Chris runs a public relations firm that serves clients around the country, working with a team of writers, editors and researchers who are all independent contractors. In essence, Chris operates a one-person shop from a residential setting. Chris’ clients don’t know that, however. Chris has leveraged the use of a virtual phone number and virtual phone system to not only convey a “big-business” presence but also to ensure coverage during meetings or when otherwise engaged with clients. Whether Chris is working from home, running errands, traveling or meeting with clients, calls can be received—even forwarded, transcribed or otherwise managed to ensure that the business is covered.
That kind of seamless phone communication wasn’t possible even a few short years ago. But, today, virtual phone services are becoming increasingly popular—and affordable.
Jump to a section of our Virtual Phone Number Guide below
Contributor Case Studies
- LaKiesha Tomlin on Flexibility and Convenience
- Gregg Sobek on the Value of Going Virtual
- Bradley Shaw on Combining Work with Pleasure
- Antonella Pisani on Virtual Messaging
- Gavin Graham on the Benefits for Small Businesses
- Andrew Goncharov on Flexibility
- Julie T. Ewald on Reliability
- Sam Malik on Virtual Companies
Why Virtual Phone Systems and Why Now?
There’s no doubt that the advent of the telephone has been a boon to business. The ability to communicate via voice in real time over long distances has allowed efficient, personal and fast communication between parties across the country and around the world. Even younger generations are probably at least marginally familiar with how telephone technology progressed from switchboards and rotary phones to cell phones and digital technology. However, what many do not realize is that telephone technology remains incredibly dynamic.
Increasingly, businesses from large to small are turning to virtual numbers to replace their traditional phone systems. And that’s no surprise, given the many benefits virtual numbers offer.
While a virtual phone number may sound complicated or expensive for those not familiar with this option, the technology is actually very straightforward and cost effective. And, it’s technology that has found increasing use among a variety of businesses of all types and all sizes. From a technical standpoint, many readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the underlying technology, which relies on cloud computing technology and data centers to host the software and information used to support the use of virtual numbers.
Cloud computing has become increasingly popular for a variety of uses, from storing data on your cell phone to utilizing software without downloading large applications onto the end user’s computer. The fact that cloud computing allows the data center infrastructure to be shared among many users is one of the primary reasons that the costs of using a virtual phone system can be kept to a minimum.
In this white paper, we’ll look at the evolution of the phone number and the underlying technology to see how we’ve gone from switchboard operators to the cloud-based systems that allow virtual numbers to exist. We’ll also discuss the benefits of a virtual phone number to businesses in terms of flexibility, cost, marketing, security and business continuity. Finally, we’ll address some of the common questions businesses have when it comes to implementing their own virtual number system.
Things You May Not Know About the History of Telephone Numbers
Before diving into more detail about virtual numbers, it can be helpful to take a look at how our relationship with phones has evolved over time to provide some context and lay the foundation for understanding the benefits that virtual phone systems provide.
Early Days of the Telephone
Ask anyone who invented the telephone and the first name you’ll hear is almost certainly Alexander Graham Bell. However, according to Elon University’s School of Communications, the development of the telephone was an iterative process that involved inventors in both the U.S. and Europe. It was actually an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci who is credited with developing the first, basic telephone in 1849, and French inventor Charles Bourseul who developed his own in 1854. However, what truly mattered from a commercial standpoint, at least in the United States, was the first U.S. patent for the device, which was awarded to Bell in 1876.
While he may not have been the very first to successfully create a telephone, Bell and the companies he was associated with were certainly the most widely known driving forces behind the rapid growth in the use of the technology. “In 1877-78, the first telephone line was constructed, the first switchboard was created and the first telephone exchange was in operation,” according to Elon University. “Three years later, almost 49,000 telephones were in use.” Bell merged with others in 1880 to form what became known as the American Bell Telephone Company; in 1885 AT&T (American Telegraph and Telephone Company) came into being—and still exists today!
In the early days of the telephone, communications took place between small numbers of people located close to each other.
Flexibility and Convenience Big Selling Points for Independent Consultants
LaKiesha Tomlin is an engineering manager in the aerospace industry and the owner of Thriving Ambition, a firm that provides leadership and career consulting. Tomlin helps other professionals get job promotions and build strong networks. She serves as a career coach and leadership speakers at conferences around the country.
That mobility demands flexibility when it comes to ensuring that important calls from clients and prospects aren’t missed. One big benefit for Tomlin that came from having a virtual phone number as the ability to separate business from personal calls. “While building this business I didn’t want all of my potential clients to have my personal phone number,” she says.
Another big benefit for Tomlin was the ability to select her own phone number. “This was especially helpful since most of my business is local,” she says. The virtual phone system allows her to manage her business, even when she’s otherwise engaged. “I get an email when someone calls or sends a text message,” she says. “This ensures that I do not miss messages from clients if my phone gets damaged. I’ll have a record in my email along with their contact information.”
