In today’s horrible economic environment, small businesses need to save wherever they can. But there are a handful of phone services out there that can help businesses easily eliminate $50-$100 per month, per employee. The recipe is simple: Cobble together services from several companies to create […]

In today’s horrible economic environment, small businesses need to save wherever they can. But there are a handful of phone services out there that can help businesses easily eliminate $50-$100 per month, per employee. The recipe is simple: Cobble together services from several companies to create something that works a lot like a traditional business phone system — except without the upfront cost or monthly hosting fees.

Step One: Ditch Your Auto-Attendant

Business communication today is much different than just a few years ago. Customers may contact you via email, IM, video or a regular phone. If you’re a large company, you probably need a more structured phone system, but in most smaller companies, you can switched to a more decentralized, ad hoc collection of services, offer better customer service, and spend hardly any money.

So step one is to start with a clean slate. Look at what your employees do, how they interact with customers, and then make it easy for customers to find and contact the people they need to using the channels best suited to the task. Your web site is one great tool: Use it to publish a list of email/IM/phone contacts by name or department so people can contact them directly. Email signatures are another example: You can use them to publish primary contact points for every customer interaction. Whatever you do, just don’t force your customers dial into a recorded greeting.

Step Two: Use Skype, Grand Central, and Gizmo for Call Routing

Google’s recent relaunch of Grand Central (aka Google Voice) is an especially good example of where voice services are headed. In addition to being free, it offers many features found in advanced phone systems, such as smart call routing, voice-to-email transcription (read your voice mail instead of listening to it), and VoIP. Encourage each employee to set up a number with it and to use that number as their primary contact point. Dial that number, and you can reach them wherever they happen to be, if they want to be reached.

Grand Central is, however, pretty U.S.-centric. Skype, on the other hand, is international, and offers dial-in numbers worldwide, dial-out service, and a robust voice/IM/video capability. Most of what you can do with Grand Central, you can also do with Skype, which is also free (although you do have to pay a nominal fee for dial-in numbers, and reasonable per-minute fees for outbound calls). I use Skype extensively, and find that it’s better than mobile service for call quality (although being in San Francisco, that’s not saying much, considering how bad cellular coverage is here). I also use it for video meetings.

Gizmo is a useful add-on to Grand Central, as well as other SIP-based phone systems like Asterisk. It’s essentially a more open version of Skype, and works well with standards-based VoIP phone systems, handsets and services. Grand Central can route calls to Gizmo users, so you can use that to further reduce costs. Gizmo is also a free service, but like Skype charges nominal fees for inbound phone numbers, and for outbound calls to regular phones (VoIP calls are always free).

Step Three: Call Your Mobile Operator for a Deal

The mobile operators are in a price war, and if you’re on top of it, you can get unlimited mobile voice for $50 per month or less. I recently got $50/month unlimited service from T-Mobile, and Metro PCS is trying to take customers from other carriers by matching their flat-rate deals. Make a few phone calls and threaten to walk; you should be able to get a great deal and never pay metered rates for mobile again. The bad economy is your friend, so use it to go bargain-hunting.

Step Four: Use Hunt Groups or Multiring to Create an Ad Hoc Call Center

If you have several people who work as a team (sales, support, etc), you can create a virtual call center. Simply configure a Grand Central number to simultaneously call each person. Customers call your support number, and the call is answered as soon as one of these people pick up the phone, often on the first or second ring.

Step Five: Unplug Metered Rate Services

Metered rate phone service is essentially dead. If you’re paying anything more than a penny or two a minute for calls, except for certain international routes, you’re getting ripped off. Many so-called “enhanced voice” service providers routinely charge 5-10 times this amount. The main offenders are conference calling services (some charge 10 cents per minute, per caller, or more) and hosted phone service providers, which charge a similar amount simply for routing calls through an 800 number. These charges add up, and offer little value. So get a Grand Central number — with no metered rates — and stop publishing the 800 number.

Chances are, you’ll be able to cobble together an ad hoc communication system that works better than what you have now, costs almost nothing to operate, and gives customers better and more rapid access to your people. It’s a win-win for everyone — except for the phone companies whose services you no longer need.

  1. Hi.

    I read your blog quite a bit – plenty of good articles on here about a wide range of topics. However, this one I have to take issue with.

    I’m a VoIP engineer, it’s what I do for a living. So when people recommend doing voice on the cheap, I think great, because these are the kinds of applications that will really push VoIP over TDM. However, I have a couple of issues.

