QoS – Voice Quality is Job Number One – Part 3

May 10, 2009

The previous two articles have addressed the overall quality of how your VOIP phone system works by identifying four components. They are Connectivity, Hardware, Software, and Network. All are important in their own ways in supporting VOIP. Let’s explore Connectivity in more detail to see which is best for your business situation.

Many small businesses use the Internet much as they use it at home. They contract for ADSL or cable service and get decent bandwidth for a low price, generally in the $40 – $120 per month range. Both ADSL and cable service are asynchronous, meaning that they have a robust bandwidth coming to your computer network and a much smaller bandwidth going out to the Internet. While this is fine for casual browsing and checking emails it does hinder some Internet programs that you might want to run.

Think of Internet bandwidth as a pipeline running water through it, only in this case the water is composed of packets of data which make up your web page, email and VOIP if you have that type of phone system. When you have a large incoming bandwidth or pipeline you can move quite a bit of information through the system and that results in fast loading web pages, quick updating of your email and clear VOIP. In an asynchronous pipeline, the outgoing movement is constricted by the limits of the bottleneck for moving data. The difference between incoming and outgoing bandwidth may be 768 KB / 128 KB on the low end for ADSL and 12 MB / 2 MB on the high end for cable services. This is why you may think your home-based VOIP service from the cable company or other consumer-oriented service sounds great to you on your end (large incoming bandwidth) but the other side has trouble hearing you because they are having issues from your much smaller outgoing bandwidth choking down your voice transmission to them.

This is why Select Phone Solutions always recommends having a synchronous service when VOIP is involved. A T-1 digital service run across optical fiber provides a nominal 1.5 Mb both for incoming and outgoing service. Multiple T-1s can be bonded together to provide more bandwidth where needed. Another advantage of a T-1 over cable service is that the T-1 bandwidth is not shared across a trunkline with your neighbors as is done with cable service. Your cable service bandwidth varies according to how all of your neighbors use their shared bandwidth. If they use streaming videos, run a powerful website, or any other high usage Internet function, that may strongly impact your service and VOIP quality.

ADSL is dedicated bandwidth but runs across copper lines at lower rates than a T-1 on optical fiber. While a one-person home office may be able to operate just fine on ADSL, a larger office with even 3 or 4 phones will find the service poor and not be happy at all with the quality of their VOIP. Does that mean that the VOIP is a bad choice for them? If cost is the issue and service must be through ADSL then yes, VOIP is not for them.

Select Phone Solutions’ experience is that choosing a T-1 provides the high quality VOIP service that every business expects to get for their investment. VOIP can also run extremely well when using a PRI with multiple copper phone lines but this raises the total communication cost of phone plus Internet compared to a T-1 which can provide both sides together.

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

QoS – Voice Quality is Job Number One – Part 2

May 9, 2009

In the previous article we defined how a phone call is composed of four distinct components, all of which must be operating at peak efficiency to provide premium Quality of Service (QoS) for your business. The components were:

 Connectivity – the dialtone or broadband connection to the outside world. It could range from a plain old analog copper wire pair (POTS) to a digital T-1 optical fiber or better.

  1. Hardware – this is the phone system that you buy. Part of it is the PBX in the back room, part is the handset on your desk that you use to answer a call. Hardware is the fastest component to become obsolete and is also typically the most expensive. A VOIP system has an IP-PBX which is a reprogrammable computer and is not as likely to be obsoleted.
  2. Software – this component drives the phone system hardware to do what it needs to do at your command. Old PBX systems are heavily dependent upon the hardware for features that you can use. Modern VOIP phone systems are mainly driven by the software which can be reprogrammed as needed, updated and kept from obsolescence quite easily. This extends the useful lifetime of your phone system investment.
  3. Network – Your phone system requires a network of cables, routers and switches to connect the brain (PBX or IP-PBX) to the handsets unless you are wireless. A radio can broadcast phone signals to built-in corresponding wireless receivers – see hardware. Digital VOIP phone systems piggyback on the data network and avoid the cost of a duplicate network as in analog wiring pre-2000.

