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Written by
Katy Ratican
11 Jan 2023
18 minutes

Business phone systems for small businesses: The ultimate buyer's guide for 2023

Thinking of upgrading or buying a business phone system for small businesses? This complete guide will answer all your questions
Phone systems for small businesses

A business phone system is crucial for marketing, lead generation, customer service and collaboration. While this is true for all enterprises, it’s particularly important for small businesses. If you’re considering upgrading or getting a new system, here’s a detailed comparison of business phone systems for small businesses.

Contents:

Why do you need a business phone system?
A business phone system elevates customer experiences
A potted history of business phone systems

How much does a small business phone system cost?

9 key features of virtual business phone systems

How to choose the best virtual phone provider for your business

Top virtual phone providers - A comparison

What you need to know about the top small business phone system providers

Can I use my existing number with a virtual phone system?

How to set up a virtual business phone system

Get started with Chalkboard: The right phone system for your small business

In this 2023 buyer’s guide for business phone systems for small businesses, we will identify the features you should look for, how much these systems cost, the best virtual phone providers in the market and what you need to know about them.

Why do you need a business phone system?

A small business needs a business phone system to provide an effective communication tool for the team, customers and clients. Having a number specifically for customers, clients and colleagues also makes you look professional and credible.

Getting the right phone system for small businesses will also give you access to features such as call forwarding, voicemail, auto-attendant, virtual faxing, music on hold and conferencing. All of these features can help a small business stay organised and increase its customer satisfaction.

A business phone system elevates customer experiences

Put together, this is the most important benefit of phone systems for small businesses: Collectively, all the features in phone systems for small businesses enable you to provide unified and seamless customer experiences. And that’s crucial.

A message from your business can reach customers and potential clients in several ways. Some may see it on Google’s search results whereas others may find you through your Instagram Reels. If they’re interested in your service or if they have a complaint or query, they may choose to contact you across these platforms.

But a business phone system is the most immediate and fastest way for anyone to reach a business. If they’re looking for a solution, sending an email or talking to a chatbot on a website may not provide instant relief. A phone call or text is more direct and personal.

Whether it’s a potential user or an aggrieved customer, a phone call is a crucial part of their customer experience. With phone systems for small businesses, you can have a centralised hub for all customer and client interactions.

So, how did it all begin? Understanding the evolution of phone systems for small businesses will help us place the technology in context and help you choose the right solution.

A potted history of business phone systems

Put simply, business phones evolved from desk versions to mobile phones to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).

PBX phone systems for small businesses

PBX systems allowed organisations to have their own private phone system that could connect multiple lines and users and route and manage incoming and outgoing calls. This allowed for features such as automatic call routing, voicemail, call recording and more.

At its core, PBX is a desk phone to handle multiple calls at the same time and direct them to the right user. You can only access and use the phone if you’re at the location. Decades ago, this was no problem because businesses mostly operated from their sites.

Should you choose a PBX business phone system? It’s expensive to install and maintain and requires trained staff. Plus, it’s not a mobile system and therefore, not conducive to remote work.

Mobile phone systems for small businesses

The next step in the evolution of phone systems for small businesses was the mobile phone. Now, you could be connected from anywhere as long as you had cellular network coverage. Business owners and professionals appreciate the convenience of being able to access their phone system from any location, including remote offices and job sites.

Mobile phones have far more features than traditional landline systems, such as call forwarding, conference calling and integration with apps. They can also provide enhanced security for businesses that handle sensitive data or information.

Should you choose a mobile phone as your business phone? You could but what you want is a specific number for work-related calls and messages to protect your personal number. Plus, you can always combine mobile phones with an advanced option.

VoIP phone systems for small businesses

The most advanced of all business phone systems is VoIP. This is when business phones truly entered the digital era. VoIP uses the internet to connect callers and is, therefore, device and location-neutral. It delivers all the advantages of a mobile phone and much more because it’s an application with several communication tools.

A VoIP business phone system doesn’t require any significant initial investment and is easy to set up. You can use these phones wherever you have an internet connection. Moreover, VoIP business phones give you a unified communications system that combines instant messaging, analytics, multi-media sharing and real-time collaboration.

