Like their enterprise counterparts, smaller businesses constantly look for ways to operate more efficiently, increasingly so in today’s economy.
In the area of telephony technology, SMBs can make a relatively modest investment and see a quick reduction in communications costs — while improving clients’ impression of their operation. Those were some of my findings after testing five VoIP solutions earlier this year.
Put simply, these products replace a small-business phone system with a server that routes calls over a LAN and provides robust switching and voice mail management. VoIP handsets, easily moved to different locations, complete the system.
During the first round of testing, Microsoft Response Point 1.0 fell short in one crucial area: Unlike with the other products, you couldn’t place external calls using SIP trunking. This feature can be a major cost saver because VoIP providers typically offer lower rates compared to traditional telephone companies.
Microsoft delivered the free Response Point SP1 update in August 2008; this added external VoIP access, along with several usability improvements, including easier ways to park and transfer calls. And just recently, one of Microsoft’s three OEM partners, Aastra Technologies, released new hardware running Response Point. (Quanta, tested for the first review, and D-Link also offer system packages.) This provided an opportunity to revisit Response Point and provide my impression of other Response Point equipment.
Easy to install and use
Many SMB VoIP vendors say their systems are simple to acquire, set up, and use. But with a bewildering number of hardware, software, and reseller options, my first reviews found these claims weren’t always true. However, as with the original Response Point, Microsoft and Aastra have teamed to make the whole experience very satisfying.
On the hardware side, I tested the AastraLink RP 500 Base Unit, stackable RP 540 Gateway [which provides four PSTN (analog)] phone connections, and one each of Aastra’s three Response Point IP phones: the entry-level 6751i RP single line, the full-featured 6753i RP with six lines, and the executive or receptionist nine-line 6757i CT RP that includes a cordless handset.
From unboxing to having a functioning system took about 30 minutes. First, I quickly plugged each item into my network hub. Of note, the lightweight base unit is totally solid state. Beyond the energy savings (the RP 500 draws about 33 watts), this architecture should give you better reliability over long use. What’s more, the phones support PoE; if your switch also supports it, you can forgo the handsets’ power adapter.
The second half of setup involves two applications running on a desktop or server. Response Point Administrator helps you configure the base unit and phones, while Response Point Assistant lets each person in your office customize his or her system.
I was very pleased that both applications are now 64-bit; there were no install or operating problems running the software on 64-bit Vista Ultimate or Windows 7 pre-beta.
As I found with Version 1.0, Response Point SP1 automatically discovered each hardware item on my network. Then, the administrator’s straightforward user interface let me add users, assign phones, and configure phone services.
I was especially interested in the new option for an ITSP (Internet telephone service provider). Currently, you can select from five partners: Cbeyond, Bandwidth.com, NGT, Packet8, and Junction Networks. For the first four, this step involves installing a hardware device from the ITSP on your network and then adding your account information to Response Point.
For testing, I used Junction Networks Phone Service for Microsoft Response Point because there’s no extra hardware and you can set up a new account immediately online. I didn’t notice any quality problems with VoIP — and Response Point automatically switched between analog and digital services as needed.
More real-world use
On the hardware side, the only odd design decision seems to be an unnecessary power button on the base unit. If there’s a power failure, the system won’t automatically reboot; you have to manually power it back up.
Yet on the phone side, I didn’t find anything puzzling. All of Aastra’s phones have a solid feel, clear displays, and programmable buttons that are easily configured. The 6757i CT RP model’s big display provides much more information compared to the Syspine units tested earlier — in fact, any of the IP phones I’ve used. The audio quality of each was excellent.
As I created users during setup, each name was automatically added to the company directory and a voice mailbox was created. There’s nothing new here, nor any obvious changes to Response Point’s novel voice recognition. For example, the voice-activated transfer worked reliably; just say, “Transfer to Bob.” Similarly, you can dial anyone in your contact list by saying their name.
Still, a few SP1 functional changes improve usability. For instance, you can specify the music or audio recording that plays when a call is placed on hold. Of more value are two parked call functions. The first change alerts users when they have a call parked, so the caller is not forgotten. And there’s now a way to transfer parked calls directly to the voice mailbox of any extension.
Response Point Assistant’s new Click to Call feature lets you select any contact (internal or external) to initiate a call. Further, Call Status lets you see who in your organization is currently on the phone. Lastly, Call History provides very detailed reporting of all calls, including date, length, and whether initiated through an analog or VoIP line.
Response Point SP1 doesn’t add any call-routing capabilities. But given the system’s market (groups with fewer than 50 employees) and goal of not needing an IT administrator, the features are more than adequate. I set up an automated receptionist or designated a person for this role. And each user can decide what to do if they can’t answer, such as forwarding the call to an external number.
Additionally, Response Point will recognize calls from numbers you specify and route the call to a specific person or group — perhaps a priority support department for your VIP clients.
Microsoft Response Point SP1 will likely run out of steam for midsized and large businesses. Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 are good fits here. Besides the systems reviewed earlier, I’d also consider the ShoreTel IP phone system; its unified messaging and expandability are impressive.
But for the special needs of small businesses, Microsoft Response Point SP1 hits the sweet spot: reasonably powerful, simple, and affordable.