A Big-Biz Phone System for SMBs

For many small companies, a telephone system is the most important technology investment they will make. The phone system is their main point of contact with customers. It had better be good.

Luis Contreras, president of AmeTrade Controls Inc., a Miami-based export company specializing in industrial automation equipment, had been looking for a new phone solution for a couple of years. He wanted the features that big-business PBX (Private Branch Exchange) systems offer, and he wanted to be able to take advantage of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology. But it had to be at a price he could afford.

Finding the Right Product
When Contreras saw the TalkSwitch product from Centrepoint Technologies Inc. at a trade show last year, he knew he’d found the system he was seeking. The TalkSwitch 48-CVA, a proprietary hardware and software product, offered all the capacity he needed and all the PBX features he wanted, including voice mail, auto attendants, conferencing, intelligent call routing and even music on hold. Best of all, the VoIP option let him send calls over the Internet &#151 a capability that would take his business in a new direction.

“One of the things that amazed me is how flexible TalkSwitch is,” Contreras says. “You can configure it to work as a PBX for a really small business or the very same system can be set up for use by a considerably bigger company.”

TalkSwitch comes in configurations with as few as two phone company lines in with four local extensions, to 16 lines with 32 extensions. It’s possible to upgrade from the smaller to larger systems by adding modules. The 48-CVA system AmeTrade purchased has four incoming lines and eight local extensions &#151 plus four VoIP trunks that will accommodate lines from IP phone providers such as Vonage. It can also connect to the Internet via an Ethernet LAN (Local Area Network) port.

The price was right, Contreras says. He paid $1,795 for the 48-CVA. “I saw other solutions, but all of them, at least at that point, were well out of our budget. The ones closest to the Centrepoint product cost at least three or four times as much.”

Talk Is Cheap
Contreras, a Venezuelan immigrant, founded AmeTrade in 1995. It was not much more than a hobby at first, he says, but he soon found there were serious opportunities in marketing U.S.-built automation control equipment to manufacturers around the world. Last year the company had sales of about $1.5 million. He has five employees working in his Miami office, and another three in a recently opened office in Valencia, Venezuela.

Opening an overseas office was something he had wanted to do for some time, but it required a phone system like TalkSwitch to make it feasible. The Venezuelan office is an extension of the Miami office. It’s not there to service local customers &#151 there are few of those in any case. What it does is allow Contreras to take advantage of lower labor and business services costs in his homeland.

“For what it costs me to have one employee here,” he says, “I can have three employees over there and pay for the office and services too. I know the area and the system well so it was easy to set it up.”

It wouldn’t have been economically viable, though, if AmeTrade had to pay for overseas calling between Valencia and Miami for intra-company communications. With the TalkSwitch VoIP option, the company doesn’t have to pay toll charges.

Contreras bought a second TalkSwitch 48-CVA for the Venezuelan office. Both have phone lines coming in and regular analog phone sets plugged into the local extension ports. They are also connected to a LAN in the office, which in turn is connected to the Internet over a broadband link. AmeTrade already had high-speed Internet in the Miami office because it often has to download huge product manuals from suppliers.

When an employee in Venezuela needs to call a colleague in Miami or vice versa, he dials the person’s three-digit extension number. The call is carried over the public Internet to the Miami office and then routed to the appropriate extension by TalkSwitch. If the person in Venezuela needs to call a customer in the U.S., the call is carried over the Internet and then routed by the Miami TalkSwitch out over one of the phone company lines to its destination. It works the same way in reverse. So AmeTrade never pays for overseas calls between Venezuela and the U.S.

That was one of the key advantages that sold Contreras on the Centrepoint product. Another was the TalkSwitch auto attendant feature, the PBX software that answers calls with a recorded message and lets callers press a touchtone key to select a menu option &#151 Press One for Sales, Press Two for Shipping and so on. With the Panasonic system AmeTrade had been using, the company could have only one auto attendant &#151 one greeting, one set of routing options.

World View
Since many of the company’s customers are Spanish speaking, Contreras wanted to give them the option of hearing auto attendant messages in Spanish. He couldn’t do that with the Panasonic system, but each TalkSwitch system can have nine auto attendants. They could be completely separate greetings and routing menus attached to different incoming lines &#151 if you were running different businesses out of the same office, for example. Or they could be branching menus, which is how AmeTrade uses them.

Now when a customers call, the system asks them to press one for English or two for Spanish. When they press one or two, they go to another auto attendant that offers menu choices in the language of choice. The TalkSwitch auto attendants also let callers key in an employee’s extension if they know it, or wait on the line for somebody to answer.

“The kind of image we give to customers is really important for us,” Contreras says. “It’s not just the auto attendant, it’s also the whole idea customers have of us being a corporation instead of a small business.” TalkSwitch helps AmeTrade give the impression of being a bigger business than it is. One other way it does this is by playing music while callers are on hold, a feature Contreras admits may seem trivial, but which makes a difference.

Forward Thinking
AmeTrade uses call routing and other big-business PBX features that TalkSwitch offers. For example, Contreras can set up the system to automatically forward calls to his cell phone or home office based on time of day or his schedule for the day. And sending the call out to the cell or home phone doesn’t require using a second phone company line as it does with some systems, he notes. The forwarded call goes out over the same line on which it came in.

The company uses the call-routing features to forward calls to on-call technical support agents, including employees in Venezuela. This makes it easier to schedule technical support and less likely that customers will have to wait on hold. When customers call AmeTrade’s Miami number for technical support, they have no idea that the person who picks up the phone may be on a cell phone in Valencia.

Another feature Contreras likes is the ring group. He can set up all the sales group’s phones to ring as a group. When a customer calls and selects Sales from the auto attendant, all the extensions ring until somebody picks up or the call goes to voice mail. It helps improve customer service by increasing the chances a call will be answered quickly by a live person.

Contreras installed the system himself &#151 as most customers do, Centrepoint says. Hardware setup is very easy, simply a matter of plugging in incoming phone lines and extensions using standard and familiar RJ-11 phone jacks, and then plugging the system into the LAN using an Ethernet cable. Configuring the system, which is done by accessing software on the TalkSwitch from another computer on the LAN, is a little more “involved,” Contreras admits.

“But the software interface is really easy,” he says. “And after awhile you realize how convenient it is. You don’t need any great technical knowledge to configure it.”

Prices for TalkSwitch systems start at $695. Any phone set will work, but Centrepoint also sells business phones for $149 each. Upgrade modules that add two phone company lines and four local extensions cost $900 each. An upgrade module to add VoIP trunks costs $400.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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