When’s the right time to invest in a phone system for my small business?

Nina Quasebarth

Nina Quasebarth

Small business can get away without having a business phone system for some time.

Depending on your situation, you can often run a small business on your mobile phone. You can also cobble together free tools like Skype and WhatsApp to talk to employees and customers for free.

But at some point as your business grows, the lack of a business phone solution starts hurting your business, and your customers start to wonder if you’re a company that can support them in the future.

So, how far can your small business go without a business phone system, and what are the warning signs?

What kinds of business can effectively run on mobile phones, and never have a business phone system at all?

At Spoke Phone we’ve been helping all sizes and kinds of businesses move to the next-generation of business phone systems for some time. We have lots of customers who love Spoke Phone and lots more who find that Spoke delivers great value to their business. 

But when we look at the group of customers who signed up and then stopped using Spoke, we have been able to identify some trends that tell us what kind of customers need a business phone system, and those that can live without one.

Of course it’s going to be different for your unique situation, but here are some common trends we’ve seen, of businesses that do not really need a business phone system.

Sole Traders
If you are a sole trader, perhaps an electrician,  painter,  landscape gardener, etc., you do not really need a business phone system. You work by yourself so you don’t need to transfer calls others. Customers want to speak to you directly, and  because you rely on personal relationships to build your business, you want customers to be able to call you.  For you, a mobile phone is good enough.  The only problem is that customers can call you whenever your phone is on (in the weekend at at night for instance). If you want to protect your downtime and stop customers calling you after hours, the good news is that there are several sole-trader phone system apps out there that are good enough for what you need.  You do not really need a professional business phone system like Spoke Phone.

The Gig Economy 
If you work for yourself in the Gig Economy, perhaps you’re a UX designer, coder, researcher, etc.,  then you really have no use for a business phone system. 99% of your business is done online, and your services are mostly digital. Your customers are used to connecting to you online via chat, video, and free calling apps. You do not really need a professional business phone system like Spoke Phone.

Small field / trade business with one office person
We’ve seen that electricians, plumbers, builders, etc., with say five or less employees, often struggle to justify the expense of a phone system. If you have one admin person in the office and four or five employees out on the job, chances are you don’t really need a phone system.  Especially if you never have to transfer customer calls to employees in the field.  

Small digital businesses
If your company provides digital services like website design or development, chances are you will often need to visually share work with customers. Therefore, using video conferencing tools is usually good enough and you don’t really need a business phone system. Especially if your work is contract based and you have no ongoing support requirements, then you can probably get away with a combination of email, web-chat, and video conferencing for customers, and perhaps Slack or Skype for internal collaboration.

What kinds of business really should invest in a business phone system?

As a rule of thumb, if your business sells products and services that require a level of verbal explanations to sell and support, then you need to make it easy for customers to talk with you and your team. You need a business phone system.

If you answer ‘Yes’ to four or more of the questions below, you should consider investing in a business phone system:

  1. You sell technical products/services that typically take some verbal explaining before people buy
  2. Your customers have different needs and use cases that you need to fully understand as part of the sales process
  3. Your products/services have multiple options that customers typically like to chat about
  4. Your businesses success replies on building personal relationships
  5. Answers to questions that prospective buyers ask, are often too long/complex for web-chat or an email sales approach
  6. Your price points are beyond where you would feel comfortable paying, without talking to a real person first
  7. Your customers want to talk to a real person during the sales process
  8. Your customers demand phone support so they can talk with a real person
  9. You need to discuss or collect sensitive information
  10. Customers need to talk with employees that work from home, are often on the road, or live in other countries
  11. Some of your employees are always on the road and need to call customers 
  12. You often need to transfer calls to other teammates who are in the office, on the road, or around the world
  13. You have customers in other countries, and you want to give them a better experience when calling you
  14. You want to make your company appear bigger, more professional
  15. You find yourself continually giving out employee phone numbers to customers, or passing on messages
  16. You’re getting more than 20 calls a day
  17. You’re always searching email for customer numbers (or worse, employee phone numbers!)
  18. Phone calls are continually disrupting your day

If I don't want a traditional business phone system, what other tools can I use that allow employees to talk to each other and to customers?

Other ways to connect employees to each other
Making it easy for employees to talk to each other is key to growing your business. Fortunately, there are multiple (free and paid) tools that allow employees to chat, video, and talk. The problem with the abundance of these free tools, is that employees all have their favourite, and you end up with 10 different ways employees communicate.  

In our opinion:

  • Best free chat, video, and call app for small business: WhatsApp
  • Best paid chat, video, and call app for all sizes of businesses: Slack

Can you just use mobile phones for employee-to-employee communication?
Maybe, but a couple of common problems we’ve seen are:

  1.  At some point you get too many employees and you can’t keep your phone’s address book up to date
  2. Employees can be a bit wary of other employees having their personal phone numbers

Other ways to connect customers to employees
Trying to connect customers and employees without a professional business phone system can be a knife-edge. Yes, there are free and low cost ways to do it, but you run the risk of coming across like a small, struggling business. Here’s what we’ve seen work with companies we talk to:

  1. WhatsApp. If you only have a few customers and you typically deal with one key person at the customer, you probably have a personal relationship with them. In this case they are probably happy using their personal WhatsApp account to chat, talk, and video call with you.
  2. Zoom. If you don’t need to talk to a customer very often, and only talk at pre-arranged meeting times, then Zoom is a good option. It’s really only a solution for pre-arranged calls however as it does not stay open for ad-hoc chats and calls.
  3. Slack. We’ve not seen many companies (outside of a few tech startups with equally techie customers), convince customers to join Slack channels as a way to connect with employees. 
  4. Web-chat: A rising trend is web-chat. Chat-bots and live-chat are getting very popular. Some customers like it as it’s simple and they don’t have to talk to anyone. On the other hand, an equal number of other customers hate it for the same reasons. Most web-chat solutions don’t offer voice or video calls yet, but they are coming. A good option today is Intercom.
The real problem with suggestions above, is they are single conversation tools. What we mean by that is, they are for having a conversation between two people. You cannot transfer the call, cannot conference in others, or call the person back. At some point,  you just need a business phone system.

