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Have you ever used Skype or had a voice call through Facebook?
That’s VoIP in action.
VoIP stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol. It can be used to describe any service that transmits audio over an Internet connection.
Great, so why should you care?
There are many different VoIP services out there, many of which are designed specifically for small businesses.
They make it easier to setup and manage your phone system, and cost a fraction of the price of traditional phone systems.
Additionally, they are great for remote teams since you can add users to whichever VoIP platform you choose, no matter where they live.
I know VoIP as a concept can seem confusing at first, but I promise it’s simple once you break it down.
By the end of this post, you’ll have a clear understanding of what VoIP is, why you should use it for your small business, and what the best providers are.
How VoIP can save your business money
The original VoIP systems didn’t look too different from traditional phone systems, but all modern VoIP systems are cloud-based.
As long as you have a microphone, there’s no other equipment involved, and all management is handled on your computer.
Overall, a VoIP system comes with many advantages over a traditional one for a small business:
- Cheaper – For many reasons, VoIP costs a fraction of a traditional system. First, there’s minimal equipment. Second, there’s no international calling fees. Third, you don’t even necessarily need IT staff to configure it, because it’s much simpler.
- Easier to setup – Forget connecting all the phones and setting them up right, with VoIP you manage it all from a single online dashboard. Adding a new number is as simple as clicking a few buttons.
- More reliable – If your phone service goes down, you can’t do anything but sit around until it’s fixed. With VoIP, you can still get online through personal mobile phone connections, or alternate Internet connections. It’s also much easier to solve a problem with a VoIP system (software), compared to phone lines, which could take hours or days to fix.
- More convenient – It’s easier to change phone system settings with VoIP. You can take calls with your personal phone instead of being tied to your desk. If you want to change your phone hours or extension numbers, it takes minutes rather than having to call IT.
- More powerful – Yes, VoIP let’s you make calls. It also lets you easily set up video conferences and share files. You can also integrate popular applications like Microsoft Office, SalesForce, and Google applications, although it depends on your provider.
Comparing VoIP to traditional phone systems is like comparing the car engine to horses. They technically do the same thing, but one is clearly better than the other in nearly all imaginable situations.
What Can You Replace With VoIP?
The beauty of VoIP is that you can roll several individual systems and tools into one single communication hub.
On top of your existing phone system, VoIP also lets you replace your:
- Fax – With VoIP, you send and receive faxes almost like emails. To send one, you just upload an image or PDF from your computer.
- SMS – You can also send text messages from the phone number you use for your VoIP account.
- Online conferences/meetings – You can add multiple people to a call easily.
What Does VoIP Actually Look Like?
Now you probably have a good idea of what VoIP is used for.
To really make things clear, let’s look at a few behind the scenes images of what a VoIP dashboard looks like.
These images are from RingCentral, but most VoIP systems look similar.
Most signup processes have a few steps and only take 10 minutes or so to get up and running.
You’ll pick an available number, and can choose from a local or toll-free number.
Then you’ll add users, usually by email. Most VoIP services allow you to import contacts from an application like Gmail.
Otherwise, you just add users individually in your “users” section of your account. You can assign a custom number or extension to each user.
When someone calls in, they can choose the extension they’d like to talk to and your VoIP software will forward it to the right person.
As long as you have a microphone, you can talk as you normally would on a call.
All leading VoIP providers have mobile apps for iOS and Android.
It looks just like your normal call and messaging app, with very little learning curve.
Features to Look For in a VoIP Provider
Before I go over the top VoIP providers, you should start thinking about these main aspects of each service:
- Pricing – How much can you afford, and what do you actually need? Some providers are budget providers that focus on just the essential features.
- Simplicity – Some VoIP systems have a more modern interface that is easier to use than others. How important is this for you?
- Advanced call features – Which advanced features do you need? This might include:
- Call screening
- Call recording
- Shared lines
- Users supported (and how much do extra cost?) – Different plans support different numbers of users. Prices and features will vary depending on the plan you choose. You can add a certain number of users to each plan, but then have to pay extra for additional users.
- Who is it designed for? – Some VoIP platforms are designed for solo entrepreneurs, while others are designed for small businesses or large businesses. Find one that fits you.
What are the top VoIP providers?
