The telephone system remains a critical part of most small business communications, especially when it comes to keeping in touch with customers. While consumers now have a wealth of options available to them when they want to contact a business, from social media pages like Facebook and Twitter to advanced AI-driven chatbots that can answer increasingly-complex questions 24/7, in many cases, there's still no substitute for a one-on-one conversation.
For example, figures from Loyalty360 reveal the telephone is the contact method of choice for the majority of people, with 62 per cent of consumers favouring this channel, compared with 46 per cent for email and 37 per cent for online chat. What's more, New Voice Media notes that 77 per cent of individuals believe a phone call is the most effective way to get an answer to a query quickly.
Therefore, an effective phone system is a must-have for any business. Yet increasingly, legacy landline solutions aren't able to cope with the demands of our digital age. Firms often find they're paying significant amounts of money for what ends up being a very basic service that lacks the features today's employees and users expect.
That's why more modern solutions are required. And for many small businesses, startups and freelancers, the best option will be VoIP.
You may have heard a lot about this technology in recent years as it's boomed in popularity, but do not know quite how it could benefit your business. Or perhaps you're coming to it for the first time and are starting from scratch. Whatever your level of experience, VoIP phone systems will be the reality for most small businesses sooner rather than later, so it pays to investigate what it has to offer now.
Introduction to VoIP for small businesses
To start with the basics, what is VoIP? The term stands for Voice over Internet Protocol and essentially refers to any phone system that uses an internet connection to send and receive voice calls. Unlike a traditional landline, the technology converts your voice into digital data packets that are transmitted down your broadband cables and reconverted into audio at the other end.
The chances are you've used VoIP at some point, perhaps without even realising it. If you've ever used the voice calling features on WhatsApp, for example, or made an audio-only Zoom phone call, that's VoIP, as it's using your data connection as the carrier for the call.
What is the best telephone system for a small business?
VoIP solutions aren't the only option for small companies, but they're usually the best. Other potential solutions include SIP phones, but these are often beyond the reach of less-sizeable enterprises. Not only are they costly to run, often requiring a significant capital investment, but they are also harder to maintain or scale up.
If you're coming to the end of your current contract, you may also consider sticking with a legacy landline solution. After all, they're straightforward and will be familiar to most people. But they're also costly and are increasingly unreliable as they continue to depend on ageing technology.
What's more, this option won't be available for much longer. By 2025, the UK's existing landline phone network is being switched off completely, and no new products using this technology will be sold after the end of this year - and in fact have already been withdrawn in some parts of the country.
How do VoIP phone systems work?
VoIP phone systems use digital technology to send and receive phone calls via your broadband internet connection. In simple terms, it turns the speaker's voice into small packets of digital data, which are then sent down fibre-optic cables to their destination, where they're reconverted back into sound waves in the other person's speaker.
Because of the way data is converted and transferred, this means a traditional handset is just one of the many options available for making and receiving a VoIP telephone call. You can also access the services via an app on your smartphone or through a web browser on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, offering much greater flexibility and mobility than a traditional phone system.
To make sure a VoIP call gets to the right place, it needs to be directed through a server, which will find the quickest route between the users. In most cases, these are managed by your provider on the cloud, where all your data is stored.
This also lets you take control of your VoIP system via an online dashboard, which enables you to set up customised features, add new numbers, adjust your contacts and keep track of your performance all in one place, through your web browser.
Why do I need a small business VoIP system?
As mentioned above, after 2025, you won't be able to keep using your traditional landlines, as BT Openreach will be retiring the public switched telephone network these systems depend on by the end of the year. Therefore, all firms that have yet to transition to a digital phone service will be required to do so before the deadline or risk losing access to a critical communications tool.
It's important, however, that you don't leave this to the last minute. There are a huge range of choices for switching to IP phone technology, ranging from small, independent providers to online-only options and large providers like BT or Virgin Media.
If you're under pressure to make a quick decision before time runs out, it can be all too easy to end up overpaying for a system that doesn't meet your needs, simply because it was the first or most convenient solution you found. By taking the time to compare VoIP systems for small business carefully, you can be certain that you're getting the best deal for your business.
However, you shouldn't be looking at VoIP phones simply as something you need to have to retain your phone system post-2025. Instead, these solutions ought to be viewed as an opportunity to transform your voice communications and embrace new features to improve how you keep in touch with customers, colleagues and suppliers.
What are the benefits of a VoIP phone system for a small business?