This made it was relatively simple to connect people with each other. As Reuben Yonatan¹ writes, “The first telephones had no numbers at all. In the nascent days of the telephone, telephones were sold in pairs. You would turn a crank and that would generate electricity to ring a bell at the other end.” As time went on, operators were introduced into the process, assuming the role of connecting people to each other—again, only possible because the numbers were small and people were located near each other.
The First Phone Numbers
The complications involved in connecting caller and called increased in step with the exponential growth in the number of telephones in the country and their extended geographical reach. Elon University notes that as the number of telephones in the U.S. skyrocketed in the early years of the 20th century, and phone service became national rather than local, it became apparent to some that it would not always be feasible to rely on the fact that operators were acquainted with those communicating over the phone network. The invention of the telephone number is generally ascribed to Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, a physician residing in Lowell, Massachusetts. During an outbreak of measles in the 1870s, Parker was concerned that the town’s four telephone operators could all become ill with the disease, rendering the city’s telephone service inoperable. To simplify the process of operating the telephone network and thereby make it easier to train new operators, Parker developed a system of numbers and letters, which quickly caught on both locally and internationally.
In a system that should be familiar to present-day Americans, each number had three letters associated with it. Typically phone numbers used a system of letters followed by numbers, with two – four numbers to specify a town or location within a city. For large cities, there would often be multiple hubs within the city. These geographically based prefixes eventually led to the development of the numeric area codes we’re familiar with today.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has created a map of all area codes within the United States:
Eventually, as the number of phones increased, three-digit area codes were created to be dialed in front of the rest of the number. Today, we use 11 digits to contact people outside of our immediate area code: “1” to signify long distance, three numbers for an area code and a further seven digits unique to the person or business being contacted. This prefix area code system along with the 3-3-4 fixed length scheme were developed by AT&T in 1947, and became the standard for dialing 4 years later in 1951,
Many large businesses also use internal extensions to reach specific employees within the company.
Mobile Mechanics Value Virtual
Mobile Car DR is a mobile mechanic service in Phoenix. Gregg Sobek, one of the owners of the company, says “we have used a virtual phone service since the formation of our company.” While he says that “the whole idea of a virtual phone system can be nightmarish” and “figuring out what is important and how to get it set up can take a lot of up-front time,” he says “ours is set up really well right now, and [it is] super easy to make most adjustments we want.”
One of the features Mobile Car DR was interested in was the ability to record incoming calls so the interactions could be reviewed and evaluated to help improve conversions. That ability, and the ability to track other metrics—like how many calls are received each day and where they are coming from—have definitely provided business benefit. In addition, Sobek says, the system allows the company to adjust which phone will ring, ring multiple people at the same time, set up phone trees or have phones automatically transfer at certain times of the day. These are the kinds of practical features that can really provide bottom-line business benefit especially for small businesses where resources—including staff—are at a premium.
While Sobek says the company only uses the system for incoming calls, with employees returning calls through their own personal phones, the Access Direct system provides the ability for calls to be returned via the web interface or phone app—showing the company’s virtual phone number to those being called. This is the kind of functionality that allows even small businesses to convey a big business image.
Psychologically, today’s phone numbers take some of the personal element out of connecting with others when compared to the early days of small pools of people connecting locally. Instead of asking an operator to call your friend John Porter on Oak Street, the growing number of users meant that you now had to pick up the phone and dial half a dozen numbers.
Not surprisingly, there also emerged a substantial commercial interest in telephones, in addition to the social element. It wasn’t long before businesses found a way to incorporate their brands into an otherwise bland array of numbers. Enter the vanity number which businesses began to incorporate into toll-free numbers to make it easy—and inexpensive—for consumers to reach out to them. You’ve certainly heard of 1-800-Flowers—that’s a vanity number. It’s also a website, and the name of the company, making it, possibly, the best example of aligning a phone number with a brand.
According to BeBusinessed.com, it was AT&T that created the first direct-dial, toll-free option, called “Inward Wide Area Telephone Service,” or InWATS. This first ever automated toll-free number did not require the use of a human operator and created the toll-free number format many of us would be familiar with today – one using the 1-800 prefix followed by the standard seven digits. The term toll-free really applies only to the person making the call. In effect, it was a form of collect call, where the organization hosting the toll free number pays the cost of the call to the phone company. Due to claimed violation of antitrust laws, the Department of Justice sued AT&T in 1974 and ultimately forced the breakup of the phone giant into what were known at the time as “The 7 Baby Bells.” The dissolution brought greater competition and lower prices to the marketplace.
An unintended side effect of the drop in prices, however, was what was known as The 800 Number Panic. BeBusinessed explains, “[E]ach number became like a modern-day web domain name. Smart investors would buy up as many 800 number combinations as they could while hoping for a nationwide 800 number shortage. They believed that once there were no 800 numbers left, businesses would pay thousands—if not millions—for the right to a number they owned in their ‘portfolio.’” Once again, the U.S. government stepped in with a pretty simple solution. In 1996, the FCC created the first group of 1-888 numbers, followed by 877, 866, 855 and 844 in subsequent years.
