GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
Your telephone system is a very important part of your practice. Potential clients are impatient; if you don’t answer on the first ring, they may not call back. How happy will a judge be if he or she calls and your phone is busy? A good business phone system will pay for itself very quickly and then start to earn you money. The million-dollar question: What does “a good phone system” entail?
- How many lines: How many people work in the office now? Do you expect to add staff in the future? What about a dedicated fax line? If you don’t take these numbers into consideration, callers may find that your lines are busy too often—and may stop calling back. If you don’t take into consideration future needs, you may find yourself paying out a large sum of money for yet another system in the near future. That two-line, four-station phone system may be perfect now, but what will you do three years from now when you add another secretary and an associate?
Check with your phone company—you can set up a main phone number, with extra lines that will allow you to roll over if your main line is busy. How many phone stations do you need? What about the file room where your secretary spends a lot of time—does she appreciate having to run down the hall to answer the phone? Many different phones have a limitation on the number of lines and stations they can handle; knowing in advance what you need will eliminate frustration down the road.
- Answering machine/voice mail: Be it a cheap, ten-dollar answering machine or an elaborate mailbox setup, you must have a system to answer calls after hours. Your message also can let callers know your office hours, observed holidays or vacations, what time you return calls, and so on. It’s reassuring to clients to know you’re not answering the phone simply because it’s Labor Day.
- Fax lines: Although a fax machine and phone system can share one line, I recommend a dedicated fax line. First, callers won’t get that annoying wail while you’re receiving or sending a fax. Second, unless you have a box that routes faxes to the fax and calls to the telephone, you won’t know what type of call is coming in.
- Can you live with a plain vanilla system, or do you need all the extras? Some phone systems have features that used to be available only to larger firms, such as individual voice mail, call forwarding, music on hold, conference calling, and an auto-attendant feature that will allow the caller to punch in the extension of the person calling and be directly connected to either that person or his/her voice mailbox.
- What kind of phone will work best in your office—corded, cordless, or a combination of both? What about cordless headsets that allow you (or your staff) to multitask easily, talk while moving about the office, and avoid an aching neck?
- Don’t forget about security. Verify security for any cordless phone you are thinking about purchasing. If you don’t choose carefully, anyone with a radio scanner nearby can hear the conversation between you and your client. Some cordless phone conversations can even be picked up by nearby baby monitors!
- Outlets: Will you need both a phone outlet and an electrical outlet for each phone unit? How many will need to be installed? What about surge protection for your phones and lines? If you run a DSL line, you may need a filter to keep the lines from bleeding together. How good are your phone cables?
- Other things to look for: sound quality, clear signals with no bleed-over in the lines, dropped connections, blinking light when lines are engaged, intercom and/or paging system, hold system (music optional), security of the lines, ability to “lock” the line while in use so no one else can pick up; and reliability—you don’t want to repair the system every six months. When you compare phones, compare the features they offer. How does the phone feel while using it? Is it easy to use or confusing? Is the system proprietary, or can you mix with it other system pieces and parts?
Your phone company or local telephone/office systems specialist is a good place to start asking questions. Good four-line systems from AT&T or Panasonic are available from office supply stores such as Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, and Office Max, to name just a few. Check with other law firms and see what they use. Are they happy with the system? Can they recommend a reputable vendor? A partial list of vendors to explore includes Comdial (www.comdial.com), Bizphone (www.bizphone.com), Artisoft (www.artisoft.com), and Talkswitch (www.talkswitch.com). Take time to do your research and decide exactly what type of phone system you need now, what you will need in the future, and how much it will cost to get there. If you choose wisely and carefully, what may seem like a lot of money today may actually be a large savings in the future.
Sheryl Cramer is a legal technology consultant and trainer with Cramer Consulting, Inc., in Lawton, Oklahoma. She can be reached at Sheryl@cramer.cc.