Reports of the landline phone's demise are only slightly exaggerated. No, this apparatus is not gone yet, but it will likely join the fax, floppy disk, and Rolodex in the small business graveyard within the next decade.
Today you can make calls using FaceTime, Messenger, Google Voice, or dozens of other call apps, and virtual phone systems do the same for your office number. Virtual phone systems, also known as VoIP (voice over internet protocol) and cloud phones, are simply better options than a landline: they're less expensive, more flexible, and work on the devices you use most—mobile phones, desktops, and laptops. Instead of deploying yards of copper wires spooled out to attached office phones to make and receive calls, virtual calls are made using a broadband internet connection.
And with so much work being performed at home or in combination with an office, the need for clunky desk-hogging wired phones just seems impractical. Virtual phones allow you to be untethered and free to make and take business calls from wherever you are as long as you have an internet connection.
We did in-depth testing of dozens of virtual phone systems, and here are the five best VoIP solutions.
The 5 best virtual phone systems
Dialpad for transcribing conversations
GoToConnect for scaling business operations
Aircall for support and sales teams
8x8 for an unlimited all-in-one communication system
OpenPhone for an inexpensive phone system for small teams and startups
Android, iOS, Windows, Mac
Custom API and app integrations
Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Web
Support and sales teams
Android, iOS, Windows, Mac
An unlimited all-in-one communication system
Android, iOS, Windows, Mac
An inexpensive phone system for small teams and startups
Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Web
What is a virtual phone system?
Virtual phones operate using a broadband internet connection and are as easy to use as your email inbox. Here's how it works: choose a service and provide a credit card to either pay monthly or for the entire year, where offered, to receive a discount. Then you'll select your phone number(s) and download an app to start making calls from a desktop, laptop, and mobile phone in a matter of minutes. No long-term contracts. No hardware or waiting on a technician to install additional cables.
Most services offer a choice of numbers: local, toll-free, and sometimes vanity listings such as 1-504-FAT-CATS or other combinations of your choosing if they're available. If you want to use an existing business number(s), you'll need to port (transfer) those numbers away from your current service (e.g., AT&T). Your new provider will take care of this for you, but it will take a couple of weeks before you can use your old number(s) with the new service. In the meantime, you can use a new number from the new provider to start using the service and even have calls from the old service transferred.
Also, if you like the idea of making and receiving calls from a physical phone, some providers offer compatible VoIP models at an additional cost. I used a VoIP handset with a virtual system for years in my home office because the physical dial pad and cradle were so familiar. But once I got rid of it and started using my desktop for calls, I never missed it.
Once you have your numbers set up, you'll have lots of options to configure how your "system" works, such as voicemail and interactive voice response (IVR), also called auto-attendant, to help automatically route incoming calls to the right person or department. Creating extensions, recording calls, call transfers, texting, and call analytics are just some of the other features you'll find.
Why virtual phone systems?
With virtual phones, you still have to rely on power to access the internet to make and receive calls, but with a charged mobile phone, you have options. Use the phone provider's mobile app to receive and make calls using your business number, or forward work calls to your mobile phone number. And if you're in an area prone to prolonged outages, consider an uninterruptible power supply ($200 to $2,000) to keep your business and calls going.
The total cost to operate a landline phone system alone will make it a non-starter for many small businesses. You'll need to invest in a PBX (Private Branch Exchange), which acts as a mini-network within your business. The PBX hardware sits on-site and acts as a connected hub for all your lines, providing features such as auto-attendant, voicemail, call forwarding, and the like. Here's a quick breakdown of potential landline costs:
PBX hardware: $1,000 or more depending on the number of lines
Handsets: $50-$500 per phone
Monthly fee: $60 per line
Installation/maintenance: Varies depending on your office/building
Contrast these costs with virtual phone systems, where all you need to start making calls is a device (mobile phone, laptop, desktop) and a monthly payment—as low as $10/mo/person. No additional hardware to buy or replace. No maintenance or installation fees, and no contracts. Just select a number(s) for your business (or "port" an existing number), provide a credit card, download an app, and you're making calls in a few minutes.
Importantly, if your team is working from the same office, make sure your internet connection can accommodate the number of lines and phone usage you anticipate, as it will affect the quality of your calls. This article is a good starting point to test your connection speed and see how that may affect VoIP calling.