Should you choose a VoIP system as your business phone? Among phone systems for small businesses, VoIP is the most cost-effective, remote-friendly and feature-rich option. If you’re a small business owner, it will save you money, make you more agile and give you enterprise-grade tools.

How much does a small business phone system cost?

The cost of a business phone system will depend on its size, the number of users, its features and the kind of system you want. This analysis of business phone systems will help you choose the one that suits your budget.

PBX

PBX phone systems require considerable initial investments and upkeep. If you need around six handsets for two phone lines, a PBX system can cost you around £160. If your business needs 16 lines with around 64 handsets, that cost will be more than £900.

The cost of on-premise PBX systems will be higher since the business has to invest in infrastructure. While it would vary based on the size, lines and features, for a small business, a PBX business phone system can easily cost upwards of £500. For medium and large enterprises, this could be around £10,000.

PBX cost implications for small businesses

Among business phone systems, you can opt for PBX if:

  • You’re a medium or large enterprise

  • Your business is stationed in a location

  • Your team answers thousands of calls a day

  • You have more than 10 stationary customer support agents

  • You have the budget for initial investments and maintenance

  • You have access to trained personnel for upgrades

You shouldn’t choose PBX as a business phone system if:

  • You’re a small business owner

  • You have a remote or hybrid team

  • You have fewer than 10 employees

  • You spend a lot of time on-site and away from the office

  • You don’t want to make investments in hardware and their maintenance

  • You don’t have access to trained staff for the system’s upkeep

Mobile phones

The cost of using a mobile phone as a phone system for small businesses depends on the device, plan, usage and number of users. There’s a greater variety of smartphones and you can choose one that suits your needs. Popular handsets can cost more than £998 and could go up to £1,468.

If you opt for a SIM-only deal, you may have to pay an additional £105 per year on average. Choosing a contract could lower the annual bill to around £1,162. If you’re a small business owner, therefore, it makes sense to choose contracts over individual handsets.

Mobile phones cost implications for small businesses

You can use a mobile phone for business if:

  • You have a limited business operation

  • You don’t have to answer more than five calls a day

  • You have fewer than three clients

  • You don’t get calls during off-hours

  • You don’t have to buy devices for team members

  • You only need the phone for calls and texts

  • You have a dedicated customer support division with a specific number

You should look beyond mobile phones if:

  • You want to protect your personal number

  • You want to share your business number on your website and social media

  • You have more than three clients

  • You expect multiple calls during the day and even during off-hours

  • You want to separate your work and personal lives

  • You want tools such as call forwarding, group broadcast and auto-reply

  • You want a complete phone system rather than a business number

VoIP

If you’re searching for phone systems for small businesses in 2023, a smarter and more cost-effective option is VoIP. In VoIP, if you choose a hosted configuration, you will have to pay around £250 on average for installation. If you select a cloud-based system, the costs will be significantly lower since you don’t have to pay for any devices or their maintenance.

Since it’s an application - the reason these VoIP phones are also called cloud phones or softphones - you can save a lot both initially and in your monthly costs. You will be subscribing to a service and even top-rated ones would only cost you £10 per month per user. The monthly charges are particularly low for long-distance or international calls.

VoIP cost implications for small businesses

You should choose VoIP as your business phone if:

  • You’re a small business owner, freelancer, service professional or early-stage startup

  • You want an additional number dedicated to work-related calls and messages

  • You don’t want to unnecessarily spend on devices, hardware, or their maintenance

  • You want to reduce your monthly phone bills

  • You want to easily onboard employees

  • You have a remote or hybrid team

  • You want additional tools including auto-reply, group broadcast, voicemail and analytics

  • You want advanced texting capabilities

  • You need a number for WhatsApp Business to engage with your customers

  • You make several long-distance or international calls

  • You want a scalable phone system that can grow with your business

  • You want your team members to share a number to improve customer service

VoIP is not your ideal option if:

  • You have an unreliable internet connection

  • Your business is bound to a location

  • You don’t expect many customer calls or lead-related queries

  • You won’t be using your number in your marketing campaigns

  • You don’t require additional business tools

  • You’re comfortable with investments in hardware

9 key features of virtual business phone systems

Comparing phone systems for small businesses? These are the top nine features that will convince you that virtual business phones are the right solution for small businesses.

