Your Number's Up

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted August 01, 2000
by Lyle Deixler

Choosing a new business phone system isn't a simple trip to Radio Shack. There are many factors involved that may not surface until a salesperson starts reeling off head-spinning terms like ISDN, T-1, add-on voice mail, and digital upgrade. And as some systems are priced on a per-phone basis, not only is it necessary to know how many phones are needed, but also how many lines the system can support, and whether the system can accommodate a growing business.

Initially two terms you might hear from phone system vendors are PBX (Private Branch Exchange) and key system (see the Jargon box for more terms). Both are business telephone systems in which the phones are proprietary to the system they're bundled with. In other words, they won't work when plugged into a standard wall outlet in most cases. Many key and PBX systems will, on the other hand, allow for the purchase of inexpensive, single-line analog phones (basic phones, with no displays or few feature buttons) that can be utilized with the key system or PBX.

The main difference between a key system and a PBX is size. Most key systems cannot support as many lines and phones as a full-blown PBX. But key systems have, in recent years, caught up to PBXs in terms of features. Many key systems can support T-1 and ISDN lines, and applications like Interactive Voice Response (IVR), Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), and auto attendant/voice mail.

HOW WE TESTED
We looked at four different telephone systems: The Bizfon 680 is a SOHO system, suited for smaller sites. ESI's IVX 128 and Samsung's DCS are key systems, but can also be considered hybrid key/PBX systems because of their features and versatility. eOn's Millennium is a PBX suited for larger environments.

Because we were unable to install the systems in our offices, our evaluations are based on site visits to offices that use the systems, conversations with the manufacturers, phone system vendors (a.k.a. interconnects), and end users.

WE CONSIDERED:
* The simplicity of the programming interfaces and overall ease of use.

* The design of the phones themselves, with regard to the ease of use of speed-dial keys, one-touch feature access, conference, transfer, hold, etc.

* Additional features and compatibility such as auto attendant/voice mail, and support for digital lines.

Bizfon 680
Rating 91

The Bizfon 680 key system supports up to six lines and eight phones. It ships with built-in voice mail for up to eight mailboxes and auto attendant capabilities. You can also use cordless and conventional analog phones (off-the-shelf sets available in retail stores) with Bizfon.

Prior to getting the 680 system from Bizfon, SHoP, a Manhattan-based architecture firm, didn't really have a professional business telephone system. "It was really chaotic," explains SHoP's Kimberly J. Holden, a partner in the company.

"We had two lines, one for fax, one for a cordless phone we shared with five people. The phone would ring and you had to leap over the desk to get it. We didn't have a receptionist. We all had to pitch in. Then the volume of calls increased, and we had to upgrade," explains Holden.

"We did a lot of research, and saw a lot of systems that had more features than we needed. They were also prohibitively expensive. We saw an ad for Bizfon, and I thought it was too good to be true because of the price."

"Bizfon asked what kind of office space we had, and sent two installers." According to Holden, learning how to use the phones was easy, including recording voicemail messages and the company's main greeting. "We didn't have to spend a lot of time learning it; it's easy to change your voicemail message if you go on vacation. Retrieving messages is also easy."

With the Bizfon system, SHoP now has eight phones with eight extensions, four incoming lines, one fax line, and one modem line. Bizfon offers a tech support hotline that lets users dial a three-digit code to get connected to the Bizfon help desk.

The system has some convenient call-forwarding features, which let users forward office calls automatically to their cell phones or home phones. You can also remotely call into Bizfon to hear voicemail messages and change outgoing greetings.

"Other systems were triple to quadruple the cost. I'm very happy with it," Holden says.

The phones have convenient one-touch fixed buttons for features like transfer, conference, "do not disturb," and programming. The only complaint Holden had about the system was that there is no light on the phones to signal to users that there is a message. The newer phones now have this feature.

