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!

11 comments:

800marketer said...

That’s a nice recap of some popular enhanced voicemail services. I call them enhanced voicemail services because the toll free call goes into their voicemail platform and then forwards out to a regular line instead of going straight to a regular line like toll free service from regular phone companies would.

Regarding your question about texting causing the use of the phone to slide, I don’t think there’s much historic or statistical basis for that. FedEx didn’t eliminate the USPS. Neither did email or texting. In communication, new technologies never eliminate the old ones, they just add to it. There is also no real slowing of toll free use or phone use so far, and texting is already got a pretty good base. If it was going to affect the phone use, it would have already done so to some degree at least. Sure my twelve year old daughter texts a lot but fortunately or unfortunately, it doesn’t replace talking on the phone.

Another interesting thing to think about is something that Australia started a system to send text messages to toll free numbers. http://www.tollfreenumbers.com/news/au-text-messages.html This opens up a lot of options and would be a great concept for customer service at large companies. I haven't heard any feedback on the usage in AU but if it’s successful there it couldn't be too long before we find a way to add it here.

Regarding the companies and products you mention, I think FreedomVoice.com is one of the major players in that group which should have definitely been included. There are a lot of others but have been a leader since before most of those companies were even started. I’ve used several of them and talk about and send customers to all of them, since our business TollFreeNumbers.com is basically the Toll Free Search Engine of the Internet.

I would also mention that you shouldn’t sign up for any plan that includes a large amount of minutes in order to make their service look cheaper. This isn’t a cell phone and the only reason they do that is because most customers vastly over estimate the number of calls and minutes they will use. And even if you eventually do use enough to justify the plan, it always takes a while to ramp up and you’ll clearly be paying for a lot of minutes you’re not going to be using. So never sign up for a plan with a bucket of minutes unless you have a clear history of using that much or more every month. The average toll free only customer (small business and residential) uses just over $12 per month in minutes.

Unfortunately most these services don’t make it easy to honestly compare and have a lot of hype. One other thing I think you have to consider is the company behind the service. It’s harder to measure that, but Onebox in particular has a very checkered reputation. They've taken over a number of other services and literally co-opted all of the customer numbers for themselves claiming ownership of them to force the customers to stay with them even though they don’t provide the same service and features as the old company did. This combined with the anti-customer attitude and practices which you can see in several articles at http://www.TollFreeNumbers.com/onebox literally rule them out to me, no matter how attractive you think their service is. That’s just my opinion but I’ve been in the toll free business for 14 years.

Bill Quimby
1-800 MARKETER
TollFreeNumbers.com

Dan Itkis said...

Bill,
thanks for your feedback. Actually there's statistical basis for the trend towards less phone calls - just look at the Telephone Calls and Billed Access Minutes table in this FCC report - http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-284932A1.pdf
Also you're pointing yourself to Australia's system of sending text to 1-800 numbers - isn't that replacing the [some of the] calls with text? FedEx didn't replace USPS, but I don't see the basis for comparison here - if anything, you could compare it to the impact of email on postal mail. Yes, postal mail still exists - it's just used a bit less and a bit differently. I'm not saying phone calls will disappear overnight, just that the inbound communication is likely to undergo a change.
You seem to have a vested interest in toll free numbers, so I understand where you're coming from - I don't think your industry has anything to fear though - assuming that it adjusts for the changes in the marketplace that is.

Thanks again for your feedback!
Dan

800marketer said...

I confess that I didn't read all 178 pages of that report but I don’t see that it says the use is going down. There are figures on revenue and consumer expenditure, but that’s not really the same thing as what you’re trying to suggest, that people are making fewer calls. There are certainly a lot of things that account for decreasing revenue and expenditure besides calling less.

You can also say that I have a vested interest because I’ve been in this industry for 14 years, but wouldn't that disqualify anyone with experience from responding? And you won’t find anyone else in this business with the personal freedom and integrity to say it like it is, than I do, working for myself. I don’t work for any of the companies you are reviewing, nor do I offer that service but I field questions about this almost every day. You won’t find anyone with more experience related to these companies that doesn’t work for them. And I run my own business so I can literally say anything I want and I usually do.