VoIP phone systems offer a wide range of benefits compared with traditional landline solutions. For many small business users, one of the key advantages is the lower cost of calling, which can be especially useful if you make a lot of international calls to overseas suppliers, for example. However, just because these tools offer reduced costs, this does not mean you should expect a poorer quality of service.
In fact, VoIP phone packages provide quite the opposite, delivering high-quality calls and a wide range of value-added features that would in the past only have been available to larger firms with deep pockets. But with cheap VoIP solutions, these advanced services can be brought within reach of even the smallest firms, including freelancers and sole traders.
What are the features of VoIP systems for businesses?
A major benefit of VoIP is the wide range of extra functionality it provides. For example, a good package should offer firms a number of call handling features, including:
- Call forwarding
- Call menus
- Call queuing
- Hold music
- Customised greetings
- Call flows
- Hunt groups
- Call waiting
- Time of day routing
These give you a huge amount of control over your phone system to ensure incoming callers can be dealt with in the most effective way. For example, call menus can take advantage of powerful interactive voice response (IVR) to ensure callers get to the right person first time, while hunt groups and simultaneous ringing direct calls to specific users or devices to ensure a phone never goes unanswered, even if the intended recipient is busy or away from their desk.
Advanced call handling features like these can be critical in delivering the type of responsive customer service users expect. For example, research from Microsoft shows 30 per cent of consumers say not being able to reach a real human is the most frustrating part of a bad customer service experience, so if your legacy telephone system is leaving people on hold or redirecting them to the wrong people, this gives a bad impression of your brand.
However, call handling tools are just some of the 50+ extra features that are available with a small business VoIP solution from a provider like bOnline. For example, we also offer a comprehensive suite of call management offerings to help you gain visibility into your system, identify areas to improve, or ensure you're complying with any industry regulations.
These features include:
- Call logs
- Call recording
- Call monitoring
- Missed call alerts
- Busy lamp monitoring
- Call analytics
Using these tools gives you great insight into your business, whether you need to have proof of what was said on a customer call or identify what times of day are your busiest periods so you can plan accordingly.
Finally, the third major set of features for VoIP phone systems include simple integration with a host of other key business technologies, turning your phone system into a full unified communications platform. For example, you can connect your phone system to your customer relationship management tools to make outbound VoIP calling a seamless process, connect directly with contacts from Gmail or Office 365 tools, or even participate in video conference calls directly from the VoIP app.
How does VoIP compare to a traditional landline?
This wide range of features is one of the biggest differences between an IP telephony system and a traditional landline. While it is usually possible to add such services to legacy phone systems, it is typically a complex process that may require significant expertise or the need to rewire connections, as well as being highly expensive. This often means that such services are beyond the reach of startups, sole traders and other small firms.
However, with hosted VoIP solutions, all of these can be accessed and managed easily by any user via a cloud-based dashboard. Importantly, this can be achieved without any technical knowledge, so even the most technophobic small business owners should find the system easy to manage.
Another benefit is that when you want to add lines to your service, this can be done easily on a per-seat basis, whenever you want, with extra lines able to be connected almost immediately. This is especially valuable for growing businesses, as it means there's one less thing to worry about when you're expanding your headcount or opening up a new location.
What's more, a VoIP phone service provides higher quality calls when compared to traditional landlines, with less chance of interference on the line disrupting a call. Indeed, our users find that the high-definition calls offered by their VoIP phone service are better quality than their previous landline, with 82 per cent of VoIP users saying their calls are clearer than with a landline and 91 per cent reporting the system is easy to use.
Pros and cons of VoIP business phone systems
While it's clear that a VoIP solution can offer significant advantages over alternative solutions, such as legacy landlines or SIP services, it also pays to be aware of the potential downsides. While none of the possible issues that you may encounter when moving to VoIP are insurmountable, being aware of them means you won't face any nasty surprises and can plan ahead to make sure they don't turn into major problems.
So in a nutshell, what are the key pros and cons of VoIP systems that you should consider when deciding whether to move to the technology?
Among the main advantages of VoIP are:
- Lower costs
- Improved availability and mobility
- Access to advanced call handling and monitoring features
- Easy scalability
- Better voice quality
- Simpler billing and expenses
- Easier collaboration with colleagues and customers
While these are all compelling reasons to invest in a cheap VoIP system for small businesses, there are a few potential downsides to consider. These include:
- Services are dependent on a good internet connection
- Handsets require power to work
- Potential for latency or jitter with lower-quality connections
Many of these issues can be overcome with a little forward planning. For instance, if you are experiencing poor quality calls, this is a sign of a poor internet connection rather than an issue with the VoIP technology itself. In many cases, this can therefore be solved by upgrading to a faster business broadband service.