    Cobbling something together is not a good idea with voice. Voice is used for a variety of reasons. If your only voice communications medium is internet-based you MUST understand the limitations – VoIP is not simple, the myriad of ways it’s been broken by various people is evidence enough. It is used for critical communications (calling emergency services, for example) so you need to get things right – and that’s not just being able to make a call, but consistently getting good voice quality.

    Secondly, I have a problem with using Skype. Now I can’t speak for the US, but in the UK Skype has recently refused to follow the regulator’s requirements to implement emergency calls properly. WIth VoIP rapidly becoming a viable option for primary line replacement, the public’s perception of voice comms is that you can use a phone to call the emergency services. Ofcom held a consultation, Skype responded against the policy, but Ofcom brought in the ruling because it is in the public interest to ensure a coherent user experience across what users see as an identical product.

    Like I said, VoIP is not easy. Picking the right codecs, setting up guaranteed quality of service (which isn’t limited to technical methods) – these are all things that takes a lot of knowledge and experience to get right. Question is, do you really want to get it wrong? What kind of impression does it give if you can’t get your voice comms right first time? Doing it on a budget is possible and is actually fairly simple to arrange…but is also easy to get wrong.

    So, my recommendation? Go open source – there are some great open source VoIP applications out there. VoIP can save you a lot – but don’t skimp on the advice – get an expert in, or you risk damaging your reputation because your customers simply can’t talk to you.

    Note – I’m not advertising here, I don’t offer any consultancy services for voice and neither does the company I’m working for.

    Aled (VoIP advocate and evangelist in my spare time).

  2. even better download asterisk pbx ….from http://www.asterisk.org/ install it in that spare old pc lying in the corner and if needed buy cards from digium ……….and never again you will need traditional business phone system

  3. Good Idea!, I like to hear creative solutions to know how far you can get with simply tools.. but I have to recognize that this is not best thing for a company with more than 5 people.

    The tools you are talking are meant for individual use, and some of them even in beta. This is not for companies.

    Specially step 4. It’s poor solution and not scalable.. If you recieve many calls, or you need IVR, etc… you will need to queue those calls, isn’t it?

    I agree with gp and I don’t know why you didn’t include Asterisk, free open source pbx that will give that extra features that any company will need.

  4. I like this article – I would like to share my own story.
    Though not a business owner, I use skype at home as my primary “land” line.
    It costs about $2.5/month for unlimited calling in the US and Canada and about $2.5/month if you get a Dial In number. (They call it a skype out number). This number can be anything you want it to be – make it a NY number as you sit in SF etc.
    The phone unit that I bought was from GE – It is a skype phone – the phone is still not upto the mark – it certainly could get better (atleast the software) and the look and feel is not very slick considering that it cost me $100
    All in all, I am happy with the service, happy that I have a “land line” that is so cheap and happy that I get to test something so cheap.
    Next phase – hopefully a better quality phone unit.
    I am from India, so I am unable to use the famouse Reliance India Call Tie Line via skype. I hope that is enabled too pretty soon (net cost is only 4 cents if I use this tie line)

  5. Google Voice will be an alternative ass well:
    https://www.google.com/voice/about will

  6. Daryn St. Pierre Wednesday, March 18, 2009

    This is a brilliant concept. I wish I had thought about this before the design firm I work for got a new phone system setup.

  7. Great article. We use On-State Skype PBX and after a few glitches during set-up, it works great for us. They even went so far as to help us get multiple toll free numbers routed over to their network and configured our call tree routes for us.

    This set-up allows my entire workforce to be mobile: Skype, Net connection, and headset and we’re set.

    I worked for companies offering landline and other VoIP systems. They were nice systems, but not worth the cost for a company under approx. 50 people. I didn’t know it at the time since Cisco, Avaya, and others do such a good job marketing.

  8. good post, thanks for the tips

  9. @Alex , fans of Asterix etc-

    The article is focused towards the average Small Business( <10 or 20 employees who are primarly non-techies) that want a Phone system +service that is low cost and provides customer engagement ability…not get overwhelmed by the VoIP techspeak that you refer to ( CODECS?? ASTERIK??..who cares…they need a phone or two that plugs in.. PBX could be hosted)

    If the local IT expert/Geek Squad can get it for them, so be it.

  10. Unfortunately “Google Voice is currently open only for GrandCentral users.” Which makes it useless for me since I am not.

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