A Very Cool Tool: RingCentral.com
Over the last several years, “telephony automation” (as we’ll call it) has come a long way. This has been a tremendous boon for the entrepreneur.
New services include low-cost, monthly interactive voice response (IVR) systems, voice over IP (VOIP) telephone lines at a very low cost, and finally, hosted PBX systems. With VOIP, for example, companies can turn lines on and off quickly, set up phone numbers in new cities without buying new, dedicated infrastructure, and can deliver and forward voice services to any phone or computer, anywhere there is broadband.
All of these services help to lower the cost of entry for new ventures into the market, improve the availability and quality of customer service for the new company’s clients, and allow for entirely new categories of services to be offered.
(One of the companies I founded, HyperAlert, was only feasible with the emergence of low-cost, high reliability IVR systems. More on that in another post.)
In this post, I’m going to review one service that we really love: RingCentral.com
RingCentral is a hosted PBX, providing the small to medium-sized business with all the functions of a dedicated “key system” telephone system, without any on-site equipment, or even telephone lines. RingCentral can be entirely virtual while delivering an amazing range of services for the startup business.
You sign up for RingCentral on a monthly basis using a credit card. You sign up for a package of voicemail boxes, with a minimum of 5 extensions and 100 minutes of talk-time on the system. You also get a toll-free number or a local number virtually anywhere in the US with your plan. 1-800 numbers, versus 1-866 and 1-877 numbers, cost a bit when you first set them up.
When we first started using this service, their smalled package was a 10 extension package. I believe competition has forced them to provide a smaller 5 extension package. New competitors continue to enter this market, which is very good for the entrepreneur.
You record your main company greeting, set up your extensions with any additional recorded greetings, and then set up rules so that your calls are forwarded to any phone line, including a cell phone or home phone. Forwarding is transparent to the caller, who hears hold music while one or more of your phones ring. If the call isn’t answered after the number of rings you’ve configured, the call goes to voicemail. You can also receive e-mails when you miss a call or receive a message. A fax line is also included with most plans, and faxes can be sent out via a web page.
If you’d like RingCentral to provide telephone lines (not just the virtual PBX) for making outgoing calls, you pay about $5 a month per line. You can use free software to connect to the line from your computer, or you can buy a VOIP (SIP) phone. These run $50 to $150 for good ones. RingCentral can provide a very nice, pre-configured VOIP phone for $100, or can send you an adaptor to use an existing conventional phone you have lying around.
Pricing starts at $9.99 per month for the 5 extension plan and goes up to $99 for the Office plan. Fortunately, most features can be added as options and it is easy to upgrade from one plan to another. Once you purchase a package, the VOIP line prices are a great bargain.
Flexibility, on-demand setup and upgrades, on-demand phone numbers, easily configured extensions, 100% web-based system, ability to check voicemail from anywhere, screen calls effectively, and receive instantaneous notice of all calls across the system, wherever you are. This is great for the hyperactive CEO. Voice quality on the VOIP lines is great when using a SIP hardware desk phone.
Configuration can be counter-intuitive. The key concept in using RingCentral is “forwarding.” Unlike traditional phone systems, the PBX and the phone lines are completely de-coupled. RingCentral just acts as a hub, throwing calls off to whatever phone numbers you configure to sit behind your extensions. Even if you purchase VOIP lines from RingCentral, you still have to set up forwarding to these lines as they are not integrated with the RingCentral interface directly. Once you understand this concept, setting up RingCentral is easy.
When we set up a new satellite office recently, we were asked by our local clients for our new local number. We had a new number set up in the area code of our new office in minutes. We didn’t even have to change any of the extensions or other settings.
Another clever usage: The SIP desk phones act as stand-alone servers. You can toss the thing into your briefcase and plug it into an ethernet connection most places. You won’t get calls without configuring the firewall at your local network, but you can make calls from anywhere, from your office extension, simply by plugging into an Internet connection. Very convenient when you’re off-site doing consulting, for example.
Since RingCentral launched, several competitors have entered the market. These include M5 Networks ( http://www.m5net.com/) and 8×8, Inc. (https://www.8×8.com/). While RingCentral is our favorite, we’ll keep an eye on these and other new entrants as this market develops. We predict that prices will fall and VOIP lines will be better integrated and maybe even included as a part of the package in order to help ensure that the buyer doesn’t take that business elsewhere to a VOIP provider, like Skype or Vonage.
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