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Where do businesses go for telecom advice?

Not too long ago, the Jackson chapter of the American Red Cross was in trouble. Twenty-one phones were reduced to 14 because malfunctioning sets could not be replaced. Their key phone system was obsolete. The only choice? Replace the whole system.

Mike McAlpin, system administrator for American Red Cross Mississippi, said, in a case study, that a telecommunications system was chosen that “did more than what we were looking for at a lower price than purchasing a newer system that was still very proprietary and had no guarantee for becoming outdated again.”

The downside, if there is one, of today’s rapidly advancing technological advances, is keeping pace with telecommunication systems because setting up a new business or upgrading an established one is no longer as simple as just plugging in a phone line.

“The American Red Cross was the first site in Mississippi that we installed the office and telecommunications system in,” said Ted Seabrook, area manager of Teleco Mississippi. “Their whole communications is so important because if you’re in trouble, you’ve got to get through to the Red Cross. Their lines have to be functional 24 hours a day. But it’s also a non-profit organization and they had to watch their pennies.”

Michelle Phillips, vice president of marketing and administration for Teleco Mississippi, said there are telecommunications products on the market that are future proof.

“There are a lot of customers that get boxed in,” said Phillips. “When consumers get quotes from vendors based on the number of lines needed, oftentimes, they don’t take into consideration the growth and cost of adding on.”

But how do you determine what is needed and avoid the hype? Where do you go for advice, sales, service and support? Better yet, if you are telecommunications illiterate, where do you start?

“Most small to medium business owners start by looking under Telecommunications in the Yellow Pages,” said Seabrook. “Larger businesses may hire a consultant, but that’s no guarantee you’re not just getting a box.”

Tony Bailey, CEO of Business Communications Inc. of Ridgeland, said, there are “tons of people in this business that can do what they promise or they can’t. Customers are the best representation of that.”

When choosing a telecommunications system:

• Educate yourself on the basics of telecommunications. Get on the Internet for information. Check out specialized focus groups.

• Interview candidates for the job, just like you would interview potential employees. Find out with whom a vendor partners. Sprint? MCI WorldCom? AT&T?

• Determine the number of phone lines you’ll need based on the use of those lines. This depends on the type of business. For example, telemarketing will require substantially more phone use than an outside marketing consultant who spends half his time out of the office.

• Decide features and functionalities of the phone system. Do you need voice mail? A paging system? Call forwarding? Capability for recording conversations? On hold recordings?

• “Test drive” a telecommunications system. See how easy the functions are to operate.

• Check out personal references. Call the Better Business Bureau.

• Ask if the telecommunications system can be upgraded as the business prospers.

“Buying a telecommunications system is like buying a car,” said Blake Webber, network design engineer of Business Communications Inc. “You can spend as much or as little as you want. You can buy the Yugo or you can buy the Cadillac.”

BellSouth used to be the only option. Today, several local, competitive CLECs are vying for business, such as Brooks Fiber and Entergy Hyperion, said Webber.

“When it comes down to it, most phone systems are similar,” said Bailey. “It’s merely a matter of what and who they feel comfortable with.”

No matter which telecommunications system you choose, don’t spend a lot of money, said Bailey.

“Just like computers, in six months, in a year, the telecommunications systems will change,” he said. “Soon, you’ll begin talking to offices over the Internet and the phone software will run on your server. It’s not going to replace the very, very large business systems, but it is going to be the technology of choice moving forward for the future for small to medium businesses 12 to 18 months down the road.”

About Lynne W. Jeter

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