Clearly, the evolution of phone numbers has been driven by an array of factors. The initial use of phone numbers grew from an increasing network that made it impossible to expect operators to personally know everyone who might need a connection. The use of geographic prefixes and area codes resulted from the transnational nature of the telephone network. The latest revolution— the virtual phone number— has also been driven by outside changes.
How Does a Virtual Phone Number Work?
Let’s take a look at the latest entrant to the world of telecommunications: virtual phone numbers. From the perspective of someone placing a call to a virtual phone number, there is really no difference between a virtual phone number and a traditional phone number. The differences are in how that placed call is treated before it gets to the recipient and, as we’ll see, the cloud computing framework that underlies virtual numbers, allowing for some impressive advantages over traditional phone systems.
We’ll be focusing on the cloud-based, VOIP virtual phone number solutions; however, we should first point out for the sake of completeness that there are really two methods to implement a virtual phone number: POTS and VOIP.
Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)
If the unabbreviated name of POTS – also know as a Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) – sounds boring that’s because it’s fairly old technology. Here’s how Robert Pepper² explains it:
“The PSTN is a product of the twentieth century. Circuit switching is a type of communication in which a dedicated circuit is open for the duration of the transmission. Over the twentieth century, the method of making the connection changed from human operators to automated electronic switching to digital switching. The Public Switched Telephone Network is the network of copper and fiber-optic wires that criss-cross the globe. Until very recently, that meant calls were very expensive, because you were “renting” a length of copper wire that the telephone company “owned,” and you would pay more for being on the line longer, and also more if the line was physically longer (e.g. calling from L.A. to Philadelphia). International calls were extremely expensive.”
Voice over IP (VoIP)
VoIP is the modern means of utilizing a virtual phone number without requiring multiple numbers as the POTS solution does. In this case, your internet service provider (ISP) will assign you a number and associate it with your location. It can be any available number with any area code you choose. When someone calls this number, it won’t ring through a land line but will be connected to your phone’s IP address. VoIP has been a big deal ever since it emerged on the market in the 1990s. The VoIP Report offers a number of interesting facts about VoIP. For instance:
- Businesses see an average savings of 50-75 percent³ when switching to VoIP—in fact, the piece points to a PC World article about a business that saved $1200 a month after making the switch.
- About 31 percent of all businesses use VoIP systems—it’s an indicator of growth; it’s also an indicator of significantly more opportunity for others to jump on board.
- The global VoIP market is expected to grow about 28 percent from 2016-2020.
Here’s a particularly interesting point that the VoIP report calls out: “In some cases, installing VoIP services for one person can be as easy as inserting a $15-$20 pre-programmed dongle into a USB port.”
Seamlessly Combining Work With Pleasure
Bradley Shaw is a digital marketing and online consulting expert who has been in business since 1997. His firm, SEO Expert, is based in Addison, Texas, but he spends his summers in San Diego. “A virtual phone system allows me to manage my team and clients by creating a virtual office and working from anywhere,” he says.
Shaw isn’t the only member of the SEO Expert team that isn’t always based in Addison. “Our company has employees that are located in many areas, either overseas or working from home,” he says. “A virtual phone system allows us to seamlessly conduct business and transfer calls no matter the physical location.”
Despite the widespread use of email in business communications, Shaw stresses that “a phone system is an integral aspect of managing our business and our clients.” The result: the ability to build better relationships with clients and ensure that client expectations are met – all through the use of a virtual phone number.
Virtual Numbers and Cloud Computing
A key piece of technology that a virtual phone number is dependent on is cloud computing. Most readers have no doubt heard the term cloud computing; however, many people are somewhat unfamiliar with how the technology works. The concept is perhaps best understood in relation to what it is meant to replace.
A typical data storage scenario involves data saved locally – i.e., on a hard drive or server in the same place as the user. This is how most people store files on their personal computers and how businesses traditionally saved their data. Whether servers – and how many servers – are needed by a business depends on the amount of data the business generates. Servers are expensive to purchase and also have high ongoing costs due to the need to keep them cool, which boosts electricity bills.
Some proponents of locally saved data argue that it is more secure, because the owner of the data also owns and controls the hard drive or server; however, as we’ll discuss later, there are strong arguments to be made for the greater security of cloud computing.
How Cloud Computing Works
As described by Indiana University, “Cloud computing is the practice of hosting files, computing operations, or technology services on remote servers connected via the Internet. It can allow people to access and share information at any time from multiple devices, rapidly deploy computing services without purchasing hardware, temporarily leverage massive computing power, and much more.”
