Selecting a Cloud-based Phone System: A Comprehensive Guide

This article was originally published on the FCR blog on February 3, 2017. Click here to see the original along with a useful vendor comparison chart.

Do any of the following scenarios fit your current situation?

  • Your premise-based phone system no longer affords the flexibility you need to run your customer support operation effectively and efficiently.
  • You’re in the cloud but your current phone vendor has significant reliability issues. Perhaps those issues have become more pronounced as you scale your business.
  • You’re at a startup where you’re building a support team from the ground up and need a phone system at the right price point that can grow with you.
  • When asked to measure the performance of your team, you spend hours scraping together reports that give you and your boss little confidence and insight into how your team is actually performing.

If any of these sound familiar, you are in the market for a customer service phone system. This can be a daunting task. With a myriad of vendors out there touting a variety of features at a variety of price points, it makes apples to apples comparison nearly impossible.

As you embark on your search, you will be well served to have a list in hand of the important features to look for. The aim of this article is to give you a list of things to consider as you vet each vendor.

Core Features

The core features of the system enable you to handle calls, route them to the appropriate agents, and customize the experience while callers wait. Here are the top features to look for:

  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR)– The IVR allows you to customize the experience of the caller, quickly identify what they’re calling about, authenticate them, and route them to the right place. Speech recognition and visual IVR for your mobile app are nice features to have as well. Some may also refer to these as menus. The ideal system will give you the ability to upload your own greetings and make updates as needed.
  • Automated Call Distribution (ACD)– The ACD routes calls to the next available agent.
    • Skills-based Routing- Skills-based routing allows you to assign certain skills to certain agents routing callers to agents who can help with their specific needs. You might break these up by sales, support, technical support, or even by foreign language.
    • Schedule-Based Routing- Route calls one way during business hours and another way during the off hours making it easier to handle support on weekends, evenings, and holidays.
    • Additional Routing Options- Route calls to softphones and external phone numbers alike for ultimate flexibility in your contact center.
    • Queues- Queues allow you to customize the customer wait experience. You may also want have different queues for departments like sales and support with the ability to prioritize one over the other. Here are a few features within queuing that optimize the wait experience:
      • Custom Announcements- With custom announcements you can share helpful information with customers while they wait. If your service is ever impaired and the queue is full of callers, quickly add a message telling them where they can get more information about the issue rather than making them wait for an agent to tell them the same thing.
      • Estimated Wait Time- It’s always helpful to set caller expectations by giving them an estimate of how much longer they will wait on hold.
      • Queue Callback- Having an option to hang up the phone and receive a call back when the next agent becomes available and while maintaining their spot in the queue is a huge bonus for customers. It’s a great way to even out spikes in call volume and reduce call abandonment.
      • Timeout Destination- Most call queues will timeout at some point. It’s important to have the ability to have that call terminate in a voicemail rather than simply hanging up on the caller.
  • Call Monitoring- There are a number of features essential to managing a support team and ensuring the utmost in quality:
    • Call Recording- Listen to calls after they occur. It’s also important to understand how long they keep those recordings around. Be sure to inquire as to how long they keep recordings and if there are fees for storing them longer.
    • Live Listening- Listen to calls while they occur. This allows supervisors to whisper advice to agents and even take over or “barge” into the call, handling it while the agent listens and learns how to resolve it in the future.
  • Other Features- Here are a few other features that will make your operation more powerful:
    • Outbound Dialing- Quickly call customers back through the system.
    • Warm and Blind Transfers- Warm transfers allow agents to transfer calls internally and announce them before completing the transfer.
    • Call Dispositions or Wrap-up Codes- These codes allow you to quickly see what callers are most frequently calling about.
    • Voicemail- Transcribing them into text is an added bonus.
    • Greetings- Record your own or do text to speech.
    • Extensions- This allows for calling internally or allowing customers to call specific agents back.
    • Caller ID- Set the caller ID you want customers to see and view their caller ID.
    • Concurrent Calling- What’s the maximum number of callers that can call in and/or wait in your queue at any one time?
    • Built-in Collaboration and Messaging- This ability to instant message or chat with other agents is a nice feature to have.
    • Conference Bridge- A phone system that also allows you to set up important conference calls can be a huge convenience.


Another reason for seeking out a new phone system is better ability to run your operation efficiently. Excellent reporting is essential. Here are a couple things to look for regarding reporting:

  • Custom- Out of the box reports are great but you need the flexibility to customize and even download them into a program like Excel to manipulate the data. The ability to save customer reports ensures consistency in reporting from month to month.
  • Scheduled- Scheduling any reports to be sent to you and your team on a regular cadence adds ease to tracking KPIs.
  • Real-time- The ability to pull reports in real-time and view robust dashboards and wallboards allows you to stay efficient, respond quickly to spikes in call volume, and keep everyone on task.


