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20 "Happiness Questions" for Buying BYOB Hosted VoIP
Written by: D. Baldwin - Sep 20, 2019
1. Do my different locations have enough existing Internet bandwidth to accommodate high quality VoIP phone calls in addition to the simultaneous existing data demand?
A single high quality VoIP phone call requires unrestricted access to about about 80 Kbps of your upload and download Internet bandwidth. To see how many simultaneous VoIP calls your Internet connection can handle (when your connection is completely idle of any data traffic) divide 80 into the lower figure of your bandwidth speed. For instance if your upload bandwidth speed is 1.6 Mbps then your existing bandwidth can theoretically accommodate 20 simultaneous VoIP phone calls.
Having enough bandwidth though does not guarantee call happiness though. Other consideration include:
a. How spiky are the data blasts on your local network and, if needed, can the equipment on your LAN prioritize voice over data to keep a blast of data (email attachment download or video stream, etc.) from affecting or blocking VoIP phone calls?
b. How distant from your office locations is the "switch" that your VoIP phone provider is using? The further the switch, the lower the voice quality. To test the "latency" your calls might experience with one provider or another, ask to set up some test calls.
c. How many "network hops" exist between your office locations and your VoIP phone provider? Your provider might be just a state or two away but if your phone call must traverse many different legs on the public Internet to get to your VoIP phone carrier then these extra hops will add to the latency. This can be tested with a standard "Ping Tool" but when using BYOB connectivity, the number of hops can change depending on the "peering arrangements" the various Internet providers have with each other on any given day. As a user of the public Internet for your phone calls, you have no control over this.
2. Are the cable and hardware connections on the LANs ("local area networks") in my business locations solid enough to not interfere with voice quality and, if not, what is the estimated one-time cost of upgrading the LAN?
Most businesses considering BYOB hosted VoIP are likely price sensitive and probably do not have the IT resources to do a proper VoIP "stress test" of the LANs at their various locations. A stress test of some sort is needed though in order to prevent bad and expensive surprises. If the wiring and hardware that comprise your LAN are more than a couple years old then it is likely not designed to easily accommodate the "traffic shaping" needed to keep your voice and data from banging into each other on your LAN.
If your business locations all have just a few people with minimal data file sharing then a hard core VoIP stress test on the LAN is not cost justified. If, on the other hand your locations are populated with sales people or executive that earn a living on the phone and their computers work the Internet or local business applications pretty hard then you'll defiantly want a stress test.
The best VoIP stress test on your LAN would be conducted by the VoIP provider you're considering so you don't end up with a lot of finger pointing. An independent test can be conducted as well. such tests can easily run over $1,000 and should last several days if not a whole month to make sure it includes all heavy uses of your network through a normal business cycle in your office.
In reality, most smaller businesses skip the stress test with an understanding that when the audio call trouble hits, they've already discussed the "triage procedures" that will be done - by whom and at what cost.
3. Do I have the IT resources to properly manage voice and data on my single LAN on an ongoing basis and what are the estimated monthly costs of paying for that support?
The reason most "pre-VoIP" phone systems have "pin drop" sound quality is the phone calls all travel over a completely separate network (that costs extra money to maintain) both inside and outside your office. The "big idea" with VoIP phone systems is that they can operate over the data network in your office as just one more application server so you don't have to maintain a sperate network for your voice phone calls.
The challenge for most existing businesses is that their existing data network was designed for data only and voice tends to use up a lot of data network real estate. At some point though, business customers will need to upgrade their data networks to handle voice as the old "non-VoIP" phone systems are simply going away. The question business customers must ask themselves is, "Is now the right time to upgrade and who's going to do it?"
Only the customer can answer "the when". As far as "the who", it needs to be an in-house or outsourced IT resource that understands and embraces voice applications. Many "old-school" IT consultants avoid anything to do with voice. If you're ready to upgrade your data networks now to handle voice ask your prospective VoIP solution providers for a "voice friendly" IT consultant.