What are the warning signs that I need to invest in a professional business phone system?

We’ve talked to thousands of companies who are either buying their very first business phone system, or upgrading to a better solution. These companies range from thee users, to 500 users, and work in all kinds of industries in many different countries.

Here are some of the common problems and reasons they tell us that made them invest in a business phone system:

  1. Getting too many disruptions and cannot get any work done
  2. Missing out on new sales
  3. Sick of taking messages
  4. Can never call an employee when I really need them
  5. Customers complaining about support
  6. Employee privacy (don’t want customers to have employee mobile numbers)
  7. Losing business when employees leave and customers keep calling them
  8. Security. Need to keep calls and voicemail on the company network and off personal phones
  9. Need to integrate to CRM data to make calling easier
  10. Want employees to be able to work from home and while traveling
  11. Adding new offices / locations
  12. Putting our back office and support teams offshore

What is the impact to my business if we don't offer customers easy ways to call us?

Business is pretty simple. You need to make it easy for people to understand what you do, and easy to buy from you.

If prospective customers find it hard to get the information they need, they don’t buy.

If existing customers find it hard to talk to the person they need to talk to, they get angry and eventually leave.

Think back to the last time you called the Government or your bank, and tried to get a straight answer – fast. If that’s just 10% of the experience your customers have when they call you, they won’t be customers for very long.

What are the things I should consider when choosing a business phone system for my small business?

Here are the top five things to ensure when evaluating a new business phone system:

  1. Must be cloud based. Do not buy anything that requires hardware and lines into your office.
  2. Must be VoIP.  Must work over the internet. Fibre, cable, broadband, etc.
  3. Must support true mobility. It’s not enough to be able to forward calls to your mobile phone while you’re not at your desk. Make sure the system you choose has every feature available when on your mobile phone, and it’s super simple to use. A lot of the time phone systems are designed for desk workers, and the mobile phone app has limited features and poor call quality.
  4. Support for legacy users. Ensure your new system supports legacy users who still want an old desk phone. You can buy the flash new system, but if one employee refuses to use their mobile phone or take calls on their computer, you’re kinda stuck.
  5. Invest in modern providers.  Most Telcos and old-school phone providers are selling the same 25 year old technology dressed up in new clothes. They simply cannot keep up with modern technology advances. Whereas modern phone system providers like Spoke Phone take advantage of these new technologies. Moreover, they also design the beautiful and simple apps that people have come to expect.  If your employees have ugly hard to use tools, they won’t use them.

What kind of business phone system should I buy for my business?

The good news is, there are lots of great solutions out there for your business.  The bad news is, they all sound the same and it is very confusing to figure out what you actually need, and what you’ll actually get.

On top of this, everyone says that they pretty much provide the same things (and they do in a way). However, they way in which they do those things can sometimes mean the difference between your employees hating your decision, or loving it.

Let’s try help you make the right decision.

Let’s face it, all business phone systems do the basic things you expect. Answer calls, play greetings, route calls to teams, have voicemail, etc. It’s actually not rocket science. So, what should you look for if everyone has (largely) the same features?

  1. Visual design. If it looks good and simple to use, it probably is. Simple design is actually pretty hard. So when companies get it right, it speaks a lot to the quality of their products and services.
  2. Simple to understand. If you can easily understand the companies pricing, product offering, and how you would actually use the features in your business, it’s a good indicator that they understand your type of business.
  3. Good documentation. Check out their online help files and support tools. Do they have a good level of well crafted content that is easy to find and read?
  4. Customer reviews. One of the best ways to evaluate a company behind the product, is to read what other customers say. Of course there are always the odd haters and genuine mismatched sales, but read a few reviews and you’ll soon see the trends. Tools like Capterra are a good place to start.
  5. Differentiation. What makes this company different from the others. If you can find a business phone system that is purpose built for your industry or supports your industry tools through things like integration, then you’re going to have more success.
What are the differentiated or vertical/industry specific business phone solutions on the market?
  1. Phone System for the mobile workers. Spoke Phone is the only business phone system designed for mobile workers – the people who are often working solely from their mobile phone. For office and desk workers, Spoke Phone supports both desk phones and softphones too. Spoke Phone takes all the big company business phone system features, conference calling, and CRM integration, and makes it simple and effective to use on a mobile phone.  Spoke Phone also integrates to lots of CRMs and other systems, bringing your key business data and process into calls with mobile employees.
  2. Phone system for customer support. Some phone systems focus on features for supporting customers. They typically integrate with tools like Zendesk, making it super easy for support teams to identify callers and easily solve customer tickets.
  3. Phone system for sales teams. Sales, especially high-volume outbound sales teams, can really benefit from a phone system that is in tune with the sales process and activities. These systems integrate with CRM and marketing tools like Hubspot, Salesforce, Outreach, and others, so that calling customers is fast and documenting conversations is easy.
 

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