For small businesses there are very few independent places to turn
to when looking to buy a new telephone system. If you call BT, you will
be recommended a BT system. If you approach a local dealer, you will
more than likely be advised to buy a Panasonic, simply because this is
the switch that most local dealers sell. However, there are many
telephone systems on the market that may be appropriate for your
What to look for in a telephone system
The technology used by computers and telephones is converging fast,
offering businesses new applications that may change the way they work
and improve efficiency. This convergence (known as CTI, for computer
telephony integration) is becoming an important factor to consider when
making the decision on a telephone system. For example, the technology
is here today to allow you to have "screen popping" when callers ring
in. This means that if their calling number is presented and their
details are on your contact database, these will automatically appear
on your computer screen. In the same way, by the click of a mouse
button you can make a call to a contact direct from your PC screen.
Voicemail messages can be transferred to your mobile phone, or sent as
an audio file to your e-mail account.
Further factors to consider are the expansion possibilities and
add-ons you may wish to invest in at a later stage. For example, how
many extensions does the system you are looking at go up to, how many
lines will it support, can you upgrade to having voicemail or CTI? Do
you need digital ISDN lines to get Direct Dialling In (DDI)
functionality and maybe cut down the number of lines you need or will
analogue lines give you the services you want now and in the future?
Features to consider:
call logging - records the numbers dialled by individual extensions
call barring - barring users from dialling out certain numbers
automated attendant - callers are offered a series of numbers to press to get to the correct department/extension
conference calling - most systems provide this, but any
handsets used must have a reliable and efficient microphone as well as
paging - again, ensure microphones and speakers are adequate
calling line identification (CLI) - requires a good handset with an adequate display screen
music on hold - ensure that it is not too tiresome and that you can add your own choice of music or radio station
directory phone book - an internal directory listing all company contacts available for users to dial
door system - the facility to link a door lock to the telephone system
Spend time to consider all the options and talk to others before
selecting a system. Once you have identified the features that are
important to you, identify a number of manufacturers to investigate.
Ask them to recommend a dealer in your area who can demonstrate the
system. Don't be afraid to ask the dealer as many questions as you
want. Touch and feel the system, practice using it, try transferring a
call. It is the only way to really tell what the system is like
Be sure to check out the dealer thoroughly. Check out their company
on the Web and look at their financial status through Companies House
or credit agencies such as Equifax and Experian. Before making the
final decision, take up at least a couple of references. When speaking
to referees, ask questions to encourage the answers you are looking
for. For example, ask: How well did XYZ deal with your recent problems?
Don't ask: Have you ever had a problem, if so how well did XYZ deal
Hints and tips
Don't get too much functionality: often people end up buying
something that is too complex and has facilities they never actually
use. Look at the features, but always ask yourself: "What
benefits would this bring to my business?"
Don't get pushed into "state of the art" items by salesmen -
remember it is their job to make you buy more. Get them to explain the
product's abilities in simple terms, without jargon. Do some research
and check out product reviews in magazines. Talk to people you know who
Buy things that can be improved: the technology is developing
so fast that new and better things will be available tomorrow. So you
can simply fulfil your immediate requirements, as long as you purchase
a system that can be changed or upgraded when your business needs it
and when you can afford it.
What level of staff training would be required?
Would staff be able to reprogram extensions for different
users using a simple computer interface or will you need constant
support from the supplier? How quickly can they respond to a request
When you have narrowed down the choice to a particular system
get quotes from at least three separate companies. It is probably
better to get the same company to supply, install and maintain the
Further pointers can be provided by business support organisations,
such as enterprise agencies, Chambers of Commerce and Business Links.
You can also consult impartial advisors or enlist the help of a telecom
broker, who can take the sweat out of answering most of these questions
The following manufacturers are some of the most widely used by small companies:
Your business is
humming--orders are coming in, the staff is growing. It's time to come
face-to-face with the hardest questions a growing business needs to
deal with: How do you handle phone traffic? What kind of phone system
do you need?