1. They don't require a specific device

The biggest advantage of a virtual phone is that you don’t have to buy an additional device. This alone saves you more than a thousand pounds a year. The savings are significantly higher if you were to otherwise buy phones for your employees or reimburse their purchases

2. Virtual numbers can work on multiple devices

A virtual number is an application that can work on any device that’s connected to the internet. So your smartphone, tablet or laptop can be your business phone system. If your phone is out of charge, your business phone system will still be active.

3. They're cost-effective

There’s no hardware involved and you don’t have to worry about their maintenance. More than that, virtual numbers usually have flat subscription fees per user per month. These include calls, texts and access to business tools. Long-distance and international calls are also lower with virtual numbers.

4. Virtual phone systems are remote-friendly

Among phone systems for small businesses, virtual numbers are the most remote-friendly. Your team could be working from different locations but still have access to the same number and features. In the age of remote and hybrid work, now you can have a unified business phone system.

5. They're easily scalable

If you want to get a new number, there’s no need to buy a device or SIM. You can virtually add a new line through the application. This makes it easy to onboard employees (temporary or permanent) when you need additional help such as during holidays.

6. They come with business tools

Call forwarding, business voicemail, auto-reply, number sharing, group broadcast, advanced chat, analytics and multimedia sharing are only some of the tools you get with virtual numbers to streamline your communication.

7. Virtual numbers integrate with other apps

If you use project management, customer relationship management or communication apps, top-rated virtual numbers will easily integrate with those apps to save you time and effort and generate holistic analyses.

8. They're easy to set up and use

Of all the available phone systems for small businesses, virtual numbers are the easiest to set up and use. Download the app, choose a plan and start using your number in a few minutes. You don’t have to worry about losing your device or SIM and your number along with it. You can easily select the tools you need and discard the ones you don’t.

9. You can recover data

With virtual numbers, all your information is automatically stored in the cloud. In case you were to lose your device(s), you can easily retrieve the contact list and other communication details from the cloud.

How to choose the best virtual phone provider for your business

Following these steps will help you choose the right virtual phone provider for your business phone system.

1. Understand your needs

How many team members do you have? What business features do you need? Do you need additional messaging and chat services? Do you have plans to expand into newer locations? Will you be using your new number in marketing or customer support? Answering these questions will help you choose the right virtual phone system.

2. Conduct an objective research

A thorough online search of phone systems for small businesses will reveal the true focus and strengths of different providers. From neutral websites, find out about their features and the reliability of their customer support. Look at their category focus because if you’re a small business owner, you want a virtual number that understands your concerns.

3. Choose your features

Your requirements will reveal the features you need. While comparing phone systems for small businesses, it’s important to find a provider who wouldn’t charge you for tools you won’t use. Don’t pay for what you don’t need and look for flexibility to choose them later.

4. Define the budget

Once you know your needs, ensure that you have a budget in mind. Your virtual phone provider should make it easy for you to scale your subscription in case you were to need more numbers or features.

5. Test the system

The best virtual phone systems for small businesses will offer you a trial period. This will allow you to test the number and figure out whether it’s user-friendly and has all the necessary features. It will also reveal the strength and speed of their customer support.

Top virtual phone providers - A comparison

Among virtual phone providers, some target medium enterprises, some are for large enterprises that need contact centre solutions and unified communications, some are free numbers and then there are some designed primarily for small businesses.

1. Chalkboard

If you’re searching for phone systems for small businesses, Chalkboard should top your list. Designed specifically for small business owners, freelancers, early-stage startups and working professionals, this is a highly affordable, intuitive and user-friendly virtual number with both marketing and communication tools.

Chalkboard gives you lists to organise your contacts and then update them in groups. You can set your working hours and use auto-reply to engage with calls outside those hours. You also get multimedia sharing and templates to quickly send messages.

Chalkboard pricing:

One of the most affordable virtual phone systems for small businesses, Chalkboard is priced at £10 per month per user.

2. Grasshopper

Among virtual business phone systems, Grasshopper has greater brand recall because it was one of the first entrants in the market. You can choose from local, toll-free and vanity numbers and use call forwarding and auto attendant.

Along with custom greetings, you can decide how long you want a call to ring before it’s diverted to another device. But if you’re a small business owner, freelancer or early-stage startup, this could be an expensive option for you.