What makes a great virtual phone system?
For the research phase, I looked at 20 different phone systems, chosen based on several factors: ease of getting a trial and initial experience dealing with a company's support/sales team—many times these two overlapped. These are table stakes: you won't buy what you can't try, and the first impression should be good if not stellar—and certainly not unpleasant, as was the case with a few.
From there, I evaluated each platform based on the following criteria:
Ease of setup: If setup wasn't completely intuitive, were there supporting articles to get me through any questions I had to successfully complete a task?
Productivity tools: Tools such as call recording, call distribution, voicemail to text, internal messaging, and the like can help employees be more productive and help better support customers.
Integrations: Integrations with CRMs, messaging, live chat, help desk, and other software can provide a deeper understanding of the customer and increase employee productivity.
Customer support: I examined various online review sites to verify each vendor received overall positive customer support ratings. I combined this with my own experience during research and testing.
Affordability: Each platform should be relatively affordable based on a combination of all of these factors.
All of the platforms reviewed include unlimited U.S. calling, mobile apps, auto-attendants (IVR), texting, and the ability to port existing numbers. Also, each one had clear, reliable calling with quick connections whether making outbound calls, receiving inbound calls, or texting.
The best virtual phone system for transcribing conversations
Dialpad (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac)
Dialpad has a lot going for it, with features that many types of businesses will find enticing. One in particular is their Voice Intelligence, which automatically transcribes your phone conversations to text in real time. Voice transcription technology isn't new, but a phone app with this feature built in is rare.
The experience of using Dialpad, even with its many features, was one of the best of all those tested. Everything you need is accessed from the central app, including the dialer, which launches with a click. The intelligently arranged call inbox shows categories across the top for missed calls, voicemails, recordings, and other types of calls, making it easy to see what may be on your plate. The Android app was basic (like most of the mobile apps) but was reliable when testing calls.
If you receive lots of incoming calls for sales and/or support, call routing can handle this intelligently. Routing options include longest idle agent, fixed order, round robin, and all agents rung at once. And Fallback Options set what happens when all agents are busy—it can send calls to another department, directly to voicemail, or to a custom message. For text messages, you can send automated messages when in "do not disturb" mode and when received after normal business hours.
The Voice Intelligence feature, when activated (turn it off from the call screen at any time), takes a real-time transcript of your calls and highlights key sections, eliminating the need to take notes. The dictation accuracy for my calls was always 90% or better. You can also add words, such as brand names, acronyms, and industry jargon to the Company Dictionary to help teach the system to recognize these words.
When a call is complete, the transcript populates the screen. Click View call details to playback the call, add notes, and create action items and assign them to agents. Sentiment Analysis provides further context by pinpointing specific words, like a customer saying they're "frustrated." If a call gets particularly negative, the system can alert a manager, who has the option of listening or joining the call to assist. Want to know if your reps are mentioning the company's latest promotion in a call? Go to All Calls, click Keyword, and type in your query. These intelligence features can help managers and business owners train reps on support and sales calls and can be used to help improve their performance.
To increase Dialpad's functionality, connect it with Zapier to do things like create tickets in your support system or activities in your CRM whenever there are new calls in Dialpad.
Dialpad Price: From $15/month/user for the Standard plan that includes unlimited calls, texts, and internal chat. Plans include one local number, so if you're looking for a toll-free number, you'll have to pay an extra $15/month plus $.02/minute. Also, only the Enterprise plan—a 100-user minimum—offers phone extensions.
Best virtual phone system for scaling business communications
GoToConnect (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac)
GoToConnect (formerly Jive Communications) will be familiar to those who have used sister platform GoToMeeting or any of the brands under SaaS company parent LogMeIn. You'll see some of these GoTo products—Webinar, Meeting, Training—when you land on GoToConnect's site. Pricing is tiered for the VoIP platform based on the number of users. When you get into the second user tier (21-99), the per-user cost drops from $26 to $23 a month for the Standard mid-tier plan. Additionally, you can bundle the plans mentioned above and save up to 50%. Now let's look at some of the phone features.
