You'll apply the same considerations to almost anything you buy – price, availability, warranty, aesthetics, brand reputation, and so on. With phone systems there are a couple of more specific issues:
Size is the critical one. Analyse your present and likely future needs before you go shopping. A basic office might need one phone per person plus a spare, with just two lines – one for voice, one for fax and data.
But a busy travel agency would need phones for everyone but maybe two or three times as many lines to allow calls in parallel. An internet-intensive business might require additional lines too.
There are no precise rules for the phones-to-lines ratio, apart from common sense. But it's clear that:
- Some people use the phone more than others,
- Some jobs require that the phone is used more,
- The more your people are on the phone, the more lines they'll need, and
- The more your business relies on fax or data, the more you'll need to separate those lines from voice calls.
If you see that all the line buttons are regularly lit up on your own phone or if you can't always get a line when you want one, your company is probably doing a lot of business. But it could be losing even more business from callers who can't get through or from employees who are fixing up their holidays or trading shares on the net.
And if your people are constantly putting callers on hold to answer other callers, and switching back and forth between calls, you have too many lines for your staff. You need more bodies – or a voice processing system.
If necessary buy a phone system that can start small and expand as your needs grow. You want a system that will suit your needs today - and, you hope, three years from today. Don't think any further ahead – technology is changing too quickly for you to commit yourself now to a phone system for five or ten years hence.
Consider the initial capacity - the number of lines and phones that can be connected to the control unit. Then check out the system's expandability, the maximum number of lines and phones that can be connected, by installing additional circuit boards, cards or modules in the control unit. And third, ask about expansion using additional 'slave' or 'tandem' units.
On the theme of expandability, you will find considerable variation in the systems on offer. Some allow you to add plenty of telephones but not many additional lines. Others include support for plenty of lines, but adding extra phones might require a costly upgrade.
Most modern digital PBXs have actually lost the distinction between lines and extension, instead defining size in terms of 'ports' - connections that can be made to the system, including outside lines and inside extensions as well as voice mail, automated attendants and so on.
The right mix
Even a simple key system these days comes with a raft of features and facilities. They won't all be useful to all users. So instead of comparing features on a one-to-one basis, you should think about how you will actually use a phone system; check out only those features that will improve workflow in the office.
And although it's important to have the right features, ease of use is even more critical. People shouldn't have to devote too much time to learning the phone system. The key functions, and especially those used most frequently, must be extremely simple and intuitive.
That said, you may find particular value for your business in some or all of these:
- Call barring - prohibits specified types of call (overseas calls, for instance, or to 0898 numbers)
- Automatic Route Selection - can automatically select the cheapest network for each call.
- Multi-site communications - all incoming calls go through a single central number but are redirected to the relevant site, or perhaps to a mobile phone if you're out of the office.
- Auto attendant - automatically answers the call with a customised message that prompts customers to route their calls to the appropriate destination.
- Voice mail - allows the caller to leave a recorded message.
- Message notification - alerts the user that their voicemail box contains unread messages (with an indicator light on the phone, or perhaps by automatically calling a pre-programmed contact number
The right dealer
The simplest phone systems - one to three lines, no more than eight or so extensions - can be installed by you. But most key systems and PBXs will require programming and installation by a specialised dealer.
This puts a lot of emphasis on finding the right dealer. You need a system that is properly installed for optimal performance and you need to have confidence in future servicing, problem-solving and maybe upgrading.
The key consideration is experience. Give extra points to a dealer who has installed several similar systems. You should also look for commitment to the brand you're considering; ideally that will be your dealer's bestseller, for that will assure a long-term source for service.