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Selecting A Telephone System For Your Small Office

Businesses, even small ones, need a telephone system. If you have never purchased one before, or it has been a while since your last PABX was installed, here is your guide to selecting a phone system suitable for a small office.

Why do I need a phone system?

Haven’t got a phone system and not sure why you need one? Here are 5 quick reasons why every business, large and small, should have a system:

  1. Hold and transfer calls between handsets.
  2. Music on hold while your customers and suppliers wait.
  3. Voicemail, and picking up voicemail from any location.
  4. Night mode (send calls to voicemail or another number after hours).
  5. Expandability: more handsets, different types (simple, large, portable, etc), external bells and ringers, door phones, and much more.

Can you do this with ‘normal’ phones bought from a department store? Maybe. However a proper business telephone phone system does this and more so much better than any domestic system.

Trunks and extensions

Telephone system handsetFirst thing you need to do is work out how many trunks and extensions you need. Trunks are lines going to the outside world. Depending on your business you might get away with one trunk for 5 office staff for a quiet office, but if you are a sales-oriented business you might need one trunk for every 2 staff, or perhaps one for every single staff member.

Extensions are the internal lines: i.e. handsets. Don’t forget that special equipment such as door phones also count as an extension. Every office staff member should have an extension, and also every room in your office, including lobby / reception, warehouse, and other places where calls might want to be made or taken.

Think about the future as well: are you likely to grow? How many extensions will you need in two or three years time? A phone system is likely to stay with you for at least three years so be sure to choose one with at least a little flexibility to grow.

Digital, VOIP, or Hybrid

Digital systems are the most common out there – these are the ones that take calls in off copper wires from the street, and send them to handsets in your office. Those trunks to the street are sometimes referred to as PSTN, or POTS lines. Because of their ubiquitous nature, digital phone systems are very reliable.

VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) are the newer systems that use the Internet to make and/or receive calls. Think Skype, but more professional. The advantage of VOIP is cheap calls, particularly long distance and international calls. The disadvantage is reliability: you will need a good broadband Internet connection that doesn’t go down, because when the Internet goes down, so will your ability to send and receive calls. That includes emergency calls so you should always have a backup phone available: whether PSTN or mobile phone.

A hybrid system is the best of both worlds: combining reliability of a digital phone system, with the flexibility of VOIP. You might have incoming calls on the PSTN lines from the street, outgoing calls via VOIP, but if Internet goes down everything can automatically go through the PSTN lines. A hybrid system is likely to cost more than VOIP alone, but is probably the best system out there these days that balances features, flexibility, and reliability.

Analogue devices

Although the world is going digital you still might have some analogue devices in use. These include fax machines, EFTPOS / card processing machines, dial up modems, and alarm systems. Typically your phone technician or electrician can wire these up separate to the phone system, but if you want the flexibility of being able to move these devices around the office, look for a phone system that supports analogue extensions.

GSM Gateway

GSM is the protocol used by your mobile / cell phone. A GSM gateway is effectively another cell phone, that connects straight in to your telephone system. There is a port (or two or more) for mobile phone SIM cards to go in. Once plugged in these lines appear as standard trunk lines on your phone system.

Why would you want a GSM gateway? Because many fleet plans on your cell phones will give cheap or free calls to certain numbers. Many offices use this line to call other members of the fleet (which is often free), and/or reserve a trunk for staff members who want to call in, even if the main office numbers are busy or going to voice mail.

Portable phones

Do you need portable phones? You can’t always just plug in ordinary household portable phones in to a phone system. Most of the time you need DECT phones, and to get all the phone system features you might need more specialised (and expensive) options. On the other hand if portability is key, consider the Engenius Durafon or similar system that has long range portable phones and built in phone system features such as music on hold, call transfer, and more.

Configuration and Support

Often overlooked, but very important: who is going to set up your system and will they support it? Even modern VOIP systems can be tricky to set up so be sure to find a local person who will look after you. Also find out what it will cost to make changes later on, because a simple reconfiguration could cost $100 or more an hour for a technician to make the change. Some phone systems allow the configuration to be altered remotely, avoiding the time and expense for a technician to visit your premises, and instead make the change from their office in minutes.

Where to now?

If you choose to contact a phone system company directly you are likely to be bounced on to a reseller, who you may or may not want to deal with.