As the University of California San Francisco’s IT department notes, the term “cloud” is not static, which can make it difficult to conceptualize for those unfamiliar with the concept. “The “cloud” is a continually evolving term which broadly references cloud services or cloud computing. Cloud services can mean collections of applications, information, infrastructure components, and/ or services which are provided as pools of resources.”
The term “cloud” derives from the fact that it’s difficult to say exactly where specific data is at any point in time. For example, you may have 50 physical servers in a particular cloud, and they may be geographically distributed and sending data back and forth constantly.
There are three primary types of clouds: public, private and hybrid.
A public cloud is provided by a commercial provider, like IBM, Microsoft, or a wide array of others, and accessed by users over the Internet. Public cloud services are designed to serve a large number of users which yield economies of scale and keep costs down. In early 2017, Synergy Research released data on the market share for major cloud providers and shifts seen since 2015 (see graph to the right).
Private clouds, as the name suggests, are proprietary and managed by an individual or individual organization. For instance, most universities have their own private clouds where information is stored and can be accessed by associated users (e.g. students, professors and staff) while inside, or when outside, the physical university setting.
Hybrid clouds, as the name suggests, have characteristics of both public and private clouds. A healthcare organization, for instance, may choose to use a private cloud for sensitive patient information, but a public cloud for other less sensitive data needs.
A data center is a location where the data within a cloud is physically housed. As previously mentioned, advanced clouds will typically have multiple data centers with data being transferred between locations constantly. Because clouds are storing data for potentially millions of users, these data centers can be massive, with a great deal of investment in security and energy usage required.
The use of cloud computing has expanded greatly in recent years, and for good reason. There are numerous advantages to cloud computing over traditional data storage models. Pay attention to these general benefits of cloud computing, because they have direct relevance to the specific benefits of virtual numbers, which rely on this technology.
Virtual Messaging On The Go
Virtual phone systems have a lot to offer for busy business people on the go. Like Antonella Pisani, the CEO/founder of OfficialCouponCode and former VP of global e-commerce for Fossil. She was particularly sold on going virtual because of the voicemail transcription options offered.
“As someone who travels frequently, this makes it easy to keep track of messages while I’m in areas that don’t have great cell reception,” says Pisani. “This was an important consideration in choosing a provider and it was also important to be able to block spam phone calls that would inevitably arise from posting a phone number on our website,” she says.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of cloud computing for both individuals and organizations is cost. As mentioned above, storing data locally involves the use of costly servers. The use of cloud computing relieves business owners of the need to invest in hardware, software, licensing fees, or employee time used to update and upgrade servers and systems. Remember the old days when each employee’s desktop was loaded with an array of software programs licensed to that computer. Those days are, virtually, gone!
The scalability afforded through cloud computing solutions is a huge benefit for budgeting purposes. Instead of having to periodically expend large amounts of money to add additional hardware, or software, small business owners can increase storage capacity, and computing functionality, gradually and in closer proportion to their needs.
In the past, companies that housed their own data often ran into space constraints. Capacity limitations were an ongoing concern. As a business grows, at some point it needs to purchase new equipment and storage space. Not so with a cloud. While there is a finite amount of storage available even in the cloud, that space is controlled by large hosting companies, and it’s typically very easy for customers of those companies to increase storage whenever they need to. Conversely, if an organization is downsizing, it’s easier to reduce your cloud space and associated cost than it is to liquidate servers or reduce data center space for locally hosted data.
Backup and Recovery
One of an IT department’s greatest fears is losing data. Regardless of the type of business, the large-scale loss of data can be catastrophic, and this is a significant risk when that data is stored in a single location on a handful of servers. It’s the computing equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket. By contrast, cloud computing has many “baskets” storing your data, often in geographically diverse locations. This means it’s very unlikely that a single event will result in the permanent loss of data. Furthermore, most cloud service providers have considerable resources in terms of staff and technology capable of recovering and restoring data.
Ease of Access
From a logistical standpoint, clouds are great solutions for easily accessing data. Have you ever needed to remotely access a presentation or document saved on your work or personal computer? This isn’t very easy with traditional storage methods. Sure, you could save the data on a portable flash drive – if you remember to do this. Have you ever emailed yourself a document to be able to access it remotely? This is using the cloud, because your email and its attachments are saved on the cloud of your email service provider. Similarly, if you have a cloud set up for personal or work uses, you can access that data remotely, depending on your cloud’s security and access rules.
Disadvantages of Cloud Computing
There really aren’t a lot of disadvantages to cloud computing, but there are some.
Because data saved on the cloud is hosted remotely, and accessed via the internet, it is always possible that there is some technical issue that temporarily prevents accessing the data. Even a poor internet connection can make retrieving data difficult. For example, if you need to access a document saved on your cloud while you’re in a plane without access to the internet, you may be out of luck if you don’t have a locally stored copy of that document.
Similarly, there are security risks involved in using clouds, because the data is on the internet, albeit in a secure section of the web thus, potentially, putting your company at risk.