These days, smaller companies can have a robust phone system that
packs major features into small, streamlined, and inexpensive boxes. We
took a look at scalable phone systems that can start as small as four
phone lines and grow with your business to up to 300 extensions. All of
them offer you everything you need to organize your phone
system--specific hardware that handles incoming phone lines to software
that monitors voice mail to the phones themselves.
Holding the Phone
To conduct this review, we visited the manufacturers and dealers of
four of the most popular phone system brands for small businesses. Then
we talked with the engineers who put systems together and worked with
them to set tip systems right out of the box to see exactly how hard it
is to get up and running.
Next, we connected phone sets and PCs (where applicable) and tested
how complicated the phones were to program and use. Strict attention
was paid to the things that will affect you and your employees in daily
life, including how easy is it to read the display on the phone and how
tough is it to program speed-dial numbers Other fundamental issues,
such as upgrading the system, were put to the test.
Systems earned points for features that business users have come to
demand, including true voice mail or voice-response systems (usually as
an add-on option). We also looked at some of the advanced capabilities
that can make your small business appear more like a big one:
PC-programming of the system's features, for example, and call routing
abilities that allow users to create small, informal call centers.
The cost of these products is low enough that it's now possible to
purchase a starter system for around $1,000, without the advanced
telephones. For twice that you can get a good, scalable system, with
rudimentary voice mail and several advanced phone sets.
The IPS System, which is sold under such major Telco brand names as
Bell Atlantic and Pacific Bell, is one of the least expensive key phone
systems. It's also easier to set up and program than your average PC.
The base unit, smaller than a fax machine, plugs in right out of the
box. Program the central unit to do call routing or display caller ID
by phone or with a linked PC. Setup takes just a few minutes. The
bundled software is even wizard-based--preset with likely defaults that
the first-time user will rarely change.
We worked with a technician to take the system out of the package,
open the back of the laptop-size phone system, and hook up some phone
sets and a PC.
In five minutes we were making test calls. The ultrapenny-pinching
user can connect analog single-line phones to the system and start
running an advanced PC-controlled phone arrangement right out of the
The IPS System is practically headache-free, and it transforms a
three- or four-person office into a telephony-equipped business. A fast
growth spurt might cause you to outgrow it sooner than you'd like--the
system maxes out at 16 extensions--but it's inexpensive enough that you
can throw it into place in a heartbeat and replace it later, when you
have more time and money.
IPS sports standard features that include auto answer, call
forwarding and transfer, intercom, and programmable buttons. It also
recognizes fax tones. The perfect starter system for any small
business, the IPS System is designed for the do-it-yourselfer, more so
than any of the other setups we reviewed.
IPS is currently available at a number of office supply chain
outlets. A small- or home-based business could buy and install a
bare-bones (but very professional) system in a matter of hours.
Lucent Partner Advanced Communications System (ACS)
One of the first things that impressed us about the ACS was its modular design.
This popular product starts out small, with a three-by-eight-unit
(three phone lines with up to eight extensions) that's slim and easy to
hide in an office. Upgrade to 15 lines and 40 extensions without
changing that original box--it becomes the core of a cabinet-style rack
of modules that snap into place easily.
Lucent's most innovative feature is a PC Card slot on the main
module. Upgrade the system software (offered on a flash memory card)
through this slot or use an optional backup/restore card to save system
settings. You can use the extensions for either the proprietary phone
sets or analog phones, and the line interfaces with digital lines (with
adapters) for ISDN or TI lines--key for an Internet-enabled company.
The latest software release for the ACS includes advanced caller-ID
processing. The system logs incoming calls and enables you to scroll
through a display of missed calls, then return them with the push of a
Another cool feature is the Automatic System Answer, which lets you
select one of three modes for handling incoming calls: Answer with a
recorded message and then, with the caller on hold, ring every
extension; play the message, then place the caller on hold to a
specific extension; or play a night message telling callers when to
The flexible setup makes maintaining the system intuitive. During
lunch, for example, you can have calls default to every extension so
anyone can pick up. Or if one person is designated to answer everyone's
calls, he or she can watch just one line for incoming calls.
