When was the last time you gave a thought to your business phone system? Perhaps the last time there was an outage? If your company’s roots go deep, it’s possible that you’re sitting comfortably with a PBX system, thinking that if it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it. There is an unfathomable number of choices for business phone systems right now. Do you want something that lives in the Cloud or something that you can see in a closet? What are you starting with — do you have an on-site PBX, landlines and heavy technical support, or is your company lean, mean, and completely comfortable relying on an internet service provider (ISP) with tools off-site?
We’ve assessed the plethora of business phone systems available, taking into account pricing, contract terms verses month-by-month rates, mobility options, customer service, customer and expert ratings, ease of use, and the company’s standing with accredited reviewing entities like the Better Business Bureau. We also kept the following musts in mind:
Reliability — Will your phones work all the time, wherever you are? Will they work as well in your office as they will a thousand miles away?
Affordability — What are the up-front, monthly, and maintenance costs, and are these sustainable? Are you locked into purchasing more hardware or software options?
Bells & whistles — What options does your business need besides a standard attendant menu, voice mailboxes, and call forwarding?
The fine print — When will your contract be up for renewal? Is there any grace period? What has to happen for you to terminate your service?
The main decision point when choosing what’s best for your business can be whether you are comfortable with an Internet-based Cloud voice over internet protocol (VoIP) system, or whether you currently have a system that uses a landline with a physical set of phone trunk lines stored on your premises.
VoIP packages generally offer the most features at economical pricing but are subject to the vagaries of your current ISP. You may also be on the hook for purchasing their equipment.
Maintaining a PBX system may offer some comfort to those who have this technology, but the cost of maintaining an office system in a closet or on a desk can be substantially higher than VoIP, especially as the hardware ages and as VoIP technology continues to improve.
Assessing the number and quality of features available can also staggering. We assumed you’ll want the basics of call forwarding, voice mailboxes, and a standard menu that lets customers select where they want to direct their calls. But consider other features, like applications that will allow portability from business to a cell phone, features that will translate voicemail to text or email, call recording, fax services, and even features that will work with Google documents, Salesforce, or your office software. How much of these additional features does your company really need, and how much are they worth to you?
Keeping all of the above in mind, here are our 2018 winners.
Winner, Overall Best for a Small Business: 8×8
8×8 is a US-based VoIP provider with an excellent record for connectivity and plans to start at $25 per month per user. You’ll find the majority of products a small business needs for success (instant messaging, unlimited calling and faxing, business SMS and a healthy amount of media storage) even with the base price plan.
Experts rate 8×8 highly for a combination of ease of use, affordability and excellent features. You can easily manage your server with an online portal, and 8×8 doesn’t require businesses to have PBX-style hardware or a dedicated VoIP-knowledgeable IT staff to keep it up and running. 8×8 provides free online training regarding the nuts and bolts of the products; if you desire in-person training, that’s available at an extra cost.
Although you can choose to use the phones provided by 8×8, you don’t have to. Some other companies, however, require a significant investment in hardware. The phones that 8×8 provides are already configured to work when you plug them in.
8×8’s mobile app (available for iOS and Android) allows employees to access business lines from their smartphones. With the app, employees can have all the features of their work phone (chat with other employees, check voicemail, see co-workers’ status, and view online faxes) – like they never left the office.
Connectivity is rated as high as 99%, but the real key to a successful experience with 8×8 and other VoIP systems is having an internet service provider with a robust and consistent high-speed connection. Additionally, your server’s firewall may need some adjustment for this product to be fully functional. See our full 8X8 review.
Winner, Best for a Small Office: Grasshopper
Founded by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, the Cloud-based VoIP Grasshopper offers exceptionally simple pricing, and you don’t need new equipment. Pricing starts at $29 per month for one number with three extensions and goes up to $89 for five numbers with unlimited extensions.
Rather than requiring a giant amount of capital for new equipment, Grasshopper’s system allows your small business to make the most of what you probably already have.
Grasshopper provides a rich array of features, including custom greetings, call forwarding, call screening, and inbound fax. Voice mail and inbound faxes are automatically converted to email, so there are no documents to convert. Grasshopper will even read your voicemail to you. With Instant Response (included as part of the package), if you miss a call, a pre-determined text message will be sent to the caller.
