The Most Common Features of a Business Phone System – What You Need to Know in 2021

So you’re looking to buy a phone system for your small business?

For starters, buying an office phone system can be a somewhat complex, and potentially daunting topic, so what we’re attempting to do is demystify the process.

** As an aside, this article is written for the North American (American and Canadian) audiences in mind specifically. The reason being is that there are some subtle differences between the features, and how they’re adopted in the non North American markets.  Canada and the USA share a common dial-plan (NPA-NXX), and have some unique telephony characteristics that ren’t found in markets outside North America.

This article is packed with lots of information … so, sit back, and let’s learn together. And by the way, by the time we’re done, I can’t promise to make you an expert, but, you will DEFINITELY know much more than you do now.

Features of a Business Phone System 

Real Estate is dictated by the mantra ‘location, location, location’. The mantra for phone systems is ‘features, features, features’. Every customer purchasing a new phone system will obviously look at the features available within the system. This very often becomes the driving point behind the purchase of the system. Features, features, and more features.

I will try and list some of the more salient features commonly requested by customers – this includes features like  Silent call recording, Voice over IP capability, Voice mail, Conference bridge capability, Interactive Database Response, Interactive Voice response, TAPI, Screen popping, and so on.

Voice Mail

The most popular add-on feature for any phone system, Voice Mail has been commercially accepted for almost twenty years now, and needs very little explanation. The standard voicemail system will have some of the following features (you might want to ensure that the system that you are purchasing has these very important features.)

 – Automated Attendant – an automated attendant allows callers to be automatically transferred to a user’s extension without the intervention of a receptionist. A common automated attendant greeting might sound something like: 

“Thank you for calling ABC Company. Our offices are now closed. Regular business hours are Monday to Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM. If you know the extension of the person you wish to reach, please enter it now. If you do not know the extension, you can press one for our company directory, or hold and an operator will be with you shortly.”

Many automated attendants are poorly designed by their owners, leading to what many people call ‘voicemail hell’. Some companies try to force callers through a seemingly endless series of questions and menus before anyone will actually answer the phone to give some assistance. Some even leave their users in an infinite loop. When you are finished designing your automated attendant, TEST IT. In addition, always have a “0” option for an operator. And test that also!

– Multiple User Greetings – This will allow your users to have multiple greetings set up in their mailbox – for example, greeting one could be “out of the office”, greeting two could be “out for the morning, back at noon”, greeting three could be “on vacation”. Some systems allow up to five personal greetings (or more) to be pre-recorded and chosen by the user from within their menu.

 – Menu Trees – sometimes called CCR trees, audiotext, V-Trees: this will provide callers with a menu of touchtone choices. For example, if you hear a greeting that says: “Thank you for calling ABC Company. For Sales press ‘1’, and for Service press ‘2’.” If the caller presses ‘1’, then the system could come back and ask: “For Product A press ‘1’, and Product B press ‘2’.” This type of menu selection is commonly available on most voicemail systems. If this is a feature you are looking for, just make sure that the system you are looking at not only has this as an option, but provides a deep enough number of menu choices – some systems only have two options available, some don’t even offer this feature.

 – Visual Voice Soft Key Support: Many phone sets have keys which identify options that change depending on what the user is doing. If the voicemail system supports soft-key support, then as you are navigating through the voicemail menu options the soft keys change. This makes it somewhat easier for the user to navigate through their menus. I would classify this as a “Nice to Have” feature.

Unified Messaging

Unified Messaging – UNIFYING YOUR MESSAGES

Essentially, what this means is that you go to the same spot, usually Outlook, Lotus Notes, or Groupwise, to pick up all of your e-mail, fax, and voice-mail messages. 

There are essentially two types of Unified Messaging: Integrated, and non-integrated.

If the system is integrated, when you listen to the message through your Outlook client, it automatically deletes the message from your voice mail, and when you delete the message from your voice mail, it deletes the message automatically from your Outlook inbox.