ACS includes 100 programmable speed-dial numbers for the entire
unit, with another 20 available at each user's phone. The phones
themselves are comfortable to hold, with easy-to-read displays and dual
lamps at each extension (red for in use, green for available). A
convenient instruction card slides out from the bottom--no more hunting
for a manual when someone new starts working.
The maximum system configuration is 15 lines by 40 extensions or 19
by eight. ACS could have come away with our Best Buy seal if it weren't
for the price. For a basic three-by-eight system, with telephones and
voice mail, the unit runs around $2,000.
This small key system is Nortel's core small-business phone
configuration, offering a major stepping stone up to a more powerful
PBX, which uses switching technology. We found the Norstar, which uses
Meridian phone sets, to be one of the more complex to use. This is a
good system to buy if you want to employ many features but lack the
capacity to jump all the way to a PBX. In many ways, the Norstar (and
the Toshiba Strata series, see next page) are substitute PBXs.
The basic unit is a small cabinet into which you add cartridges for
trunks, stations, and esoterica such as TI lines. The device is small
and can expand up to 272 ports. It offers more lines than the other
phone systems reviewed here except the Toshiba Strata. And like the
Strata, we wouldn't recommend anyone with a home office and the need
for only a half-dozen or a dozen extensions to jump to this system. But
for a larger office, it's one of the best key systems on the market in
terms of reliability--it's been sold in one form or another since the
Basic system setup and maintenance for the Norstar is relatively
easy--voice prompts guide you through it. But, the real value of the
Norstar, besides its ubiquity, is the wide range of third-party add-ons.
The Norstar may be a more advanced (and expensive) phone system
than some small businesses need (at $350 to $450 per station it's on
the high end, but it's not stratospheric). For enterprising users who
know they're not going to need some of the complex features, Nortel
makes an excellent three-line phone called the Venture. It has a clean
but full panel with a button for each of three lines plus intercom, a
generous three-line display that reads well in poor light, and
integrated caller-ID capabilities. It stores the last 200 incoming and
call-waiting calls and has a 200 name-and-number directory. Best of
all, you can link eight of these phones into a virtual network. With an
optional Enhanced Feature Adapter, you can add hold-music, external
paging, fax detection, and call detail reporting.
Toshiba Strata DK Series
Toshiba's line of phone systems starts with the low-end Strata
[DKI.sub.4], a two-line, four-extension digital system that scales up
to four-by-eight, with two additional analog ports. The phones you buy
with the [DK1.sub.4] scale up to the [DK.sub.40] (a key system hybrid
with up to 28 stations) or the very large [DK.sub.424] (424 stations).
Toshiba offers three analog voice-mail options or the fully digital
Strategy DK, a two- to eight-port system that slides into the KSU and
sports a built-in modem for remote maintenance.
All the systems in the DK series support Toshiba's CTI software,
StrataLink. This TAPI-compatible software makes the most of caller ID
by popping up data screens onto the desktop based on criteria that you
identify. We were able to automate dialing from the PC, incoming call
routing, and integration with Toshiba's DK voice-processing system. We
found this to be an excellent system for the more advanced user,
especially for companies that are poised on the brink of a PBX purchase
but, for one reason or another, still need to put off that decision to
the future. If you hunger for more advanced CTI features, the Strata
will be a good system on which to cut your teeth.
The [DKI.sub.4] has more features than a typical user would need.
For companies that need such advanced features as caller ID, external
call forwarding, and voice-mail integration, it might be better to go
straight to the [DK.sub.40], which includes such typical PBX features
as direct inward dialing (calling an extension, rather than a central
number) and automatic number identification (ANI, essentially caller ID
that comes with toll-free numbers). In fact, you can connect the
[DK.sub.40] to a PBX or another DK and let them all work together.