Best suited for sites that need only a small number of lines and phones, the Bizfon 680 is a very cost-effective system. The system, which includes voice mail, is priced at $1,499 for the control cabinet, and $99 for each BizTouch2 feature phone.

eOn Communications Millennium Digital Communications Platform
Rating 90

For larger sites, high-volume calling, and conferencing, check out eOn Communications' Millennium Digital Communications Platform. The Millennium is a fully modular PBX system that supports up to 1,024 ports; an integrated ACD; digitally-integrated voice mail; IVR and call center applications; T-1; ISDN; a built-in, 32-port conference bridge; and other features.

As the Gannaway Group, a Manhattan-based Internet application service provider, outgrew their Merlin key system, they realized they needed a new phone system.

"We had six or seven [employees] and kept growing," says Gannaway's vice president, Ion Puspurica. "We're now at 65 people and we needed a platform that could scale and accommodate our growth."

Operating with around 65 to 70 phones, employees are spread out between two floors, the 30th and third. Their Millennium configuration consists of two cabinets on each floor connected via fiber-optic lines. This lets them quickly make extension-to-extension calls between floors and allows for centralized control of the phones and voicemail system.

Two features of the Millennium that appealed to Gannaway were its 32-party conference call capability and the system's ability to show several extensions on one phone. For example, with an 18-button feature phone, multiple buttons can be customized to show extensions, enabling users to pick up a call on any one of those extensions.

"That was something we wanted," Puspurica says about the multiple extension appearances on one phone, "to jump in on a call." They also do a lot of high-volume conference calling, and Millennium allows up to 32 people to participate on a single conference call.

One thing Puspurica would like to see on the Millennium is an easier administrative interface, so he doesn't have to make a service call (and pay for it) every time he wants to do something like add a new user and phone.

To properly use the system, a telecommunications manager would need some in-depth training. Users can do certain things, like change the name on the phone's display and add speed-dial numbers. Gannaway decided to outsource the administrative functions to its vendor, Johnston Communications.

Philip J. Johnston, director of sales at Johnston Communications, says that programming the Millennium is a little more complicated than programming other systems because it has so many features. "It usually needs a lot of customization, but it's very flexible. You need good technicians to install it."

According to Johnston, when customers are considering a new phone system, it's crucial to take into account the system's ability to grow and add more phones and lines as needed.

"Gannaway is a perfect example," he says. "They had 30 people when we first came here, and I could have sold a smaller, simpler system. But at the size he's at now, one year later they would need a new system. And if they take more office space across the street (like they're considering), they can still use the eOn system and its centralized features and voice mail."

The eOn Millennium is a very powerful system, loaded with an array of features and capabilities. We liked that customized call routing is available, but programming can be tricky and there is a learning curve. Outsourcing the administrative functions to a vendor with qualified technicians who know the system may be necessary.

A 60-to 70-station eOn Millennium system, installed with voice mail, could cost about $800 per set, depending on what type of phones are purchased.

ESI IVX 128
Rating 94

Aria Systems manufactures a software package (order entry, inventory, accounting, etc.) for the apparel and accessories industry. When Aria's executives went shopping for a phone system, they looked for something with built-in, integrated voice mail, and chose ESI's IVX 128. The IVX 128 is a hybrid key/PBX system that supports up to 42 lines and 84 phones. It ships with built-in voice mail, auto attendant, ACD capabilities, and supports up to two T-1 lines. It's one of the easier systems we've seen in terms of programming. Voice prompts will guide users through tasks such as how to use the sets and voice mail.

"We wanted something with integrated voice mail, not an add-on PC," says Aria's vice president, Farrukh Awan. The IVX 128's voice mail has 16 ports, allowing any combination of up to 16 mailboxes to simultaneously play or record messages. Awan says other systems he considered only had four ports of voice mail.

The company currently has about 17 lines and 20 phones. Awan says the company is moving soon to a bigger office space. He plans to bring the IVX 128s with them and to add more lines and phones.

Besides the voice mail, Aria is also using the system's ACD. "The ACD is another key feature," says Awan's vendor, Ralph Di Caterino, of Tel-One Communications located in Glen Cove, N.Y. "The ACD ships standard on the system and supports up to 10 different departments with 32 people per department."

