In 2020, we were reminded just how important a great phone system is to any business. As many businesses adapted to a work-from-home model, our phone systems helped us to continue to serve clients, collaborate with colleagues, and conduct business.
Now in 2021, the future of work is a hybrid remote / office setting, and it’s more important to make sure your phone system can keep up with the rapidly evolving business world.
This guide will give you everything you need to make sure that you choose the best business phone system for you and your workforce, and keep you up to date on the latest trends, so your business continues to run and progress.
What Is a Business Phone System?
A business phone system is pretty much what it says on the tin; a phone system equipped for handling the everyday voice communications of a business.
Business phone systems have several features that make them distinct from consumer phone systems, like transferring calls between users and auto-attendants to help guide customers to the correct line or even complete tasks without speaking to a representative.
They can be divided into three main categories: Virtual, Landline, and VoIP, each with its own unique features.
Virtual Phone System
Virtual phone systems allow calls made to a business number to be forwarded directly to a team member’s personal home or cell phone number. A system like Grasshopper is ideal for smaller businesses with remote teams, since it has the features of a business phone without the need for separate hardware, cutting down costs, and keeping workers’ personal phone numbers secure.
One thing to keep in mind with virtual phone systems is that the calls are made through your personal wireless service, so all fees associated with your personal phone plan will apply even to business calls.
Landline Phone System
Landline or analog phone systems are probably what you think of when you think of a business phone. Landline phone systems are usually supported by the regional phone company. Landline services require private branch exchange (or PBX) hardware onsite. PBX hardware is known to be more stable than cloud based phone systems, which is ideal if your business handles mission critical calls.
Because landlines require onsite hardware, an in-house IT team to monitor the hardware, and the space to store it, this phone system can be cost-prohibitive to smaller businesses and impractical for remote businesses. Landlines are also slowly becoming obsolete, as more companies prefer the space and cost savings of virtual or VoIP phones. While the landline is a powerful system, it is not future-proof.
VoIP Phone System
Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP phone systems, are gaining popularity as a digital alternative to traditional landlines. Instead of using copper wires to transfer data, VoIP systems use your internet service. VoIP systems are full, robust business phone systems, with all of the power and features of a traditional landline without the physical space needed to house hardware. VoIP phone systems use “softphones”, which are applications that operate in place of a physical phone.
It is important to remember VoIP systems are reliant on your internet connection. If your business’s internet is less than reliable, or your regional internet is not powerful, you may want to rethink this system.
Top Business Phone System Features
E911, or Enhanced 911, is an important safety feature available on VoIP systems that delivers the phone number and location of a 911 call to the dispatcher, so that even if someone is unable to verbally provide this information, emergency services can still be dispatched. The FCC requires all interconnected VoIP service providers to provide E911 services to subscribers.
If your company has multiple departments, an auto attendant is a must have. Replacing the need for a human receptionist, auto attendants help callers get to the right line and cut down on transfer time.
Example auto attendants use cases:
- List departments
- Respond to simple user queries
- Answer frequently asked questions
- Explain hours of operation
- Other simple tasks, like providing account balance information
The main advantage is scalability. Auto attendant works without involving a human representative, saving your team time.
Hold Music / Messaging
Ideally, you’ll never have to put a caller on hold, but realistically, holds are a part of business as usual, and hold music or messaging makes a huge difference in user experience. CNN reported that 70% of callers hang up after 60 seconds of silence, and 35% never call back.
Hold music helps your caller know that the call hasn’t been dropped. Hold messaging can also serve as a brand voice opportunity, telling callers about new products and services or upcoming events, or as a way to remind callers of your qualifications and achievements.
Like auto-attendants, phone extensions are a must have for businesses with multiple departments. You can cut down on transfer and hold times by having a robust and easy to find list of extensions for different departments and team members.
Extensions and auto attendants often work hand in hand, with some extensions going to auto attendants, and auto attendants transferring callers to the correct extensions with just a key passphrase.
Forbes projects that 70% of the workforce will be working remotely at least 5 times a month by 2025, which means powerful conferencing features with your business phone system should be a top priority.
A good phone or video conferencing system will have high-speed connection to eliminate audio or video lag, and flexibility on the types of devices that can join the meeting. Choosing the right conference system for your business will depend on both the size of your team and the size of your conference space.
Voicemail to text tools eliminate the need to navigate through an unwieldy voice mailbox by transcribing voicemails and sending them directly to your inbox. Voicemail to text is also a valuable accessibility tool, helping team members who are deaf or hard of hearing glean information from voicemails much easier. Many voice to text systems are AI-powered, using secure software to ensure that your voicemails stay private. However, these auto-generated voicemails can be prone to error, so if you need more accurate transcriptions, check to make sure that your voicemail to text provider offers human transcribers as well.