This could be a particular issue if you're still using a slow speed service that multiple users will be using at the same time, as it means several people will be competing for limited bandwidth. However, the vast majority of locations in the UK are now able to access high-speed broadband services.
While there may be the occasional 'not-spot' where services remain poor, these are being closed down all the time as Openreach and other providers continue to roll out superfast services. If in doubt, it’s best to ask your chosen VoIP provider what speeds will be required and what your options are should your current solution not be up to the task.
Similarly, the need for a continuous power supply could leave you unable to use your phones in the event your premises suffers an electricity outage. However, any good VoIP service provider should have contingency plans for these cases, such as redirecting calls to mobile devices or using backup power supplies. Again, ask your partner what their solutions are for these events if it's something you're worried about.
How to choose the best VoIP service for your business
It should be clear that VoIP services offer a huge range of benefits to any small business. But once you've decided that this technology is the right solution for you, how should you go about finding the best deal?
Which small business VoIP service is right for you?
The first step should be to evaluate the needs of your business to determine what your current situation is and where you could benefit from improvements.
For example, how many lines do you currently have? If you're a startup or sole trader that only has one or two numbers, you may not benefit from a full-service, feature-rich solution that includes advanced call handling tools such as IVR.
However, on the other hand, if you spend a lot of time out of the office, perhaps on customer sites or elsewhere in the field, the ability to easily redirect calls to a mobile device, could be highly valuable, as could advanced voicemail services that ensure that even if you aren't available, you won't miss anything important.
To decide what's best, it helps to make a checklist of features: Which do you absolutely need, which would be nice to have extras to enhance your offerings, and which are you unlikely to benefit from? Once you've done this, you'll be in a better position to compare VoIP small business systems from different providers.
How do you choose the best VoIP business phone system for your business?
Now you have a checklist of your needs, how do you know which will be the best VoIP provider to meet them? After all, there are dozens of options to choose from, so it can feel a little overwhelming trying to pick between them.
Looking at the accolades providers have won from within the industry is one way to tell how a provider is performing. At bOnline, for example, we've been named the Best VoIP for
Small Business 2022 by Startups, the Best VoIP for SOHO 2022 by the Comms Council UK and named among the top ten Business Solutions 2022 by the Evening Standard, to name just a few of our awards.
However, while industry recognition is great, the real proof comes in what actual users have to say. To this end, review services such as Trustpilot can be a hugely valuable resource.
What is the difference between a phone system for small businesses and one for large businesses?
It also pays to select a VoIP service provider that specialises in meeting the needs of small businesses. At bOnline, for example, we work extensively with small firms, sole traders and startups, so we have a full understanding of what makes these firms special.
That's why we're designed for business owners rather than IT specialists, which is not often the case with providers aiming at larger businesses. If you sign up to one of these services, you may find there is less specialist support available, as suppliers will assume you already have a good degree of internal knowledge. You may even find yourself being given a lower priority for support or fixes as firms focus on larger customers.
This is not the case with small business-focused providers, who are always on hand to help out and walk you through any processes you don't understand.
How much does a small business telephone system cost?
We've noted above that one of the main advantages of a VoIP small business telephone system compared to a landline is the potential to reduce your costs. But what does this look like in practice, and how big are the savings you can expect?
Is there a monthly charge for VolP?
One of the benefits of many small business VoIP systems is their simple pricing structure. You pay a single monthly cost on a per-user basis, with no extra fees or hidden charges to take into account.
While entry-level services will usually come with a limited amount of minutes, the majority of small business solutions offer unlimited calling within the UK, so you're never surprised by an unexpected bill. It also means that unlike traditional services, where you pay a separate charge for line rental on top of your calling costs, everything is covered in one price.
If you do want to add extras such as international calls, video conferencing or CRM integration, for example, this is usually offered as simple-to-understand add-ons that can be included or removed as and when you need them.
What is the average cost of a phone service for small businesses?
The exact cost you'll pay will naturally vary depending on the package you choose, the number of extra features you want and your provider, but on average, you can pick up a cheap VoIP phone service for small businesses from around £6 a month (plus VAT) per user.
However, for the best-quality experience, a full-service small business VoIP solution, which usually includes unlimited calls and a range of value-added features like call handling, typically costs in the region of £15 per user, per month.
You should also take into account the cost of the broadband internet connection required in order to use VoIP. You don't usually need blazing-fast full-fibre services, so a good business broadband connection can set you back less than £30 a month. Many providers will also offer a discount if you sign up for a combined bundle. At bOnline, for example, you get our Superfast fibre deal and unlimited VoIP calls with all our extra features for just £32.90 a month plus VAT.