Grasshopper pricing:

Starting at £22, Grasshopper has three paid plans. The others are £36 and £66 per user per month.

3. Google Voice

It’s popular because it’s from a tech giant and because it’s free. But while Google Voice has a free plan for personal use, it’s only limited to US users and those with numbers registered in the US. The service gives you a local area code, which will help your small business appear credible and professional.

You can port your number to Google Voice and the app works well with other services from Google. But the free plan doesn’t give you shared access and importantly, there are texting limits that will be a massive challenge for your marketing and customer service.

Google Voice pricing:

Pricing starts at $10 per month. You also have to pay $6 to access Google Workspace.

Get more from VoIP with Chalkboard

Chalkboard allows you to unlock all the benefits of VoIP. Start your free trial today.

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What you need to know about the top small business phone system providers

1. Chalkboard

Phone systems for small businesses should understand the primary requirements of their audience. Chalkboard isn’t just an affordable business phone system for small businesses. It’s a marketing tool that can amplify your outreach and elevate your customer experiences with mission-critical tools and an easy-to-use interface.

Chalkboard top features

  • Contact lists to organise customers by their preferences

  • Templates to quickly send the same message or response

  • Multimedia messaging for enhanced communication

  • Customisable voicemail

  • Auto-reply for better work-life balance

  • Group broadcast and advanced chat for conversational marketing

Chalkboard pricing

Chalkboard will only cost you a flat £10 per month.

Will it suit you? If you’re a small business owner, freelancer or sole trader, this is an advanced, affordable and feature-rich phone for marketing and customer service.

2. Nextiva

Nextiva is a business cloud communications system that combines VoIP, unified communications, and customer relationship management technologies. Its services include cloud-based phone systems, voice and fax over internet protocol services, contact centre solutions and web conferencing.

Nextiva top features

  • Call forwarding, parking, routing and screening

  • Call recording functionality

  • Talk-to-text and visual voicemail

  • Auto-attendant with IVR menu

Nextiva pricing

Its basic plans start at $19.95 per user per month. Advanced plans are available with additional features such as call recording, call queuing, and reporting. These plans range from $29.95 to $49.95 per user per month.

Will it suit you? It’s expensive but might make sense for medium enterprises.

3. RingCentral

RingCentral is a cloud-based virtual phone system that offers features such as toll-free numbers, voicemail, call forwarding, auto attendant and custom greetings. It also offers team messaging and conference calling capabilities.

RingCentral top features

  • Call recording and voicemail-to-email

  • Voicemail transcription and fax-to-email

  • Virtual receptionists

  • Integration with collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom

RingCentral pricing

Starts at ₤7.99 but it has a limit of 100 inclusive minutes. Premium plans can go up to ₤24.99.

Will it suit you? RingCentral’s basic plan has limited features and is therefore not ideal for small business owners.

4. TextFree

If you’re a freelancer starting out or if you’re already employed and have started moonlighting, you might be comfortable with a basic virtual number like TextFree. You get a free phone number with an area code and will be able to send texts and make calls to any virtual or mobile free of charge.

TextFree top features

  • Free messaging and calls and free MMS

  • Customised voicemail

  • Multimedia sharing

Will it suit you? If you’re a freelancer with one or two clients and don’t need business tools, you could choose TextFree.

Can I use my existing number with a virtual phone system?

Yes, you can retain your existing number when you migrate to a virtual phone system for small businesses. This is done via porting and most providers would charge you a nominal fee for the process.

How to set up a virtual business phone system

After comparing phone systems for small businesses, choose the one that meets your needs and suits your budget. After that, choose a plan and select your features. download and test the app if they have a trial run.

This will show how the app performs and whether you need to upgrade your internet connection and get higher bandwidth.

Get started with Chalkboard: The right phone system for your small business

Here’s why you should choose Chalkboard if you’re a small business owner who wants to maximise your impact with minimal expenses. You get an affordable but comprehensive business phone system that anyone can easily use.

You get contact cards and lists to build a customer database. Group broadcast and templates help you with automated outreach. With auto-reply, you can engage with missed calls.

Download Chalkboard and start your free trial. Of all the phone systems for small businesses, here’s one that will amplify both your marketing and customer engagement.

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