If the system is non-integrated, the message store of voice mail and message store of Microsoft Outlook (Trademark of Microsoft) are not synchronized so that when you delete the message from Outlook, it does not delete it from the voicemail box, and similarly, if you delete the message from your voicemail box, it does not delete it from your Outlook.

Another feature frequently found in Unified Messaging is faxing. There are two ways of having your faxes sent to your desktop. Some companies have one DID (telephone number) for both their voice and fax calls. The challenge with this method is that if the sending side dials the fax number and does not send their sending fax tone, the DID will answer the call and assume it is a voice call. It is more advisable to have one DID for voice and a separate DID for fax. If the fax comes into a DID, the system will convert the fax to a *.pdf or *.tif file format and deposit the fax into the user’s fax inbox.

Mobility (Wireless)

There are a few different types of in-office wireless solutions:

  • Multi base station
  • Single long-range base station
  • VoIP enabled base station
  • Cellular with desk set twinning (extension to cellular)

Of course these options come with a very different cost structure. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume we are trying to provide a wireless solution to a 300,000 sq, ft. warehouse. A campus wireless solution is outside the scope of this book.

Multi Base Station: In a multi base station environment, each base station provides coverage to its respective geographic territory within the building, and if the user walks outside the range of the base station, the coverage continues to the next base station (the call gets hopped to the next base station providing seamless voice coverage). A multi base station solution can be built to provide coverage for as large a facility as required – the larger the facility, the more base stations required. A point of consideration when designing the voice base station network is to look at the concentration of users within a specific geographical area since each base station may only provide dial tone to a set number of simultaneous handsets. For example, if a base can provide dial tone to four handsets, then the fifth handset will not be able to grab a dial tone from that base. Therefore, when designing this solution you must look at: the coverage of each base station, the facility, and the general location of the users using the mobility.

I have sold the following wireless solutions: Nortel’s Companion, SpectraLink, and Kirk. Unfortunately Nortel discontinued their Companion solution – it worked well, and was well priced. 

The only downside to a multi base solution is the high price. A solution for a 300,000 sq. ft. facility would require approximately eight base stations. Pricing for eight base stations and ten phones could cost upwards of $20,000.

Spectralink handset; multi base station

Single long-range base station: There exists two products that I know of in this category. Engenius and Voyageur. Essentially, the single base station can provide coverage to a much longer range than what you would normally get from the multi base station solution. I have seen one Engenius handset / base station provide coverage to a 300,000 sq. ft. facility! Off of only one base station. A solution with ten handsets would cost approximately $11,000.

Engenius Durafon

VoIP enabled Base Station: This is similar to the multi base station solution except the base station and its communication to the handset uses the 802.11 spectrum. The 802.11 base stations may already be used within the organization for data wireless access points. 

The only challenge which needs to be addressed is that the voice will be running over the same base station that is currently supporting the data. In this case you need to make sure that the base station will support Quality of Service so that the voice packets can take priority over the data. This solution is typically quite expensive – even though you don’t need to purchase the base stations, this solution is usually the same price as the multi base station proprietary solution (as discussed previously). The handsets are also usually quite a bit more expensive. A ten handset solution would be approx. $17,000. This begs the question as to why you would want to purchase this solution over the multi base station solution. There could be some other applications that you could drive to the IP-based handset. 

In this category we have sold the SpectraLink IP handset solution.

Cellular with desk set twinning (extension to cellular): A more commonly found feature on phone systems is desk set twinning. Essentially, you use your existing cellular phone and your wireless extension – and you twin your cell phone to your desk set. 

Here is how this one works. When you call the desk extension, it rings the cell phone at the same time. If you answer the desk set, it stops the cell phone from ringing. Similarly, if you answer the cell phone, it stops the desk set from ringing. If you answer the cell phone, you can walk back to your desk set, press a twinning button, and capture the call from the cell phone back to your desk. Some phone systems that support this feature actually allow you to use your cellular phone to still transfer back to any other in office extension. This solution can get expensive if you have to pay for air time – of course that needs to be weighed against the cost of the mobile solution in the first place.