Aria provides a lot of technical support for its software, and tries to answer every call with a receptionist. But when the receptionist is busy, an automated question and answer feature on the IVX unit picks up and queries callers about the type of support they need. Once the caller chooses an option by pressing a digit on the phone, the call is redirected to the proper support group. According to Awan, the ACD is great, and has freed up his receptionist to do other important work in the office.

"The receptionist is now helping out on some tech support calls and administrative duties as opposed to just taking one call after another," Awan says.

This is an excellent system that is well worth the money and very easy to program and use. The one hiccup we found was trying to connect two separate IVX 128s together between remote sites. It can be done, but Centrex (a central office/carrier-based service) will be required to handle the signaling between sites.

An ESI IVX 128 with 20 lines and 40 phones costs about $600 per station.

Samsung DCS
Rating 92

When Direct Mail Depot, a direct marketing and mail-fulfillment company, moved into a new office and needed a bigger phone system, it went with the Samsung DCS key system. Several configurations of the DCS are available: An office can start small with four lines and eight phones, and grow to a 384-port system. The higher capacity Samsung systems support T-1 and ISDN lines.

Carmen A. Ocello, president and COO at Direct Mail Depot, says he was familiar with the Samsung phones from a previous job and liked the system. When he shopped around for phones at the old job, he hired a consultant who did all the legwork by checking out various systems. Ocello said the consultant cost about $1,200 and examined about eight different phone systems. Ocello estimated that the consultant probably saved his company about $15,000 to $20,000 on the final cost of the phone system.

At Direct Mail Depot's current location in Piscataway, N.J., it has about 16 lines and 35 phones. The company is using Samsung's Cadence voice mail, which is an add-in card that slides into the DCS cabinet. It's digitally integrated with the phone system, providing fast access to messages and smooth transfers from the phone switch to voicemail boxes.

The Cadence add-in card has its own hard drive, and provides up to 1,000 mailboxes and 100 hours of message time. It also has built-in auto attendant capabilities.

Additionally, Direct Mail Depot is making extensive use of the DCS paging features. Employees simply pick up the phone and page each other through the handset to one or several zones. Direct Mail Depot has five paging zones set up throughout its offices and 110,000 square feet of warehouse and shipping space. They bought the Samsung DCS from AG Teleconsultants. AG Teleconsultants' Alan L. Gittle steered the company away from buying a Paging Zone Controller (which can cost about $500) since it's using relays on the DCS system to handle the paging.

Ocello says the company also uses some wireless phones, which act as extensions of the DCS system, providing all the features of a desk set (conference, transfer, etc.). According to Ocello, the wireless phones are great for plant managers, who can walk around the warehouse with a phone that provides just about everything their desk phones have.

The DCS display phones have three soft keys and a dynamic Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). As you press the soft keys, the instructions change on the display, prompting you with instructions on how to run the phones, which buttons to press to change certain features, etc.

A Samsung DCS that supports up to 10 lines and 32 phones costs about $10,900 (or about $340 per station), installed. The Cadence voicemail card costs about $4,500.

WHAT WE THINK
For small offices that need eight phones or less, check out Bizfon's 680. The sets are very easy to use, and it ships with built-in auto attendant and voice mail. It's a great entry-level product that can easily be expanded upon, and the price is extremely affordable.

For small- to mid-sized sites, check out ESI's IVX 128. It's cost effective and ships with two convenient features: built-in auto attendant and voice mail, and an ACD. It's also easy to use. Simply pick up the handset, press a code to enter into programming mode, and follow the voice-prompt instructions that describe how to use the phone's features, how to set up a voicemail box, record greetings, and retrieve messages.

For larger sites, we recommend eOn's Millennium. It's a powerful, modular system that grows to 1,024 ports. It includes an integrated ACD, and digitally-integrated voice mail is available. It's suited for IVR and call center applications. It supports T-1 and ISDN, and has a built-in, 32-port conference bridge. It can satisfy a variety of customized call-handling needs.

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