It’s important to recognize the main differences between hosted PBX and a virtual office phone system. Then we need to understand that many virtual options are now starting to include hosted options as well, a hybrid if you will. These hybrid functionalities really expand the usefulness of a virtual office phone system to those organizations that require virtual flexibility, and also want to leverage hosted VoIP options.
In the strictest sense, a virtual office phone system is the ability of a business to do the following things:
- Keep existing phone service with the current providers.
- It’s important to note here that these may be any combination of landlines, cellular handsets or even toll-free 800 numbers and so forth.
- Map virtual extensions or even new 10 digit phone numbers to anyone, or multiple of these existing phone numbers.
- Program call flow, ring group and voicemail options for each number or extension as required using a web-based interface.
- Provide for auto attendant(s) as required to allow callers to choose extensions or departments.
Let’s point out here that so far we haven’t said anything about needing internet access – right? That’s because unlike hosted VoIP, we could conceivably utilize only landlines and cell service if desired to build our voice network here. Of course some of these “existing services” might also be a stand-alone residential or commercial VoIP phone – doesn’t matter.
Point is we don’t need to order new phone service, set up handsets, etc, etc. We get to use existing services with a virtual office phone system.
So when does this stuff
really make sense?
Well, the answer here lies in the nature of the service. For instance, this is a great option when you have people/employees you want to be under the corporate “umbrella” but may need to use their own phone lines, cell phones or whatever.
A real estate office wants to allow it’s highly mobile sales staff to continue using their own cell phones, but be able to publish a numbered “owned by” the real estate company to reach them. So the business cards have a number on it that may be DID (Direct Inward Dial) or simply the main number, whereby the sales agent is an extension.
Obvious advantages here, the company/office gets to publish a number that it knows will never change, customers can reach their agent easily from a single number, without having to have his or her “office” number and also their “cell” number. And of course, should the agent leave the office, the existing number stays with the office and doesn’t follow the agent.
Additionally, internal support staff can simply transfer calls to the agent using “on network” extension dialing. Also, assuming the agent places an outbound call through the service (see below) they also can use extension dialing, call transfer, and many other PBX services. In essence, their cellular handset becomes an office phone, with all the power and flexibility of an office handset on a desk back at the office.
A software company uses a distributed workforce, with many people working from home offices. In most cases, the employee is using their home phone line.
In order to provide for a professional image, the company chooses a virtual office phone system, maps extensions to each home line and sets up after hours call flow that assures the home line will not ring but go directly to voicemail or another support location.
Result? An auto-attendant or live answer receptionist is transferring calls to the appropriate employee during business hours. So we have an entire staff of people manning their phones for this company during the day, but after hours the individual employee home phones are quiet with no business calls coming in.
In this case, there may be an “emergency” extension provided on the auto attendant or after-hours calls may use time of day routing to be forwarded to another time zone where the staff is still available to provide support, etc.
Again, as an employee leaves the company or moves to another location, the extension or number previously assigned to him/her can easily be reprogrammed to ring somewhere or someone else, to another extension, phone number or whatever.
So we don’t have to pay for
installation and provisioning
of lines and handsets with
a virtual office phone system
In both of the cases above, the companies did not have to pay for phone service installation and handle provisioning hassles of the lines and handsets involved. Existing cell or landline service is utilized, assuring employees are quickly in service and they don’t have to give out their “personal” numbers. Employees moving from one location to another is as simple as going into the web interface and putting their new number phone number in as their extension.
One of the major downsides to a virtual office phone system is that the outbound Automatic Number Identification (ANI) being out pulsed when an employee makes a call is going to be whatever “private number” they are calling from unless provisions are made to block the number (like dialing *70 before each call, which on most services is used to block caller ID))
Hence an employee calling a customer is going to be showing the customer the “caller ID” number of their home, cell phone or whatever.
Most virtual office phone system services overcome this by giving employees a toll-free number to call BEFORE THEY MAKE AN OUTBOUND CALL. Dial tone is then presented to the employee (think call around services, were to make a long-distance call you dial an 800 number first, PIN codes are generally not required here)
In this fashion, the virtual office phone system can out pulse the companies’ correct ANI and the customer will believe they are receiving a call from the phone number programmed into the system as belonging to the company. It’s important to note that this number might be the same for all employees, although it may be in another city or state. In this fashion, a distributed workforce can be made to appear they are all in one office or company location. Of course, return calls into this number would then ring into the auto-attendant or perhaps even DID to the employee’s desk.
Do we pay by the minute?
The only challenge with this whole process is that almost all of these virtual office phone system services charge by the minute. Per-minute charges apply to all inbound AND outbound calls. The rates here are similar to per-minute long-distance rates. Let’s face it, on an outbound call, they don’t really know if you’re calling long-distance or not, so to keep it simple they simply design flat-rate packages to allow you to make local or long-distance calls, all at the same rate. So a call to Alaska (assuming that’s long-distance for you) is the same as calling across the street.
So to simplify it even further, they simply say if someone’s calling you, it’s also per minute and at the same rate.
Issues here? If you’re calling a toll free number, you’re still paying a long-distance rate per minute. If you’re calling from or receiving a call on your cell phone, you’re getting hammered for both the cell charges and the minutes used through the virtual PBX.
Now, in fairness, many offerings provide for unlimited use, inbound and outbound. Some only unlimited for inbound, and then metered (per minute) for outbound calling.
In reality, this isn’t that big a deal if you’re a road warrior, you probably have an unlimited Cell plan as well, so who cares?
If you’re highly mobile or have an ever-changing virtual office environment (think shifts, short term or mobile employees or employee roles) and having people get a hold of you right away is important, then a virtual office phone system is for you.
Hybrid Virtual / Hosted PBX
So now a few permutations here, getting onto the “hybrid” model if you will.
If we take the virtual office phone system overview above and now combine it with hosted PBX, which is similar but provides for VoIP handsets, which allows us to use our internet connection, we end up with some cool stuff.
So here we have the ability to blend the virtual PBX features i.e.: keeping existing service, numbers, landlines and cell phone services we already have and combine with VoIP.
Advantage? We can use disparate services, no matter what type of service a person already has, or may need (like new DID, handsets or to use VoIP to reduce cost or because they have no landline or cell available to them).
A tree farm has numerous nurseries, each with a couple of existing stand-alone phone lines. The sales force is always on the road, and many of the nurserymen have push-to-talk cell phones as well.
The main office has 10 employees and there are a couple of virtual support people who take calls on the west coast to service customers after-hours from their homes.
So we give the virtual and office people IP handsets with new DID, (hosted PBX) all calls go over the company internet connection, and in the case of the home-based people, their cable modems.
We set up the auto-attendant and entire call flow for the office, with everyone on extensions as well. When office people aren’t in, or very busy, it flows to the west coast.
All mobile handsets and the nurseries keep their existing service (virtual office phone system) are simply extensions off the Virtual PBX service and can be reached as three-digit dialing from anyone else in the organization.
Calls can be transferred from one person to another (on most of these services) assuming the calls were originated on the service, just as if you were on a “desk phone”.
The flexibility of virtual office phone system, especially when combined with the capabilities of a good hosted PBX provider can assist highly mobile and virtual workforces to stay in close contact without sacrificing the professional image and “big company” feel of a high-end PBX.