At the same time, cloud computing service providers put a tremendous amount of time and resources into security. Information security is, after all, a critical component of their value proposition and, therefore, the very survival of their business.
The rapid growth of cloud computing is a testament to the confidence that businesses of all sizes have placed in this technology and to the many benefits it offers. IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Public Cloud Services Spending Guide indicates that worldwide spending will reach $122.5 billion in 2017, representing an increase of 24.4 percent over 2016.
Benefits of a Virtual Phone Number
We’ve talked about the benefits of cloud computing solutions generally, from financial to operational. Now let’s look at some of the advantages this technology lends to virtual phone number solutions.
- Fully integrated communications system
- Control over modes of communication
- Top line business features
- Mobility and ease of use
- Time management and efficiency
- Flexibility to scale up (and down)
- Business continuity
- Improved customer service
- Ease of adding new service features
- Cost savings
We’ve grouped these benefits into three primary buckets, each of which have multiple specific advantages: operational, marketing and financial. We’ve also included some brief case studies to help highlight some of the key benefits of a virtual phone number by looking at real-world situations in which those benefits are realized.
Big Benefits for Small Business
Gavin Graham is a staff writer at Fit Small Business, an information resource for small business owners. A virtual phone system should provide businesses with “a flexible and economical phone solution,” says Graham. “It should allow me to present a professional face to my clients with a central business phone number that’s separate from my personal one, as well as offer a range of call management features that may be otherwise unavailable to me, such as pre-recorded greetings, conference calling and toll-free numbers.”
When looking for a provider, says Graham, small business owners should look for “cost, available features and reliability.” And, he adds: “As a small business owner I would place a premium on the accessibility and reputation of customer support.”
Graham recommends that those considering a virtual phone system should first audit their business’ calling patterns and usage history. Then, he says: “Price out what you’re currently paying and weigh the total cost of a virtual phone system plus your current mobile plan, versus a separate VoIP system. Regardless of which of the two you choose, rely on independent third-party reviews to inform your research and find the service that best balances cost, features you will actually use, and customer support.”
We’ve already discussed the many benefits that cloud computing offers businesses. Above and beyond these benefits, though, there are some pretty significant advantages that a virtual phone number and virtual phone systems can provide to help businesses be more efficient.
For instance, your virtual phone system can be set up to triage phone calls based on different factors. Chris, the public relations firm owner we introduced at the beginning of this white paper, for instance, might want to have phone traffic directed to a landline at a specific location during business hours from Monday to Friday and to a cell phone after hours. This is simple to do using a virtual phone number. No matter what time of day, or what day of the week, a customer calls they will use the same number, but the system can be set up to be smart enough to know where to direct those calls.
Now, let’s add a couple of employees to this equation. Let’s assume Roger works the night shift and Rachel works the day shift. A virtual phone number can route calls to the appropriate employee depending on the time of the call. There’s no need to have employees share an on-call phone linked to a particular number. And, they can link their personal cell phones to the virtual phone number just as the owner does.
What if nobody is in the office or on call? No problem. You can tie your virtual phone number to an automated answering service that could, for example, allow a caller to leave a message or receive pre-recorded information for standard inquiries—or reach the owner of the company on a cell phone in case of an emergency or critical situation.
Case Study: The Real Estate Company
A Florida-based real estate company was realizing great success. The business was booming and had a growing number of clients and agents. Growth comes with challenges, of course. The challenge for this company was keeping everyone in touch. As the business grew, it became increasingly difficult to triage calls meant for the central office versus individual agents. Agents, of course, spend the majority of their time out in the field, meeting with clients and touring homes.
The Solution: Access Direct set this real estate firm up with a virtual number and an auto-attendant. Through this system, each agent was able to have a unique extension; incoming calls through these extensions were forwarded to agents’ cell phones. This simple solution ensured that agents could be readily reached whether in the office or out in the field.
There are clear benefits for remote workers as well. Think about Chris, our public relations company owners, for instance. Chris relies on remote workers to staff her company—they’re based in different cities and states. But, using a virtual phone system allows Chris to simply set up a new virtual number—or extension—instead of installing a separate phone line. Virtual systems also allow the flexibility to easily move numbers from one person to another as business needs require.
So, for instance, if your business is experiencing turnover with new employees coming and going frequently, there’s no need to keep track of work phones and juggle numbers. The virtual phone system can transition between employees easily.
The same is true if your business needs to move to a new physical location. There’s no downtime required to transfer a cumbersome, traditional phone system and go through a lengthy and expensive setup process at the new location. And there’s no need to get a new phone number because you’ve moved to a different area code.
When asked to name the benefits of a virtual phone system, Andrew Goncharov, the director and owner of Less Stress Removals, a household moving company based in the UK, says: “flexibility unmeasured.” Goncharov was initially interested in a virtual phone system because of its easy set-up, cost-effectiveness, flexibility and ease of redirecting calls.
