Evaluating Phones

After 5 years of looking at phone systems I didn’t feel confident in making a decision.  So I changed how I was looking at phones. I changed the system to meet the goal of having a system that is easy for the staff. PBX systems offer similar features, so ease of use became a priority. I followed this approach:

1-Determine which systems to evaluate. Read reviews, ask for recommendations, talk with vendors. Eliminate systems that fall short in important areas. For example, if a system requires a MS Exchange server for important features, I eliminated it because we don’t run Exchange. 

Every time I talked with someone I asked “what phone system do you have and do you love it?” Most people didn’t know what phone system was used in their office. They just said it was this black box that sat on their desk and rang when they wanted quiet. Hardly anyone used the computer interface provided for their phone or advanced features.

2-Get volunteer evaluators. A few co-workers were willing to take the time to look at phones. The fact that they showed interest in our next phone system meant that the weren’t normal since most people said that they didn’t care as long as it had caller.

3-Decide evaluation criteria. I conducted internal interviews to determine the most important features I created survey forms for the volunteers to fill out for each phone system. Rate each system on each action on a scale from 1 to 10, with a place for notes. Here is our evaluation sheet.

4-Pick phones to evaluate. My controller and I decided that everyone will get the same phone. We were unhappy with having different phone models, it made training and inventory more difficult. We have a 1gb to the desktop so we needed 1gb phones. Then we wanted a multiline screens since this seemed to be important for ease of use. And excellent speaker phones.

5-Volunteer evaluations. Resellers either brought systems to our office or the volunteers visited their sales offices. We provided a copy of the surveys to the vendors so they would know what we wanted to see. We made it clear that we only wanted to see user functions and not administrative functions. After the phone demonstrations we tried out the computer interfaces. If the volunteers were interested in additional functions they would request a demonstration.

I made it clear to the resellers that we were trying out the phones and not the resellers. They would have the advantage if we selected their phone system, but no promises.

The results were not what I expected. The volunteers liked the Avaya system but not the ShoreTel, I expected the reverse. This is not to say that ShoreTel isn’t an excellent system, but our taste testers didn’t like it.

6-Have a shootout. Testing different phones next to each other gives new perspective.

After the first round we reduced the phone systems to 3, Broadband based hosted systems with the Polycon VVX-550, Cisco 7945G, Cisco 8961, Avaya 9611G, Mitel 5312 and Mitel 5324 phones. Everyone was invited to try out the phones, they were all live and connected to the Internet.

The Polycom VVX 500 was well liked and is probably the future of office phones. It was mostly touchscreen operations and reminded us of the iPhone. It was also the smallest of the phones, a plus. The speaker phone tested poorly and I realized a few months later that this was probably because of the codec used by the hosted PBX company and didn’t reflect on the phone. One problem with a revolutionary phone is that the PBX makers have to catch up and support it. We did find some other issues with the phone and while the screen is hi res it had a narrow viewing angle. For some reason, after I put my phone number in the phone’s directory, the phone would spontaneously call me. One Monday I had over 60 voicemail messages from the phone. Maybe it was lonely.

The Avaya also did well. While it had a smaller screen than other phones it was well designed.

The Cisco 8961 was better liked than the 7945G. The most important difference to us was the 8961’s hi res screen. Numbers and letters looked normal and readable, the same on the 7945G was chunkier. I suspect that an easier to read screen will result in better usability. There is a touch screen version of the 8961 its interface design does not take advantage of the touch screen and it is better to save some money. My lease favorite part of the phone was the lack of a home button.

Staff didn’t warm to the Mitel phone. I know people who are very happy with their Mitel systems.

Summary. This process help me narrow down the systems to include in our RFPs. Based on user feedback we sent our RFPs hosted providers based on the Broadworks software, Avaya dealers and Cisco dealers. I had met enough dealers over the years that I didn’t have to look for any. Plus once it is known that you are looking for a phone system