 Maintenance: Don’t underestimate the maintenance required from a wireless solution. Wireless (portable) handsets tend to break more often than the traditional desk set. They often get driven over by a forklift, dropped from heights, and even fall into toilets!

Silent Call Recording

Exactly as it sounds. Silent call recording. Most phone systems support this basic functionality. There are two different types of silent call recordings:

Ad Hoc

A system that supports ad hoc silent call recording will allow users to press a button on their handset and record the call in progress. It should record for the entire duration of the call. Depending on the jurisdiction you are in, on occasion, you must announce that the call will be recorded. Therefore, when you press the RECORD button, the system will provide a beep, or tone, to inform the caller that the call is being recorded. However, almost all phone systems will allow the system administrator to remove the recording tones from the system, so if you wish to record the call, it will just silently record without playing any tones.

Once the call has been recorded, it will usually dump the recording into the user’s voicemail box. Again, most systems will send the recorded call not only to the user’s voicemail box, but will also send the recorded call out to the user’s e-mail address as an attached *.wav file.

Full Recording

Full recording will allow for all the company’s incoming and outgoing calls to get silently recorded. This can usually be activated on a set-by-set basis – in or out, by extension, or by ACD queue. Again, most systems will send these recorded calls out to the user’s voicemail box, out to an e-mail address as a *.wav file, or to a program that will store all recorded calls for easy access later. For example, you wish to hear all recorded calls for X 221 for May 1 from 10 AM to 2 PM. The program will present all recorded calls recorded during those times.

Speaker Phones:

Almost all manufacturers now make their handsets as “Full Duplex”. Full Duplex will allow a seamless two-way flow of conversation while using the phone’s speaker. The older style “Half Duplex” handset would cut in and out when using the speaker phone, so that when the  other side is talking, it makes it difficult to interrupt and vice versa.

If you are purchasing a phone with a speaker, just make sure it is Full Duplex.

TAPI and CRM Integration

Telephony Application Programming Interface (TAPI) is a Microsoft protocol allowing integration between the phone system and a TAPI compliant software package.

Let’s say that you are running Outlook or a CRM package like Salesforce.com or Tigerpaw Software. Both of those products are TAPI compliant. What this means is that you can dial directly from your Outlook contact by clicking on the phone icon from within Outlook. Your phone will go off the hook and automatically dial the number for you.

Screen Popping will do a screen pop-up so that when your phone rings, you will get a pop-up of the customer calling in so you will see, on screen, the contact information of the person calling before you answer the phone.

Most systems will provide the ability of doing the screen pop either while the phone rings, or once the phone gets answered. This is usually customizable on a set-by-set basis.

Not only do most systems have TAPI capability, but most also include the drivers at no extra charge. TAPI and computer integration is such an integral part of the phone system that you will want to make sure that this is either included with your phone system (i.e. built in), or that your phone vendor has included this as part of the pricing and configuration of the proposal.

Gone are the days of the system speed dial, or speed dial buttons. The Outlook / TAPI / CRM integration makes it so that every person essentially has an unlimited number of speed dials. Click on a contact, and the phone goes off hook and dials out. Just make sure that this is included with the system. Have it set up before you go live (or shortly thereafter).

System Management

By now, almost all phone systems have a GUI interface for system management. It goes without saying that the phone system programming should be easy to do. Again, gone are the days of having to call your phone vendor for every small phone system change. You can change the name on a user’s phone, reset a voicemail box, change the automated attendant greetings, program the user’s buttons…all from the PC.

 You will want to make sure that the management is easy enough to do and does not require a computer degree. Phone system backups should also be easy to do, and should be easy to restore. 

Again, do yourself a favor and check this function out. There are phone systems that claim to have a backup and restore feature. Believe it or not – the backup feature doesn’t work, or the restore feature will never restore properly.

Therefore, before you buy, check out a system backup and watch your phone system vendor do a quick system restore.