“The customer dials one number, but a member of staff can reply wherever they are in the world. Overseas customers can ring their local number, and you pick up in your country,” he says. “It allows our receptionists to change shifts while being in different locations.”
Moving is stressful, Goncharov acknowledges. When involved in a move, he says, “people want to hear you, not just receive an email—80 percent of communication with customers happens over the phone. By listening to customers on the phone you can tell how they feel if something is not going according to plan.” For experienced advisers, he says, that kind of feedback ensures that the correct tactics are being employed to meet customer needs.
Case Study: The Relocated Hunting Business
A hunting supply company in Alaska was faced with the prospect of moving the business to Idaho. To complicate matters, there would be a transition period during which the owners were winding down operations in their Alaska location while at the same time trying to establish their presence in Idaho. Fortunately, despite all of the hassle of moving both business and home locations, one thing that proved easy to manage was the phone system.
The Solution: Even though the original business line was a local number tied to a physical location in Alaska, Access Direct was able to work with this hunting company to set up a local Idaho number. This allowed the company to continue to use their Alaska number while winding down operations in Alaska, while concurrently establishing a local presence using an Idaho number. Regardless of which number customers called, the calls went to the owners’ cell phones, helping to ease the transition. Once customers because familiar with the new number, the company was able to phase it out. The company’s owners told us that the easiest part of their move was the virtual phone number change!
The marketing applications of a virtual phone system may not be obvious at first; however, there are numerous ways in which phone numbers in general, and a virtual phone number specifically, can add an edge to your marketing efforts.
For starters, the area code a business is associated with can have a very significant impact on consumer perception. For instance, a New York City-based start-up in the financial industry might be physically located in Queens to keep costs low; however, instead of using the 718 area code associated with Queens, it could acquire a 212 area code, which potential customers would associate with the more established, and more prominent, Manhattan area. It’s a popular area code, for obvious reasons. But that popularity has made it a difficult one to access—but not for AccessDirect.
Our public relations agency owner, Chris, is located in a very small rural community in the Midwest. Not such a great image to convey to potential clients located in more urban settings. So, Chris is able to attain a 612 area code tied to Minneapolis—a hub for PR and advertising agency activities.
Depending on the type of business you operate, and the customers you serve, having local area codes may also convey a sense of comfort and security to those potential customers who may not trust a non-local business with an unfamiliar area code.
Case Study: The Florida Martial Arts Business
A new martial arts studio in Florida wanted to establish a strong local presence. The owners, though, were from out-of-state and had out-of-state phone numbers. That could be a potential negative factor for a business trying to establish a presence in a new location. Before cell phones, when someone moved out of state, whether an individual or a business, they needed to get a new phone number with a new area code. Now, because cell phones are mobile, the number associated with the cell phone doesn’t need to stay in the geographic location where the phone was issued.
The Solution: AccessDirect worked with this martial arts studio to provide a local number that would be forwarded to their cell phones. They were able to use that local number to promote their presence in the community, providing an immediate local connection and increasing credibility. Launching a start-up can be tough; Access Direct can help.
While area codes certainly send a strong psychological message to consumers, those final seven digits have an impact as well. As we discussed earlier, the use of vanity numbers can provide businesses with the opportunity to emphasize their business and brand in a very functional, and impactful, way. A phone number could just be a generic jumble of digits, but there are multiple ways to gain a marketing advantage based on the number. For example, a bakery launching a new promotion might already have a primary phone number. But to draw attention to specific initiative, it could generate a virtual phone number that translates to 555–BEST–PIE to highlight a promotion celebrating a recent local award. And, of course, because of the flexibility of a virtual phone number, customers dialing those vanity digits will still be routed to the original primary number.
Case Study: The Entrepreneur with Multiple Businesses
An electronics resale business had two, separate, resale businesses that were being operated from the owner’s personal cell phone. The owner wanted a more distinct delineation between the two businesses.
The Solution: AccessDirect set up two, separate, virtual phone numbers for the company, allowing the owner to promote a distinct identity for both businesses by using separate numbers for each, even though both rang to his personal cell phone. Even better, the owner can easily tell which company the call is for, and can answer the call accordingly. We also set up separate call logs for each number, so the company can readily keep track of customers for each individual business.
This case study brings up another important marketing benefit that a virtual phone number can provide: the ability to collect and analyze data from incoming calls. As marketers know, it can be hard to measure the impact of a marketing campaign and tie an increase in sales to a specific marketing effort when there are multiple campaigns ongoing at any given time. A virtual phone number can provide a convenient way to track these efforts.
Vegas Agency Doesn’t Gamble With Reliable Phone Service
Julie T. Ewald is CEO and creative director for Impressa Solutions, a Las Vegas-based inbound marketing agency. It’s an all-remote digital agency, says Ewald. “Our team has relied on VoIP and virtual phone systems since day one.”
