How to Build a Free (or Almost Free) Phone System for Your Business

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 (s goog) 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.