Old Dogs, New Tricks

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted April 11, 2001
by Keith Kirkpatrick

More and more businesses are turning to PBX (Private Branch Exchange) networks as the communications systems of choice for providing the flexibility necessary for any expanding company. The newer PBX systems are allowing the purchase of inexpensive, single-line analog phones with minimal feature buttons that can be used with the home phone system.

The main differences among PBX systems today are usually in the complexity of the installation and the interface used to manage day-to-day maintenance, such as adding user stations or changing voice-mail greetings. The more powerful -- and complex -- systems tend to provide more features and control over the entire system, such as linking to specific area codes and prefixes with certain long-distance carriers, but even modest systems will provide a plethora of standard and advanced call-handling options ideal for any business.

How We Tested
We looked at four telephone systems. Artisoft's Televantage 3.5 and COM2001's Alexis are software-based PBXs, while 3COM's NBX100 and @Comm's Town Square are full-function systems designed for larger offices.

Because we were unable to install the systems in our offices, evaluations are based on demos and conversations with the manufacturers, dealers, and end users. We concentrated on the user interface, and additional features offered by the system, such as least-cost call routing. We also focused on how easy it was to install, and whether knowledge of IT was required for maintenance.

Artisoft Televantage 3.5 Rating 90

Artisoft's Televantage 3.5 is an alternative to traditional PBX models. Because the feature set is driven by software, more options can be provided at a lower cost. The system runs on a PC, using Microsoft Windows NT and Windows 2000 operating systems.

Televantage 3.5 is designed to work with virtually any standard analog or CLASS feature telephone, which can save organizations thousands of dollars in capital costs. Like other software PBX systems, it features a Windows-based interface and gives complete call and message control from any PC desktop. The intuitive interface forwards, transfers, or screens calls with one-click simplicity. And because the software works with contact management programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Goldmine, it also supports point-and-click dialing as well as screen-pops on incoming calls.

Like many software-based PBX's it checks voice mail or manages personal settings from any Web browser. Once logged into the system, he or she can listen to voice mail, and change call forwarding options or greetings.,p.We especially liked the ability to record calls easily and then either forward them to another user on the system or simply archive them as .wav files. These recorded calls can also be affixed with an electronic note to accompany forwarded calls.

Televantage 3.5 also features "follow me" call routing, which tries members at several locations, such as at home, or on a cell phone. It's also possible to specify in advance which callers can be forwarded to a cell phone and which get sent to voice mail.

Like other software PBXs, Televantage 3.5 integrates Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) and call center reporting, which uses Microsoft Excel to generate the reports. Televantage 3.5 also contains a built-in IP gateway that allows users to route calls over the Internet or intranet, or implement Web-based call centers.

Administration is as simple as clicking a button. It's simple to add users, change extensions, and change dialing restrictions. But the most impressive feature is its expandability -- Televantage easily scales up to 96 trunks by 264 extensions and up to 96 analog, T1, or E1 trunk lines.

@Comm Town Square
Rating 88

Integrating phone systems and computers is at the heart of @Comm's Town Square. For Jonathan Bartlett, vice president of sales for Puget Sound International, Inc., managing the two was a primary concern. That's why he selected @Comm's Town Square for his Londonderry, N.H.-based division of the company's phone and computing infrastructure.

The transportation and shipping company had a basic phone system and no network, but didn't want to invest in a super-technical system that required several vendors and a steep learning curve.

"I'm not a real technical person," Bartlett says. "I was in the market for a phone system, but I also wanted to do some computer networking. This system was really ideal for me."

Town Square is an integrated PBX, data-communications, and high-speed Internet access system for businesses with up to 40 employees. The box includes a PBX telephone system with auto attendant, 100 hours of voice mail, fax message routing, a network router for local area networking to connect PCs and servers, and firewall security. Town Square is designed as a primary file and Internet server. Town Square is priced at $370 per user, with a leasing option of $35 per user per month.

"The basic phone system for my company was going to cost very close to what I paid for this system," Bartlett says. "Did I add money to it, a couple of thousand dollars' worth? Yes, but I got more technology than what a basic phone system would've given me."

Typically, an authorized dealer will set up a custom configuration of Town Square, which can be implemented via a PC Card transfer, or the Internet. Once the basic configuration has been set, a menu-driven utility called Town Manager allows users to change nearly any parameter via a Web interface.

