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Cutting the (phone) cord - modern options for your small business

By Christina Tynan-Wood | Small Business

Your business – even if your office is a pickup truck and your lone employee is canine – needs a phone number people can use to find you. A landline is out. It’s a relic from another age that can’t keep up with you. But you don’t want to give your personal cell phone number to every potential client you meet at the dog park. So what to do?

It was once expensive to get a business line, receptionist, after-hours messages, and a menu tree directing customers to the right voice mail box or outgoing message. Not anymore. For what you spent detailing the pickup, you can buy service that will make your business look like it’s staffed with an army of minions, keep business and personal away from each other, and make your life – at least that part that involves communicating – big-business efficient. In fact, there are so many affordable business phone solutions the hardest part is deciding which one to use. You probably already know you can call your cable provider to have phone service installed. But you may not know you have even more choices than that.

So we rounded up some of the best modern phone services, tried them out, and summed up the differences. And since we know your bottom line better than we do, we put them in order of price from cheapest to most expensive. So next time you get ten free minutes, figure out which one suits you, order a new phone number, and get back to work.

Skype

Thought is it known mostly for the video calling, Skype is also a capable phone service. You won’t get a virtual receptionist, menu tree, or fancy business services. But you will get a second line for almost nothing. Just go to Skype.com and buy a phone number ($60 a year / $30 if you also buy a calling plan) and an unlimited calling plan ($3 a month for US and Canada) and you can call any phone and receive calls from any phone. No one will know you are using Skype. You just install the app on any device you have – computer, tablet, smart phone – and your business phone will ring there. It’s a super inexpensive way to get a second line that goes wherever you go. And once you have the app installed, you might find you also like the video calling, conference calling, and instant message functions as well. It works best where you have a good Wi-Fi signal.  But callers will get voice mail if you go offline. You can use it to send texts (at 11 cents per text) but it won’t receive texts. It’s a basic – though better than a plain old telephone (POTS) line – but completely usable as a business line.

Line2

There comes a time in the life of every entrepreneur when you realize running your business from your personal cell phone was not your best decision. That two a.m. call from a client in another time zone? That sexy text meant for your personal life that somehow – in the wee hours – went to a business associate? You don’t need another phone. Just another phone number – and a little on-screen separation. That’s Line2. For $10 a month, it puts another phone number into an app on your smart phone. When someone calls your business line, it rings in the app. When you dial out from the app, your caller ID shows your business line. You can send and receive texts from the app. And you can make calls over Wi-Fi (or 4G) so you never have to pay for overseas data when you travel and no one will even know are basking in Barcelona when you call. There is a softphone that will run on your computer (and it lets you record calls with the touch of a button) for those days when you are deskbound. For $15 a month, you get all of that plus a toll-free number, auto attendant, and other sweet business services. Plans start at $10 a month.

Grasshopper

Who has 800 numbers? Businesses, that’s who. It’s a nice perk for your customers to not have to pay long distance fees. But the main reason to have one is that it assures people you are a going concern, not some teenager with a Web site and cell phone. (Even if that’s exactly what you are.) Grasshopper is a virtual phone service, rather than an actual phone line. And toll-free numbers are easy, though you can get a local or vanity number if you prefer. You manage it online. Set up a phone menu that routes sales calls to your partner’s cell phone in Boulder. Route marketing calls to your cell in Boston. Have common questions ring to an auto attendant with canned messages that can take a stab at answering them. Customers call one toll-free number. You control where those calls ring, once customers choose an option in the menu structure you set up. This also gives you a backup plan if things with your partner don’t work out. If she skedaddles to another startup, reroute her calls to someone who’s sticking around. Plans start at $12 a month.

Ooma Business

Maybe you hanker for the feel of an actual phone handset? Remember a time when dropped calls weren’t a daily occurrence? Want to hear the phone ring in your office? You don’t have to pay a lot to get this. Ooma Office starts with a special purpose router that plugs in between your modem and regular router, juicing the phone signal to optimize sound quality while you talk, and ringing to a phone on your desk. Just about any phone works. So go ahead and get those retro desk phones out of the garage. Just like days of yore, you pick up the phone to answer, put it down to hang up. Ah, simplicity. But you get modern too. You run this system online. Log on to record your virtual receptionist greeting and tell the system where to route calls. It sends calls to extensions within the system, just like the big fat corporation you once worked at did. Add extensions by simply plugging  an extension unit into an outlet and pairing it with the base unit. (It can also automatically transfer a call to someone who works remotely or your cell phone for after-hour emergencies.) You can set business hours. Have it handle calls differently when your business is closed. You can send and receive faxes. It comes with online conferencing. And as your business grows, you can add users for $10 each. Plans start at $20 a month.

RingCentral

Do these sound good? A mobile app on your smart phone that lets you call and text from your business line? A desk phone with speaker phone and handset? A soft phone on your computer? A virtual receptionist? A phone tree that that routes calls wherever you like, sends callers to voice mail, or plays a canned message? Being able to send faxes from your soft phone? Online conference rooms? Sure thing. Welcome to RingCentral. How about let’s add the ability to record calls so you can listen in on how employees handle customers? Or maybe you just want to record the occasional call to your lawyer or an important source from your desk, softphone, or mobile phone? RingCentral has you covered on all counts. It also integrates nicely with Outlook, Google, Box, and DropBox and – in pricier plans – Zendesk, Desk.com, and SaleForce.com. Better still? It just acquired Glip so you can chat and collaborate with teams – RingCentral customer or not – online. Oh, and video conferencing is also built in.  If your company grows, you might someday even – someday – want to figure out and use some of those high-end call routing and queuing features. This sounds too expensive for your small business, right? Probably not. Plans start at $25 a month.  

Vonage Business

If you are sure your small business is eventually going to be a big business, take a look at Vonage Business. It’s got big-muscle features like an administrator portal that lets you see where calls are going, decide what calls go where, and set up employee phone systems. But you don’t have to be an IT pro to get this up and running. Call Vonage, order your service, and your fancy VOIP desk phones will show up configured for your system and ready to go. You just plug them in at the right desk and off you go. As you add people, you can add phones and extensions. Since these phones are hard wired to your router, you are not at the mercy of your Wi-Fi signal for call quality so you don’t have to worry that your teenager’s addiction to streaming HD movies means your calls will get sketchy the minute he gets home from school. Slick, business desk phones are part and parcel here but you can also run this phone line from a soft phone or the mobile app. Conference bridge? Yep. Faxing? Sure. And a host of other features, too many to list, that will serve your small business even as it grows to hundreds of employees all over the world. You will still have control of all of those calls and lines – and the ability to record them all – form the online portal. Plans start at $40 a month.

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