If you have a trusted phone system rep, or even just a cable guy, find out that they would recommend. Explain what you want to achieve and they should be able to recommend a system that meets your requirements and your budget.

If you don’t have anyone to call on, can you ask other businesses in your neighbourhood for a referral?

Finally, your IT technician that services your computer gear can help find a business to work with. Just be wary of the IT guy who wants to do it all himself, but might not have the experience. VOIP systems are easier to configure than traditional digital systems, but they are still complex pieces of equipment. Leave the computer guy to helping you set up your small office computer network.

 

Tips For Selecting A Small Office Printer

When you walk in to any technology or office supplies store to buy a printer for your computer it is easy to be overwhelmed by the choices available. It is wise to do some research beforehand to try and narrow the choice and pick the printer that is best for your business. Here are a few tips to selecting a small office printer:

Ink or Toner?

Laser and LED printers use a toner, instead of ink, and are quite affordable these days. Generally speaking we would recommend a toner based printer for a business, instead of an ink jet printer. They offer good print speeds (compared to ink jet printers) and you won’t find yourself replacing toner as often as you would with ink. However ink printers might be a better choice if you plan on printing on to specialty paper, such as photographic paper. The color with ink jet printers is much more vivid.

As with any printer you should compare the cost-per-page for replacement consumables. What might appear to be a very cheap purchase price could be expensive over the long term. To calculate cost per page, take the purchase price for a toner (eg $90.00), divide by the number of pages that the toner will last for (often 5000 pages at 5% coverage but check), and multiply by 100 to get the cost-per-page in cents.

Example: $90.00 divided by 5000 multiplied by 100 = 1.8 cents per page.

You can calculate cost-per-page from a number of different models and brands to see what is more economical.

Paper sizes and paper traysSmall Office Laser Printer

Consider what size paper you are going to print on, if you are deviating from the standard Letter or A4 size. Pretty much all printers have a manual feed if you need to print smaller, such as an envelope. However if you want to print smaller sizes regularly you should look for a printer that has a second paper tray that fits your desired media.

Similarly if you intend printing on large format paper (such as A3) this will dramatically narrow your choices and will incur a greater cost. The demand for larger formats is low and so the options are limited and substantially more expensive. It might be easier and cheaper to head down to your local print store to print the occasional large format document.

MFC or Dedicated

MFC stands for Multi-Functional Device. These are printers with scanning, copying, and faxing built in. Although you might not require such features every day, they can be handy to have in case your other scanning or copying device has a problem or is tied up with other staff.

A dedicated printer on the other hand is likely to be faster at printing, have less things to go wrong, and fewer buttons to operate.

Computer Interface

Every printer these days will have a USB interface. We recommend selecting a printer with a network interface (sometimes called LAN, 10/100, or Ethernet). The advantage of these is that the printer does not need to be connected to a turned-on computer to operate, and so can be placed in the office in a convenient location.

Many modern small office printers also have Wi-fi (wireless network) capabilities, which is great if you have laptops that need to print, but are not always wired in.

From a technical viewpoint the network printers are not as difficult to install as they used to be. You now insert the CD in to your computer, run the install program and it will discover the printer on your network and install the driver for you. The software can also be downloaded from the manufacturer’s web site.

Duplex

If you are accustomed to printing single-sided documents you might not imagine how useful an automatic duplexer can be. Duplex printing means double-sided printing; printing on both sides of the paper. This can dramatically reduce paper usage in your office, which is good for the environment and good for your bottom line. Other environmentally sound ideas for your office can be found in this article of the Small Office Ideas web site.

Duty Cycle

Finally if you are evaluating office printers the product literature often quotes a duty cycle number. This is a recommendation from the manufacturer of the maximum number of pages you can print in a month through the printer. Our experience suggests that this number is highly exaggerated, and you should divide by three to get a genuine number. Pushing the printer every other month is ok, but regular over-printing will wear down the mechanics inside and you are likely to need to get the printer serviced quite frequently.

 

Above we have detailed some key factors in narrowing down your choice for a new printer. If you make a few easy decisions before you start looking, you should be able to find a printer that is best for your small office and performs year in year out.

How To Set Up A Small Office Computer Network

Getting all of your computers hooked up in your small or home office can be easy, affordable, and effective. Before you call in your IT person to help you out here are the things you want to think about so you can give him or her some direction.