Because the agency is entirely remote, traditional phone systems simply wouldn’t serve their needs. “While some businesses in our position elect to just skip the phone altogether, it’s nearly impossible to look like a legitimate business without a phone number,” Ewald says. And, she acknowledges, there are simply some people who prefer to connect by phone. “We don’t want to lose out on their business.”
In seeking a vendor, Ewald’s biggest concerns were around affordability and flexibility. The agency only averages about five call a week, so cost was clearly an issue—as was the ability for contractors to have extensions that would ensure their accessibility. Ewald has used a few different solutions over the years and advises others looking for a solution to focus on usability. “If it’s too confusing for you or your team to set up, or engage with, you’ll be losing out on opportunities and frustrating the people you work with.”
Consider a hypothetical real estate company advertising the same portfolio of properties through multiple channels. If the company provided the same phone number on each of its marketing channels, it wouldn’t be able to tell which channels were driving the most activity. The company could survey potential customers about how they heard of a particular property, but the accuracy of their self-reporting would be questionable. However, if that company instead used one number for its TV commercial, another for its online ad, a third for its print ad in the Post, a fourth for its print ad in the Herald, etc., it could easily track how many calls it received on each virtual phone number, and therefore each platform, without having to survey anyone—and with a much higher degree of accuracy.
Operational and marketing benefits are obviously important, but there’s another area where small businesses are hoping to gain benefit—financial impact. Virtual phone systems really deliver here, as we’ve previously discussed. There’s no need to purchase and maintain a sophisticated phone system at the company headquarters or to provide employees with multiple company-issued cellphones tied to different numbers. Costs related to moving facilities, or changing locations, are eliminated—and costs related to tracking the effectiveness of various marketing communication efforts are slashed.
According to TechSoup, “Even though the prices are comparable (about $25 per line for either a POTS or digital line, depending on your region), any sizable business is more likely to be using digital than POTS phone lines. Why? Because digital lines allow for more flexibility in allocating these lines, and more advanced features.” PC Mag argues that services like VoIP are actually significantly less expensive than traditional phone services, and offers a comparison of different providers.
Another financial benefit is the ability to implement a virtual answering service along with your virtual phone system. Rather than hiring one or more receptionists to work a set number of hours, you can set up a virtual service to answer calls any time, day or night. No need to worry about your receptionist calling in sick or hiring multiple staff to cover different shifts.
Isn’t It Time You Went Virtual?
When new technologies emerge, there are essentially two paths businesses can take. They can become first movers, jumping right in to take advantage of added efficiencies, costs savings and competitive advantages, while taking a risk that the promises of that technology are not all they appeared to be. Or, they can be cautious, let their competitors be the first to implement the new technologies and learn from competitors’ successes and potential failures.
Virtual phone systems aren’t that type of technology! The use of a virtual phone number is firmly established and already battle-tested with thousands of businesses already reaping the benefits of the flexibility and freedom a virtual phone number provides.
A Wide Range of Features
One of the reasons that virtual phone systems are so attractive to businesses of all sizes, but particularly small businesses, are the many customer service and productivity enhancing features that these cost-effective solutions provide. For example:
- 24/7 auto attendant feature. Face it, busy entrepreneurs can’t always be poised to take a call. That’s where auto attendants come into play. Also referred to as a “virtual assistant,” auto attendant features will answer your calls professionally, providing a menu of options for callers to choose from.
- Call accept/reject. Call screening features let you see who’s calling and puts you in control of which calls you take, which you forward to voicemail and which you pass along to others.
- Call transcription to text or email. When you’re in a meeting, or some other setting where you can’t take a call, voicemail to text or email allows you to stay on top of important incoming messages—and you’ll have a written record of the call to review later.
- Local phone numbers. Want to establish a local presence in multiple locations, even though you’re physically located miles away—or send a big city presence even though you’re in a rural setting? That’s the beauty of a virtual phone number.
- Toll-free vanity numbers. For businesses that want to build, or boost their brand through a vanity virtual phone number—or several—virtual phone systems offer flexibility, convenience and the opportunity to track and measure how these numbers perform.
- Virtual fax. For some businesses, faxed documents are still an important part of their business operations. Virtual phone systems offer the opportunity to receive a fax, virtually, wherever you are—even when there’s no “fax machine” around.
Bottom line: the flexibility that a virtual phone number provides will help you manage your business in a way that best meets your needs. Isn’t it time to make your move?
Virtual Phone Solutions Provide Benefits for Virtual Companies
Dr.Felix Online Doctor and Pharmacy is a digital healthcare service, which means, says Sam Malik, founder and CEO of the company, “all of our customers and traffic are 100 percent online. The only way we can interact with customers is through emails and phone all day.”