"We're not the most hard-core users of the interface, but for what we're doing, it works smoothly," Bartlett says. "We can get into everyone's computers, move stuff around, and we haven't had any problems."

One of the nice features of Town Square is least-cost call routing, which sets up the system to automatically dial the long-distance provider's access code, depending upon the area code and prefix of the number dialed. In addition, "you can block certain phones from making long-distance calls, but I don't really use that feature," Bartlett adds. PSI has 12 truck drivers and three employees who work in the office.

"We're not even using half of the features on the system now, but I bought it intending on future expansion," Bartlett says. "It can be adapted for small or large business use -- you just add extensions as you go."

In addition, using the interface is a snap, even for a novice, thanks to the context-sensitive help found on each feature. Town Square also allows companies to keep their original phones, or choose from a variety of handsets offered by Town Square. While the more technical aspects, such as networking and domain-masking are best handled by those with IT experience, administrative tasks are intuitive.

"We do our own voice-mail administration," Bartlett says. "It's user-friendly -- you don't have to go to a class for two days to learn the thing."

In the end, Bartlett found that Town Square was an ideal match for his company. "Where we didn't have anything to start off with, it was very easy for us to say, 'it's just right for me,'" he explains.

COM2001 Alexis
Rating 91

Like Artisoft's Televantage 2.0, Alexis from COM2001.com is designed to replace traditional business phone systems with a product that consolidates analog and digital features, including e-mail, voice mail, and faxing integrated with low cost IP telephony. But it was the personal assistant technology that sold Hochman Cohen LLP, a 20-person accounting firm, on Alexis.

Previously, the company had a Meridian key system, but felt it wasn't robust enough for their growing business.

"We wanted to add some features to the network, such as voice mail," says David Cohen, a partner with the San Diego-based firm. "It was going to cost us $10,000 to add voice mail anyway, so we said, 'why not?'"

The firm decided on Alexis, which features a software-based interface that integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Outlook's inbox and address box. But its real benefit is the ability to merge traditional PBX features such as voice mail and auto attendant, with anywhere-anyplace features, such as speech recognition and text-to-speech, interactive voice response, and follow-me call routing to serve as a true unified messaging system.

"The ability to get text-to-voice, voice recognition, and unified messaging were all really interesting to us," Cohen says. "We're on the road a lot, and we need to be able to keep in touch with our clients at a moment's notice. This allowed us, from the car, to retrieve, listen, and respond to e-mails without touching any keys."

Because Alexis integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Outlook, it can function as a basic CRM-based solution, with the ability to quickly manage contacts and call lists. Alexis' back-end is comprised of Microsoft Windows NT Server, Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Outlook, the COM (Component Object Model) telephony interface architecture, and is built by Dell. Alexis is designed to give you direct access to IP telephony -- especially for long-distance and overseas calling between offices. IP telephony is virtually free using existing Internet connections.

This robust infrastructure needs professional installation. COM2001 provides a two-day trainiing session and will work with a company's IT staff to install and seamlessly integrate Alexis.

The seamless nature of Alexis means greater flexibility handling calls wherever or whenever. Through the integrated Alexis toolbar and Outlook, users can place, accept, or transfer calls via a mouse click. They can also set up four-way calling or high-quality digital conference bridges for team meetings. The unified messaging structure converts e-mails, voice mails, and faxes from text-to-speech, increasing off-site productivity.

"I can get 30 phone calls and handle them on the way into the office," Cohen says. "It's nice to be able to come in over the Internet, and see your inbox while on the road."

The software allows companies to move phones within the organization while retaining the extension associated with them. This permits users to take phones into conference rooms, without missing calls or having them rerouted. "My administrators can be working on client stuff, without having to take messages and chase people down," Cohen says.

"The features and scalability gave us a migration path for how we wanted to grow as a business. We didn't think there was that flexibility if we had leased a PBX from the phone company. If I had to do it all over again, I'd definitely go with this product."

3COM NBX100
Rating 80

Berkeley Enterprise Partners, Inc., is a growing year-and-a-half old, venture-backed company specializing in customer relationship management.

Berkeley researched traditional PBXs as well as LAN telephony systems, with the goal of completely managing its phone system over data lines. The company eventually chose the NBX100 for its ability to use existing phones, its IP-based architecture, and its simple user-administration features.

"We were interested in finding a system that could grow as quickly as our business," says Jay Gauthier, the firm's executive vice president and co-founder. "We considered traditional PBX systems, but all of those things required specialized skills, and we would've had to invest in new handsets."