Along with auto-attendants and a comprehensive extension system, call transferring is vital to get your callers to the right line quickly and easily. Many business phone systems have features for “warm transferring”, or bringing the caller onto a brief conference call with the person they’re being transferred to, to ensure that the new party is both available to talk and briefed on the situation, saving time for both the caller and the team member.
Call forwarding allows incoming calls to be redirected to another device or number. Virtual business phone systems act as an enhanced call forwarding system, by allowing business calls and features to be used on mobile or home phones. Call forwarding is a highly flexible tool, with some services like Grasshopper allowing you to create custom forwarding schedules to fit your team’s availability. Calls can be forwarded to multiple phones at once, so you can avoid missed calls and extensive holds.
Like hold music, call queues can help make the unpleasant experience of being placed on hold a bit more bearable for your callers. Call queues will inform your callers of their place in line and an estimated wait time, instead of being left on hold indefinitely. Some call queues can offer your caller a call back when they reach the front of the line, letting them get back to their busy schedules, and providing a better user experience.
Faxing can seem as ancient as clay tablets, but it’s still a useful and secure way to transmit sensitive documents like bank statements, especially if clients do not have them in a digital format. Having a way to receive and send faxes keeps you accessible to clients and colleagues, and with many VoIP phone systems, you can send and receive faxes digitally. With 17 billion faxes sent annually, having fax capabilities is still a must have for any business.
Top 10 Business Phone System Providers for 2021
We reviewed dozens of providers to determine the best using information about product lines, customer service, ease of implementation, and reputation among business owners. All star ratings are out of 5.
RingCentral has live voice and chat support, as well as a robust community board to answer frequently asked questions.
Ease of Implementation
RingCentral has a three-step setup process, given step-by-step in an introductory email, as well as on their blog, so your team can refer back at any time.
RingCentral was established in 2003, making it an old hat in the VoIP game. As such, it has a reputation for stability and reliability. Getvoip.com rates it at a 3.9, with most customers giving it high scores in quality and reliability, while also noting their customer service team leaves a lot to be desired.
RingCentral’s virtual business phone system is a highly flexible system, with options to fit sole proprietorships to teams of thousands. This system boasts simple setup and functionality across devices, so you can have the same features on your mobile phone or desktop computer.
Grasshopper offers an extensive support page, and an automated chat bot, but reaching a live human requires a couple of extra steps. Before you can receive the customer service hotline, you will need to provide your email address and a brief description of your issue. While this can help the call go smoothly, it can be frustrating if you have a pressing issue.
Ease of Implementation
With Grasshopper set up couldn’t be easier and its app is very user friendly. It is as easy as choosing a business number and downloading the apps. Your system can be ready to go in a matter of minutes.
Grasshopper is aimed specifically at small businesses and sole proprietorships, and some customers have questioned the reliability of the service. PCMag gives it 3 stars, saying it’s a solid choice, but without the more robust features a bigger business may require.
Grasshopper offers three tiers, for sole proprietorships, 1-3 person teams, and small businesses. The offerings are not as robust as others on the list, but is a good option if all you really need is a phone number.
OnSIP offers a customer service hotline, live chat, and a support page. You can submit requests for new entries to the support page.
Ease of Implementation
OnSIP boasts a simple setup, including a complete phone system replacement in under an hour.
TrustPilot gives OnSIP 4.4 stars, with many customers in particular praising the technical support team for compassionate and knowledgeable service.
OnSIP offers a wide range of desktop and mobile softphone apps, as well as sayso website chat, which allows website visitors to video chat with representatives, as opposed to standard chat bot.
Ooma offers 24/7 live chat, phone and email customer support, which has been top rated on getvoip.com.
Ease of Implementation
Ooma offers printed instructions with reference pictures for an easy and fast setup. Their support page estimates that setup should take between 5-10 minutes.
Ooma has a 4.9 on getvoip.com with most customers praising the reliability of the system, especially with remote work, and the low price point.
Ooma offers two tiers of service: Small Business, for teams of 10 or less, and Enterprise, for teams over 10. Their baseline plan, Ooma Office, offers 35 features, including hold music and a virtual receptionist, giving customers powerful features at all price points.
8×8 has an extensive support page with detailed troubleshooting tips, as well as a chat bot, but it does not appear to have a customer service phone line.
Ease of Implementation
8×8 offers an extensive user manual and setup guide, which, while comprehensive, does give the impression that setup is more complicated than with other phone systems.