When you create an account, you'll be taken to the web app and a setup list of six items, including selecting your phone numbers. When selecting numbers (local or toll-free), you can search for a vanity phrase. I tried "fatcat," and a handful of results popped up, including 1-209-7FA-TCAT. You can also try by pattern search, using letter or number combos such as 1-720-867-5309 (this wasn't available). Once you select a number and route it to an extension (step 6), you're ready to make your first call. To make calls, download the mobile or desktop app or access the online version in your account's menu by selecting GoToConnect.
The Find me follow me feature lets you route calls based on a sequence. Let's say you've got a busy day in and out of the office but don't want to miss any sales calls. You can set a sequence for incoming calls: 1) Go to a coworker's extension first (ring for 10 seconds), then 2) Ring your mobile number (ring for five seconds), then 3) Ring your manager's extension. Steps can be varied as can the ring times. Call filtering lets you create lists to block spammers and lists for VIP clients that will be directed straight to your line without going through the auto-attendant.
Basic internal chat and video conferencing round out the channels, and both are accessed from the app. Slack, Salesforce, Zendesk, Zoho, Microsoft, and about 60 other apps make up the robust integration options.
GoToConnect Price : From $22/month per user with up to 20 users for the Basic plan. The next tier Standard plan is $26/month for up to 20 users and $23 for 21-99 users.
Best virtual phone system for support and sales teams
Aircall (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac)
At $30 a month per user with a minimum of three users for their Essentials plan, Aircall is the most expensive upfront system on our list. However, they also have features—specific to sales and service teams—that others don't. If these departments spend a lot of time on the phone and need features to keep them productive, Aircall is worth the free trial.
Initial setup was simple. It took less than five minutes to select a number, test it, and add greetings for incoming calls, which include an after-hours message, on-hold music (my favorite is "Jazzy Frenchy"), and voicemail message. Each of these can be customized with your own audio file or, in the case of messages, text-to-voice options using pre-recorded male or female voices in accented British, Australian, or American English. This section is laid out like a decision tree, with easy-to-follow, clickable links for each action, making it all intuitive for the first-time user.
The productivity features will help sales and service teams efficiently handle calls, whether it's automating the routing process or improving team collaboration. For example, parallel calling lets you pause a current call and start another conversation on a separate number (to gather additional info), switching back and forth as needed. With call routing, you can set who receives the next incoming call by availability and by skills, such as technical ability.
When a call ends, you'll have the option to add as a contact, create notes, and assign. So if you took a call from a prospect your colleague had previously talked to, you could add a note about the conversation, click assign, and pick their name from your list of teammates.
The Live Feed provides real-time metrics for calls answer times, calls waiting, average waiting time, and user availability. From here, you can also monitor live calls for coaching purposes. The agent will be notified that their manager is listening to the call and will be able to hear both the customer and their manager. The customer, of course, will only hear the agent.
Over 60 integrations with CRMs, help desk, eCommerce, chat, and other apps further expands Aircall's connection to your business. For example, I integrated HubSpot CRM with a handful of clicks and was soon making calls from contact records using Aircall. The call details, like date, duration, and recording (if applicable) are captured in the HubSpot contact record and in the Aircall dashboard and analytics. Also, when you make a call and the contact is in HubSpot, the contact's employer and last time contacted pops up in the dialer with a link to go to the record.
Aircall Price: From $30/month/user with a minimum of three users
Best virtual phone system for an unlimited all-in-one communication system
8x8 (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac)
Landing on 8x8's site, my first thought was "enterprise"—as in, this service is designed for big companies with multiple locations and thousands of employees. The site is expansive, their resources section vast, and they seem to offer phone solutions for any type of organization, from the federal government to financial services. And yes, they do have big clients, but they also offer unlimited calls, videos, and chat starting at just $12/month per user. For smaller businesses needing an all-in-one communication system, 8x8 is definitely worth exploring—with one initial caveat.
If there's a downside to 8x8, it's that navigation is clunky. When you log in, you're taken to a mostly empty page with four options: My 8x8, Admin, Meetings (video settings), and Support, each one taking you to a different page. Adding to the disorientation, each page looks like it's from a different website. Dr. Frankenstein would be proud. However, once you figure out the lay of the land, it shouldn't be too difficult to navigate. It's just not as thoughtful as the other apps reviewed here.