(Note: Hosted VoIP is known as a "cloud application" because the "phone brain" is located in the "Internet cloud". As you explore which IT resources will support your voice applications you may want to ask which of your other business applications can move to the "cloud".)
4. What business critical "phone system applications" like voice mail, auto-attendant, name/number caller-ID, 3-way calling, call transfer, call recording, overhead paging, or customized applications need to exist on the new phone system?
Even while many business customers claim to hate their existing old fashioned, non-VoIP phone system because of the cost to maintain it, they absolutely love some of the proprietary "call handling" features that the old phone system provides. It's very critical, especially for business that transfer callers from one employee to another, to literally map out and/or list everything their current phone system does, and how it does it.
(Note: I sold a VoIP phone system to a law office once and assured them that the system did this one important call transfer feature. The only problem (which I didn't learn until after it was too late to fix) was that the VoIP phone system I sold the law office did not do the transfer the same way they used to do it. It made a huge difference to them and I think they're still mad about it!)
To make sure you have a complete list of needed phone applications, the business phone administrators need to query their users and make sure a complete inventory it created. Once the phone applications inventory is created then the business customer needs to ask his or her prospective VoIP phone providers, "OK, show me how this works on your phone system."
If you want to maximize the future happiness of your staff, don't settle for a static test in the VoIP provider's showroom, have the provider bring test phones out to your office and conduct the test with real test phone calls being transferred from one employee to another and back. Be sure and conduct the test with the employee likely to complain the loudest about the new VoIP phone system.
Also to be considered are "future unknown apps" your business will need. Desk phones just don't ring and take voice mail messages anymore. Look at all the things your mobile "smartphone" does like give you spoken driving directions or act as a barcode scanner. Whatever "unified communication" option you'll want your phone to do in the future will be delivered by your VoIP phone provider's ability to access and rewrite the source code that controls the software of the VoIP phone system. Many VoIP solution providers use proprietary BroadSoft code, other use a more open Asterisk code. Pros and cons abound for each but it's important to know the flexibility that comes with either platform when it comes to your VoIP provider's ability to create a customized application for you.
A final consideration is "who's writing the code" that's needed to maintain your critical phone applications. In the past, many businesses had in-house code writers that maintained their critical business applications. As more and more business applications become standardized and migrate into the cloud, fewer businesses have direct access the code-writers that can deliver needed application customization. The question is businesses need to ask about their VoIP applications is do their VoIP phone providers even employ code writers?
For smaller businesses with simple phone needs that are looking at BYOB for it's low price, custom voice applications is rarely an issue. Large multilocation enterprises though that are looking at BYOB VoIP solutions for their hundreds of worldwide quick serve restaurants might need custom apps written and rewritten constantly. In this later scenario, a customer's distance from voice application code writers may be quite meaningful.
5. What new business applications will the new phone system give me that will help my business make more money and how much new money will that be per month to help cost justify the switch?
At the end of the testing in #4 above a customer will know how the new VoIP phone system is similar or different from their existing phone system in duplication system-wide voice applications. many customers though buy a new VoIP phone system in order to access a new business application that the old phone system simply does not have. These new applications might include video calling, simultaneous cell and desk phone ringing (fixed/mobile convergence), voice mail in email or a hundred others.
Just as iPhones and Blackberry smart cell phones have dozens of applications that business users suddenly can't do business without, similar "apps" are available on the new VoIP phone systems that can literally change the business that a business is in. When remote workers are suddenly as effective and efficient as in-office workers business paradigms shift and enormous "soft dollar" savings are possible because a business has access to a new application through their VoIP phone.
It's important to quantify this "soft dollar" amount as closely as possible to use that figure to help justify the switch to the new phone system.
6. How will the new phones that sit on the user's desk work differently than the phones they are using now and what are the phone options?
Where #4 above discussed system-wide phone function issues like call transfer, this step explores the individual user and how they will interact with their phone. Much of the soft dollar savings envisioned in #5 above are only accrued if the individual phone system user learns and uses all the applications.
