Voices in the Cloud

VoIP has long offered cost savings for businesses; now, the cloud is making the switch from standard phone service even easier

Eric Crawford is well familiar with the advantages of a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) phone system. As many business owners have discovered, the cost savings of switching to a VoIP system can be considerable, which has many of them taking the leap from the old-school, static phone grid into the wild world of the Web.

But it’s the flexibility VoIP offers that really won over Crawford, the founder and partner of Milwaukee’s Bright Blue Alliance, an executive search recruiter for the water industry.

“If you work in a decentralized organization, [the VoIP system] makes it seem [to employees] like everybody’s in the same building, because I can transfer the phone to anybody around the country, which is fabulous,” said Crawford, whose VoIP provider is 8×8. “But I never wanted it to make it look [to callers] like we’re all in the same building. I wanted to make it look like we’re all over the country. And we have fabulous infrastructure that’s flexible, scalable, and in the cloud.”

“The cloud” is one of those terms that’s entered the vernacular so suddenly, folks might still be getting their heads around it. But it’s clear that it’s become the wave of the future, and is making many businesses re-evaluate how they operate.

“It’s a little different now than it’s been in the past,” said Devin Renner, director of sales with Simple Network Consulting, a Madison company that serves clients across the state. “VoIP has been around for quite a few years, but in the past you needed to actually purchase a phone server for the system. Now, that’s still a good system – eventually it pays for itself, and then, of course, you don’t have a phone bill anymore. But for a small or mid-sized business, the idea of dropping $20,000 on a new phone server, it’s just not feasible.

“With this, there are no upfront costs other than the phones themselves. … You’re just transitioning to a cloud-based system, and you’re getting significantly more features, but you’re paying a fraction of the cost.”

Of course, it’s no secret in the business world that VoIP systems can save clients money. The question is, given the potential cost savings, why aren’t more businesses switching sooner rather than later?

Renner thinks it’s only a matter of time before people transition from landlines to VoIP systems the way consumers switched from VHS tapes to DVDs (and more and more, presumably, streaming video). That said, techno-phobic or simply inertia-bound business owners are still likely to have apprehensions – not all of them irrational.

Just a couple of months ago, Consumer Reports cautioned VOIP users to be prepared in the event of an emergency, which could bring down their Internet-based systems even as old-fashioned copper wire-based phone systems are functioning fine.

Renner acknowledges that that can be a problem, and that even something as mundane as a power outage could give customers pause. It’s a problem, he says, that VoIP providers have done their best to anticipate, however.

“If there’s a blizzard, a thunderstorm, the power goes out, and you can’t access your Internet, we’re going to have something in place that allows your calls to be automatically forwarded to your cell phone, so that way your clients can still call in and you’re not missing anything,” said Renner. “And by the time your system’s back up and running, your clients never miss a beat. They never know the difference.”

Staying secure

Another worry that many potential users of VoIP have – particularly a VoIP system that’s based in the nebulous and mysterious “cloud” – involves security. Older businesspeople probably kept everything they needed locked in a fireproof filing cabinet, while their sons and daughters had no problem keeping their data close to home on their desktops. What about the psychological barriers some people might encounter when trying to wrap their minds around the cloud concept?

“People ask, ‘How secure is the system?’” said Renner. “If somebody can hack my email account from the Internet, what’s to stop them from hacking the phone account and then checking all my voicemails from my clients? And if I’m an attorney’s office or a doctor’s office, I can’t have that information put out there. I have to secure it. So we have to make sure we’re selling a secure system that has security systems in place, is protected by various firewalls.

“So we need to abate those fears for our clients, and we need to make sure that we do that right off the bat.”

Renner says that clients really shouldn’t be any more afraid of a cloud-based VoIP system than of any other computer system they’re running. Then again, there will always be some people with reservations.

“We do have the issue of protection come up a lot, but these are from the same people who have a network in place and are already using the Internet if not the cloud, so offering the same sort of protection that they’re already at least vaguely familiar with seems to help with that,” said Renner. “You always have people who will sort of cling to what they’re used to and what’s familiar to them vs. changing something, even if it makes sense for them to make that transition.”

Seeing the future

Of course, can’t-miss technologies are more vulnerable than most products are to the disruptive power of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s famous black swans, but as Renner sees it, if all goes as planned, cloud-based VOIP systems will soon come to dominate the market.

“I firmly believe that you’ll see that kind of transition within the next three years, five years, somewhere in there,” said Renner. “I would be strongly leaning to close to three years. It just makes so much more sense, it’s so much more cost-effective, and it just adds so many different things that you’re not able to get on a traditional phone system. And the more people get set up on this sort of thing and the more renowned it becomes, I think the more businesses you’ll see that will want to jump on this.”

For his part, Crawford says VoIP is ideal.

“For us, it’s beautiful,” said Crawford. “Absolutely perfect. I can’t imagine any insurance agency, real estate agency, anyone who has just a couple phone lines, going with anything else. It’s super simple.”

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