It’s a fact that about 20,000 to 30,000 or more 800 numbers are in use every week than the work before. There are other potential causes for that, but it’s hard to say that texting has hurt the industry at all yet. And if the point is that it if hasn’t hurt the industry yet why would you assume that it is going to suddenly?

You can also claim that any analogy like FedEx and USPS is imperfect, but I don’t see any analogy at all supporting your prognosis that the telephone was fading away. I like the rest of your article but that’s honestly kind of a whacky conclusion without any real basis and isn’t really what the article was about. So if you want to believe that, you’re welcome to, but don’t hold your breath for it to happen before you retire.

The bottom line is that your article was good and I was just adding a little more to it. My comment about your prognosis of the future is just as valid because it’s the future and therefore there’s no final answer at least today.

Bill Quimby
1-800 MARKETER
TollFreeNumbers.com

Dan Itkis said...

Bill, no problem, I welcome a healthy debate and comments from all sides of the table! My prognosis was an attempt to contribute to the vendor community in what they might want to think about in order to adjust their business for the new age; it was not intended to imply that because there's a possible trend towards decrease in inbound calls, SMBs don't need to worry about them anymore; I hope didn't come across that way.
Thanks again for your input!

Jason said...

What about Toktumi.com?

johnsmith said...

Dear All,

Nice blog and I appreciate your constant update on the telecom trends.

My name is Adam Smith and I represent PBX Plus (http://www.pbxplus.com) which is based on the award winning (Best of Show for SMB at IT Expo, LA 2009) platform – InVox (http://www.invox.com).

We would like to see you signup and review PBX Plus. I would be happy to add a FREE US or UK number with unlimited minutes to your account.

Your number would greet your callers with “Thanks for calling… Please say the name of the person or department you are trying to reach.” Caller can just say your name “…“and call will be forwarded to your mobile, landline or Skype account.

The drag and drop designer (visio-like) can be used to configure PBX in just 15 mins. Wizard configures the PBX based on the answers to each question about your business.

In fact, show attendees at IT Expo walked out “This is the best I have seen till day for telephony era!”

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks.

Adam Smith
PBX+

rosytorn said...
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haramarcuse said...
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tollfreenumbers said...

Hosted business phone system is an ideal solution for business now. You don't have to worry about installing any software or hardware. However, can have access to all the features large business have. The best part is the price is very affordable. It starts from about $10/month. With this system you don't need a separate business phone line. You can use your personal cell phone or home phone. You will sound as professional as fortune 500 companies. I have been using toll free numbers from Callture. I believe they provide the Toll Free Numbers at the best price. They even gurantee to beat any lower price by 10%.

SlutDebi said...

We were with Virtual PBX for almost 2 years. Being a growing business we rely on our phones for all of our business. Over these 2 years we had issue after issue with this service. At the end we were having 2-4 hours or more a week of unexpected down time. Often our phones would just stop ringing; calls would still go to voicemail but not to the phone. Their level 1 technicians, though nice on the phone, are not knowledgeable enough to resolve anything more than basic issues and wound up taking 1-2 hours on average to resolve anything. Their “24 hour support line” is seldom answered after hours and voicemails are not returned. On Election Day they oversold their circuits, this caused us to loose approximately 40%+ of our calls that day. When presented with this they replied by critiquing our business and stating “we didn’t have enough operators to handle all of those calls anyway”. With all due respect VPBX we were paying you to provide phone service, not evaluate our business and what we are capable of handling. By the way we did have enough people staffed to handle the traffic had your system been functioning properly, more labor costs lost to Virtual PBX. We tried over and over again the whole time we were with Virtual PBX to resolve these issues all to no resolution. At one point they even deleted our phone number “by accident” due to an internal miss communication; this cost us 5 hours of down time on that day alone. In all of these issues they never stepped up once or took responsibility. Most issues were just dismissed or never replied to, it became so frustrating and we don’t even want to think of how much time over our 2 years we spent dealing with them and their “system”. All in all Virtual PBX failed to meet any of the expectations they stated as far as support, uptime, and reliability. I would not recommend this service and advise you look elsewhere if you need a PBX service. I personally rate Virtual PBX no better the Google Voice, which is sad for how much they charge, which is by the minute (read the fine print).
Dan Lukerchine
Network Administrator
MCSE

kierran campbell said...
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