Grasshopper’s features also can help make a small business look larger. For example, everyone in your office can have an extension. If you want to create a more professional appearance for inbound calling, Grasshopper provides customizable main greetings, routing for extensions, a name directory, music on hold, and a voice studio (for a small upcharge) if you don’t like your own voice and you’d like a voice actor to tell your customers to press 13 for new sales.
Grasshopper was essentially designed for small offices who want to present a more professionally packaged telecommunications front. Ultimately, though, it’s the U.S.-based Grasshopper’s simplicity that makes it the winner.
Winner, Best Service: Vonage
This is a tough category because all telephone service companies have complaints on public forums. Remember that people who comment on these forums are more likely to be unhappy with the service, while happy people don’t frequently take to publicly announcing their happiness with a product. Acknowledging that all the companies we looked at have some complaints, the winner for best service is Vonage, one of the first phone companies to offer VoIP for business.
With over a decade of VoIP service provision, Vonage offers customer service via chat, available Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., ET; and a toll-free number staffed Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to midnight, and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with emergency on-call service outside of regular hours, and a good array of technical support topics. You can also complete an electronic service ticket at your convenience.
Winner, Best Virtual System
The U.S.-based Ring Central offers a substantial amount of call features and the most bells and whistles for the money. The base model “Standard Plan” offers call management, mobile apps for both iOS and Android, unlimited calling and conference calling, 1,000 toll-free minutes, unlimited business SMS, unlimited video conferencing for up to four connections, log reports, and multi-level auto-attendants for a monthly fee of $24.99 per user. The popular “Premium Plan” upgrades the number of toll-free minutes to 2,500, increases the video conference capacity to 50, and adds custom application development/deployment, caller ID, automatic call recording, smart integration with systems like Salesforce and Zendesk.
Ring Central’s network is “fully redundant geographically,” according to the company’s website. That’s a fancy way of saying that if there’s a service outage in your area, the system will switch your company to an unaffected data centre.
The company also provides a specialist to help you determine your needs and implement the product, and experts highly rate the ease of the actual roll-out. The pricing structures may vary, and that’s one of the frustrating components of this (and most) VoIP systems.
Winner, Best for a Call Center
Mitel, which offers both on-premises hosting for companies with their own functioning software and a Cloud-based option for those without a substantial outlay of equipment (or those who prefer the advantages of VoIP systems). Mitel provides a generous assortment of call centre tools, like universal queuing, web chat integration, and customer callback so that your client isn’t stuck on hold. The product also provides optimized call routing by variables that are important to you: customer identity, location, service level, and priority. Finally, Mitel has a substantial offering of phone hardware, including multi-line IP phones, and conference and video units.
One of the main advantages to the call centre technology is that Mitel’s system integrates well with programs you’re likely already using, including Salesforce. While the hosted option is likely to be as reliable as your equipment and tech support, the Cloud-based option’s reliability is upwards of 99%. Five global data centres pretty much ensure that if one system goes down, your system will still be functional. Customer service is supported by phone 24/7, as well as via the website. Customer reviews indicate that calls are fielded by live technicians who are competent to answer the majority of questions.
See our full Mitel Review
Sometimes the difference between the winner listed above and the company in second place is something as simple as price or hardware. For small businesses or small offices, Jive’s service features starting at the base price of $19.95 a month per user were extremely appealing, and the company offers more features than Grasshopper. While Ooma has almost everything a small business wants or needs, keep in mind the company requires the purchase of a $99 base station if you want to keep your existing phones and landline, plus an additional $20 monthly charge per phone. In the end, the outlay of cash needed to purchase equipment may be more than a small company can bear.
Vonage’s business system also offers a rich array of features, but came in more expensive, and may be more than your small office needs. With the exception of the call centre, our winners all happen to be VoIP service providers. If you still cherish your PBX, you’d likely be very happy with Cisco (the largest networking company in the world) or Avaya (flexible for between 100 to 2,500 users) which are universally highly-regarded systems. These two are essentially the Cadillac and Porsche of the phone industry. However, most small businesses would find a Honda or Toyota does the job just as well.