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The Virtual Office: Fact or Fiction

The new era of the “virtual office” is here, and so is the advanced technology that goes with it. Much has been said about the major technical improvements of the last five years, but many businesses have had trouble identifying the right solutions or have been scared away by the new technology known as VOIP (Voice Over IP Telephone).  This article will discuss its advantages and the benefits and risks that are involved with its use.  Having a better understanding of this technology will help you decide whether or not it will work for your business.

What is Voice Over IP Telephone (VOIP)?

Most think about Vonage, the company that brought VOIP mainstream, when talking about VOIP.  While they are one of the leading consumer products, there are many other technologies and providers that are better suited for small to medium-sized businesses.  VOIP allows you to run your business virtually, allowing remote communications and the freedom to take your business with you on the road or at home.  Many of you could drive to the office less frequently and use your free time to visit your biggest customers.  Your customers can access you at any location, so it is up to you how much you want to stay in contact.  VOIP solutions are less expensive than traditional phone services, offering lower phone rates.  Those using a virtual attendant may be able to lower their administration and employee costs.  Your number can travel with you if you move locations, so the cost of printing and lost customer contact may be eliminated.

How Does VOIP Work?

The best way to describe VOIP is to give an example of how it works.  Ex: Company A has been using VOIP technology for over one year.  In May, they took it a step further and set up virtual offices for some employees and technical support that allows our staff to work from their home offices or remotely.  Customers still access the same call queues, but Company A’s phone system (known as PBX in the technical world) routes the calls to their IP telephones anywhere they have internet connectivity.  So, when a customer calls in and selects technical support, they may be routed to a representative in Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles, depending on who is available.  Voice mail is delivered via e-mail, so you can still get your messages in real time even if you are offsite.  Some employees of Company A have even taken it to an extreme level; they answer technical support calls on their cell phones while vacationing.  While that might not be as connected as you might want, it gives you an idea how one system can work no matter where you are located.

The Benefits vs. the Disadvantages

Wouldn’t it be nice to take calls remotely from your home office, eliminating your commute time? Wouldn’t collecting voice mail by e-mail be a time-saver?  And wouldn’t the ability of changing forwarding numbers make you more mobile and give you greater freedom to enjoy life while serving your customers better? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding “yes!”

Now the downsides…when you go virtual, you may find yourself more accessible and tied to your customers’ every need.  Remember that vacations are supposed to be just that, vacations away from the office.  Don’t fall into that trap!  And despite virtualization’s well-known benefits, you are at the mercy of network outages and technical difficulties.  This can include dropped calls or call quality issues for those who aren’t supported with internet connections that are fast enough.

What Are Your Options?

There are a couple of options.  One is to purchase the server technology and phone system that runs out of your office.  A very fast internet connection of T1 or higher is required.  Fiber Optic is recommended for those who are lucky enough to have access.  Your call volume will determine your connection speed, with some running over cable DSL.  If you have your own server, it basically plugs into your network.  Most systems will provide call queues and voice mail capabilities.  The automated attendant can eliminate the need for a full-time operator, since most calls are routed through the phone prompts.  And no, you don’t need to create phone prompts like a bank.  A couple of simple prompts and directories can easily route most calls.

The other option involves a remote PBX, where the software is hosted remotely and runs through the vendor’s internet connection.  This way is more cost-effective, but it may not give you the piece of mind of having your own server.  Regardless, a remote PBX gives you the same access to update the call queues, remote forwarding and logins.  This may be the better way to go for smaller businesses, because they can eliminate much of the technical support needed to set up the phone box to start.  All you need at that point is IP or SIP capable phones.  Your vendor should be able to help you make the right choice.

Getting Started

It all starts with your internet connection.  Remember that the faster the connection, the better the quality.  One suggestion is to allow a cushion of time to get a new internet connection set up and operational.  If you are setting up your own PBX server in-house, you will also need to make sure that your internet provider allows use of static IP addresses.  Explain to the vendor that you plan to use VOIP technology.

Explore your options and find the one that best suits your needs.  One thing is for sure; using virtual office technology will transform the way your company does business.