Cloud-based technology is providing nonprofits with new tools to increase their efficiency and professionalism while keeping a careful watch on operating budgets. Cloud technology powers the Hosted PBX, a solution that allows organizations of nearly any size to have a sophisticated telephone service with minimal or no investment in equipment. A Hosted PBX lets employees and volunteers work from their home, a hotel or on their cell phone while still being connected to the same office telephone system. The technology even allows for video conferencing, making remote collaboration more effective than ever.
Volunteer Hamilton promotes and links more than 180 organizations, business and individuals, with the goal of embracing volunteerism. Operations Coordinator Barbara Klimstra says they chose a Hosted PBX service for its cost-effectiveness, easy management and detailed reporting. As a nonprofit, the group must be able account for every phone call. Klimstra says she can easily access detailed call records at any time through the web interface. “The benefits of the service far exceed those of traditional landline service,” says Klimstra. “The user-friendly web interface is worth gold. Our shared space means we have people coming and going, but we can seamlessly change our setup on the fly.”
St. John Ambulance is the oldest organized charity in the world, with roots reaching back more than a thousand years. Executive Director of St John Ambulance, Peel Branch, Dianne Rende explained why the organization chose Hosted PBX for its phone service.
“One of the difficulties we’ve always had with traditional phone service occurs when we move our business within the community but we are unable to keep our phone numbers,” says Rende. With the Hosted PBX, St. John Ambulance was able to transfer its existing numbers to the new network and keep its contact information consistent. All employees now have direct extensions, and can instantly reach staff at other locations via direct extension dialing.
Keeping its multiple sites connected to each other was another benefit the group experienced with a Hosted PBX. Employees can directly call staff or volunteers working from different locations or transfer calls to them.
To get the maximum value out of a move to a Hosted PBX, organizations need to select a service provider that can deliver the features and voice quality they need, and be there for them when you need to grow.
Here are 10 things to ask to make sure you choose the right provider.
1. Phone Number transferring. First and foremost, make sure you can transfer your existing phone number(s) to the prospective provider’s service. The provider should offer strong coverage across North America, with the ability to port numbers from most major areas. It is possible that some smaller towns and outlying rural areas may not be covered. Give the provider a list of your current numbers and have them check transferability before proceeding.
2. Feature set. You need to know whether the Hosted PBX provider you’re considering can meet all your business needs – and to know that, you’re going to need to make a list. Come up with all of the features that matter to you, like customizable menus; voicemail-to-email; and North American long distance calling. Ensure the company is able to cover these requirements.
3. Provider’s network infrastructure. Reliability and voice quality are key. Your provider should offer a nation-wide network with multiple “Tier 1” datacenters, all using premium bandwidth. Structuring a network in this manner greatly enhances reliability through what’s known as “layered redundancy.” Any provider that is truly business-class should be able to make and support these claims.
4. Support channels, hours, and response times. All providers should at a minimum offer support via phone and via a “ticketing” system, which is an accountable method of tracking requests and progress made on them. Ideally, your provider will also give you an option for “website chat” or “live chat” support, which can be a very convenient web-based means of getting quick answers to simple questions.
5. Hardware options. Hosted PBX is generally best suited to digital phones specifically designed for the service (rather than traditional landline phones). You’ll want to ask what make and model of phones the provider sells. If you intend to purchase phones from the provider, ensure they are not “locked” to the service – in the event that you decide a given provider isn’t working out, the phones should allow for reprogramming to a new service. If you have existing phones, your representative should be able to tell you whether they will be compatible.
6. Local network requirements. Typically, a move to Hosted PBX will involve a few simple but important checks on your network setup. Your router and any switches must be compatible with the service, and you’ll need network connectivity for each phone. If there are additional requirements your representative should be able to outline them.
7. Internet requirements. Conversations via Hosted PBX require a certain amount of Internet bandwidth. Typically the bandwidth “overhead” is modest, but if you have multiple employees who will all be on the phone at once, you’d do well to double-check that your Internet connection can handle the traffic. In some cases a dedicated Internet connection might be in order. Avoid Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who “oversell” their networks – you want a business-class Internet connection that delivers consistency. Again, ask the provider you’re considering for guidance. They should be able to recommend an ISP or even offer Internet service directly.
8. Business history. You should ask how long the provider has been offering service. Note that Hosted PBX is a relatively recent technology, so it may not be reasonable to expect the provider to have been around as long as some traditional telecom companies. Six years or more in business generally indicates an established company.
9. References. You need to hear (or read) feedback on your Hosted PBX service from the horse’s mouth. Ask prospective providers for customer references and call them. You can also read feedback online. Look for reviews that appear to be authentic, detailed and varied.
10. Put them to the test. Ask a random but relevant technology question! Although you shouldn’t necessarily expect a sales person to address extremely deep technical questions, he or she should be able to answer any or all of the points above. Examples might include which phones you can use or what bandwidth will be required. At the very least, the rep should be able to refer you to a qualified technician to get answers – which means you’ll also get a sense of how responsive their Support department is.
Adam Simpson is Founder and CEO of Easy Office Phone. Established in 2005, Easy Office Phone provides Business VoIP and Hosted PBX service to companies and organizations of all sizes throughout North America.
Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.