RingCentral is a surprisingly sophisticated but easy-to–use Web-based VoIP PBX for small businesses. While SMBs may be familiar with on-premise voice-over-IP appliances and individual phones, a Web-based system simplifies the whole thing by letting the phones connect to a remote server over the Internet. RingCentral is our Editor’s Choice for hosted VoIP platforms because it includes calling features normally present in enterprise-focused (and expensive!) on-premise PBX systems. With RingCentral, SMBs don’t have to deal with server hardware or phone consultants, and gain flexibility without breaking the bank.
Traditionally, IP PBX systems were on-premise boxes, either as an on-site appliance or software that was installed onto a dedicated server. Depending on the VoIP product, this could get complicated pretty quickly, especially if the administrator needed a lot of advanced features or had to support a lot of users on the network. However, this is 2013, and since everything is going to the cloud, why not VoIP?
RingCentral offers IP PBX as a service, so administrators just need to register for an account and configure the features they want right on the Web portal. The system just pushes the settings straight to the phone over the Internet.
I looked at a different cloud VoIP company, Jive Communications, around the same time I was testing RingCentral, and realized that hosted VoIP has come a long way over the past few years. These are robust platforms with many advanced features that used to be out of reach of the smaller customers.
RingCentral Office has different pricing levels depending on the number of users that will be using the system. For businesses with 2 to 19 users, RingCentral costs $29.99 per month per user, but the per-user price can be as low as $19.99 per month per user for businesses with more than 100 users. Each plan offers necessary toll-free and local numbers, as well fax numbers and conference lines.
RingCentral Office provides both incoming and outgoing phone service which lets businesses set up IP phones as well as route calls to mobile phones and other telephones. There is a more mobile-focused offering, RingCentral Professional, which provides only incoming services, and businesses can just route incoming calls to employee mobile devices. RingCentral also has a fax-only service.
Getting Started is a Snap
Registration for RingCentral is quick, and I received my phone number by email. Businesses can transfer an existing phone number, request a toll-free number, or even get a vanity number. With the phone number in hand, I logged into the Web portal and created extensions, assigned call groups (which I will explain later in the review), defined call queues, set up a call attendant (automated message customers hear when they first call), and did a whole lot of other things, long before I even set up any of the phones. Then I created rules for call forwarding, voice mail storage, call routing, and call blocking, among others.
The interface is slick and fairly responsive, but can be a little confusing for first-time administrators. Sometimes I had to click on an option to open the sub-menu, and other times there was a “Next” button. Sometimes the “Next” button took me to the next sub-menu in the sequence, and other times it took me back to the top of the menu tree. Using “Next” or “Back” buttons a bit more consistently would have made it much easier to step through the interface. To be fair, by the time I was configuring my fourth user, I got the hang of the way the interface worked, and found the process easier.
RingCentral helps the small and midsized businesses to navigate the maze of features and options within the interface through Web tutorials and videos. They are all thorough and useful. In fact, I heartily recommend taking a few minutes to go through the tutorials and videos before starting out.
As for phones, RingCentral has an impressive list of IP phones that its infrastructure can support—or you can just buy the pre-configured phones directly from the company. Businesses thinking of switching from on-premise VoIP system to RingCentral may want to use the phones they already have. While that is an option, I think it’s worth tossing the older phones on eBay or recycling them, and just buying the pre-configured phones.
These phones have everything set up already, so all I had to do was plug them into the network and power them on. The phones pinged RingCentral’s servers, identified themselves, joined my phone network, and obtained all the calling rules I had already defined in the portal. As easy as that, and done in less than 15 minutes (which included the time it took the phones to boot up and reboot).
Everytime I changed settings or options on the portal, the changes were pushed onto the phones, so I knew that the phones were continuously getting the updates.RingCentral sent two phones, the Cisco SPA-525 and Polycom IP-550, for the review. I plugged the phones to my network switch and powered them up. They were standard business phones, so I didn’t have to worry about learning how to use the devices.
