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Talk is cheap

What many are finding is that VoIP can be a boon to the bottom line, but as with other pieces of technology, it does require some planning before making the leap.

For the past few years, VoIP has been increasingly ready for primetime. Once it was just the darling of people who hated paying long-distance charges, or networking geeks who liked to play around with tweaking their existing equipment. But now it’s drawn a host of companies and individuals under the VoIP banner, most of whom are only too happy to sing the delights of lower phone charges and increasingly better quality. What many are finding is that VoIP can be a boon to the bottom line, but as with other pieces of technology, it does require some planning before making the leap. There are still quality of service issues, long-term ROI considerations, and implementation costs that have to factor into the decision. Here are some questions to ask if you’re walking down the VoIP road:

Is there a system that will let you plug and play?

Some VoIP systems are extensive, and require implementation time that might hurt productivity, or take systems off line that shouldn’t be down. For many companies, these complex implementations usually aren’t necessary. “Not everyone has to be on the bleeding edge of technology,” says Rick Scherle, senior vice president of marketing for i2 Telecom. Many small businesses want technology to be a tool, Scherle says, not an overwhelming system that brings employees to a halt. “Basically, many companies have to work on their car while they’re driving it,” he notes. To get the best ROI from the start, Scherle suggests finding a VoIP option that can be installed out of the box, which prevents lengthy install procedures or disruptions to a company’s work. Many vendors are only too happy to tout this capability, but companies should still get a specific time estimate when shopping around. When “quick installation” means “a few days,” a company may want to look elsewhere.

Who’s your support tech?

The flat rates offered by VoIP vendors are tempting indeed, especially when high call volume translates to only a fraction of a penny per call. But to calculate ROI properly, a company also needs to look at potential support costs. “If your computer network goes down, most people don’t complain unless it’s for a few hours,” says Scherle. “But if the phone system is down, forget it. You’ll hear about it 30 seconds later. Even a small delay makes people crazy.” The solution is to have a quality monitoring system in place, and someone to do the work. Often, this falls into the realm of the IT department, but because it’s voice-related, they might want to pass it to someone else. “Before you put in a system, figure out the care and feeding of the network,” says Pierce Reid, vice president of marketing for VoIP monitoring and management firm Qovia. Reid notes that although VoIP is becoming more common at companies, there is still some confusion over responsibility. “Usually, telephony is the domain of the building manager, whereas a data network is managed by IT,” he says. If a company is outsourcing its IT help, as is the case with many smaller firms, it should find out if its outsourcer handles VoIP and what the costs would be for getting the system back up fast. Or, Reid says, have a straightforward chat with the VoIP provider and go over worst-case scenarios, complete with costs. If the system goes down, how much will it take to fix it? And what does an hour of phone loss translate to in terms of lost productivity? These are kind of numbers that should come up at an ROI planning meeting.

What exactly is your vendor providing?

Because of differences in architecture and approach to VoIP, vendors can differ in how they approach ROI. Many tech consultants advise clients to select a vendor that uses standards like SIP for their protocol support. This brings down the cost of devices and management of those devices over time. Also, look at how your vendor is proposing where VoIP fits into your business. If you have a contact center, this is especially important, because some vendors can create a bundled application suite that brings together VoIP with CRM or other applications. This can provide multi-party conferencing, audio recording, and unified messaging. If a company has a call center and finds itself with limited functionality from a VoIP system, it’s going to lose out on getting proper ROI. Finally, have a frank discussion about what kind of hardware the vendor can provide, and what you have to get on your own. Most VoIP systems require routers, gateways, or IP phones. Although more companies are bringing all the necessary components into one hardware appliance, it’s useful to know who’s going to foot the bill, and whether hardware you have in place will work with a vendor’s system. For example, some VoIP providers don’t support VPN capability with their terminal adapters. So, figure out the costs for the system, and then in true tech planning fashion, add 10 percent for unforeseen costs. Hopefully, through long-term planning, a look at every cost nuance, and a realistic and honest talk with VoIP providers about services and support, the ROI for a VoIP implementation will be a robust amount.

Five VoIP features to insist on

Companies are investigating VoIP for its cost-savings potential. But how do they know if it’s right for them? Bryan Cohen, a telephony specialist for CDW, offers five initial conditions any company needs in order to successfully run VoIP:

— Quality of service: For VoIP to work, the switches and routers in the company’s network need to support the QoS standard, also known as 802.1P/Q. The standard makes sure that words arrive in the right order and that voice takes priority over data.

— Network redundancy: If the company network fails, it won’t be able to make phone calls or send emails. All communications will cease until the problem is fixed. Therefore, ensuring network redundancy is critical.

— Additional training: Traditional PBXes are managed through a telephone set or terminal. VoIP is managed through a PC. Therefore, someone within the office must become experienced at managing the VoIP system.

— IT support: Companies need someone who can manage both a VoIP and data network. Unlike calling a local Bell company when the phone system goes down, someone in the company will have to service the network or it will have to be outsourced.

— Flexible downtime If your phone system isn’t mission critical, you can run VoIP. However, if it is mission-critical, you’ll need as close to 100 percent uptime as possible. Since no network provider can guarantee 100 percent, 24/7 network uptime, you would better off with the reliability of a digital PBX system.

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