Never make the mistake of using consumer quality equipment that is designed for low traffic volume on a high traffic office network. You may save some money at the store but you will pay for it many times over in equipment reboots, system failures, data loss and lower productivity for your business. Get a recommendation from your IT/phone system vendors and buy the best router and switches that you can afford. Have a qualified technician install real CAT5e or better cabling, not patch cables running through your ceilings

A VOIP phone system goes further than other phone systems in bringing clarity to your business phone. Since the phone system shares a network with the data network, the packet traffic must be prioritized such that the voice packets go first at all times. This is implemented in VOIP QoS. The network is instructed to differentiate voice traffic from data traffic and prioritize the voice traffic. There are metrics that VOIP technicians use to measure how well this works and see where it can be improved. QOS does not particularly slow down data packet transfer. There is no noticeable lag in Internet usage or file transfer across your local network.

 The key to all four components in QoS is planning. Talk to your vendors and see what your options are, particularly from the telco for connectivity and the phone vendor for the other three components of hardware, software and network. An IT company may understand the network component but may not be familiar enough with phone systems to know the pitfalls that are out there. Would you bet the quality of your phone system for the next ten years on an IT staff that has little experience in business phone systems? Acquire the right vendor for this vital part of your business communications and your business will be far better off in the long run.

 Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

QoS – Voice Quality is Job Number One – Part 1

May 5, 2009

It is a given fact that phone systems are a key component of how a business communicates with customers, vendors, friends and family. The quality of how those conversations sound is crucial to being effective. Anything other than crystal clear talk is just not acceptable. How can we measure that clarity and decide if our phone system meets our expectations?

Let’s separate the phone call into specific components which all together create the overall experience. First we have connectivity. The “dialtone” may be standard copper lines with the same technology that was used 100 years ago. These work very well and typically provide great service at a low cost (not counting taxes and extra fees). More modern types of connectivity include broadband (DSL, cable, T-1 for example) and allow much more capacity through single cables. Frequently broadband service piggybacks voice and data together so one bill pays your telephone and Internet service together.

The next component is the phone system hardware. If you use copper lines then you may simply have a Princess Phone (dating myself!) or other handset on the desk. Very simple, works well but features are totally dependent on the PBX. Your PBX may be hosted and controlled by the telco or it might be in your own office. In a hosted situation you likely have few features and they are the same as what was available 20 years ago. If you have a modern VOIP phone system in your own office then your phone hardware has many features. Some are visible on the handset, many more are software driven and are detailed in your manuals.

The last component is the software that drives the phone system. The most desirable features such as AutoAttendant (the menu system), FindMe-FollowMe, Voicemail to Email, and many others are added as necessary and modified for your business by your phone vendor. You do have someone you can talk to about your VOIP phone system features? Someone who will make the changes you need when you need them as your company grows?

The combination of these three factors presents what is called QoS or Quality of Service. The bar must be set very high in QoS in order for your calls to be crystal clear and effective. Phone companies measure QoS with technical metrics such as Latency (delay in packet delivery), Packet Loss (missing voice data), Network Jitter (voice data packets arriving out of order), etc. They monitor the many metrics available to see if you are receiving top quality or if improvements are required. Voice data can also be given priority over data traffic in a VOIP scenario to improve QoS.

At your own office, the local network also plays a huge role in what QoS you encounter. Whether you are using an old phone system with skinny cables or a VOIP phone system piggybacking along your data network fat cabling, it must be installed properly and maintained. There should be no kinks in the cables or tears in the insulation. The network equipment in the phone room must be “business quality”, not something designed for low traffic residential use. All too often a small business owner tries to save money on routers, switches and other network equipment not realizing that the QoS goes down because the equipment is not good enough for the task. Network bottlenecks can be eliminated via a thorough audit by a quality vendor.

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

VOIP as SaaS (Software as a Service)

May 1, 2009

One of the true innovations in office technology has been the idea of SaaS or Software as a Service. This means that a software program is accessible through a local or wide area network by an employee to perform a task. The program does not have to be loaded on every computer, it just has to be reachable through your network.