Unlike PC-based telephony platforms, the 3Com NBX 100 system is a self-contained, LAN-based system. The system's call-processing engine doubles as an application server, and delivers standard features ranging from auto-attendant/voice mail to unified messaging. The call processor scales up to 12 auto-attendant voice messaging ports and 80 hours of storage via software upgrades. Cards are available to connect up to four public switched telephone network (PSTN) lines with built-in Caller ID support, a standard T1 circuit, a standard E1 circuit, other NBX business telephones, user PCs, or other 10BASE-T or 10BASE2 Ethernet devices. The system will support a total of 200 devices.

Through the integration of Prism Look Pro, a third-party CRM software application, the NBX100 supports screen-pops that are integrated in Microsoft Outlook. This permits greater efficiency for the firm's workers, allowing them to quickly make notes, schedule appointments, or modify contact records. Plus, it supports call forwarding, providing a transparent way to always be in touch.

"Call forwarding works extremely well on the NBX100," Gauthier says. "Our consultants' phone calls follow them very aggressively, making them accessible at all times.

"If you have a team of consultants together in a conference room for a day, they can literally bring their handsets with them, plug them into any data jack here in the company, and calls come directly to the handset without any configuring."

When things do need to be configured, Gauthier says it's a straightforward process, even for non-technical users: "I can configure system-wide settings, in terms of voice-mail preferences for the group, average message length, and message history management."

Perhaps the best part about the NBX100 is its flexibility and expandability. The NBX100 can support up to 200PSTN lines and telephone sets in any combination. And, as Gauthier's company has done, it's possible to run a remote office off of the same NBX100 chassis, using a VPN to tunnel between the offices.

The NBX100 is best suited to handle small- to medium-size business applications. It's extremely robust, but the main drawback is the need for professional installation and the comparatively high initial cost of the system.

What We Think
For small- to mid-size businesses, any of the software-based PBX systems should work fine. They each offer simple, point-and-click administration and use, and offer a host of good features that tend to cost more when bundled with traditional PBXs. However, while each one handles telephony and CRM-like features well, it's important to demo them carefully to ensure that the interface is suitable.

For large installations, the 3COM NBX100 is a solid, robust system that should handle nearly any challenge thrown its way. Although it's considerably more expensive than a compact system, the ability to run a multiple-location network of offices on one chassis is particularly useful, especially for businesses that do a lot of inter-office communications.

Advances in telecommunications products and services have made it much easier for any business to set up flexible PBX-based systems. But in choosing the right equipment, it's important to assess the types of features and services required in the present, while planning for the future.

Questions To Ask
HOW MANY LINES AND MAILBOXES CAN I EXPECT TO NEED IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?
It's a good idea to make a liberal, high-growth estimate. Despite the cost of software-based PBXs falling, there's no sense selecting a system you're likely to outgrow in a month or two.

DO I NEED CALL LOGGING AND CRM FEATURES?
If you're in a service business where billable hours are important, select a system that lets you log calls based on time, client, and type. For serious CRM-based companies, choose a system that lets you integrate it with your favorite CRM software package.

DO I HAVE THE TECHNICAL EXPERTISE TO MANAGE THE SYSTEM?
For simple systems it's likely that once you have the system installed (roughly $500 to $700), you'll be able to manage everyday administrative chores with aplomb. But for multi-office installations, integrated file-sharing and Web-based services, and CRM software integration, it's wise to have at least one qualified IT staffer on board.

JARGON
PBX:
Abbreviation for private branch exchange. Typically proprietary in nature, PBXs allow basic call-routing paths within an organization to various handsets. Many older PBXs require upgrades for features such as voice mail, auto attendants, and call forwarding functionality.

FOLLOW-ME CALL FORWARDING:
A call-routing feature that designates which numbers a system will dial in order to find a user. Most high-end systems will also allow you to designate which callers will follow which routing path.

IP TELEPHONY:
Using IP (Internet Protocol), phone systems that support IP telephony can route calls over the Internet, saving toll charges and creating virtual conference rooms.

SCREEN POPS:
When a phone system supports integration with either CRM or contact-management software, a visual screen alert, called a screen pop, can be generated when a known caller is detected. This information can then be used to determine how the call is to be handled.

UNIFIED MESSAGING:
This feature allows a user to access his or her essages in any format, whether via voice, through a Web browser, through the main desktop client, or through a pager or other wireless client, ensuring that the messages always are accessible.

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