Today’s market offers an unprecedented variety of options for business phone systems.  In many ways, this is good for businesses, since competition drives prices down, and vendors/service providers that do an excellent job stand out.  On the other hand, the influx of options creates a great deal of confusion, with important differentiations between hardware, platforms, implementation, and support often blurred by biased or unknowledgeable sales reps.

For many businesses, phones are the lifeblood and demand careful consideration.  Moreover, with the advent of hosted services, finding a good provider could well turn into a long term solution, as businesses adjust their operations strategies around their communications capabilities.  And moving from one hosted provider to another is not as simple as porting numbers and switching long distance providers used to be.  There are many more complications that could lead to downtime or missed calls.  Therefore, it is critical to understand the differences between systems before making this type of decision.

Here are the most important considerations when looking at business phone systems:

Whether you want to go hosted/cloud, or premise-based.
There are advantages to both, but the growing trend is hosted.  Hosted solutions offer advantages in these areas: Disaster Recovery (DR), lower upfront purchase prices, scalability, and technology refresh.  Premised based systems, called Private Branch Exchanges (PBXs), or key systems, might offer better financial modeling for businesses that don’t use or rely on the phones much.  Businesses have been using PBXs since the late sixties, but many businesses see the benefits that come with a hosted solution and the trend is rapidly growing in that direction.  With VoIP, a customer has the flexibility to host their system in a high availability data center, which offers the same advantages that other hosted services such as web and mail hosting offer.

What platform/hardware should I choose?
Unfortunately, the confusion doesn’t end after you answer the first question.  There are important differences between hardware and platforms and even between deployment strategies of companies that use the same platform that have a wide range of consequences for businesses.

For hosted solutions, the first question to ask a potential provider is what platform they use.  This is ultimately what your workers will be interacting with on a daily basis, and will house all of the features that you’ll be using.  There are big distinctions between hosted platforms – some, like Broadsoft and Metaswitch, are carrier-grade switches AND hosted PBX platforms in one, offering unmatched business continuity capabilities and a variety of 3rd party integrations that will allow your system to talk with other applications your business uses like or ACT.  Other hosted offering use a class 3 switch, which is essentially the same as a premise-based PBX, but housed in a data center instead of a customer location.  These types of systems require a separate voice carrier – sometimes this is provided by the hosted company and sometimes the customer has the ability to get their own.

When considering hardware, many of the hosted providers have no preference as to what kind of phone (endpoint) you choose.  Some important considerations for phones include 1) how much bandwidth do I need to pass through to my workstation 10/100 or 1000Mbps 2) would I prefer a Power Over Ethernet (POE) switch to be able to power the phones through the ethernet cable and 3) do I want to consider High Definition (HD) phones.  Premise based PBX hardware vendors are typically able to differentiate their products from competitors, mainly on features, pricing, and support.

Do I trust my vendor?
It is challenging to put the lifeblood of your business in the hands of a company you might not have heard of, particularly in an industry where giants like AT&T and Verizon are household names.  But the reality of the situation is that these bigger telecom companies do not possess the focus and drive to implement hosted solutions effectively, and the most capable providers are the smaller niche companies that have ONLY been providing hosted PBX services.  This inherently leads many businesses to become confused and feel as though they can’t find a quality solution.  The reality is that there are both excellent and terrible providers in the marketplace today, which is why doing your research and partnering with the right consultant can make an enormous difference.

For more information about VoIP and other hosted solutions, visit