Considering the initial experience with navigation, I was prepared for a similar struggle getting set up. To my surprise, configuring incoming call actions was one of the more intuitive for all those tested. For the welcome message, you're asked if you would like to configure a greeting, and if so, how, with options for typing or recording a greeting. My text-to-speech greeting—the voice was a little too computerized for my taste—was then easily tested with a click. To record a greeting, you can upload a file or have the app call your cell phone. If you plan to use a call menu ("press 1 for sales, 2 for support"), you'll need to include this menu in your greeting.
Call handling provided options for where incoming calls are sent: ring your team, team voicemail, automated menu, or redirected to a specific number. The automated menu provided easy-to-follow instructions for selecting where each call would be routed. And to be sure everything is routing correctly, the app will perform a test call for you before you publish the settings.
During a call, you can send a text or initiate a video call with one click. My test calls connected fast, and the call quality was excellent. Similarly, video connected quickly and with good quality. Some of the video features include screen sharing, closed captioning, chat, and recording. Video analytics—found in Meetings from the main menu—capture data for participants, duration, user feedback, and more. The internal chat system is fairly basic, but you can create chat rooms, hold multiple chats, and attach files, which is probably enough for most small teams.
Sync your calendar (Google, Outlook, iCloud, and others) to easily schedule calls and video meetings, and for CRM integrations, you'll find native integrations with platforms such as Salesforce, HubSpot, Zoho, Pipedrive, and Sugar. With Zapier, you can connect 8x8 to thousands of other apps, allowing you to do things like send 8x8 SMS messages for new leads or send 8x8 SMS messages to Slack.
8x8 Price: From $12/month/user, which includes unlimited calling, video, and chat.
Best virtual phone system for an inexpensive solution for small teams and startups
OpenPhone (Android, iOS, Web, Windows, Mac)
If you're solo or running a small team and need an inexpensive, no-frills phone system, OpenPhone is an excellent choice. It's easy to set up and use, and has some handy automated features for staying in touch with callers. The app, like the website, comes in any color you want—as long as it's black. Because every other phone app has a light/white background, it took a few times to get used to the black background, but once I did, it was a pleasure to use if for no other reason than it was different, akin to a nostalgic video game experience.
For starters, you have a choice for a local number, toll-free, or to port an existing number. To configure, click on your new number to access all the available settings. You can set the caller ID to display your company name by filling out a short form and having OpenPhone request authorization from CNAM (Caller ID Name). My "Acme Corp." name request took a week for authorization.
If you're in a small office or shop, you can provide access to the number for your teammates to use. They'll be able to make calls, see messages, and will be ringed by incoming calls. Another handy feature is the ability to set up automated texts for calls missed during and after business hours. So if you're going to be in a meeting but want to respond immediately to let callers know, a custom automated text can be sent: "Thanks for calling. I'll be in a meeting until 3 p.m. MST. How can I help?" Other features include call forwarding and a list for blocking spam callers.
Once you add your OpenPhone number to HubSpot's CRM, you can make calls from a contact's record and create HubSpot contacts with one click from OpenPhone. Other integrations include Slack, Google Contacts, and Zapier, so you can do things like log new incoming text messages in Google Sheets or send SMS messages whenever there's a new Calendly event.
OpenPhone Cost: From $10/month for unlimited calls and texts in the U.S. and Canada. $5/month for additional phone numbers.
What phone system is best for your team?
Do you need sales and service team productivity features? Aircall makes handling a high volume of calls easier with features such as automated routing, parallel calling, and a selection of action items that pop up on screen when a call is completed. Managers will like the Live Feed feature because it provides real-time insights about how their reps are performing.
Do you need a low-cost solution? At just $10/month/user, OpenPhone's Standard plan is the lowest-priced phone system in our tests and one of the easiest to set up.
Do you need calling, video, and internal chat all rolled into one service? 8x8 offers a relatively inexpensive entry-level package that can handle all three of these channels.
Do you want to have your calls transcribed? Dialpad is the best choice for this, and it's a great overall solution.
Do you want to bundle your VoIP with other business solutions? GoToConnect is part of a group of apps, including webinar, meeting, and training software, so it's a great choice if you're already using LogMeIn software or are planning to scale and might do so in the future.
Each of these five systems performed well in our tests, with fast and easy setup plus excellent call quality. And you'll be able to call from virtually any location as long as you have a solid internet connection. To learn more about any one service, sign up for a free trial and take them for a spin.
This article was originally published in July 2017 by Andrew Kunesh.