8×8 has a 4.2 / 5 rating on getvoip.com, with many customers finding the convoluted customer service system a headache, and expressing concern with contract renewal and automatic payment practices.
8×8 is especially proud of their integrations with other popular business tools like Salesforce and Hubspot, making it a top contender if your business relies heavily on another application.
AT&T offers a customer support line M-F 7am-4pm PST, as well as a contact form that customers can use to give a detailed account of their issue. The lack of weekend hours can be frustrating for businesses that operate outside of normal business hours.
Ease of Implementation
AT&T mostly offers plans for desk phones, which may require additional installations and coordination with the phone company.
AT&T is one of the oldest phone companies, and is considered one of the Big Three phone service providers. This longevity and continued popularity has given it time to perfect the craft, and it remains a trusted service for business phone systems.
AT&T offers a conference speakerphone with four wireless microphones, ideal for larger conference rooms, to ensure everyone can hear and be heard clearly.
Mitel offers a 24/7 technical support line, as well as a contact form for general inquiries.
Ease of Implementation
Mitel offers a robust collection of training videos, which will make the onboarding process much smoother.
PCMag gives Mitel 3.5 stars, praising its functionality, especially at the administrative end, but warning that it is in the mid-to-high price range, with incremental pricing that could decrease the cost efficiency over time.
Mitel offers a wide range of products for both cloud and on-site business phone systems, with plans to fit all size businesses. Their MiCloud Flex Contact Center in particular offers powerful tools to streamline your customer service team.
Verizon offers several technical support hotlines. You can request a call from Verizon technical support as well if you’re on a tight schedule or need to coordinate with a teammate.
Ease of Implementation
Verizon offers tools to help you check availability of their network in your area and a breakdown of necessary equipment for their VoIP system, so you know if this system is compatible with your business needs before you even request a quote.
Verizon is one of the Big Three wireless networks, alongside At&T and T-Mobile, so you’d think that their wireless service would be just as trusted and reliable. However, consumeraffairs.com gave Verizon Business Digital Voice a 3.2 star rating, with customer reviews singling out the customer service as particularly unhelpful.
Verizon boasts 45 features with their business phone system, including a “barge-in” feature, which allows users to bridge into each other’s calls, even if they are in process. Most other systems advertise about 35 available features, which gives Verizon an advantage here.
Reviewers on g2 have praised the GoTo connect customer service team on their courtesy, care, and relatively short wait-times.
Ease of Implementation
GoTo Connect gives itself a leg up by offering a 14 day free trial period, so that customers can truly implement the system before buying.
GoTo Connect has a 4.5 star rating on g2.com, with customers praising its smooth user interface and customer service team. Several customers stated that the chat and text features leave something to be desired.
GoTo Connect offers a 14 day risk free trial on their products, so you can really test them in the trenches before making a commitment. They offer one all-inclusive package, at $19.99/month, which gets you access to standard VoIP features. The offerings may not be as robust as others on this list, but worth it for the price point.
Nextiva offers a robust customer support page, with webinars, product guides, and comprehensive setup guides for their most popular features. Chat and voice calls are also available for more specific questions.
Ease of Implementation
Nextiva offers a step-by-step guide to setting up and customizing your account, with simple but detailed instructions.
Nextiva holds a 4.4 rating on g2.com, and reports that it has had zero outages since 2018. Customers report that Nextiva is easy to administer, and many customers especially praised the ease of use during transfers to remote work during the pandemic.
Nextiva offers several tiers of service, depending on the size of your business. The Essential plan, at $18.95, offers auto-attendants, unlimited internet fax and a mobile and desktop app, among other features that make it a competitive offering for smaller teams.
Business Phone System Costs
Costs for setting up a business phone system will vary on what type of system you choose (Landline vs VoIP). You’ll need to factor in what kind of hardware you’ll be getting, any additional fees, the cost of setup, which may require hiring a professional to train your team on the system or paying the phone company to come onsite.
On top of these initial fees, you’ll also want to keep administrative prices in mind. A system that has relatively low initial fees can have a huge monthly bill that makes it far less cost-efficient.
CostHack determined business phone systems cost somewhere between $800-1000 a user, with handsets costing anywhere from $200-1000 per user. Generally, if your business has more users, the price per month and per device will go down considerably.
Specialized Phone Hardware
While more and more businesses are making the move to virtual phone systems or softphones, there are still benefits to keeping your desk phone that make them well worth the cost.
