Small businesses are rapidly moving toward VoIP, and competition in the VoIP category has never been higher. Thus, it is a great opportunity for businesses to take advantage of the competition for their services. The challenge is to narrow down the list of VoIP providers and make a selection that will be best for your business over the long-term.
At the risk of fueling the marketing machine (as you'll read about later), I'm going to cite a recent report published by Software Advice. Over 40% of small businesses have already made the move to VoIP, with the balance still using a traditional landline service or cell phones. Thus, a significant conversion opportunity still exists, fueling the competition for service. Small businesses are moving to hosted VoIP due to the relatively low investment cost in return for advanced features equivalent to what is afforded to large businesses and their expensive phone systems.
It is also a great opportunity for the providers. Not often are there opportunities in the business marketplace where alternatives to traditional providers can literally push traditional providers to a small market share. Traditionally, businesses of all sizes would purchase phone systems separately, and utilize landline services from their local telecom provider. With hosted VoIP, the system and service are combined and ride separately over whatever internet connection is provided. Additionally, many hosted VoIP providers have a nationwide footprint, putting them in a position more favorable and less restrictive to the local phone providers.
Certain VoIP Providers Dominate the Marketing Machine
With such a market opportunity, money follows. At play is the way small business researches their purchases...the web. Sure, still plenty of money floods direct mail and other forms of traditional advertising. However, the cost of ranking high on paid search terms and gaining significant placement on organic searches is staggering. It was shared with me that paid search costs for VoIP related terms are second to only mesothelioma terms, as injury law firms scramble to get in on the payouts!
The large national VoIP providers fuel the unreasonable cost to paid terms, forcing other providers to pay to play or move to more obscure terms. We've even seen where good value terms are eventually forced up in rate by the nationals and their robotic bidding software a month or two down the road. They also drive business via other sources. If you've searched for VoIP terms, you undoubtedly find companies that "rank" VoIP providers or have research that points to the "best" providers. Make no mistake, these are actually engines that are funded by the providers listed as they pay for leads that are submitted for their call centers to attack.
This is not to say that the products offered by these providers are inferior. Quite the opposite. Money is clearly spent on product development and marketing. But, are these businesses right for your business?
Other Providers Can Present a Risk to the Business, so Research is Important
There are alternatives. Given the market opportunity, there are more and more entrants into the small business VoIP provider ranks. The cost of entry is relatively low when compared to what telecom providers had to invest when building out the traditional landline service. Because all VoIP providers utilize the internet for the physical transport of the voice packets, their investment is server/product/service based only.
There are a couple of variations of alternative providers out there. One is a true developer/manager of the VoIP product that they maintain and market. Another is a reseller of a white label product of a national firm. You can spot the latter if there are numerous line items for various billing options on their quote, as they are charged accordingly by their national provider. Once on-line with these providers, you will notice that the service is not handled by people employed by the company. For those who maintain their own platform, they have much more flexibility in pricing and configuration, but you need to carefully choose the provider. Finding the VoIP specialists is the key. If it is an offshoot business of a technical service company, you will need to see how grounded they are in VoIP experience and capabilities.
Finding the Gems
Again, the large players in the market are found easily and have good products. But, are they right for your business? Think about one of the reasons why you are considering leaving the large telco or cable provider -- customer service! With so much money invested in marketing, customers are forced to deal with call center sales and support. If you want to find a VoIP provider that will provide dedicated account and service teams, you will have to dig a bit deeper.
Make your search terms a bit longer. Instead of searching on "hosted VoIP providers", use something like "hosted phone service providers with awesome customer service." Skip past the paid ads and review several pages of searches. Examine the websites of the providers you find and look for a quality site with VoIP only services. These will be players that have more depth to them and have the potential to provide your business with the support structure you are looking for in a provider. Once you have a list of providers, make your calls and conduct your interview. Look for providers that can adapt their service to how you do business (customizing the configuration). See if they build your configuration for you and ensure that you are not required to build it yourself via a self-service portal. Ask for a list of references, specific to other customers your size and in your industry. Call these references to find out how reliable the service has been and have them describe the customer service provided.
If you are a small business, it is likely that you already have VoIP or are now ready to consider it. There are gems of VoIP providers in this market. Chances are they have a similar business philosophy to your small business. Imagine receiving your phone system and service from the same company, one that looks and acts like your business and not some behemoth marketing machine similar to the one you are considering leaving! Dig a little deeper in your research, and the results will benefit your business for years to come!
About the author: Mark Greim is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at sipVine, a provider of a variety of VoIP phone solutions and services. Mark has extensive experience working for start-up or entrepreneurial organizations and has a passion for affordable, reliable, and purposeful technology solutions in those environments.