It starts with a user setting up and checking their voicemail. It ends with a lawyer unsung the new phone to document their client billable hours or another similar application. The groundwork for application adoption must be laid in the pre-sales activity by testing to be sure that the users like the new phones enough to adapt and use the new or upgraded applications.
Regarding phone options, many solution VoIP phone system providers use only a few phones "proven to work" while others allow a customer to use almost any "VoIP certified" phone. It's important for customers to understand their options or limitation in this area as it can seriously impact future costs if a new business application is suddenly needed the customer's existing VoIP phone sets can not be reprogrammed to accomodate the new application.
7. Who will "administrate" the phone system and support the users?
Another "big idea" with VoIP phone systems is the ease with which the administrator can do adds, moves and changes or help a user reset their voicemail, etc. But just how easy is it and does the administrator even need to be an employee of the business customer?
If the system is "in the cloud" and it's all so easy to administer, whey doesn't the VoIP phone company do all the administration and user support? Some do but may charge extra for it. the important thing for the business customer is to understand who will actually do it and how easy or hard it is to administer.
Before making a final purchase decision, it's a good idea for the decision maker to have their phone system administrator sit through the administrator class to get a feel for how easy or simple the administrator's portal is to work with when it comes to adding, moving, deleting employees or solving their problems. If a lot of employee turnover is anticipated the customer should ask the VoIP provider if they can deliver customized system administrator and phone user videos.
8. Does the phone system need to provide any management reports and if so how are they produced and what do the reports look like?
For businesses with employees that spend all day on the phone, the phone system, and the employee productivity reports it can produce, are serious management tools that many businesses can not do without.
Whether it's client billing information in a law office or non-work calls flagged for a call center employee, it's important to know what phone system reports, if any, a business needs. In addition to delivering the report, as with all management reports, the look and the ability to customize it are also important.
9. What are the phone system migration options available to either quickly or slowly migrate a couple users or a couple offices over to test the solution?
Fortunately VoIP phone systems have the ability to run in parallel with existing non-VoIP phone systems so their functionality and effectiveness can be properly tested. this ability means that business customers have the option of migrating slowly to VoIP solutions - it does not have to be a sudden and permanent "forklift removal" of the old phone system.
Seriously risk averse business customers should start their VoIP migration with one location, one department or just a couple employees. Start with a couple of the employees with the most complicated phone application needs. If the new VoIP system works for them then move on with more locations, departments or people.
10. What are the exit strategies in case the new system is not acceptable and has a telecom attorney verified that the agreement supports the strategies?
What are your options as a customer of a new VoIP phone system if "buyer's remorse" turns into loosing customers and loosing jobs? Hey, sometimes things just do not work out like you hoped they would.
Seriously discuss and get in writing, viable ways to back out of a VoIP migration that is going bad. As well, if a VoIP agreement has a 90-day "happiness guarantee", make sure that both a telecom attorney and a seasoned telecom agent or consultant has agreed that the guarantee is workable and even makes sense.
11. Will the system and the bandwidth accommodate maximum estimated company growth and if so, what are the incremental growth price points from start to maximum estimated growth?
Many phone proposals (VoIP or not) are often perfectly priced and seem to be significantly different from competitors. For pricing that seems too perfect, ask the provider to also provide costs for incremental growth to some maximum projection at some specific time in the future.
For BYOB systems, the biggest challenge can be bandwidth. If you add 10 more employees will you need a bigger internet pipe from your own provider? Is a bigger pipe even available and at what cost. As well increased voice traffic may require upgraded equipment on the customer's local LAN. An estimate of future LAN costs to accommodate phone system growth needs to be part of the LAN VoIP stress test mentioned in #2 above.
12. How do the TCO ("total cost of ownership") figures pencil out for the existing system and the new systems being considered?
When you have the base and incremental costs of your favorite prospective solution figured in #11 above you'll want to apply the same TCO calculations to all the VoIP system phone options your're considering.
Some solution providers have a perfect price fit in just a certain "seat range" in that they're great from 30 to 50 employees but uncompetitive from 10 to 25. If you're pricing out a 15 seat system they might not look so good but if there's a real possibility that you'll be at 40 employees in a year or so they might be the best overall vendor.
