By Bonnie Ellis, Cost Control Associates
Today’s organizations need a flexible, fully functioning phone system that grows with your employees, locations and services. You may depend on your phones for communications, alarm systems, fax machines and credit card transactions. Customer service is critical to your success, and an unreliable phone connection is a sure way to make a customer unhappy.
Anticipating a phone system upgrade is a daunting and often disruptive task, but it is better to do it sooner than later. A system older than five years is ripe for replacement. If you have an in-house team that can handle it, consider yourself lucky, but even so, there will be challenges. Many organizations are at the mercy of their phone provider to guide them in this significant time-and-money investment.
For 25 years, Cost Control Associates has worked with clients to navigate the myriad of options and costs associated with telephone system procurement. Based on our experience, we share these best practices:
Examine your current and future usage thoroughly.
The need for expanded functionality is the most common reason to refresh your system. A popular, cost-effective choice is VoIP (voice over internet protocol). Because VoIP uses the internet to transmit phone calls, it becomes easier to unite your employees under one phone-system umbrella. You can also link all types of devices through its scalable, multi-platform system.
When considering your phone upgrade, you’ll need to ask yourself some questions:
• What kind of upgrade are you looking for?
• Do you want a completely new system or do you want to add to your current system?
• Do you want the equipment physically located at your office? If not, will a virtual solution fit all your needs, or do you need to maintain some analog options?
• Where will each phone be located? Is there appropriate wiring and/or jacks at each location?
• If you need wiring installed, do you have a vendor or staff who can install it? If your phone provider does the work, is the wiring installation in the same contract as the phone installation?
• When do you need the upgrade to go live?
Don’t make decisions in a vacuum.
It is critical to corral all the details before you begin to build your system. Difficulties arise when the people planning the network are not familiar with the actual usage within the departments or locations that use the system. You don’t want to plan an elaborate phone system only to later learn that everyone in that area uses his cell phone. Planners must be thorough and get buy-in from everyone who shares a stake in the new network.
Choose a trusted provider.
Make sure your provider offers all the services you need and has the experience to design a system that works for you now and in the future. If selecting a new provider, check references diligently. Perform an internet search or ask around to find unsolicited references and comments you may want to investigate further.
If you use an RFP process to narrow your choice, you will have a document to help guide the process. However, it’s likely that your RFP missed some details that may later haunt you. Talk to your selected provider about how you will handle surprises and how you will pay for them.
Understand the services, costs and fees in your contract.
Has your provider looped in unnecessary features and services? If your needs are basic, you may be able to use voice mail housed on your provider’s network. If your needs are more advanced, you will probably want your own network. Many features are included, but you should be intimately aware of your needs and know exactly what you are paying for.
Most providers offer a “quality of service” option. Easily confused with customer service or other quality issues, quality of service actually refers to traffic prioritization and control mechanisms that allow you to use your telephone network effectively. Properly installed quality-of-service software governs all aspects of your connection including response time, loss of calls, echoes, crosstalk and other annoyances. Find out if it’s included.
Plan for trouble.
There is no such thing as a flawless upgrade. No matter what your provider promises you, make sure you allow time and resources to resolve issues that pop up along the way. Depending on the carrier and the size of your network, a full upgrade may take as long as a year to plan and install. Do everything you can to minimize problems before they occur.
Take a close look at how your provider handles customer service issues. Poor service is one of the biggest complaints about phone companies. You want an experienced account team that has tenure with the company and demonstrates customer loyalty. Customer service teams with frequent personnel changes can wreak havoc on your planning and installation process. Find out how they prioritize and resolve billing errors, too.
Consider a third-party consultant.
Managing telephone procurement and installation is a big job that often falls outside the scope of your in-house staff. Your personnel need to work with your provider to map every current and future extension, its location and usage. You must understand your existing digital and analog services, what they are used for and if you can move them to your new system if desired. Your provider relies on this information to build your system. Using an outside, experienced consultant can streamline this effort to save your employees time and frustration. A consultant also knows the right questions to ask which can save you from problems later on.
Establish an emergency plan.
Brainstorm to list all of your “what if’s,” and test them before going live with your new system. If your system goes down at one location, you can build in redundancy to take over at another location. Regularly check to be sure the redundant system is working properly, so you can depend on it when you need it. Properly maintain your new system, and keep room temperatures regulated. When you need to make repairs, consider that refurbished parts may not last as long or work as well as new ones.
Plan for the short and long terms.
Phone systems once lasted 7-10 years, but with today’s rapid technological change, systems have shorter lifetimes. If your organization is experiencing exponential growth, you need to plan for the future while also thinking about the near term. What are your growth plans for the next 3-5 years, and can the new system expand accordingly?
If you keep your eyes trained on the details, your new phone system will soon be in place, and your organization will be well on its way to future success with improved, reliable communications.