The Agency Business:New technologies give firms myriad ways to stay connected

From voice-over-internet protocol to cell phones, agencies now have more choices than just the traditional land line. John N. Frank learns how to pick a phone service that best suits business needs

From voice-over-internet protocol to cell phones, agencies now have more choices than just the traditional land line. John N. Frank learns how to pick a phone service that best suits business needs

Getting phones for your office used to be a simple matter of calling the local phone company. Those days are long gone.

Today, anyone running a PR firm's office has to wade through a telephone jungle that includes traditional land-line providers, cell-phone systems, and new technology that allows phone calls to be made using the internet.

Choosing the best type of service means balancing costs, system capabilities, and reliability, say agency officials who have navigated their way through the new world of phone options.

The most important advice they give agencies is to test everything - believing the hype without seeing if it's backed by real-world performance can tie an agency into a sub-par system that hurts its ability to function.

CarryOn Communication was on the cutting edge when it decided to try an internet phone system that uses voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP) technology. The agency was looking for a way to reduce its conference calling and long-distance bills, explains JP Schuerman, an SVP in the agency's Los Angeles office.

CarryOn routinely sets up four to eight conference calls a day for and with clients. Using a traditional land-line service for that can cost $2 to $4 per minute for every person on the call.

The agency decided instead to invest in the special phones needed to use VOIP, spending $500 to $700 per phone for its 55 employees. But "problems started right away," Schuerman says.

The system would drop calls in the middle of someone talking, and the conferencing system was plagued with problems. Because there was a lag between when someone spoke and when others heard what was said, "Everyone ended up speaking over each other," he says. The agency has since reverted to using its old conference service, paying the higher costs.

Schuerman speculates that some of his problems might have been the result of outsourcing the management of his VOIP system to a third party rather than handling it in-house. "I know many of these problems are inherent to new technology, but it's just been a pain," he says.

Qorvis Communications has grown from eight employees when it began four-and-a-half years ago to 85 people today. It has stuck with traditional land-line service because of cost and reliability, says CEO Michael Petruzzello. It's also decided to supply cell phones to all employees and BlackBerry devices to about half its workers to ensure that everything being used was compatible with its phone system, Petruzzello says.

Others, though, have had positive experiences with VOIP.

Jackson Spalding partner Brian Broderick equipped a branch office in Athens, GA, with VOIP last year so it could be seamlessly connected with the firm's Atlanta office phone system. Using a land line from Bell South would have been prohibitively expensive, he says. He now has three people in Athens using VOIP phones. The agency has kept the cost of those down by buying reconditioned phones that cost less than new ones.

When Meryl Pearlstein launched her agency, MDP Publicity, a little more than a year ago, she started with a traditional land-line service, but quickly found that "the individual call rates were killing me," she says.

A travel PR specialist, Pearlstein often calls Canada and the Caribbean - destinations that added significant costs to her phone bill. Rather than continue to pay high traditional land-line costs, she opted to switch completely to Verizon's cell-phone service.

Today she has six cell lines on her agency's account. Her main line has 1,200 minutes a month, while other lines used by associates have either 700 minutes per month or 400. She also has a BlackBerry phone on one line.

Pearlstein chose Verizon wireless service after studying coverage maps from several carriers. Verizon had the best network in New England and Colorado, two areas she visits frequently for business.

Crafting a plan that met her agency needs has meant spending a lot of time with her Verizon rep. "Verizon and I are best friends," she says half-jokingly. Working with the same sales rep each time you change your service plan can make it easier than trying to explain your needs to a new person, Pearlstein advises. "Don't think of land lines as the only way to go," she says.

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Picking the best phone service

  • Test everything. Don't believe the hype, especially about new technologies, until you try it yourself.

  • Tailor the service to your firm's needs. For cell phones, pick a carrier with the best coverage in areas you often visit to see clients, for example.

  • Consider all the options. Land-line phones have lots of competition these days.

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