The choices for business telephone services have exploded in the past few years. What's more, some of these choices represent completely new product categories that did not even exist until recently.
If you are baffled by all the choices, trust me, you're not alone.
I am going to attempt to cut through the confusion and give you a quick reference guide explaining the differences in some of the most common telephony choices and when and how to use them in your business. Let's take a look:
Landline telephones -- Traditional landline telephones once were the only choice we had. Today, landline phone service is just the starting point.
Skype -- Skype, which is owned by eBay, is a service that lets you make calls for free over the Internet to someone who also has downloaded the Skype software. But it's even more versatile: For 2.1 cents per minute (currently free within the U.S. and Canada), you can call individuals who do not have Skype but who use landlines or wireless phones (called SkypeOut). And you can receive calls from individuals who call you from their landline or wireless phones (called SkypeIn).
VoIP -- VoIP lets you make calls over a broadband Internet connection instead of over traditional telephone lines. Options range from low-cost packaged solutions such as Vonage, which currently offers a small business package with unlimited local and long distance calling for under $50 per month, all the way up to sophisticated IP phone systems that require pricey hardware. Even traditional phone companies, pressured by the competition, are offering VOIP packages.
Wireless phones -- Will the need to count wireless minutes become a thing of the past? Today's wireless offerings, with unlimited night and weekend plans, calling circles, and rollover policies are inching us closer to that day.
PDAs -- Personal digital assistants, palmtops and the latest term-du-jour, smartphones, let you make phone calls like standard wireless phones. Compared with standard wireless phones, these devices add many more functions and features, including larger screens and sometimes typewriter-like keypads. Blackberry and Treo are well-known brands.
Virtual switchboard and voicemail services -- In the past few years a whole new category of telephony service has entered the picture. These new software-based services provide a menu of options to beef up your existing phone system: central automated attendant, advanced voicemail features, conference calling, toll-free numbers, fax-to-e-mail, voice-to-e-mail, customized on-hold messages, and more. These new services are layered on top off -- not in place of -- basic phone connectivity. They work with landlines, wireless, and/or VOIP phones and require no extra hardware. GotVMail, RingCentral, and Freedom800 are three brands in this space.
With all the choices available today, you can have a more robust telephone presence at a lower cost than most of us would have dreamed possible a decade ago. These alternatives can keep the cost of doing business down and make telecommunications services available to employees throughout your company, no matter where they are, but it is a decision that you, as a small business owner, must make on a case-by-case basis. I think the overall benefits outweigh the risks. Don't be afraid to go for it.
Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.