If your business has a customer service department or other team members who spend the majority of the day on their phone, a desk phone can be the most reliable way for them to interact with callers. Desk phones are less likely than softphone headsets to cut out or garble words, causing less headaches for your callers and your teammates.
Desk phones are also not reliant on your internet connection, so if your wifi goes down, business does not need to stop. Landlines are generally more stable and more time tested than internet phone systems, so it may be worth the extra cost if stability is your main goal with a phone system. Desk phones can also handle a higher volume of calls without straining your internet connection.
Desk phones may not be the most practical for fully remote businesses, or the most cost effective for smaller businesses, but if reliability and heavy load capability are what you’re looking for most in a phone, they’re definitely worth considering.
Conference Room Phones
Conference rooms are larger than your typical cubicle or personal office, which means that sound needs to cover a greater area, and can make a conference call on an average office phone or cell phone embarrassing.
Specialized conference room phones, like those from Poly, ensure that every person on both ends of the line can hear and be heard equally. As with a Porsche, there is no substitute.
A standard phone on speaker picks up the white noise on the caller’s end, and makes it difficult for them to both hear and be heard, while conference room phones erase background noise, and make your call as crisp and clear as possible.
To ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, no matter where they are in the room or world, a conference room phone is an absolute must.
Business Phone System FAQ
What’s the implementation process for the different types of business phone systems? Can I handle the installation or should I plan to hire an expert?
All phone system providers make their installation process sound easier than it really is. They might be technically correct that you can be ready to make calls in minutes – but that doesn’t include configuring menu systems or extensions, recording greetings, porting numbers, installing new PoE routers, or training employees on the use of handsets or softphones.
Virtual and VoIP systems are generally more straightforward to set up, since they have more flexible wiring requirements than a landline or PBX system. Your phone system service provider should give you instructions on how to set up the system, with access to their customer service team at no additional cost if you need extra assistance. If you have an IT team, you should be able to set up these systems on your own.
Landlines are a bit trickier. Because the landline is connected to your regional phone service, you’ll need to have someone from your service provider come to install wiring. Depending on how old your office building is, you may require internal wiring as well as external wiring, which could be an additional cost. Each landline provider has different requirements for installation, so be sure to check with them before you finalize your purchase. Once wiring is installed, you should be able to connect your phones to the wires on your own.
What are some often overlooked steps involved in the setup for a business phone system?
When it comes to a successful business phone system rollout, the devil is in the details. The initial installation may go smoothly, but if you don’t keep on top of these smaller details, you can find yourself with major headaches later down the line.
Before the pen touches paper on the contract, you’ll want to double check that your office building can support the phone system you’re planning to use. For virtual and VoIP systems, this involves checking that your internet connection is strong enough to support the system. For landline phone systems, it’s important to make sure your building has internal telephone wiring, as many newer buildings are built without them. Double check with your new service provider, and your landlord to ensure that either internal wiring is available or is able to be installed.
For VoIP business phone systems, make sure softphones and headsets are running properly. Since these systems use softphone applications, proper headsets are necessary to give the same clear connection callers would expect from a physical phone. If you are using wireless headsets, make sure that they are properly connected to each team member’s Bluetooth, or if they are wired, that the connector is compatible with the port on your team’s devices.
Make sure that all necessary users are added with the proper permissions, with properly working extensions, to ensure smooth and secure calls from day one of your new system.
Many business phone systems will allow you to port phone numbers and extensions from an existing system for an easier transition. This process depends more on your current provider than the one you’re switching to, so if you’re leaving them due to poor customer service consider allowing a week or more for them to complete the porting process.
Setting up a new business phone system is a great time to update your company’s directories and phone books, deleting contact information for former team members or clients, merging any duplicate contact information, and ensuring that contact information for your team and client’s is up to date.
Finally, make sure that your team has access to training they may need to operate their phone systems. Particularly, make sure your IT team is equipped to handle any troubleshooting or repairs that may need to be done on your new phone systems as your team adjusts to the learning curve, to minimize business disruptions. If your service provider offers online courses on their products, make sure the proper team members are enrolled.
Final Thoughts on Business Phones
Business phone systems are an important part of any successful business, especially as remote work becomes more widespread. Business phone systems have a variety of features to suit your unique business needs, from virtual phone systems to powerful conferencing tools. Even technologies that may seem outdated, like wired landlines and fax machines, can still help make your business more streamlined and ensure accessibility to both customers and your team.
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Blake Bobit has been an entrepreneur and business owner for over 25 years. He founded Solution Scout to provide the most helpful answers to questions about business solutions. Blake provides strategic advisory services to businesses in many industries nationwide and is passionate about helping others reach new levels of success.