By Adam Kramer
The decades-long technology gap between small business and enterprise companies is hardly a secret. However recent technology advances, and other factors, have created a major change in small business—making technology both more available and more affordable. This seismic shift not only places small business owners on a level playing field, it may even give them a competitive advantage.
The Technology Behind Affordable Small Business Phone Systems
Cloud computing, open source options, and simple user interfaces have made even the most traditionally complex and expensive systems affordable and easy to use—including operating systems, email platforms, customer relationship management (CRM) software.
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The Unified Communications (UC) industry is another perfect example of this shift to affordable technology. Businesses of all sizes take advantage of instant messaging, video conferencing, mobility and all of the other communication options a UC system offers.
In this article, we take a closer look at a few of the drivers that bring advanced phone systems to small business.
During the second half of the 20th century, small or start-up businesses struggled to afford a phone system because it simply cost too much. In the late 1990s, college student Mark Spencer invented Asterisk, an open source framework that allows ordinary computers to become communications servers.
Asterisk is open source, which means that it's both free of cost and that the code is openly available for anyone and everyone to use, test, enhance, and modify. To this day, Asterisk-based phone systems small businesses take advantage of Voice over IP (VoIP) with advanced features previously reserved only for large enterprise companies.
OpEx Pricing Models
Cloud computing is a major driving force making it possible for smaller businesses to get their hands on advanced technology. Cloud-based systems and services use an operational expenditure (OpEx) pricing model as opposed to requiring capital expenditure (CapEx), or a large, up-front payment.
It's no easy task for a small business to cough up tens of thousands of dollars in cash to purchase a new phone system outright, but it's a lot easier to come up with a few hundred dollars a month for all the modern phone system features and service options. The freedom from an upfront investment means that smaller businesses can afford the advanced technologies they need in order to run their business efficiently—including their phone system.
The Cloud Effect on IT
Along with the huge upfront cost, legacy phone systems require a lot of IT management and maintenance. Large companies typically employed a dedicated person or a team of people solely responsible for voice services within the company. Cloud-based solutions help resolve the challenge that many small business owners face: wanting more powerful capabilities but lacking the IT resources to implement and manage them.
Today, vendors house and manage cloud-based phone systems, thus removing the vast majority of the work and the headaches for small business. With phone systems in the cloud, vendors take on the more complex maintenance and functionality management (for example, from changing extensions when you gain or lose employees to handling Interactive Voice Recordings).
Most importantly, the cloud vendor now manages the larger network impact of the phone system—including system updates and ongoing maintenance. Cloud phone systems let smaller businesses focus on their customers instead of worrying about supporting a phone system they don't know how to manage.
Simple User Interface
Complexity is another challenge that prevented small businesses from using advanced phone systems. Systems from previous generations often required programming and coding skills to perform simple tasks, while other systems had a specialized "language" that customers had to learn. Even if a small business had the resources to manage such a system, it often didn't have the specific coding and telephony expertise to set up the system.
Modern phone systems use simple, Web-based user and administrative portals with no scripting or coding required. This change gives employees with minimal technical knowledge the ability to perform most tasks involved with managing a phone system, and it allows companies of all sizes and technical know-how to set up and use advanced communications features.
Changing Feature Requirements
Many of the older systems delivered features—such as queues, reporting, Active Directory integration—that went beyond basic office capabilities that small businesses needed. A typical small business wanted just enough lines to satisfy call demand, handsets for its employees, voicemail, and basic calling features such as transfer and hold.
Since basic office telephone service provided those features, the demand for more advanced business phone systems didn't exist. Today, organizations of all sizes share similar feature requirements. Why? A more mobile and dispersed workforce, an increasingly competitive landscape for businesses, an accelerated focus on customer experience, and general technological advancements all factor into businesses needing similar feature-sets—regardless of their size.
Today, the demand for standard calling features, collaboration, mobility, and business application integration drives the deployment of modern UC systems. All small, medium, large, and dispersed teams require collaboration. Small businesses can instant message, screen share, and video chat with remote employees or customers who need product demonstrations or more information.
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Mobility is essential for small businesses that don't require traditional phone service or that have employees working outside of traditional office environments. Since small businesses take advantage of CRM software, it's important to integrate that capability with their phone system—a luxury once only offered to the enterprise.
Today's communication industry is truly open to companies of all sizes. The simplicity of user and administrative interfaces and cloud technologies make it easy and affordable for a small business to leverage features and capabilities once reserved for large enterprises.
Adam Kramer is a product manager at Digium, a business communications company that delivers enterprise-class unified communications.
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