The final element to consider is the hardware you'll need. In many cases, existing handsets will already be able to make and receive VoIP calls, so if this is the case for your business, you won't need any extra capital expenditure on hardware. If not, however, there are a few options available.
You could opt for a monthly package that includes desk phones for a few extra pounds a month, or choose to buy your own upfront. Costs for these start at around £50, going up to about £130 per handset for the most advanced models. Alternatively, another option is to make calls via a desktop or laptop app, in which case you'll only need a headset, which can often be a cheaper solution for small business users.
Is VoIP cheaper than a landline?
Yes. On average, monthly costs for a VoIP service can work out significantly cheaper than the equivalent landline package. For starters, some legacy landline providers can charge upwards of £30 a month just for line rental, before taking into account actual call expenses. On top of this, there is the fact that costs per minute are also typically much higher when using traditional technology.
Exact savings will vary depending on the profile of your business and how much time you actually spend using your phone, but it's not uncommon for businesses to enjoy reductions of between 30 and 50 percent. However, this is just an average - if you're a growing business that depends heavily on outbound phone services to get in touch with customers or reach suppliers overseas, you can easily see savings of 60 percent or more.
This is before the fact that VoIP phone systems are also cheaper to install and maintain than legacy landlines and also offer higher reliability, so extra costs caused by downtime and repairs will also be less of an issue.
How do I set up a VoIP phone system for small business
So you've decided a VoIP system is the way to go for your small business. Congratulations. Now all you need to do is get the system up and running. Fortunately, with the right provider, this is very easily done.
In most cases, all you have to do is contact your chosen supplier and they'll handle the entire switching process for you. It can be done online in as little as two minutes and the only thing you'll need to do to make a start on your given switch date will be to plug in your VoIP phones.
What do you need to make VoIP phone calls?
The two main things you'll need in order to make VoIP calls are a compatible handset - or other hardware, such as a smartphone or PC - and a decent internet connection.
If you've bought desktop handsets in the past few years, the chances are very good that they'll already be compatible with VoIP services. The easiest way to check this is to look on the back to see if it has an Ethernet port as well as a traditional phone connection. If so, then you should be able to plug it in to your network and off you go. However, if you are still using older legacy technology, you may need to upgrade your hardware before you can get started, which is an expense you'll need to factor into your planning.
Most firms should also be able to secure a business broadband connection capable of handling a VoIP phone system, if you don't already have one. If you are unlucky enough to be based in one of the UK's ever-shrinking 'not spots' that this network hasn't reached yet, it's worth speaking to your preferred provider about what other options will be available.
What internet speeds do you need for VoIP?
The good news is that you don't need a particularly fast internet connection to get started with VoIP. Most providers recommend a speed of around 3Mbps to 5Mbps in order to ensure a high-definition calling experience.
Given that the average broadband speed in the UK is currently almost 60Mbps, according to figures from Ofcom, this means most small businesses should already have more than enough bandwidth capacity to add VoIP telephony to their operations.
However, while an average connection should be more than capable of hosting a startup or small business where only one or two lines will be in use at any one time, this may not always be the case if you're a rapidly-growing company. If you have multiple users all trying to make and receive calls simultaneously, this could lead to bottlenecks building up.
In this case, it may be worth upgrading to a superfast fibre connection such as bOnline's Unlimited business fibre 76Mbps option, which should give most small firms all the spare capacity they need. You could also look at full fibre options, where speeds range from 150Mbps all the way up to 1Gbps if you're a very heavily connectivity-dependent business, but this may only be necessary for a small number of firms.
Can you keep your phone number if you switch to VoIP?
Yes. It's easy to carry your existing phone numbers over to a VoIP communications system. All you have to do is tell your new provider which numbers you want to keep and make sure you've given permission to your existing supplier and all the work will be done for you behind the scenes.
However, while retaining current numbers will be vital in keeping businesses running smoothly and maintaining existing relationships, you can do so much more with a VoIP number. These systems let you select from any available UK phone number, with no geographical restrictions.
Therefore, if you want to project a professional image by using an 020 London or 0161 Manchester number, for instance, you can, no matter where your business is actually based. You can also choose other geographic numbers to make sure your firm always has a local presence anywhere in the country.
Does a VoIP system for small businesses sound like the right option for you? Get in touch with bOnline today to start the hassle-free switching process, or learn more from our expert professionals.