The new normal of Work-from-Home has caused a significant shift in the way that organizations are communicating, both internally and externally. This has led to a massive spike in collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams, G Suite, Slack, and Basecamp, none more dramatic than the increase in usage of MS Teams. The number of daily active users of MS Teams more than doubled from 32 million users in March 12, 2019 to 75 million as of April 30, 2020 (statista.com). Albeit a gigantic leap, the rise in Teams usage comes as no surprise. Microsoft reports that over 91% of large US companies use MS Teams. 91%!
While the business world, pre-COVID, was used to simply spinning around in their chair and asking questions in person, this new world has changed the way we communicate even the simplest things. With so many people working remotely, the need for real-time answers and virtual collaboration has never been so critical. MS Teams and others provide a fast track to answers, project collaboration and of course, HUMAN INTERACTION!
The rise in MS Teams is easily explained for internal communication and collaboration, but how have businesses shifted their communication processes for their customers, vendors, and others outside of their organization? Email is great, but the need for live interactions is, and always will be, a business necessity. The organizations that were lucky/smart enough to have migrated to a cloud-based phone system prior to the pandemic were prepared to move operations out of cubicles seamlessly. These businesses had immediate access to communication tools via laptop, desktop, or mobile device anywhere at any time. Organizations with more antiquated voice solutions were most likely call-forwarding inbound calls to end-user’s cell phones and asking employees to make outbound calls via the same device. The exhausting list of inefficiencies associated with this strategy is a blog post in and of itself and unique to each business, so we won’t waste any time explaining. The bottom line is that the most important communication is with our clients, but our solutions have lagged even our own internal communications tools.
Regardless of the solution your company chose to implement, organizations of all sizes experienced significant changes from the regular day-to-day office experience. The largest of which was the increase of internal collaboration software like MS Teams. With this shift came the next big question: why can’t I just use Microsoft Teams as my phone system? Great question!! Here is the problem: Microsoft has always struggled navigating the complex waters of telephone service, where the rules don’t bend to Microsoft’s will. Moving to a Team’s based solution presents advantages: a single Microsoft integrated platform, often already adopted by users, appearance of low cost, and simplicity to name a few. Despite the advantages, Teams also presents some rather large challenges in availability of features, reliability, contact center capabilities, advanced routing, and even simple things like Auto-attendants. Support for your phone system suddenly shifts to a combination of your internal team, 3rd party integrators, and...MICROSOFT. This can be a shocking shift when things don’t go according to plan, and there is not a clear line of responsibility. In addition, the direction of Microsoft's voice product shifts on a near annual basis, leaving users guessing as to what the future holds. Should you throw caution to the wind and choose to go down the road of making MS Teams your primary phone system? Listed below are options we have identified.
Here are Your Options for Using Teams as Your Phone System
Option 1 – Go for it – but be warned! Initiating Microsoft’s Voice Licensing allows for your O365 Team environment to operate as a telephony solution designed for small and medium businesses of up to 300 users. It bundles Phone System, Audio Conferencing, a Domestic Calling Plan, and more. Phone System capabilities include voicemail, caller ID, call park, call forwarding, auto attendants, and call queues. Keep in mind that this is a metered plan with 3k minutes per user in calling time inbound and outbound, beyond that you are billed per minute. Also keep in mind this solution is not fully baked and is dependent on the broader Office environment’s stability; outages are more frequent than traditional voice offerings. The Teams solution does not provide the features and functionality of an enterprise grade solution like CRM/ERP integrations (call log entries, screen pops, etc.) it lacks reporting capabilities and much more. So, keep these things in mind and evaluate your own internal communications to ensure you won’t be disappointed.
- Pricing for adding Microsoft Voice Licensing: $8 per user
- Pricing for Calling Plan: $12 for Domestic $24 for International (per user)
- Total Cost $20-$25 (Domestic) $32-37 International
Option 2 – Install a basic HTML plugin extension with your existing phone system by searching the name of your phone system or collaboration tool in the App Store of MS Teams (if applicable, as many phone system solutions do not offer this feature). Again, be cautious. Many vendors will tell you that their solution integrates with Teams, however, when you pull back the curtains, all this is doing is launching the phone system application out of your MS Teams environment. This usually only works in the online version of MS Teams and is very clunky – requiring your end users to operate multiple applications, causing confusion and frustration with mixed results and low user adoption.
- Pricing for adding a plugin extension: $0 – Cloud phone seat ($18-$24) - Total cost $18-$24
Option 3 – Migrate to a cloud-based phone system that allows for the PBX to be the brains of the operation and manage the telephone connection. This solution seamlessly pushes voice traffic directly into your Teams environment without the need for a plug-in, launching the external voice communication right within Teams. This allows for end users to operate their phone system within Teams with the added benefit of all the features and functionality of a modern solution. Additionally, you have the reliability and redundancy of a cloud-based phone system operating as the backbone. Once configured in both Teams and within the admin of your phone system, the process is seamless. End-users can operate all inbound and outbound communication within their MS Teams. The downside of this scenario is added cost as you are paying for both Microsoft licensing and the underlying cloud voice service. BONUS POINTS: Having UCaaS as the backend allows for their CRM/ERP integrations to still be utilized (call log entries, screen pops, etc.) – where Teams has very little of these types of integrations. And, if MS Teams goes down for whatever reason, your organization has a backup phone system waiting to take and make calls, so you never miss a beat.
- Pricing for adding a plugin extension: ($8) for MS Licensing + cost of cloud phone seat ($18-$24) + cost of additional licensing from cloud phone vendor (estimated between $4 and $8 per user)
- Total cost about $30-$40 per user
On the surface, option 3 seems like the most reliable solution. Large players in the industry are making a lot of noise around their revolutionary approach to MS Teams integration. To integrate a PBX into Teams, a hardware or software-based Session Border Controller (SBC) is used. Up to this point there have been announcements from some UCaaS players about hosting and controlling their own SBCs, but we haven’t seen them implement this yet. Most UCaaS Teams integration, at this time, is done via a 3rd party vendor, adding yet another layer of complexity. The vendor we are most familiar with is Qunifi, aka Call2Teams, with them hosting the SBCs and then integrating into the different UCaaS platforms via APIs. The fact that the integration is being done by a 3rd party vendor raises interesting questions around the long-term success of MS Teams working as a primary phone system. How does pricing work? What if Qunifi goes away or is acquired? If there is an acquisition, where will this leave customers who have invested in the migration?
The jury is still out on which is the right solution for those clients looking to leverage Teams as their primary phone system. As an organization that uses both RingCentral and Teams daily, Matrix Networks empathizes with those looking for an answer. The ability to work within one application for all collaboration, internal communication, and external communication would be ideal. Of course, every vendor will tell you their UCaaS solution has the answer. At Matrix Networks we believe in being on the cutting edge of technology solutions, not the bleeding edge, and have found that most clients need tools and reliability that Teams fail to deliver. The migration to Work-from-Home and the rise in MS Teams usage across all industries is undeniable. People want to work with tools they are familiar with and every day, the world’s workforce becomes more familiar with powerful tools like MS Team, Slack, and Zoom. In the coming months we are hopeful that the industry will answer the call and confident that a clear winner will rise to the top of the stack. Until then, stay tuned – stay informed and do not believe everything you hear out there. No one has the answer yet. Those who say they do are drinking their own Kool-Aid as they try desperately to stay ahead of their competition. My advice – don’t be a Guinea Pig, choose a robust solution as your cloud-based phone system (acquired through Matrix Networks of course…), keep evaluating, and wait for the tech to FINALLY deliver a truly all-in-on communications solution.
Author: Ryan Graven