Phone system Administration screen

PC based control of the desk set

A call comes into your phone. What is the first thing you do? Reach for the phone? Yes. That is correct if you aren’t running a desktop PC phone set. 

A PC phone (not to be confused with an IP-based softphone) is a screen software that looks like a phone but interacts with your phone so that you can use your PC phone control software to make an outbound call, answer your phone, page, make a conference call, check the status of a user’s desk set…all from the PC software application. 

An example of Avaya Phone Manager (Desktop phone control) 

Hot Desking

Here is a neat feature, and one that is offered by most major SMB and Enterprise brands, but ask your vendor.

Hot Desking will allow you to go to any phone on the phone system, either within the office or within the wide area phone network, and log your extension into the system. So let’s say for example that you are at extension 2222. You can go to any phone, hit a key, type your extension 2222 into the phone, enter a password, and now that phone takes on the physical entity of extension 2222. The extension might have been 2223, but now it is 2222. All of the physical buttons, speed dials, voicemail message waiting light…everything, is now on the new phone. 

Many organizations have what we call a ‘hoteling’ environment. Let’s say you have a hundred employees with twenty workstations. Most of the employees work off the premises; however, from time to time there are twenty people in the office. Any one person can come into the office, find a workstation, and log into the phone. 

Hot desking is regularly used in places where not all the employees are in the office at the same time, or not in the office for very long at all, which means actual personal offices would be redundant.

With the growth of mobility services, hot desking can also include the routing of voice and other messaging services to any location where the user is able to log into their phone. Therefore, their telephone number (and maybe even their e-mail and instant messaging) can be routed to their location on the phone system (and network), and no longer to just their physical desk.

Conference Bridges

A conference bridge will allow all users to call into a central number at the organization’s site and enter an extension number, followed by a password. The callers into the bridge will all be conferenced together on the same call. Most systems support this feature out of the box – you might want to check however as it is a very convenient feature to have on your system.

 There are two types of conference calls:

  • Inbound bridge
  • Outbound conference calls

An outbound conference call feature will allow a user to dial multiple people at the same time and conference them all together. As far as I know, every system, small, and large, will support many (up to thirty) people on an outbound conference call. Having said that, it is usually not realistic to call more than five people on an outbound conference call – the logistics of doing this are just too difficult.

That is where the inbound conference bridge comes in handy. Again, as far as I know, most systems, both small and large, will support the capability of allowing people to call into the central number and then get dumped into the bridge. Check first with your sales representative however.

An Instant Replay feature also comes in handy. This feature will allow your user the option of having the conference call recorded, and then making that conference call available for playback off of the automated attendant for later listening. Therefore, let’s say that you have an 8 AM conference call on Monday morning into which your ten sales reps from across the country must dial. Person number ten misses the call. So, you can now give them a phone number to dial (perhaps your main number), and they can then enter the conference call number, followed by a password, and listen to the conference call at a later time.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

IVR, or as I like to call it, “Interactive Database Response”, is, as it sounds, an automated voice system that interacts with a database to provide information in a voice form from a database of information. Banking by phone is a typical example of an IVR application. 

You are now thinking, “What could I possibly do with an IVR application for my business?” Here are some examples of how an IVR application can be used.

A caller’s telephone number is looked up from a database when the call comes into the company. Some of the fields that it looks up could be: account balance or sales rep, for example. Let’s say that the caller has an outstanding balance over sixty days. Instead of transferring the caller to the customer services department, the caller will get transferred automatically to the accounting department. Alternatively, using the same example, the call comes into the company and using the telephone number as a database look-up field, the system automatically transfers the caller to the sales rep assigned to the account. Here is another interesting example: The call comes into the company’s phone system. The company telephone number pulls up a record from the database which determines that the caller is one of the company’s better customers. This in turn forces the caller to the top of the customer service queue. And all the customer had to do was call!

