A Virtual PBX for Your Real Business

The right phone system can help make small businesses seem bigger and more professional. Even if you’re a one- or two-person shop and work out of a home office, even if you basically run your business from wherever you are, an advanced phone system can make you sound like a big firm with its own centralized Private Branch Exchange (PBX).

PBX systems designed for small businesses do exist, but they’re typically expensive and difficult to set up. Which is why virtual PBX services, such as Innoport from Intellicomm, Inc., make a lot of sense for small and home-based companies.

Innoport requires no capital expenditure and no hardware or software maintenance. It offers all the PBX features of big firm systems &#151 including auto attendant, voice mail, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) &#151 and some very advanced features such as unified communications (voice, text and fax messages delivered to a single mail box) and find-me/follow-me which can be very useful for virtual and highly mobile companies. Best of all, the system is surprisingly simple to set up remotely using nothing more complicated than a Web browser.

With Innoport, Intellicomm provides a phone number or numbers that you can give out to customers, including toll-free numbers. It answers your calls, then routes them to any phone number you choose in the United States or Canada. You control every aspect of how it answers and how it routes calls. The Web interface, which we tested and will talk about in a minute, lets you configure all the features as well as monitor your account.

At first glance, with plans starting as low as $9.95 a month, Innoport looks like a great bargain. A second glance reveals per-minute usage and other fees that can drive up monthly charges pretty quickly. The service begins to look expensive, especially when you consider that you will be using Innoport with another phone line or lines for which you’re already paying. But take a third look.

The least expensive option is the entry level Jump Start package which provides up to two telephone numbers, up to five extensions and 150 to 250 free incoming minutes per month for $10 to $20 a month &#151 depending on how many and what kind of numbers you request. Number options include: toll-free, “economy” (a Philadelphia number &#151 it’s where Intellicomm is based), or local to you. An incoming minute is any minute a caller is connected to your Innoport number. With a toll-free line, you don’t get any free incoming minutes and pay eight cents for every minute of use.

The Standard Corporate package starts at $24.95 a month, allows unlimited numbers (for each of which, beyond the first, you pay extra) and unlimited extensions. It includes at least 750 monthly incoming minutes (you get more with each additional phone number) and charges lower fees for incoming minutes above the allowance.

With either package, you pay three cents extra per minute when accessing “premium” services such as listening to voice-mail and fax header information by phone (or eight cents with a toll-free line). You pay eight cents per minute while Innoport is forwarding a call using the find-me/follow-me features. And you pay eight cents per minute to send faxes, or six cents a minute for broadcast faxing &#151 sending the same message to a contact list.

The Business Case
Yes, it’s complicated. But Intellicomm claims it’s still cheaper than the alternatives. “We’ve done a lot of return on investment calculations for customers,” says company spokesperson Harrison Lee. “When you compare it to buying, installing and managing a PBX, [Innoport] almost always turns out to be more economical &#151 though customers looking at the rates sometimes fail to see that.”

Dr. Seth Guterman, founder and CEO of Emergency Care Documentation Services (ECDS), a Chicago-based firm that makes EmpowER, an emergency room electronic medical records system, saw quite clearly what Innoport could do for his company. Guterman estimates the service saves him “a minimum of $50,000 a year” &#151 and ECDS doesn’t even use Innoport to answer its main phone lines.

Innoport only answers ECDS’s technical support line, and then uses the find-me/follow-me call routing features to track down on-call personnel. Technical support calls come in very rarely, but when they do, ECDS has to be able to respond immediately, at any hour of the day or night. Innoport offered a way for the company to provide 24/7 support without the necessity of having employees on duty all day, every day.

“We would otherwise have to hire extra people and put them in a technical support office somewhere,” Guterman says. “Our support agents would have to drive to the office, or we’d have to have someone on a pager. What Innoport did was let our employees have a life. They didn’t have to sit in an office building anymore waiting for calls.”

When ECDS started out, it had only three hospital customers using its software. It gave them three different numbers to call to track down an available tech support agent &#151 not very professional. Now the company’s 20 customers call in to a single Innoport number.

The Innoport software uses day-of-week and time-of-day call routing instructions provided by ECDS to determine which number to try first to find an available agent, and which number or numbers to forward the call to if the first one doesn’t answer. The company can use any Internet-connected device to go in and change a call routing profile so that Innoport will try different numbers or try them in a different order.

