Efficient voice technology can help SMBs minimize the damage of the economic crisis.
The current economic crisis means many SMBs (small- to medium-sized businesses) will be in for a rough ride over the next few years. VoIP in all its variations and offshoots will help them minimize the damage, because it will let them operate more cheaply, not to mention more efficiently. Here are some ways to use VoIP to save money during the downturn.
1. Get a free phone number and inbound calling with Toktumi hosted VoIP. Hosted VoIP provider Toktumi will give you a free inbound phone number with voice mail. Unfortunately, it won't let you choose the area code, much less the number itself. Still, if all you want is to receive calls and listen to voice mail through your PC, you can't beat the price (you also get five minutes of outbound calling for free). If you're willing to spend $14.95 per month, you get your choice of area codes and a lot of other things. To start with, there's unlimited outbound North American calling, an auto receptionist and the ability to route calls to nine other numbers. You make and answer your calls using either a downloadable softphone with your headset-equipped PC, or through a $29.95 Toktumi adapter for your phone that you connect to your PC with a USB cable.
2. Get free hosted IP PBX with Bandwidth.com. Bandwidth.com provides integrated voice and data packages for SMBs. The packages, which it calls BoxSets, come in several bandwidth/phone-line combinations. Recently Bandwidth.com added a perk for users of those BoxSets: free hosted IP PBX service. The service, called Phonebooth, offers everything from auto attendant to four-digit extensions to simultaneous ringing to conference calling to contact-list management. The savings compared to the monthly $50 or more per seat of typical hosted PBX services can be considerable.
3. Get free unified voice mail with PhoneFusion Inc. If time really is money, PhoneFusion's unified voice mail service will save you some serious cash. The service, called Fusion Voicemail Plus, lets you forward unanswered calls from all your phone accounts — wireline, cellular, VoIP, home or office — to a single voice mailbox. When someone leaves a message, the service sends a text message to your smartphone. The client software you've loaded onto your handset will display the message as visual voice mail. It will show you the caller ID of the person who left the message, and which of your numbers they called on. You can click to listen, or to reply by calling back or, if it's a mobile number, by sending a text message. The more phone accounts you have, the more time-as-money you'll save. You'll also save the $7.95 per month that traditional carriers typically charge for voice mail on top of basic service. The client software is available for BlackBerry, Linux, Palm, Symbian and Windows Mobile handsets.
4. Use OnState's online call center with Skype Ltd. SMBs typically get call centers in one of two ways: as an add-on function to their IP PBX or as a hosted service. Either way is cheaper than traditional call centers, which are big, centralized, proprietary and expensive. Still, both approaches can cost a fair amount of money. OnState Communications offers a Web-based call-center service that differs significantly from most hosted call centers because it uses Skype as its underlying telephone service. Instead of handling the calls itself, it simply tells Skype where to route them. A basic package runs as little as $30 per seat, one-fifth the cost of some other options.
5. Use trixbox Pro and get Internet calling to other users for free. Trixbox Pro is Fonality Inc.'s downloadable open-source IP PBX software. Tech-savvy SMBs and resellers can load it on a server or on a trixbox appliance they buy from Fonality, and create a feature-rich phone system for a fraction the price of proprietary systems. One of the best benefits of trixbox Pro is that it comes with a service called trixNet, which provides free Internet calling between trixbox Pro systems. The systems don't have to both belong to your own company, and you don't even have to know about the other one. If, say, one of your overseas customers also has a trixbox Pro system, you'll have a pleasant surprise at the end of the month when you find out all your calls to that customer were free. When Internet conditions can't support voice-quality transmission, calls fall back to conventional PSTN (public switched telephone network) delivery.
6. Send Palringo Ltd. voice IMs instead of making mobile calls. Talking on your smartphone can be better than sending mobile IMs (instant messages) in several ways. First, voice can convey feelings better than text, even with emoticons. Speaking is also quicker and easier than keying or tapping. But making a long cellular call, or multiple calls, when you only need to say a handful of words once every few minutes can make your cellular bill skyrocket. Thus Palringo's voice IMs, which are packetized voice messages delivered over the cellular data network or wifi and the Internet, can save you considerable money in cellular charges. Palringo's service works on every major mobile and PC operating system and on every cellular network, in contrast to PTT (push-to-talk) services, which are restricted to the carriers that offer them.