Your existing technology infrastructure must be considered in this process. It’s important to select a system that will jive with that technology or and integrate with other tools you plan to use in your contact center in the future. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Computer Telephony Integration (CTI)- CTI offers tremendous opportunity for efficiencies. This allows for the system to locate a record for the caller in a CRM like Zendesk or Salesforce and display that information to the agent.
  • CRM Integrations- Rather than adding another tool or screen for agents to manage, the right integration can add a phone widget to your ticketing system and also make it that much easier to create a support ticket based on the phone call. There may be APIs available to do just about anything you want to accomplish when it comes to integration.
  • Omnichannel- Beyond just your ticketing system, some systems promise integration of chat support, social media, and SMS(Text). Imagine having the same customer contact you on multiple support channels and seamlessly responding as one conversation.
  • Click to Call- Add a widget to your website or mobile app that allows customers to easily initiate a call with support and actually receive a call when the next agent becomes available.

Additional Features

Some systems may offer solutions for other support channels bundled into their service that will get you closer to that omnichannel experience. Note that some vendors will offer these features standard and others have the ability to support it as a third party addition. Here are some of the additional services you may want to look at in your phone system:

  • Other Support Channels- Some phone providers will offer their own email, chat, social media, SMS (Text), and video calling.
  • Knowledge base- An integrated knowledge base makes issue resolution easier for both customers and agents.
  • Workforce Management- Create staffing models and schedules based on contact volumes.
  • Quality Assurance- Built in quality assurance tools allow for the ability to assign a quality rating to a particular call, easily deliver quality reviews to agents, and even record their screen for added insight around call handling and efficiency.
  • Integrated Surveys- Have customer satisfaction or NPS surveys sent to customers after interactions. When customers respond, the ability to review that interaction and respond to customers is extremely valuable.
  • Speech Analytics- Some systems may offer the ability to transcribe calls and extract insights and trends.

System Considerations

Also consider the fact that you are partnering with another business. This is a relationship and it needs to be a fruitful one. Here are some things to consider when choosing a partner.

  • Uptime and Reliability- Your customer service phone system is essential to your business. You need assurance from your partner that the system will be available and reliable. Find out their uptime guarantee (like 99.999%) and compare it with their competition. It’s also wise to discuss their bandwidth requirements to ensure you and your agents (if working remote) have a fast enough connection to ensure high call quality. Finally, Google the company and look at comments from other customers on social media. That’s a great way to get an understanding of how frequently they have service impacting issues.
  • Security- If PCI compliance is important to your business, you need confidence that your partner can support this. Whether the system is cloud or premise based, you need to know that your information and that of your customers is secure. For example, customer credit card information should not be stored in call recordings. This can be mitigated by automatically or manually pausing the recording during this part of the call, or by the use of a technology where customers can key in their credit card number on their dialpad instead of speaking it.
  • Maintenance- A great aspect of using a cloud-based service is that they are responsible for upgrading the system. Find out how often these updates occur and their impact on your support operation.
  • Technical Support- You’d better like your account manager and their technical support because you will interact with them a lot. Make sure they are responsive, friendly, and intelligent.
  • Professional Services- Find out what’s included standard with the system and if they have the ability to do custom development to tailor the system to your needs and the associated costs. You may find that there’s something non standard that you need that requires an additional fee.
  • Launch Time- Chances are, getting the system up and running won’t be a trivial process. Get an understanding of the time it will take to get the system operational. Also consider the timeline if you need to port your telephone numbers over to the new company and train your team to use the new system.

Pricing Model

You will want to get a good understanding of the company’s pricing model. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Per Seat Cost- Most companies will charge a per seat cost. Some will bill it per agent whereas others will bill it based on the number of concurrent seats. For example, if you have 50 agents but only a maximum of 20 use the system at any given time, that can make a big difference.
  • Unlimited vs Per Minute Billing- Some providers might charge you a per seat cost and say that minutes are unlimited. Find out what unlimited means as there very well may be a cap. You may also have the option to save money by paying per minute. It might be worth it to do the math. The trade off here is having a bill that fluctuates a bit from month to month.
  • International Rates- If you frequently dial internationally find out their rates for calls to and from other countries?
  • Additional Telephone Numbers- There may be a variety of fees associated with telephone numbers. These might include a monthly fee, porting fees, and one-time costs to add new numbers to your account. Also make sure you can take your numbers with you in the event you want to move to a new provider.

Selecting a new phone system can be a daunting task, but with the right system and features, you can dramatically enhance both your agent and customer experience. If you are in the midst of this process or considering a new system, use this article as your guide. If you’ve gone through this process, we’d love to hear your stories and anything you would add to our list.

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