How do I pick the right hosted VoIP vendor?

A hosted Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service can offer advantages over an on-premises system in many cases, especially for smaller businesses or companies which need to get up and running with a phone system quickly. In a hosted system, a third party company manages all of the day-to-day telephony administration, and manages all necessary equipment in their off-site facility. There is no need to purchase on-site equipment except for the IP telephones.

Once the decision has been made to deploy a hosted VoIP environment, consider the different types of providers. Most VoIP providers deliver your telephone calls over the public Internet, while others may offer greater control over the IP network, and may even manage the IP link to your company’s site.

Choosing a provider is a lot more difficult than when getting phone service meant simply making a single phone call to the only game in town. Established incumbent telecom providers are getting into the VoIP business, but there are many newcomers as well, so there will be hundreds of providers to choose from. Because there are so many hosted VoIP providers out there, it is important to look at the expertise of each candidate before making a decision. A company without a track record may be a big risk. Another consideration is whether the provider’s main business is VoIP, or whether it is being offered as a “me too” product. A company that specializes in VoIP is more likely to have greater expertise and higher quality service. Also, smaller hosted VoIP providers may not have an adequate enterprise-class backbone or a redundant architecture, which could leave you with problems later on down the road. A good VoIP provider will have a redundant architecture so if one connection is lost, service can still be provided.

While your hosted VoIP service should operate transparently, the need for customer service is apparent, and things do happen. Select a company that offers 24×7 support as well as an adequate service level guarantee (SLA). Make sure the SLA specifically spells out delivery levels, acceptable downtime, and what action will be taken (such as discounted invoices) if service levels are not met.

Price and feature set are obviously important considerations as well. Even though VoIP does inherently offer far more features than traditional telephony, not all hosted providers offer the same set of features. Determine ahead of time what features you want and need, and compare this list against what is available from multiple providers. Voicemail for example, is almost universally used by everyone, but not all hosted VoIP providers offer this as a standard service. Consider features like three-way calling and call transfer, distinctive rings, integrated fax service, and the ability to take your phone number with you as you travel. Some of the more advanced service providers may also provide features like integration with Outlook and other productivity applications, as well as ACD (automatic call distribution), and unified messaging functionality. Also consider the system’s reporting features, and whether or not you have call reports available, or a web-based control panel.

Lastly, make sure that voice quality is adequate. In general, VoIP technology has advanced to the point where call quality is equivalent to standard public switched telephone network (PSTN) calling, but call quality may still vary between providers. Test out the service before using it to determine the level of actual call quality, and whether it is acceptable to your business.