The web has certainly impacted what was at one time a widespread proliferation of IVR throughout the industry. IVR opened up a world of self-serve customer database interactivity. It has since found resurgence as companies find new uses for integration between information contained in a database and communication within the customer services department. 

Most major phone system manufacturers have IVR as an available upgradeable option. All sorts of really unique applications can be designed by integrating a database, phone system, and prompts.

Small Medium Business & Enterprise 

Before moving on, I need to further explain one more concept, and that is the difference between a Telecom perspective of Small Medium Business (SMB) vs. Enterprise.

Most large Telecom manufacturers, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, NEC, and Toshiba, all have SMB and Enterprise type products. The distinction from a handset level is generally 300 to 400 phones. That is the number that separates the SMB from the Enterprise market. 

Other than the size of system, some of the other characteristics that separate SMB from Enterprise are: redundancy and system management. Enterprise systems are designed to handle thousands of users – they have more than one processor. If the primary processor goes down, then you have a backup processor. One of the other differences is management of the systems. Most Enterprise customers have multiple offices. And the management offers something called “Single Image”.  Single Image means the system  profile, programming … is replicated across all of the systems in the network. No need to manage ten systems – just manage one and the information is propagated to all of the other systems in the network.

Redundancy is another feature that is commonly found in an Enterprise-class phone system. In many instances, an Enterprise server would be replicated across multiple endpoints in a Local Area Network (which would make it Locally Survivable), or could be replicated across multiple endpoints in a Wide Area Network (which would make it Enterprise Survivable). If the primary phone system server at location A goes down, then the backup processor takes over immediately and provides functionality to all of the handsets in the network. It is almost like a network array of drives, or RAID hard drive storage.

You can expect to pay BIG TIME for those options. Just to give you an idea of the difference between an SMB vs. Enterprise from a price perspective – an SMB phone system with 200 phones would cost approx. $90,000 including the phones, installation, cabinets etc. A similarly configured Enterprise system with 200 phones, including the sets, installation cabinets, cards, redundancy, and perhaps a small call center, could be almost double. (although there are products that are available in the market which can provide redundancy for quite a bit less).

N + 1: An N+1 redundant network would work as follows:  Let’s say you have 80 IP phones authenticating to a primary call control server.  If that primary call control server fails the IP phones can automatically failover to an alternate call control server.  In the above scenario, imagine have 40 phones authenticate to Server #1, and 40 phones authenticate to Server #2.   Now imagine having a 3rd server.  If Server #1 gos down for whatever reason the phones from Server #1 can automatically authenticate to Server #3 which is sitting idle acting as a redundant switch.  If Server #2 goes down Server #3 can do the same thing.  In the above scenario you have N (being represented by the number of switches in the network) PLUS 1 (representing ONE additional switch more then N.

Reliability Issues & Survivability of equipment

I touched on this topic very briefly at the beginning of this book. I have a real penchant for reliability. Software bugs are not acceptable in a telecom environment.

My Pet Peeves:

Ninety-nine percent uptime is not reliable

Patches are not acceptable

Knowingly releasing a buggy product is not acceptable

The end-user market is not a beta site.

HELP! I spend so much of my time dealing with customer-related issues. Having to answer and explain why the manufacturer is having problems with their product really irks me. Why can’t manufacturers take more responsibility for their products? 

I have found myself gravitating toward two divergent paths:

Path 1 – I love technology. I love selling bleeding-edge technology

Path 2 – I hate supporting bleeding-edge technology. I hate customer complaints.