 

Some examples that have been gaining favor are QuickBooks run via the Intuit website, various Managed Service Provider programs (N-able, Kaseyan, etc.) and antivirus scans of your computer through the Internet from the companies’ main office. Most people are unaware that a VOIP phone system acts much in the same way and provides many features as SaaS.

 

Back in the ‘old’ days before VOIP, phone handsets on your desktop were fed a dial tone for connectivity but then had to supply 95% of your features as built-in hardware in the actual phone. If you needed “Do Not Disturb (DND)” you pushed the DND button. If your phone did not have a DND button, well, you just didn’t have that ability. If you wanted to “CallForward” your phone to a different location temporarily, you made a hard transfer by pushing a long sequence of buttons, sometimes having to repeat the commands to set them. That was time consuming and at times difficult.

 

If you wanted “Distinctive Ringing”, a specific ringer tone for certain callers, you could search for ways to accomplish that but most likely you were out of luck. “Repeat Dial”? “Last Number Redial”? “Contact Lists” (Caller ID replaced by text of your choice when a specific number calls in to you)? All of these features are software-driven in a VOIP phone system. It doesn’t matter which VOIP IP-phone you have on your desktop; you will be able to use these features when you need them. Your phone system will not be obsoleted too quickly because as the software advances, so do your usable features.

 

Compare that to a key or hybrid phone system where you may be locked in by the hardware features well beyond your need to change them or add new features. Phone systems are not cheap. They are a vital part of business and demand study and tough decisions to make prior to purchase. You certainly do not want to make a wrong decision that will be with you for ten years.

 

VOIP phone systems allow your company the ability to change the system as your company grows and prospers. The technology you buy today is not necessarily the technology you will need in three, five or ten years. Using a software-driven system such as VOIP with Asterisk and trixbox can extend the useful and productive investment that your company makes in your phone system. Ask your phone vendor how much change can be incorporated into your phone system without buying any new hardware. Ask your phone vendor if new features can be added within a day or two simply by turning on software features that are already there but just not used yet. You may have a labor charge but should not incur any parts or software charges, If you do, it may be time to consider the smart way to build your phone system right from the start, VOIP with SaaS as its operating system.

 

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

 

“Productivity Through Technology”

Which Advertising Method Produces the Best Results?

April 29, 2009

All businesses advertise their phone numbers to the public so that the public will call for a product or service. Theoretically, the more calls received, the more money is made by the business. What if the business used multiple advertising methods to get that phone number out to the public? Which one produced the best results? Which one was a waste of advertising money?

 

One way to accomplish a study of which advertising method was most effective would be to advertise different numbers to the public for each specific advertisement. Radio commercials during the day use phone number A, radio commercials at 2 AM use phone number B, TV ads during the day use Phone number C and TV ads at 2 AM use phone number D. The print mailer this week uses phone number E. The resulting responses to your company using these phone numbers will tell you the quantity of response for each method. Now judge the quality of response by the amount of cost, revenue and profit and the best method will be very apparent. This will substantially change your future advertising and raise your company profits.

 

But wait, this concept can be put in place only if you have enough phone numbers to use for unique events. Most businesses do not have so many extra phone numbers and have no way to do an analysis. This is where having a digital VOIP phone system with T-1 service shows some of the best benefits for you. The variability and recordkeeping of VOIP shines for metrics.

 

Most T-1 providers give you a bundle of services in your T-1 package including your 6 dial tone lines, long distance minutes, fax to email, remote backup, etc. They also usually give you 50 DIDs which are Direct Inward Dialing numbers. This block of 50 phone numbers can be assigned to your incoming service for any purpose you need. The 6 dial tone lines only mean that you can have 6 concurrent calls. They do not limit the number of DIDs that can be used or how you use specific DID numbers. If you needed more than 50 DIDs you could also order that at an extra cost from the T-1 provider. More on a real-life example of that in the next article.