With all that background information out of the way, which VoIP provider should you choose for your small business?
These are in no particular order, and they all have a solid service. The best one for you will depend on the features you’re looking for, and I’ll try to make the most important features clear.
RingCentral is an established VoIP provider, and their plans are flexible for businesses of all sizes.
They have 4 plans to choose from, which only differ in the features being offered.
You can choose whatever number of users you’d like to add to any plan. The more users you add, the cheaper the price is (per month per user).
The platform is solid, and they offer all the advanced calling features you could ever need. This includes:
- Call recording
- Unlimited SMS
- Integration with Salesforce and more.
The main strengths of RingCentral are that it’s easy to use once you get used to it, and it’s incredibly flexible and powerful software.
However, it is a bit on the expensive side, although it gets better as you add more users, and it may be a bit intimidating to use at first (although there are video tutorials to help).
Takeaway: Consider RingCentral is you want a robust platform that has advanced calling features. Great if you have several employees and are planning to scale up in the future.
Nextiva focuses solely on business VoIP services.
They have 3 main plans, all of which are reasonably priced.
Overall, the biggest strengths of Nextiva are:
- On the cheaper side.
- Robust, reliable infrastructure (companies like Allstate and Target use).
- Has all the basic features, and most advanced features you’ll need.
- Has an intuitive, simple, modern design.
- Good number of integrations for other tools.
The biggest weaknesses are:
- No 24/7 customer support.
- Missing a few (but not many) of the advanced features that others (like RingCentral) offer.
- Lack of transparency for service details.
Takeaway: Nextiva is a good option if budget is a big concern, and you still want to go with a reliable provider.
Vonage is another VoIP “giant” that offers plans for both personal and business use.
Their business plans are geared towards medium and enterprise businesses, but some larger small businesses will still find their plans to be a good fit.
On the plus side:
- Month-to-month contracts are available.
- Extensive feature set, including advanced features like:
- Virtual receptionist
- Voicemail to email
- Unlimited SMS
- Conferencing tools.
- 24/7 customer support.
On the negative side:
- It’s relatively expensive.
- Pricing is not fully transparent, have to request a quote.
Takeaway: Go with Vonage if your small business is on the larger side (10+ employees), budget isn’t your main concern, and you’re looking for advanced features.
8×8 has also offered VoIP services for businesses for a long time.
Their plans have all the basic features that small and medium-sized businesses need. There’s 3 plans, each with different features. If you only need the essentials, it’s not too expensive.
The biggest strengths of 8×8 are:
- Unlimited calling and SMS.
- Extensive integrations (Salesforce, Zendesk, and many more).
- A good number of advanced features:
- Call forwarding
- Call park
- Call recording
- Auto attendant
But 8×8 also has a few weaknesses:
- The SMS is only available in the U.S.
- If you want any advanced features, it gets expensive quickly.
- No 24/7 support.
Takeaway: Consider going with 8×8 if you’re mainly looking for basic VoIP features (reasonably priced) and are located in the U.S., or if your businesses uses several other tools that you’d like to integrate with your VoIP provider.
When you buy Office 365, you get access to a suite of Microsoft applications, including Skype for Business.
On top of being a simple application that most people are familiar with, there are a few pros to this option:
- It’s cheap (free) if you’re already planning on buying Office 365 for the business.
- It integrates well with other Microsoft applications.
- Has a few unique features like screen sharing, and whiteboard capabilities.
- Proven software can handle very large meetings.
But there are still some negatives:
- You have to buy Office 365.
- It’s missing a lot of advanced calling features.
- It’s missing basic features that let you easily add users (and their numbers or extensions) to your business’ phone number.
Takeaway: Go with Skype for Business if you’re mainly using VoIP for internal conversations. It’s got a great, familiar, text and phone interface, with advanced collaboration tools. Bonus points if you’re already buying Office 365.
There are few reasons where it doesn’t make sense to switch from a traditional phone system to a VoIP platform for your business.
It’s cheaper, simpler (once you understand it), and more scalable.
I’ve gone over the pros and cons of each leading VoIP provider, which is hopefully enough to help you choose one. Most offer an account manager that can help you if you need help getting your system setup.
Once you’re used to using VoIP, you’ll wonder why you didn’t make the switch earlier.