Time to put your phone in the cloud?

Photo: Jesse Kruger (Flickr)

I have several office locations that were impacted this past weekend by Hurricane Irene’s tour of the East Coast. While I am spending today sorting out and cleaning up, I am also thinking about some long-term structural goals – namely whether it is time to give up on location-based telephone services completely.

To put things in perspective, I have two offices that are within about 10 minutes of each other. One of them is part of our cloud-based phone system pilot while the other is not. Both lost power Saturday in a wide-scale outage related to Hurricane Irene. When I called our cloud-based office, things were just fine….in the other office I got a fast busy signal. While I know cell phones have made office numbers less critical, they are still a key component of having an office and everyone seems happier when they work correctly.

For those of you who may not be familiar, cloud based phone systems allow you to forward your calls to a server in another part of the country/world, where they are sent through an automated attendant and then routed (per your pre-defined rules) to another phone back on Terra-firma. More importantly, they provide you a web-based control panel where you can change those rules when life situations make it impossible for you to work normally – like when a hurricane rams into your hometown. You can program the phone to ring one number – or two – and can change which one(s) with the click of a mouse.

You may already be familiar with the single-user services such as Google Voice or Skype where you get a number and control how it rings or forwards. I have those too – but I have learned that they are not robust enough when you are trying to manage a larger operation. In some instances, bigger really is better.

Our firm uses a service called RingCentral, but that is just one of many firms that use the same technology. Within the system I can create virtual “extensions” for each of our users that mirror the extension numbers they have on their desk and then create rules for how to handle each call to that new virtual number. In some cases, the call just rings right to the same desk extension it always did – with no change at all – but those instances are rare. Usually what I find is that our users (especially our salespeople) want their extensions to ring to their cell phone numbers so they can have the capability to answer them wherever they may be.

Users can also log in and make their extension ring right to voicemail – a great feature when they are on vacation or when important family time preempts business calls. In these cases the voice mail messages (the recording, not a transcription) are emailed to the user within minutes of the call. Even if you are working right at your desk, an email record of the messages you need to save/reply is a valuable tool. Some of the services let you receive faxes on your extension as well – which may be a big help if you are already paying for a service like EFax or MyFax.

And finally, there is a tool that works best on weekends like these. With our virtual phone system I can log in and change the main company greeting from anywhere; so that people in other parts of the country remember we are dealing with a hurricane and may respond a little slower than normal. Never hurts to be prepared.

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