Virtual PBX: Dialing for Dollars

More small businesses are discovering the benefits of virtual PBX — a technology that provides even very small firms with telephone system features such as auto attendants, voice-mail, unified messaging and find-me-follow-me capability. Big corporations typically pay thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars for the exact same features. Small businesses can use a virtual PBX for a fraction of the cost.

Granite Funding, a two-man mortgage brokerage based in Danville, Calif., consists of Mathew Atkins and partner Frank Quattro, plus a fluctuating number of loan agents who work as independent contractors. The firm helps borrowers find the right lending institution and loan program and then brokers a deal between borrower and lender. Granite does about $4 million in loans a month on average.

The firm’s partners and loan agents work out of a single office with four conventional incoming phone lines. The two partners, who both travel frequently, also use cell phones. “I wanted a phone system where we could have one number that would ring to other numbers within the system,” explains Atkins. That’s exactly what RingCentral, a San Mateo, Calif.-based telecommunications company, gives him.

Project a Bigger Image
RingCentral Online, starting at $9.99 a month, offers one local or toll-free number for incoming calls, an auto attendant that routes calls to multiple extensions, bundled minutes of incoming or outgoing calls, centralized voice mail for all extensions, computer-based fax sending and receiving, unified messaging — receiving faxes and voice mails as e-mail attachments — and a unique Call Controller PC program that, among other things, lets users control how they take, or don’t take, calls as they come in.

Granite pays $50 a month for the Business Power package which provides one toll-free number, 1,000 minutes of incoming or outgoing calls (4.8 cents for additional minutes) and 20 extensions. The firm also purchased two separate local numbers from RingCentral for $10 a month each.

RingCentral and other virtual PBX services don’t eliminate the need for conventional phone lines. All calls to your RingCentral numbers go to the company’s call center. They’re routed from there to your existing phones according to how you program the system. You also still need one or more phone lines from which you can make outgoing calls. The phones you use with RingCentral can be anywhere in the country, though, and they could be regular office phones, residential lines, cell phones or VoIP lines.

The beauty is that you can appear to be a large company with a centralized operation when in fact you’re a small business with a bunch of employees or partners working in home offices in different cities — a virtual company with a virtual PBX.

One way RingCentral can route calls is using the optional auto attendant feature. You customize the greetings callers hear to give them options — press one for sales, press two for customer service, for example. When the caller presses a button, RingCentral forwards the call to the telephone number you associated with that extension.

Granite isn’t using the auto attendant feature yet. “If somebody calls our 800 number now, it rings in the office,” Atkins explains. “If it’s not answered, it goes into one general mailbox. But we could set it up so that it says, ‘For residential mortgages, press one’ or ‘For commercial mortgages, press two.’ We may use that in the future.”

The Automated Secretary
Granite relies instead on RingCentral’s find-me-follow-me features. The two additional RingCentral numbers the firm pays for are direct numbers for Atkins and Quattro. They use the RingCentral software to set up profiles that tell the system how to find them, specifying which numbers to try and in what order. If they don’t pick up on the first line, RingCentral forwards the call to the next. When it runs out of forwarding numbers, it sends the call to their voice mail.

RingCentral even lets them set up profiles with rules for different times of the day, week or for a range of dates. On the weekends or in the evening, you might want calls forwarded to your home or mobile number first, rather than to your office line. When you’re on vacation, you could have calls go directly to voice mail. Another alternative is to have the system ring multiple lines at the same time. You pick up whichever phone is most convenient — or cheapest to use.

Atkins has calls forwarded to his cell phone by default, but uses Call Controller, RingCentral’s PC software, to reroute calls in real time. When a call comes in, a message pops up on his laptop screen with the caller’s name, number and four options: accept the call, reject the call, send the call directly to voice mail or reply. When he clicks the accept option, a drop-down list lets him choose the number to which RingCentral forwards the call.

RingCentral screen shot
Operator, Please Hold — RingCentral’s automated Call Controller alerts you when you have an incoming call.

“If I’m sitting in my office or at a home, I can actually tell it to ring through to this phone number or that one — and pick it up at my desk or on my home phone,” Atkins says.

The reply option lets him type a message, which RingCentral translates into spoken words using text-to-speech technology and plays for the caller. This is convenient if you’re in the middle of a meeting or another phone call. When you choose the reject call option — useful if the calling line ID tells you that it’s a telemarketer — the caller hears a recorded message saying you’re unavailable. There’s no option to leave a voice mail.

RingCentral Advantages
Granite had been using a competing virtual PBX product prior to switching to RingCentral, but there were a few irritants. Atkins and Quattro had trouble reaching the provider’s customer service department after East coast office hours. Some of the features — such as receiving voice-mail and faxes as e-mail attachments — either didn’t work well or were too complicated. The provider also didn’t let Granite share bundled minutes among its extensions.

“With the other service, each extension was an entity unto itself,” Atkins explains. This meant the bundled minutes provided for an extension were only applicable to that extension. Sometimes one extension would go over its quota, and Granite would have to pay extra, while others didn’t use very many minutes at all. “It was really more geared to individual users,” he says of the other service.

With RingCentral, calls to any of the RingCentral numbers — the main 800 number or the local numbers Atkins and Quattro use — draw from the same bucket of minutes. They can also use their RingCentral calling cards to charge calls made from any phone against their 1,000 minutes.

RingCentral doesn’t cost much less than what Granite was paying before, but the firm was looking to increase the number of lines. To get the number of virtual PBX lines it’s using now would have cost significantly more with the other service, Atkins says.

“Something RingCentral does that I think is very smart is that they give you a free trial,” he says. “That let me play with it and see how it works — and confirm that the features that didn’t work well with the other service were fine with RingCentral.”

Faxes, for example, now arrive as PDF attachments where the old service delivered TIFF files which required a special viewer to open. And receiving voice-mails as audio file attachments works reliably with RingCentral where it didn’t with the other service.

RingCentrally Located
The unified messaging features, which lets him collect faxes and voice mails from his regular e-mail box or from the Call Controller software, are among Atkins’ favorites. He can always get voice messages by calling in to his RingCentral account on a phone, but unified messaging also lets him see and respond to faxes when he’s away from his office, even when he’s without his laptop.

“A lot of times, clients want to send stuff on the weekend and in the evening,” he explains. “And I travel. But I can always get to my e-mail. If I’m in New York, for example, a customer can fax me a bank statement, and I can fax it on to the [lender].” The customer, in fact, need never know he isn’t in his office. “That’s nice — to be able to travel and have my customers not even know I’m not at my desk,” he says.

The Call Controller software also gives Atkins access in one place to faxes, e-mails and a log of incoming calls. And he can get up-to-date information anywhere he has Internet access. “It’s like a mobile office,” he says. “When you’re working on a file, you have a manila folder with all the information related to that piece of business. I have most, if not all, of that information sitting on my computer now.”

It’s the essence of the virtual PBX experience. For small firms, especially those with distributed work forces or highly mobile partners or employees, virtual PBX services provide a host of benefits. Other providers include Intellicomm Inc., which we wrote about recently, Linx Communications and GotVMail.

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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