The telephones are the same throughout the DK series and range from
a basic 10-button phone with no display up to a 20-button phone with a
two-line display and an optional attendant console that adds 60 buttons
for viewing an entire company's extensions. A remarkably well-designed
cordless phone that has four programmable function keys and a two-line
display is also available. Pricing on the [DK.sub.40] ranges from $350
to $500 per phone.
But if you're looking for just the basics, look elsewhere. This
system is so packed with advanced features (and scales up so large in
size) that it's more appropriate for midsize businesses. Small
businesses that need to bump up their phone capabilities would do
better with InteliData.
Keith Dawson, former editor of Call Center magazine, writes about computers and phone systems for a number of publications.
RELATED ARTICLE: CHEAT SHEET
InteliData IPS System EXCELLENT BEST BUY
Lucent Partner Advanced Communications System (ACS) GOOD 1/2
Nortel Norstar GOOD 1/2
Toshiba Strata DK Series FAIR 1/2
RELATED ARTICLE: CHEAT SHEET
Some features are so basic that you'll never forget them: Spend-dial
comes to mind. Here are some of the less obvious things a system might
Toll restriction. Prevents users from calling certain places. You
can lock out calls to specific area codes or 900 numbers, among others.
Call accounting and reporting. Extracts from the phone logs details
of what the system does (the call-accounting system usually runs on a
PC). Find our who is calling Hawaii during lunch or see if your
long-distance carrier is charging you for some hacker's international
Hunt groups. Lets you set a group of extensions as a target for
incoming calls from a certain line. When calls come in, the system
scans the hunt group for a station that's free to take the call. This
is good for small call center groups or for fax pools.
Least cost routing (LCR). Based on the time of day, the number
dialed, and other factors, this uses predefined tables to decide how to
send each outgoing call the cheapest way.
YOUR PERSONAL SHOPPER
Buying a phone system can be the most important decision you make
for your business. Think both short-term and long-term: What system can
I afford today that will still be useful if and when I add employees?
What system will let me add such special features as caller ID and toll
restriction when changes in my business occur?
Before you take the plunge, do more than read a system's spec
sheet--find others who are using it and get their take on its
operation. Run through the setup and system configurations with a
dealer to see if you want to set it up yourself or hire a consultant.
Finally, play with the phone itself: Does it feels comfortable against
your face and in your hand? After all, this will probably be the
most-used tool in your office.
RELATED ARTICLE: PICKING UP ON A PHONE SYSTEM
There's more to a phone system than just ringer volume and call waiting. Remember to check these specs when making a purchase.
SIZE AND CAPACITY. Most systems start with a simple
three-by-eight-unit system--three lines in, eight extensions available.
That might seem like a lot, but remember that if you plan to attach
peripherals, they're going to eat up both line ports and extensions. A
fax machine, for example, will take over an extension, as will a modem.
Later, when you want to add more sophisticated features, it's as simple
as sliding a module into the central processor.
EASE-OF-USE. Telecom professionals often bemoan that 95 percent of a
phone system's advanced features go unused by most people. But that
shouldn't be true of such basic functions as speed-dialing or
Count the number of steps it takes to accomplish simple tasks. And
check the obvious things about the phone. Can you read the display
easily? Does it take up a lot of room on the desk? You'll be spending a
lot of time with this phone setup and you can't just replace it if you
decide later that you don't like it.
CTI CAPABILITIES. Computer-telephone integration is usually
associated with higher-end phone systems, but it's worth thinking about
in your key system as well. Buy the most open phone system you
can--meaning it should adhere to established standards for integrating
with outside devices, especially computers.
You probably will not be directly linking your PC network to most
key systems, except for administration and selected users. Most key
system users need little more integration than the ability to dial from
a contact management software package.
RELATED ARTICLE: You Make the Call
Looking for a phone system that grows with your business? Examine
the specs these products have to offer before you spend a dime.
