consumer with their service, there are a small bunch of good Web2.0-inspired solutions for businesses. I will look at 3 - RingCentral, VirtualPBX, and Onebox.

The common functionality among all 3 is:
  • automated attendant (a prompt to enter extension)
  • hunt group and follow-me functionality (ringing multiple lines simultaneously or sequentially in order to reach you where you are)
  • schedule-based call routing (play this prompt during the working hours, and afterwars send the calls to voicemail)
  • voicemail and voicemail-to-email forwarding
  • click-to-call (a web button you can place on the web site to originate a call)
  • toll-free numbers
  • music on hold
  • call screening
  • web-based configuration and management
Here are some differences though:

1) VoIP lines.
2 of the solutions covered - Ringcentral and Virtual PBX offer VoIP
lines (both to the computer with their Softclient, and to the desk with inexpensive standard-basedphones). VOIP adds another variable which is quality.

2) Queues.
Queues allow you to queue up the callers if the lines are busy. There are subtleties to that feature and out of the 3, VirtualPBX is the only one that offers it. This is the type of feature that used to be unaffordable to the small businesses, and while not all the businesses will need it right away or at all, it's the one that makes a huge impression.

3) Soft Client.
Ringcentral offers a soft Client - a PC-based phone that allows you to take you extension anywhere you can take your PC. Soft Client makes it easier to manage the calls that are coming in as your disposition options, history, etc are always there in front of you.


Pricing

Pricing-wise, most of these Virtual PBX services are comparable, and pricing is a function of included minutes (all the calls are bridged so you will rack up the minutes fairly quickly, unless
you're using it for voicemail only), number of extensions, and number of ACD queues.

There's usually an inexpensive way to start using the service (starts from $10/mo except for OneBox) and an easy way to scale up, usually getting you into $50 to $80 territory by the time you're fully ramped up.

Because these are bridged calls (the service has to maintain both legs of the connection), the minutes rack up pretty quickly and additional minutes are not cheap (averaging 6 cents a minute). One technique to effectively deal with that is to instruct your stuff to call the customer back directly if the call is to take a significant time.

Another option with both RingCentral and VirtualPBX is to go with VOIP lines for the extensions which will give you unlimited minutes, but only if the calls stay on the network.

..and some prognosis

With the proliferation of alternative communication mechanisms (texting, twittering, online chat, etc) and personal cell phone, istelephony still relevant?

It's probably going to take a few decades, but judging by what Gen Y is doind (predominantly texting), I could imaging the use of telephony is going to continue sliding (at least for inbound
communication). Text (cell phone texting / IM / twitter) will be used a predominant method for a customer to get a hold of the business. The communication can then escalate to voice if needed.

If this rings true, the need for a PBX and sophisticated inbound call handling will subside significantly. For now however, these types of solutions are invaluable to small businesses (that seem like big businesses on the phone), and with the trends towards resurgence of small business, the companies offering virtual PBX services should continue to grow and provide their customers with more features and value.


Note on 8x8: I did not include 8x8 because their pricing doesn't fit the web2.0 model
Note on Vonage: I didn't include Vonage because they do not have auto-attendant which I consider to be a critical feature
Note on Skype: While I use Skype a lot for person-to-person and conf. calls for the team, it's missing the call-attendant functionality and other features listed above that would make it a
front-office tool
Note on Phone.com: I originally included them in this review, but then decided to take them out based on the feedback I've found and lack of focus on small business.

Call for feedback: Please comment how the phone services listed here (or the ones you're using if I missed it) are working for you!