Wired or Wireless

Working wirelessly on the small office network

Ten years ago, perhaps even five, we would have recommended wiring the place up: running ‘Cat5’ or ‘Cat6’ cables through the walls. Not so now. With the latest Wireless-N Wi-Fi systems giving great speed and coverage over a wider area you might want to save the cost and effort of cabling. For general web browsing, email, copying of documents and spreadsheets, and working on your typical business management software, you shouldn’t have any reason to doubt wireless performance. If your small office isn’t so small after all, wireless repeaters and boosters are available and are relatively cheap at less than $100.

Where you might want to remain wired is when:

  • Your office already is cabled up, and all you need to do is plug in a network switch, or
  • You work on large documents and need to copy these around regularly: such as large raw images from cameras, video files, and large databases, or
  • Your IT guy has issues about Wi-Fi security or other technical restrictions. Take note: IT guys are often very busy so if they are recommending something it probably means they are trying to save more work and headaches for both yourself and themselves down the track.

Data Storage

A ‘NAS’ or ‘Network Attached Storage’ is a great idea for storing files centrally. A NAS is a small box, connected to the computer network, that contains hard disks inside (at least 1, but often 2 or more: creating redundancy in case one disk dies). If you have a server (such as a Microsoft Small Business Server) you might already have ‘shared drives’ set up, which we can think of the equivalent of a NAS. If not, you can purchase a NAS for a couple of hundred dollars, plus a hundred or two more for some large disks, and be able to store everyone’s files centrally. All NASs come with various security options to restrict people to only the folders they need to work in.

We highly recommend a NAS over storing files on personal computers and laptops. They let people share documents far more easily, ensures that there is the ‘master’ copy of any one file centrally stored, and makes backups a breeze.

Printing

Printers these days often come with wireless capabilities, giving you freedom to place them anywhere in the office where you can find a power point. Even if you don’t need a wireless printer we would highly recommend getting a network enabled printer (also known as an ‘IP Printer’ or a printer with a ’10/100 interface’). A network enabled printer lets you plug it in to one of those blue network cables directly, and avoid the need to connect it to a turned-on computer for staff to print.

Small and home offices might get away with a single multi-function centre that does printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. Just make sure you purchase a reputable brand and, where possible, get it serviced regularly. It hurts when the printer starts playing up and there is no alternative in the office for staff to print to.

Also look at the ‘duty cycle’ quoted in the product literature, which states the maximum recommended number of pages to print a month. Realistically you would divide by three or four to get the ‘actual’ duty cycle: manufactures are unfortunately very optimistic about how much load their printers can handle!

Telephones

Internet telephony (also known as ‘VoIP’) is increasing in popularity thanks to more affordable systems, cheap phone calls, and better internet connections from your office to your service provider. If you have a good internet connection, and your internet or VoIP provider is willing to guarantee that for telephony purposes, you might want to consider going for a VoIP system instead of the usual PBX.

VoIP will save you a lot on phone call charges, and give you greater flexibility such as being able to connect a headset in to a computer and avoid the need for a dedicated telephone handset. There are cordless phones that are VoIP enabled as well. For many small offices VoIP will also eliminate the need to call in a specialised telephone technician, since many IT people have enough knowledge to set up a VoIP system themselves.

Just be aware of the limitations with VoIP before you dive in:

  • If your internet connection is not that fast, or you have limited bandwidth or downloads, you might struggle to maintain call quality
  • Setting up VoIP phones requires a bit of technical knowledge, and nowhere near as easy as just plugging a cable in to a wall when you want to move phones around the office
  • If your internet goes down, or power, so will your phone system. You probably still want to have one or two analogue phone lines (‘PSTN lines’), or cell phones, for such downtime, and for making emergency calls.

Central point of control

Finally, get all the gear hooked up in one place: your internet modems, telephone system, server computers, NAS, etc. If you have a small room, or closet, or even just a free desk that is ideal. Having all the gear in one place makes it much easier to connect everything up and diagnose faults when they occur.

 

Setting up your computer network for a small office takes a small amount of planning but is important in today’s connected world. You just don’t want to be messing about once furniture and computers are in, and people have work to do. Invest a the time (and possibly a little expense) now to save a lot in redesigning it later.

For more ideas check out our articles listing for other great tips and tricks to make your small or home office more productive.