 

All of the DIDs are funneled into your VOIP phone system. The system logs every call coming in and going out in the log files which are easily available to the owner/manager in the customer portal on their own local web browser at any time. Using simple filters for time, date, numbers, etc., any specific information can be presented as a report or exported to another program such as a database or spreadsheet. Want to know the number of calls received for DID A for radio commercials promoted from 7 am to 9 am from March 3rd through March 10th? Easy. Want to know the number of calls received for DID C for TV commercials promoted from 7 am to 9 am from March 3rd through March 10th? Simple. Now compare the numbers to see which had more calls generated, which produced more revenue and profit, and compare those numbers to the cost of the ads. You have created the ability to decide which is the most cost effective for you.

 

Advertise your business but do it with a method to qualify and quantify the results. Every business owner needs metrics to analyze their business and change processes to become more successful. A VOIP phone system provides that opportunity with easy to use tool sets.

 

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

Case History – Prequalifying Your Callers

April 29, 2009

All businesses are very happy to receive phone calls from prospects and clients. That is typically the lifeblood of the business sales cycle. Are some of those calls more desirable than others? Do some calls lead to higher profit or a greater chance of landing that deal? Shouldn’t they take priority over calls that lead to tougher sales and lower profits?

The trick is to prequalify the callers before the staff even picks up the phone. If the staff, whether it is one person or fifty, can see at a glance on the VOIP phone LCD screen that the purpose of the call is type A or type B, that presents an opportunity to skew the time spent towards the better calls. How can a VOIP phone system help create that winning approach towards higher profitability?

Let’s take the example of a bail bonds company. They get calls for service from basically two types of callers. The first group are people in jail or family members who want to get them out ASAP. These are high profit jobs with a high rate of turning the caller into a client but only if you can speak to the caller quickly. If you place that caller on hold, they are gone looking for the next bail bonds company in the phone book. Time is of the essence and they can’t wait for you to get around to take care of their need.

The second type of caller is someone who has a warrant out for their arrest for not responding to a court order. They also need help but it is not on an emergency basis. This type of call is not as profitable and is much less likely to turn into real business for the bail bonds company. The number of calls for warrant help though is much higher than the emergency calls and can drown them out. It would be bad business to allow working on the warrant calls to cause the company to lose their emergency clients because the lines or staff were busy.

The answer is to market an emergency phone number and a warrant-only phone number. The VOIP system will recognize which call-in number has been used and forward the call to the right person along with the notice on the IP phone LCD screen that the caller is emergency or warrant. The employee can tell at a glance whether or not to take the next call or stay on the line with the current caller. By the way, all menus heard by the caller are available in multilingual choices of English, Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

But wait, could you do the same thing with a ten year old phone system? The answer is that you could know which caller was incoming but you still can’t get their information if you are overloaded with concurrent calls. VOIP phone systems have the ability to ask questions of callers and get recorded responses as Voicemail to Email .wav file attachments. Every warrant call that is not answered live by an employee will be sent to a menu system to answer five pertinent questions about their warrant. From the recorded responses the staff can decide in which order and when to return those calls.

Prequalifying your callers via VOIP features will boost your company profits. You will service many more clients with VOIP rather than continuing to use a ten year old phone system because it is already in place. Don’t look at the cost of a system, look at the resulting ROI.

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

Adding An Intercom System Has Never Been So Easy

April 18, 2009

As a business grows from a few rooms into a larger suite and even adds a warehouse for storing materials, it comes harder to find employees who are immediately needed for phone calls and meetings. Do people at your office yell at the top of their lungs for someone to answer the phone call that just came in for them? That’s not a very professional way to handle finding a particular person. It’s also quite annoying for the other people not involved.

A VOIP phone system connects throughout your office via the network cabling system. It can easily be extended to cover any part of your office or warehouse by installing additional CAT5e cabling. Once the cabling is connected to an IP phone, your IP-PBX phone server can direct calls, pages and intercom service as you wish.

If you extend your phone to an area without power capability such as a remote part of a warehouse or up in a ceiling for a paging horn, a special type of network switch can be installed to send an electric current through the network cabling. This current is standardized as 48 V DC current and is known as an IEEE 802.3af compliant system or Power Over Ethernet aka POE. CAT5e cables have 8 wires inside in four twisted pairs. The network only uses wires 1, 2, 3 and 6 for transmitting and receiving data. The other wires can carry the DC current between the “injector” at the source and the “picker” at the destination.

