Phone.com: Your Virtual Phone Company

by Gerry Blackwell

If you want a phone system that projects a professional business image and lets customers reach you no matter where you travel, Phone.com offers a simple, and (mostly) affordable alternative.

Branding these days is everything, or just about everything.

Which is why the investors behind Phone.com LLC, a new provider of virtual PBX and voice over Internet services, were willing to pay big bucks for the coveted domain name. The firm is billing itself as The New Phone.Company. Cute.

Luckily for small business owners, there’s more to Phone.com’s Virtual Office than a catchy slogan and easy-to-remember Web address. Built from the ground up and managed by a group of seasoned VoIP veterans, Virtual Office should give established players in this space ,such as RingCentral, Innoport from Intellicom Inc. and GotVMail, a run for their money.

Like all such services, it offers small- and home-based businesses a great way to provide professional-sounding central call answering and distribution, as though they were in a big office with an expensive PBX. It makes particular sense for businesses with distributed work forces.

For $9.88 a month (if you pay a year in advance), Phone.com provides you with a toll-free number – local numbers are also available or you can “port” your existing company number to Phone.com – plus up to ten virtual extensions and voicemail boxes and 300 minutes of calling.

Call-handling screen shot
Phone.com's call-handling rules let you set up sophisticated schedules, find-me-follow-me schemes and multiple ring options.
(Click for larger image)

You can also choose other options that give you more telephone numbers, more extensions, more free minutes per month and lower rates for additional minutes. The top price of $69.88 a month buys 2,500 free minutes, up to 50 extensions and three numbers. 

The idea is that customers call your Phone.com number and use the automated attendant to select the department or individual they want to reach. Or they can bypass the menu by directly dialing an extension number.

With a virtual PBX, you typically use browser-based software to set up call handling rules that determine how the provider routes calls to each of your extensions.

A simple rule might go something like this: when a caller dials extension 500 or presses the menu number linked to it, forward the call to this phone number. Typically it’s the ten-digit number of a phone company or VoIP line. Your “extensions” could be in different parts of the city, the country – or the world.

You mainly pay for incoming calls, whether the call is forwarded to another number or just goes to a voicemailbox. Virtual PBX providers always include a certain number of free minutes. With most, if calls are forwarded to U.S. or Canadian numbers, they count against your minutes. If the forwarding number is outside North America, you pay extra, different rates depending on the destination.

‘Free’ Overseas Calling
One of Phone.com’s nice differentiators is that the free minutes include several overseas destinations: Britain, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel and Puerto Rico. Phone.com claims that its international rates to other countries are lower than its competitors.

There are some circumstances where you will use Phone.com to make outgoing calls, to bridge a three-way call, for example – another differentiating feature. Then you’re charged for two calls. You can also make calls through Phone.com when you’re away from the office – to avoid exorbitant long distance rates at hotels, for example – and those calls will be charged against your minutes.

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Sophisticated Call Handling
Simply forwarding an extension to a telephone number is just the beginning of what you can do with Phone.com’s call-handling rules.

An auto attendant menu item could point to an extension that is just a voicemail box – or just a greeting. This allows you to use an extension to provide callers with pre-recorded information such as directions to your office or hours of operation.

One of Phone.com’s other nice differentiators is that you can use call handling rules to set up sophisticated schedules, find-me-follow-me schemes and multiple ring options – features that some other, but not all, virtual PBX services offer.

For example, if you spend time in two offices and in the car with a cell phone, and you never know where you’ll be at any given time, you can tell Phone.com to ring all three phones simultaneously – and answer whichever one you’re near.

Call-handling screen shot
Phone.com's call handling rules let you set up sophisticated schedules, find-me-follow-me schemes and multiple ring options.
(Click for larger image)

Or you can set up a find-me-follow-me rule. Phone.com will first forward the call to one number. If you don’t answer after a certain number of seconds, it rings another, then another, and so on until you answer or the rule tells it to go to voicemail.

You coul duse this feature to set up a company or departmental “hunt group” so that a call to a particular extension or a menu selection routes the call first to one person, then to another and another until it’s answered.

And you can combine either option with a schedule. Phone.com can follow one rule at one time of the day or week and different ones at others. You could have calls go to your home number in the evenings and on weekends, for example – or directly to voicemail – and to your main number during office hours.

Schedules work on your main Phone.com numbers too, so in the evening and on weekends you could answer with an after-hours message rather than the auto attendant.

A menu item can also point to a queue. The Queues function is another sophisticated feature not always found in virtual PBX services. It lets you set up a rudimentary virtual contact center and put callers on hold while Phone.com finds a live agent.

You can specify the greeting, the music callers will hear while on hold, the number of minutes they can be left on hold before being forwarded to voicemail and the phone numbers Phone.com will ring to find an agent.

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Slick Interface
The Phone.com Web browser interface --that you use to manage extensions, numbers, menus, greetings, queues, etc. -- is attractive and quite intuitive.

The logic is also very consistent from one function to the next, with the same dialogs used in different situations. If you’re creating a schedule for an individual extension or for one of your Phone.com numbers, for example, the interface is exactly the same.

The call-handling rules dialog remains the same whether you’re setting up an extension, phone number or auto attendant menu item. You select a radio button to tell Phone.com to treat all calls the same or to use a schedule (and click the My Schedule link to choose or create a schedule), then select the action to take from a pull-down list.

Forwarding a call is only one option. Others include Leave Voicemail, GoTo Menu, GoTo Queue, DialByName, Receive Fax and so on. To forward calls to a number or extension, type the number into the space provided. If you want it to ring several numbers, click Add Another Number and repeat the process.

Browser screen shot
The Phone.com online browser lets you manage extensions, numbers, menus, greetings and queues, and it provides access to call logs and voicemail.
(Click for larger image)

You don’t need to be terribly technical to configure or use Phone.com. It took us less than an hour to learn it and set up a two-extension system with simple rules, an auto attendant menu and voicemail greetings. Once you get the hang of the interface and the logic, adding extensions and more sophisticated rules and schedules is very easy and quick to do.

One feature we liked: you can create greetings by recording them on your computer, although you can also record them over the phone by calling a Phone.com number. Using a USB computer headset and the Voice Recorder applet in Windows, we recorded greetings with audio quality markedly superior to anything over a phone connection.

The Downsides
While sound and connection quality on calls forwarded by Phone.com were generally very clear with good volume – there were some very occasional break-ups and clipping. This is presumably due to the VoIP network Phone.com uses to forward calls.

The pricing may also mislead some people. Keep in mind that the phenomenally low $9.88 price includes only 300 free minutes a month – an average of ten minutes per a day. It’s a rare business for which that would be enough.

To get 1,000 free minutes, you pay $34.88 a month. Additional minutes in North America cost 3.5 to 4.9 cents, which is more than you’ll pay with most conventional phone companies.

Other than those two small reservations, we highly recommend it.

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.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Feb 28th 2008
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