13. Who's vouching for the solution providers I'm considering?
Many business decision makers wait until the end of their buying process before calling references. This is a big mistake because by the time the buying process comes down to a single vendor the business decision maker is usually exhausted by the process and is looking for reasons to more on and avoiding information that would take them back to square one with a new prospective provider.
Call references early and often. Call references that use similar phone and business applications. If you're working with a telecom agent ask them who are all the VoIP providers the industries best "Master Agents" use and why? Telecom master agents have the ability to represent multiple VoIP solution providers and they rarely keep one if their customers keep complaining about turnup or quality problems.
Many business decision makers stretch the VoIP buying process out many months. If this is the case with you, call back the references you spoke with early on. by the end of a buying process a customer will have different questions they'll want to ask a reference that they did not know to ask the first time around.
One important question to ask references is "what VoIP software version are you using?" some of today's VoIP solution providers have been in business many years but have recently upgrades their VoIP software to something that may be completely different than what their current "happy customers" are using. If all the references you talk to are still using version 3.0 but you're being sold version 5.0 that may be a red flag.
14. How stable are the solution providers in their ability to stay in business and what are my options if any of the solution providers go out of business or sell?
VoIP solution providers are different from regular businesses. In many ways they're like "mad scientist" inventors that had a great phone idea a while back, got all their friends to invest money in the idea and has then spent the last couple years trying to generate enough new customers on a regular basis to stay in business, grow and pay all their friends back - all while trying to keep their "Guinea Pig" customers happy enough to keep paying their phone bills.
Fortunately, most VoIP phone providers that have made it more than a couple years no longer have all their customers on a beta version of their platform and are slowly succeeding with a base of reasonably happy business customers. Some VoIP providers though, while they look normal up front, are much more beat up than their brethren "behind the curtain".
Before signing a long term agreement be sure and ask your telecom agent or consultant, what the history is of your prospective VoIP provider. How has their VoIP software code evolved? Have they switched between BroadSoft and Asterisk? Who are the investors that own the company? Are they looking to sell out? What happens to my phone numbers and system design if the company fails?
A theoretical advantage for BroadSoft resellers is that if they fail their customers can easily roll to another BroadSoft provider. That's mostly theoretical. Discuss with your telecom agent or consultant how long and how difficult is it to move the main business phone number in the case of a business failure.
15. What are the backup plans in place to enable continued functionality in the event of a local or distant Internet connection outage?
More realistic than the VoIP provider going out of business is the voIP provider's switch going down, the customer's Internet going down or some connection between the customer and the VoIP provider going down. For these sort of outages the business customer really needs to have two backup plans - one for outgoing calls and one for incoming calls. Outgoing calls are easy - cell phones, every employee has one.
Incoming calls are different. It should be relatively easy for the main phone number of the business to be automatically rerouted in the case of any kind of network or equipment outage - to a different business location or to a remotely accessible voice mail box. If a business uses many DID or direct numbers for inbound calls, automatic alternate routing can be much more difficult.
For the average business using BYOB VoIP a short outage may not be a big deal. For a call center using BYOB VoIP for work at home operators an outage is much more serious. The most important thing to do to minimize financial loss is to plan the outage in advance and then test it to make sure it works when needed.
16. How is the security of my phone calls or my LAN affected by using BYOB hosted VoIP?
The first, middle and final argument against any sort of cloud service is "security breach"! The argument goes, "If I can access the application in the cloud what's to stop my competitors from accessing it in the cloud." The fears range from competitors listening in on live phone calls to copying your address book to downloading your voice mail messages."
All of these concerns are valid and certainly need to be addressed by asking the question, "How is this more or less safe that the phone system we have now or the alternatives we're considering?"
17. How easy or difficult is it to reprogram an individual user's phone if it is stolen or breaks?
As a "cloud service", hosted VoIP is by nature a solution with most of the "smarts" built into the cloud that can't be broken by spilling coffee on it. Don't assume though that the functionality of the executive secretary or reception phone can be easily replaced if it's broken or stolen. Always have backup phones on the premises and always know how to quickly have the functionality of the handset reprogrammed quickly.