The special switch mentioned earlier is called a POE switch. Some or all of the ports are powered with the POE current so that devices at the other end of the cables can use the 48 V DC current. These switches are a bit more expensive than a plain switch but when compared to the cost of having an electrician run a new circuit through conduit across a warehouse, it comes out as a bargain. Since POE is standardized, it works quite well with IP phones, paging horns, entry door security panels with microphones and speakers, surveillance cameras and other devices attuned to IEEE 802.3af. Performance of these POE-powered devices is identical to those plugged directly into a wall outlet for power.

When a POE-powered IP phone is mounted on a wall at eye level where the CAT5e cable comes from inside the wall, it has no visible trailing network or power cables. With some planning on where POE phones are best placed within an office or warehouse, a more professional appearance is achieved and a potential safety hazard is avoided.

Some IP phones have Intercom buttons built into the keypads. Aastra IP phones have them and an intercom/paging system is easily installed by an IP phone vendor. That allows employees to talk to any other extension alone, a particular group of extensions, or to broadcast over the entire phone system if necessary. When the shouting is all over with, you will have improved your office atmosphere and your employees will appreciate the benefits of the new easy to learn intercom and paging system.

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

Do You Manage Your Phone System?

April 17, 2009

When a business owner or manager talks about specific parts of their office technology that help to keep productivity as high as possible, they rarely discuss their phone system. Sometimes that is because their very old phone system has no means to add features without significant costs to upgrade the system. At other times it is because they assume that nothing is available to provide any better way for how the phone system is used by their employees. After all, “it’s just a phone system!”

Obviously the phone system is a vital method for corresponding with customers, prospects, vendors, employees and others. For most companies it is the primary method with email a distant second choice. Certainly email has its valuable uses but it can’t tell you the emotions behind the words. Anything that can help your phone system to be more effective should be a huge plus for your business.

When a caller reaches your business, they may talk to the desired target person immediately or they may talk to a receptionist and then have to be transferred. If the receptionist simply transfers the call but has no idea if the other employee is there or busy on another call, the caller may get into voicemail when they would rather talk to a live person. If the receptionist knew that the other employee was already on a call, then a different scenario would result.

This is where a software program called “HUD” or “Heads Up Display” can really aid a company. When HUD is installed on a computer associated with a VOIP system, the HUD display shows all of the office phones in a small corner window. At a glance you can monitor who is on the phone and what number they are connected to at the moment. Transferring a call is as simple as dragging the “phone call” from one phone extension to another on your HUD portal. HUD can be integrated with Microsoft Outlook such that it will read your contact list and dial the numbers for you.

This use of technology is called Communications Integration and is a part of a Unified Communications overall strategic plan. Enterprise size companies are implementing new phone strategies everywhere because it helps keep up productivity. A VOIP phone system can easily be paired with programs like HUD to place these very desirable features into small companies so they can achieve the same benefits. Older key and analog systems just do not offer these choices at all.

Imagine how your phone system works today and write down all of the steps a caller goes through to reach their target employee. Then also write down all of the steps your employees go through for basic tasks such as transferring calls. Is there wasted time and effort in the processes? Could changing to a VOIP digital phone system make it easier for employees to do their jobs the way you want them to perform? Do you ever get complaints from callers or employees about difficulties using the current phone system? Do you have bottom line metrics available to you as an owner or manager to know what you need to know?

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

Connecting to Your Office Phone System From Anywhere

April 16, 2009

An assumption that most business people make about phone systems is that they only work with phone handsets installed on the desktops at their office location. This is because they were trained on old world technology, meaning pre-VOIP digital systems. New 21st century technology has changed everything in what can be accomplished for your business.

While it is true that most people will prefer to have a typical phone handset sitting on their desk because that is what they are used to, it doesn’t mean that new ideas about virtual phones can’t be considered. One of the great technological advances in VOIP phone systems is the “softphone” which is a software program that performs just as a hardware handset but exists entirely on your computer monitor.