These two paths are somewhat contradictory. In addition, after my experience with Nortel’s BCM (you will read more about that later), I found myself looking for a new product. As my criteria when looking for a new product to sell, and any time a new product comes my way, I have a litmus test as follows (listed in order of importance):

  1. Reliability
  2. Reliability
  3. Reliability
  4. Features
  5. Price

Reliability is not something that you should take for granted. Just because a manufacturer sells a product, it does not mean that that product is very good. Ask questions of your supplier:

Questions of a premises-based system:

  • Is there a hard drive in the product?
  • How long does a backup take?
  • How long does a restore take?
  • If doing a restore following a failed product, how is this accomplished?
  • If doing a restore, does the version of backup matter to the version being restored to?
  • How many fans are in the product?
  • How many moving parts are in the product?
  • What operating system is the product operating on (if it matters)? 
  • Is there an Intel processor running the product? If so, what kind?
  • If the product is PC based, how much memory is included? Can the memory be upgraded? If so, by how much?
  • If there is a known software bug, how long does it take to do a patch/upgrade?
  • – What happens if the upgrade does not work?
  • – How is the licensing done on the product? On that note, in terms of licensing, if the card that the licensing is on should fail, how is the license regenerated and how long does that take?

I have grown highly intolerant of manufacturer incompetence, and even more intolerant of having to make excuses for product and manufacturer defects. Moreover, after my Nortel debacle, I resolved not to make any more excuses for poor, unreliable, or buggy software. 

I speak from experience having worked with Nortel product (specifically the BCM) for so many years. HOWEVER, this could happen with any product. So just make sure to ask the questions I have listed.

Questions of a hosted PBX provider:

How about the reliability of a hosted PBX solution? Just because you don’t own the equipment (in a hosted PBX environment the PBX is hosted outside your premises), it doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues to deal with. Here are some of the questions you need to ask of your hosted supplier.

Who owns the hosted solution? How stable and reliable is the owner? (You need to ask this question. If your business is highly dependent on your phone system, and if being down for more than a couple of hours could be potentially devastating, then you should know how financially stable the owner and the company is that you are buying this service from). After all, the viability of your company is dependent on the viability of the hosted provider.

If the hosted provider goes bankrupt, then what happens to your telephone numbers and how long will it take to gain control of those numbers? What is that process? And does it mean that you would be down until you can gain control of those numbers again?

What is the back-end technology that the hosted solution is based on? And how long is that company going to use that back-end technology for?

How much of the administration can you do yourself? Does the company charge for service related work? If so, how much? And, how long does it take to get a service call completed?

Who does the installation of the phones, routers etc.? Is this subcontracted? And if so, then to who? 

What facility will be used to create a direct data link from your office to the hosted provider’s office (remember, amazing voice needs an amazing data link from your office to the hosted provider’s office.

If you are not happy with the hosted solution, what is your best-case alternative to take the phones that you have now purchased and take them to another supplier? Alternatively, if the hosted provider goes out of business, where can you take those phones? For example, every hosted provider has their own set that they work with. Therefore, let’s say that you have just purchased Cisco phones. If you have thirty phones and have just spent $9,000 on handsets, if the hosted organization goes out of business, what do you do with those phones? Can you take them to another supplier? If so, WHO? If the answer is: “You can install a Cisco phone system”, then investigate that option. 

What kind of redundancy does the hosted provider have in their solution?

How over prescribed is the hosted provider with regards to trunking? Remember, you are sharing your phone system with many other companies. And all of the lines that you will use to dial out on are the same trunks as all of the other companies that are sharing the same resource. So, the question is, how many total sets are on their switch compared to the total number of lines available for dial out?

Ask the questions. At least you will be better educated.

System Reliability, and Redundancy

Reliability and redundancy do not necessarily go hand in hand, but both should certainly be considered when purchasing a phone system. Some system are inherently more reliable then others, based to a great extent on the underlying hardware architecture of the main components in the box. Moving parts can make a phone system inherently more unreliable; fans, power supplies, and hard drives are “phone system killers”.  

Any of those parts have a average run time life, generally measured by the term “Mean time between failure” or MTBF.  Of course the average MTBF of a hard drive depends on the brand of the drive, and the amount of function that the drive is expected to perform, however, as a general rule of thumb you can expect a hard drive to last for 5 years

This was chapter 5 of the series: How to Buy a Phone System for Your Business.

Let’s now move on to Chapter 6 of the series: Call Centers and Their Role in Business Phone Systems