Malik is currently in the process of selecting a solution to meet his company’s needs as they struggle with the limitations of a traditional landline. In a new, virtual, system Malik hopes to have the benefits of:
- Voicemail to Email
- Fax to Email
- The ability to take simultaneous calls
- The ability for staff to receive SMS notifications
- Music for customers on hold
- Call Routing
- The ability for the remote team to use from anywhere through a shared business number
Because making a good first impression is so critical for a 100 percent eCommerce business, Malik notes, “the only chance you have is when a potential lead calls, and the interaction over the phone with our staff is what depicts our brand image.” Consequently, he says, “as a start-up, having the right phone solution is critical for growth and sustainability.”
Make Your Move Now
We’ve reviewed the development of virtual numbers and where they fit on the overall timeline of the telephony revolution. We’ve discussed the technology that underlies the virtual phone number and how that technology makes virtual phone services possible.
We’ve also looked at how a virtual phone number can allow businesses physically located anywhere convey a local presence in geographically diverse markets, how they can add security through disaster recovery and privacy controls, how they can provide flexibility by allowing easy transfer of phone numbers between staff and between business locations and by connecting multiple numbers to a single device, how they can reduce costs through cloud computing and many other benefits.
Armed with this information, readers should be well-positioned to evaluate the potential benefits to their own businesses through the transition to virtual telephone systems and take the next step in driving a simple, yet profoundly effective change for their organizations. What are you waiting for?
Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve spent enough time working with small businesses to set up their virtual phone number solutions that we’re familiar with the most common areas of uncertainty. Here are some frequently asked questions and our responses based on years of experience.
- Can my current number be converted to a virtual phone number? (i.e. hosted, cloud, converted, attached to a new system that is not tied to land-lines or a single location).Yes. You can port your existing number to your service as a virtual phone number. We will act as your toll-free or local carrier. Keep in mind that you will still need to maintain a phone line or cell phone in order to receive calls.
- What are some of the logistical advantages of a virtual phone number?There are a number of logistical advantages with a virtual phone system. One of the most significant is the ability to have multiple numbers route to a single phone. Similarly, you can easily transfer the destination of your calls, meaning the same number can be set up to ring at different locations, to different cell phones, depending on who is working and when. This means you can also easily transfer numbers between employees if someone leaves the company or takes a new position.
- What are some of the marketing benefits of a virtual phone number?One of the biggest marketing benefits is the ease with which you can add/change/remove vanity numbers. These can be tied to specific promotions and are easy to set up for short- or long-term use. Additionally, you can measure the effectiveness of a marketing campaign by assigning different numbers to different marketing channels. Even though all the numbers can be set up to ring at a central location, you can track which numbers received the most traffic.
- Can I combine a virtual answering service with a virtual phone number?Absolutely! And this is where a lot of small businesses save money as well as present a sophisticated image to their market. There’s no need to hire reception staff or even to rent space for them to work out of with a virtual answering service. The service can be hosted entirely in the cloud. You’ll have the feel of a large organization for a fraction of the cost.
- If I move to a different state, do I need to get a new area code?Not at all! One of the benefits of a virtual phone number is that your area code doesn’t need to be tied to your physical location. This means you can maintain a sense of closeness to your home market as well as portray a sense of belonging to your new community by virtue of using the same area code as your customers, regardless of where you’re physically located.
- What if my business needs change over time?The ability to scale up or down is one of the biggest benefits of virtual numbers over POTS. Because a cloud-based solution relies on shared infrastructure, you don’t need to purchase expensive new hardware or try to sell existing hardware just because your business needs go up or down.
- What does all of this cost?You’ll obviously find variation in costs, but at Access Direct we offer a range of options that run from $19.95/month for a standard voicemail to $399.95/month for large, enterprise accounts.
- What kind of hardware/software will I need?None. Our service is hosted, meaning we maintain your information and the necessary software in our cloud, with the hardware located at our data center. This helps you keep costs low and keep setup time to a minimum.
- Can I keep my number(s) if I change providers?Absolutely! One of the biggest benefits our customers experience is the ability to maintain their existing number (phone or fax) with their new virtual phone service. There’s no need to worry about communicating a new number to your entire customer base, ensuring a smooth transition.
- What countries can I get a virtual phone number in?This will depend on the service, but most providers offer virtual phone numbers from many countries, with the U.S. and Canada being the most frequently supported.
- Yonatan, Reuben. “A Brief History of the Telephone Number | GetVoIP.” Top VoIP Service Providers: 2017 Pricing + Verified Reviews. GetVoIP.com, 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 June 2017.
- Pepper, Robert. “POTS, the PSTN, and VoIP | GetVoIP.” Top VoIP Service Providers: 2017 Pricing + Verified Reviews. GetVoIP.com, 05 July 2012. Web. 21 June 2017.
- Chu, Diana. “The Cost Benefits of Switching to a VoIP Service.” Telzio Blog. Telzio.com, 24 Jan. 2014, 24 January 2014. Accessed 22 June 2017.