7. Make free conference calls with iotum Inc.'s Calliflower. There's no need to use a cumbersome, expensive professional conferencing bridge for that sudden, urgent analyst briefing. Just go to the Web site of iotum's Calliflower conferencing service, sign in and start setting up a call. A Web-based "dashboard" interface lets organizers create calls, invite participants and manage and record the conference. It also provides attendees with visual information about the call and its participants. Most important, the service is free except for the cost of long-distance calls to the Calliflower number. Participants can save even more money by calling in via Truphone or Skype.
8. Make free VoIP calls from wifi hotspots using dual-mode handsets. There are many ways to save money by making VoIP calls from mobile phones. Some approaches use the cellular network to carry a call between the handset and a local access number of the VoIP network. An increasingly popular approach is to use dual-mode handsets equipped with downloaded client software to make wifi calls at hotspots. The key of course is making sure there's software available for the handset in question. MediaRing Ltd. and DeFi Mobile Ltd. both work on Nokia handsets, while fringland Ltd. and JAJAH Inc. also offer iPhone versions.
9. Make free video calls with TokBox Inc., no software download required. If you have a dozen or even a few hundred employees, you're probably not in the position to buy a corporate telepresence system at a quarter million dollars or more. But you might benefit from seeing the person you're talking to, and perhaps showing him or her some of your products or materials. If so, you can use TokBox's browser-based Web video calling service. Because it uses Adobe Flash technology, which is present on virtually every Internet-connected PC, it requires no download. And because it's free, all you need is a Web cam to get started.
10. Make and receive Skype calls from mobile phones with iSkoot Inc. Internet phone service Skype is the gold standard for saving money on international calls. But for a long time it wasn't easy to make Skype calls from mobile phones. ISkoot is a leader in making that possible. It uses downloaded client software that runs on a broad range of handsets. The software allows users to make and accept calls to and from both Skype users and regular phones. A calls travel from a Skype Internet gateway to the handset over cellular links, and use up both cellular minutes and Skype credits. But they're a lot cheaper than calls using international cellular minutes.
11. Make Skype calls while using Yugma Inc.'s Web-conferencing service. VoIP really starts to show its potential when combined with other forms of IP communication. Take Yugma's cross-platform online collaboration or Web-conferencing service. It lets participants share documents, see and even control each other's desktops through a Java-based application. They can also talk via a conventional conference bridge, but those pushing for the maximum savings can use Skype — Yugma is in fact an official Skype Extra application. There's a free version of Yugma for up to 10 participants, though those with heavy collaboration needs will want to go for the premium version, serving from 10 to 500 users at $10 to $90 per month. It runs on Windows, Macintosh and Linux computers. And it's much cheaper than most commercial Web-conferencing services.
12. Get a MagicJack for you and the person you talk to most. The Web site video sounds like a daytime TV commercial, but the value is real. Plug one side of a $39.95 MagicJack device into the USB port on your Internet-connected computer, and plug your phone into the other side. Have the person you talk to the most do the same. From then on, the two of you will be able to talk to each other free over your broadband connections. You'll also be able to make unlimited calls in North America at no additional cost for a year after you purchase the device. After that, you'll have to pay $19.95 per year.
13. Move to VoIP slowly with RingCentral Inc.'s hosted IP PBX. Maybe you want to benefit from the savings and features VoIP offers, but worry about risking the reputation of your small company on the quality of calls traveling over the Internet. RingCentral addresses your concerns by providing the flexibility and features of hosted IP PBX service while delivering the actual calls to your premises over conventional phone line. If and when you feel comfortable with Internet telephony, you can move to full-fledged VoIP through the company's outbound Digitalline service for $4.99 per line and up. It's a pretty low-risk way to start cutting costs with VoIP.
14. Phone home for free with Jaduka. There are a lot of ways to call home from an overseas hotspot using your headset-equipped laptop. But most of them require buying credits on Internet phone services. Jaduka's earthCALLER service lets North American users do it for free. It doesn't even require a software download: the service uses Microsoft Corp.'s ActiveX technology, so it works through a Web browser. Unfortunately for some, that browser is Internet Explorer. Thus Mac users, and Windows users fond of Firefox or other browsers, are out of luck.
15. Use a Voxofon LLC calling-card number when away from your office. Voxofon offers several ways to access its cheap international calling service. You can use a PC with headset, Web-activated callback or your mobile phone. But if you're at someone's home or office without access to a PC, you can use another method: just borrow their landline phone, dial a local access number and PIN and then dial the overseas number. It's just like an old-fashioned calling-card service. You don't even have to use your mobile minutes.