Impressive Features
The range of configurable features in Innoport is remarkable. Even more impressive is the fact that they’re relatively easy to configure. When customers sign up, they get a company ID, an administrative username and a password &#151 all of which they need to log in at the Innoport Web page to gain access to account information and configuration utilities. They can log in anywhere from any Internet-connected computer.

From the main Account Management dialog, the administrator can add numbers and specify whether they’re fax only or voice and fax lines. They can add users and assign them extension numbers, user names and passwords (so they can log in and adjust settings on their own extensions). Users are added to the company directory automatically. The company directory lets callers enter the first few letters of an employee’s last name or listen to a list of names and extension numbers. You can offer callers one or both options by clicking the appropriate check boxes.

The Auto Attendant Setup dialog lets an administrator specify which extension numbers will route calls to a particular department or individual &#151 press 1 for sales, press 2 for customer service…press 9 (the default) for directory assistance. If you turn on incoming call identification, when an employee picks up a call, Innoport will announce which menu number the caller chose. This is useful in companies where one person is handling multiple functions. They’ll know how to answer the call. An auto attendant menu number can also play a message rather than route a call to an extension.

Administrators also use this dialog to create multiple rules for determining how the auto attendant answers. You can create one rule for weekdays, one for weekends and another for holidays, each with a different announcement. You can also have rules for different times of the day: one for normal business hours and one for after hours.

Innoport Auto Attendant screen shot

Press One for – The Auto Attendant dialog screen lets you choose which extensions you want associated with various departments, such as sales, marketing or customer support.

Auto Attendant
Innoport lets you create auto attendant announcements in two ways. You can call an Intellicomm number and record them by speaking or playing a pre-recorded announcement into the phone. Or you can use the text-to-speech synthesizer from within the Web interface. Type announcements into the pop-up window and Innoport reads them to callers. The feminine voice is remarkably natural sounding, though ultimately recognizable as an electronic voice.

Very small businesses may want to use text-to-speech rather than recording their own announcements, Lee says, because they don’t want callers to recognize the voice in the announcement as someone who also answers in person &#151 a dead give away that it’s a small company.

Companies can choose to give individual employees access to their accounts so they can adjust their own call-routing profiles. Within the Account Profile, the Call Routing setup dialog looks very much like the Auto Attendant dialog. The employee (or the administrator) can create multiple rules for different times of the week, day or year.

Each rule specifies the user’s personal greeting and also a find-me/follow-me call cycle. During the day, you might have the system try your office number first and then your cell phone. Between close of day and 9 p.m., you could have it try your home number first, then your cell phone. And after nine, you could have calls routed directly to voice mail. You can also specify how long the phone will ring at each number before the system rolls over to the next.

Innoport lets administrators upload a .wav file to use as music on hold, or create a message using the text-to-speech synthesizer that will play while the caller is on hold.

The list of features goes on. Innoport gives you the option of using speech recognition so that callers can speak auto attendant menu options. You can choose to force callers to identify themselves. When you answer the call, Innoport announces who the call is from and you can take the call or route it elsewhere.

While the interface is for the most part brilliantly simple and intuitive, it’s not perfect. If you create a rule for weekdays in the Account Profile, for example, and you want to enter “exclusions” &#151 dates that will handled by a separate rule &#151 you have to key in each date. Why not a drop down list of known vacation dates from which to choose? Or a calendar interface that lets you click on dates to select them? This is a minor quibble, though.

If you have speech recognition activated and you’re routing calls from Innoport to a number with phone company voice mail, Innoport may inadvertently leave a message on your telephone company voice mail rather than forwarding the call to the next number in your call cycle. Again, this is a quibble. You can simply turn off speech recognition.

Bottom Line
Innoport is brilliantly executed. The only question is whether it’s really cheaper than other options. If you need &#151 or at least could use &#151 all the functionality it offers, or if you need, as ECDS did, one of the advanced features not readily available with other solutions, Innoport is probably worth the price. Otherwise? Big question mark.

Our recommendation: get Intellicomm to help you develop a business case with realistic assumptions &#151 how much incoming call volume are you likely to experience and how much would it really cost to buy and manage a PBX? That will tell you if Innoport makes sense for you.

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 Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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