by DAN BODNER
Few purchases will have as much impact on your office's efficiency and your client's impression of your practice as your phone system. For small law firms, there are many factors to consider and options to choose from, but the first basic decision is whether to invest in an in-house system or go with Centrex.
With a small firm, you're right on the cost/benefit threshold between these options. Telephone utilities such as Pacific Bell have heavily promoted Centrex as the easy, cost-effective, no maintenance solution to all business phone needs. And you pay as you go.
Sounds great? Well, let's take a closer look.
Centrex is a "virtual" phone system, with all features of the system such as call transferring, conference, voicemail, etc., handled by equipment that's at the phone company, not in your office.
You don't own any part of this equipment except the telephones on your desk, and these can be any generic phone from a local electronics store. You simply make monthly payments and don't have a heavy investment in equipment.
However, it is not actually true that there are no up-front costs. In fact, the Centrex line installation charges are quite hefty, to the tune of $270 per line.
Worse, for every extension you want, you need a Centrex line installed -- even for the phone by the water cooler or copy machine. The more people and phones you add, the more you invest in the Centrex lines. Each line also has a monthly line fee, which is not insignificant.
Given all of these line charges and the proliferation of lines for every extension, Centrex can quickly end up costing plenty and a lot more than purchasing your own equipment.
After making some calculations, it turns out Centrex is cost-effective for about four or five staff members. Beyond that, look at other options as well.
In addition to potential cost benefits, owning your own equipment can have other advantages over Centrex.
For example, some basic features are not readily available with Centrex. These include music on hold and autoattendant. Autoattendants are those ubiquitous voice-menu systems that let the caller dial their party's extension, or if unknown, allows for spelling of the party's name.
Autoattendants can serve as back-ups to reception, or vice versa. For example, the autoattendant can be the primary call handler, giving callers the option of pressing zero for an operator. Although they have their detractors from an aesthetic point of view, autoattendants can help reduce the size and increase the productivity of support staff.
When you make the investment in an office system, you also get the option of adding lots of new extensions at little extra cost relative to Centrex. This is particularly important for anticipated growth.
Some of the best known systems are those marketed by the big phone companies, including AT&T's Merlin systems and Northern Telecom's Meridian system, marketed by Pacific Bell. These are solid performers and will be reliable.
If cost is important to you, some other brands also offer excellent performance and for smaller offices these may actually have a better feature set at significantly lower costs.
Brands to look at include Panasonic and Vodavi. In all cases, make sure you are dealing with a reputable company that knows its equipment.
Dan Bodner is program director of the Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMA), 1-800/YES-LOMA or www.lomex.com.