INTELIDATA LUCENT PARTNER IPS SYSTEM ADVANCED COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS (ACS)
MANUFACTURER ADDRESS 13100 Worldgate 600 Mountain Ave. Dr. Suite 600 Murray Hill, NJ Herndon, VA 20171 07974
PRICE RANGE $800 to $2,000 $2,000 to $4,000 (complete or higher systems-higher (complete prices reflect systems-higher options) prices reflect options)
PROS Simple to use, good Easily expandable PC administration through simple features, easy to snap-in modules, install top-notch backup and restore
CONS Not scalable above Not scalable above 16 stations 40 stations
RATING EXCELLENT GOOD 1/2
VERDICT Best system for Buy it if you're the price planning to grow larger than the InteliData will allow MAXIMUM NUMBER OF LINES/NUMBER OF STATIONS 4/16 15/40
VOICE MAIL Yes Yes
PC PROGRAMMABLE Yes Yes
SMART PHONES W/DISPLAY Yes Yes
CALL ROUTING Yes Yes
READER SERVICE Reader Service 130 Reader Service 131
TOSHIBA STRATA NORTEL NORSTAR DK SERIES
MANUFACTURER ADDRESS Dept. 1019 One 9740 Irvine Blvd. Brunswick Sq. P.O. Box 19724 Atrium Suite 100 Irvine, CA Saint John, New 92618-9724 Brunswick E2L 4V11
MANUFACTURER TELEPHONE 800-4-NORTEL 800-222-5805
WEB ADDRESS www.nortel.com www.toshiba.com
PRICE RANGE $1,500 to $2,100 $1,350 to $8,100 (based on (based on five-phone system) four-line system)
PROS Wide variety of Can link many add-ons make this modules together, a platform for has many PBX growth, accepts features, plenty of particularly nice third-party phone sets products
CONS Harder to maintain, Price/feature more like a PBX benefits kick in than other on the high end, systems making this pricey for small businesses
RATING GOOD FAIR 1/2
VERDICT Might be more Looks expensive complex than the because it is features are worth
MAXIMUM NUMBER OF LINES/NUMBER OF STATIONS Unlimited/272 Unlimited/424
VOICE MAIL Yes No
PC PROGRAMMABLE Yes Yes
SMART PHONES W/DISPLAY Yes Yes
CALL ROUTING Yes Yes
READER SERVICE Reader Service 132 Reader Service 133
The one-to-four-star ratings are based on performance, features,
setup, ease of use, availability, warranty, support, documentation, and
price. When a products tests well and is exceptionally priced, we award
it a Best Buy designation.
Although computerized telephone systems have gotten much better at
recognizing what we say, they still have to ask way too many questions.
You know the drill: endless menus, enter every piece of
personal information. Contrast that with the Internet, where entering
an account number or frequent-flier number brings up a ton of
personalized information. Well, phone systems are on the brink of
adding the same capabilities.
American Airlines is going live with a service
that lets customers opt in to a "remember me" feature. When they call
the airline, the system recognizes who they are, brings up their flight
information, and offers options tailored to their travel plans. (Hear a sample of how the service works.)
Sample personalized call
Hear what American Airlines' new custom service sounds like.
"That's what people want to do," said Jamie Bertasi, senior vice president of Microsoft's Tellme Networks subsidiary,
whose system powers American Airlines' new service. "They just want to
call in, accomplish their task, and move on with their day."
American is the first business to use Tellme's system in that
way, though Tellme has been trying out some personalization in its
directory assistance service. There, it recognize callers who have
dialed in within the last 20 minutes and asks them if they want to hear
the same phone number they called in for the last time--a huge
"A lot of times, that's exactly why they are calling," Bertasi said. "People love that feature."
Bertasi said she expects many of Tellme's business customers to opt for personalization similar to what American is offering.
Indeed, the main downside to such services is that they threaten
to put some people out of work. But, heck, if a computer can remember
who I am and give me the information I want, that's a lot more
appealing to me than talking to a live operator that can't.