The softphone program is installed on each computer that needs access to the VOIP IP-PBX. It can be placed on a desktop to replace the hardware handset or it can be loaded on a laptop computer as well. With either method a wired or wireless microphone and speakers are used to speak and hear the phone conversation. A wireless connection can be either a typical Plantronics-type headset or a Bluetooth style headset that is very popular today.

The installed softphone looks like a cell phone mounted in the middle of your computer screen. You use your mouse cursor to click on the parts of the phone just like you press the buttons on your actual cell phone. It is extremely simple to learn and to use effectively. The softphone gives you the same capability that the hardware handset does, perhaps even more!

Many hardware IP phones have an integrated LCD screen that displays information about the phone calls. A softphone can show more information and associated programs such as a “Heads Up Display” or HUD complement the softphone and complete the incredibly useful utility package on your screen. More on the HUD program in a future article…

Once installed, the softphone looks for the IP-PBX computer running your office phone system anytime it is connected to your own Local Area Network at your office or via the Internet. This happens at your home, at a clients office, at a Starbucks or any other hot spot where you can go online. The softphone connects to the IP-PBX as an extension of your phone system and has all the same capabilities as if you were sitting at a desk in the office. Voicemail, dialing directories, day/night/holiday mode, etc. (Shhhhh, it even works from the golf course if you have an “aircard” to provide Internet access from anywhere in your providers service area).

Some businesses totally replace the hardware handsets with softphones to save money, others do it for convenience and mobility. Think of an insurance adjuster or a sales person out on the road most of the business day. The softphone provides connectivity to the office phone system to a degree never seen before. They are also easier to upgrade than a hardware handset on your desktop. New uses for virtual softphones are being evolved every day. Talk to your VOIP phone vendor and see how they can improve your employee’s connectivity.

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”

Music On Hold – Entertaining Your Captive Audience

April 16, 2009

What experience do your callers have when they contact your business as a client, prospect, vendor, or even friends and family? Assuming that your AutoAttendant phone menu system is optimized to handle all of the choices they would naturally want to make, what do they hear while waiting for a particular person to answer? Is it customized for how you want your company to be represented to the caller?

Nobody likes to wait on hold for more than a very short time. We can all tolerate a reasonable hold time but then can be faced with a system that is unresponsive to the callers need to stop holding the phone and move on to something more important to them. Does your phone system have them spend that waiting time in silence? Do you play Music-On-Hold so they hear something or do you use that waiting time to tell the caller about your company?

Silence while waiting on hold is a bad idea for two reasons. The first is that from the callers’ perspective, they do not know if they are still connected to you or have been cut off without realizing that situation. The second is that silence is extremely boring and makes the time seem even longer than it takes. Neither one is good for your business or for the caller.

Music-On-Hold is a better idea. This feature should be setup for every business phone system. It allows the caller to know they are still connected and to enjoy something to pass the time which may give them the perception of spending less time waiting. A VOIP phone system can play any music feed that is brought into a computer including commonly used MP3 files. The choice of the music should be carefully made so that it best matches what your callers would want to hear. The wrong choice of music, such as loud heavy metal rock music at a relatively conservative financial advisors office can send the wrong message to the caller and actually make them hang up in frustration. Also, repeating the same music on a short cycle is annoying to anyone listening.

The best way to use Music-On-Hold is to play an MP3 file for the caller but to create an infomercial for your business. Depending upon your particular business and how you promote it, you can mix in verbiage about special sales, events coming up, warranty and service information, and other news that you want the callers to hear. Keep the tone of the message appropriate for your business and varied enough so that someone on hold for several minutes does not hear the same message over and over. You want to be informative, not annoying.

These MP3 files can be in place and setup on a timed schedule for during or after business hours. If you have special incoming numbers setup for specific advertising on radio, TV or print media, you can play your MP3 message to the caller before they ever have to talk to an employee. That message could be anything from a code word for a discount to the daily specials for today. Be creative in how you can use Music-On-Hold and your business will benefit from happier callers who are also more informed about your business.

Ask for your free phone system audit from Select Phone Solutions by calling 281-501-6464.

“Productivity Through Technology”