18. Customer service & trouble shooting.
If your next VoIP phone system is also your first, the day you sign your VoIP phone agreement will be your "happiness high-water mark" with your VoIP vendor (in that you will never be happier). Why so many VoIP "sad faces"? Over selling on the part of the VoIP companies and "under buying" on the part of the VoIP business customers.
By the time VoIP telephony invented itself the "old phone companies" had been connecting calls for a hundred years, and remember how happy their customer service made you? Well VoIP phone companies have the same basic challenges of trying to solve your problems when you call but they have a lot less money to do it with and they have not been doing it as long.
Expect a lot of problems and ask to be introduced to the people who will be directly and personally responsible for solving your problems. Unlike the "big phone companies" who don't have a people with first names that will always be there for you, your VoIP phone company does.
The most important person to meet is your project manager. This is the person in charge of converting you from where you are to where you want to go. The second most important person is the customer service manager. This is the person in charge of tracking down and solving those problems that will drive you crazy in the long run. Look these people up on LinkedIn.com. How long have they help their positions? When you call your final references for the VoIP company you're signing with, ask the references about how responsive the project management and customer service teams are.
to ensure your project management and customer service pre-sale expectations are met after the sale, make sure project management timelines and deadlines are part of your agreement. Make sure that customer service tickets are always resolved by getting the customer to confirm via email that the ticket is indeed resolved. Make sure the project management or customer service "misses" are a way that you as the customer can back out of the agreement.
19. What are the solution cost components and terms?
In an effort not to create a customer service killing "race to zero" we've purposely excluded detailed price description from this buyer's guide. But pricing components should be clearly understood. Important pricing components include the following:
a. Is the service "seat" or "path" priced? (Number of total users, total simultaneous calls or some combination of the two
b. What standard or premium applications like caller-ID or call recording come with the base price and which are extra?
c. Can the price of the desktop phone be included in the system price and is any part of the agreement an "equipment lease"? It's one thing to get out of a service agreement that is not working out well, it's quite another to get out of an equipment lease.
d. What are ALL the taxes, fees and surcharges that will be added to the invoice. Be sure and get a list of any item that may change over the course of the contract term as well as a detailed explanation of how the item is calculated.
e. Has a "telecom lawyer" reviewed the terms of the agreement? Because VoIP phone systems target businesses that have multiple locations, this may be the first "phone system" agreement many businesses enter into that cross state lines. To ensure your contract "term happiness", try to avoid agreements that auto-renew or that offer no relief for business down-turns, etc.
20. Fixed/Mobile Convergence ("FMC") Support?
Of the three biggest "wow ideas" that come with VoIP telephony (voice mail in email, multiple business locations on one phone system & desk phone/cell phone acting as one), the third, also known as "fixed mobile convergence" or simply FMC, can provide some of the biggest productivity gains for a business but is often the most elusive until the individual system users practice and embrace switching between their desk and cell phones.
To get VoIP system users to actually use the FMC benefits of their VoIP system it's important to select a VoIP phone company that embraces FMC support as opposed to one that says, "You need to call your smart phone company to solve that problem."
To ensure that a lack of FMC integration does not lead the "VoIP buyer's remorse parade" it's important that your businesses smart phone vendor is included in the buying process. Make a list of all the FMC applications or functionalities that are expected after the VoIP integration is complete and during the pre-sale system demonstrations hand both vendors (your smartphone vendor and your prospective VoIP phone system vendor) the FMC functionality "wish list" and say, "show me".
But don't let let the sprit of FMC co-operation between your smart phone vendor and your VoIP phone company end at the pre-sale demo. Make sure the one of the two vendors (preferably the VoIP vendor) "owns" the FMC functionality such it's their job to take the trouble shooting calls if something stops working with the FMC after the sale. Make sure that FMC trouble shooting is included in any customer service agreements. don't forget to ask, what happens to our FMC functionality if we switch smart phone vendors?