A Veritable Feast of Features
There are other cloud-based VoIP systems out there, and they have similar setup processes. What sets RingCentral apart from all the competition, however, is the smorgasbord of features the company has crammed into the service. Call auto-attendant (virtual receptionist), music on hold, message alerts, presence information (in office, away, do not disturb), company directory, and directory trees are more or less standard in most modern PBX offerings, whether they are Web-based or on-premise. But RingCentral also offers call forwarding to mobile devices; call groups where a group of phones all ring at the same time; call escalation, where if a user doesn’t answer, the system calls the next person on the list and goes up the chain of command; and call queues, where callers wait for “the next available representative” to be available.
Along with a full-blown fax service, the system offers conference call bridge numbers. Users have a unique participant code to use for the conference call bridge number. They offer numbers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. I had no trouble getting a local area code for my review—Next: Features, Management, Call Quality
The call forwarding feature to mobile devices work in one of two ways. I could set up the call rules to try my desk phone first, and if I didn’t pick up, then call my mobile phone. If I didn’t pick up the mobile within a certain number of rings, the system knew to redirect the caller back to the RingCentral voicemail to leave a message.
Alternatively, I could decide not to bother assigning a desk phone. When creating a user, I could just point the extension to any phone number (mobile or landline), and that number would ring whenever someone called that extension. This would be particularly handful in businesses where the employees are highly mobile, such as a real estate agency. The employees get all their calls on a regular phone, but they stay within the same RingCentral world as the rest of the company.
RingCentral recently introduced text messages to the system. While the service is still in beta, customers can already take advantage of the feature. Employees don’t need to use their personal mobile phones to send text messages, and businesses can send out notification text messages to customers when necessary. The “Click to call me” makes it possible for customers to reach the business just by clicking on a button on a website.
The system also recently introduced automatic call recording, in which the system can be configured to automatically record calls based on specific criteria. Calls with the support team may automatically be recorded, but none of the CEO’s, for example. RingCentral also offers a feature it calls “Virtual Calling Card,” which allows users to dial the company number, log in, and then make an outgoing call. This means employees don’t need to worry about carrying around a calling card or remembering PINs for phone calls.
All voicemails, call recordings, and call logs are stored on the portal. If the business sets up automated call recording (for quality purposes), each of the call recordings are time-stamped and stored online. It is really easy to listen and playback each call, as necessary.All these features make the SMB sound like a polished, professional organization, which is great for a small company trying to look big, or in the case of some RingCentral customers, have multiple locations sound the same.
The portal is really straightforward for administrators. Turn on a feature, and assign which extensions, departments, and users have access to it. Being on the Web means administrators can access the system from anywhere. RingCentral made this even more convenient, by releasing an iOS and Android app that also allows administrators manage users directly. Users can also use the mobile app to manage RingCentral voicemail and faxes, as well as make outgoing calls.
I found it really easy to create call routing rules, which is important, as that is probably where administrators will spend a bulk of their time. I could decide what happens to an incoming call if I am already on the call, for example. It is a little confusing at first to understand how to create call groups, as opposed to using the “Department” setting, which actually creates the call queues.
After spending some time on the portal for Jive Communications, though, I think RingCentral could have benefited from the map/flowchart process Jive uses. It was more visual and easier to see exactly what happens in each scenario, especially if there were many users or phones involved. This is a “would have been nice” feature, since even without the mapping engine like the one Jive offers, I didn’t have trouble making complex rules in RingCentral.
RingCentral says customers can scale as high or as low as needed, and the system will accommodate. At the moment, though, the interface doesn’t have any bulk user management tools, so if you are trying to work with more than 10 users, it can get tedious. The company plans to roll out some tools to make it easier to apply changes to groups of users and handle larger number of users at once, but that isn’t in place yet.
Businesses can also integrate the RingCentral system with other SaaS offerings, such as Salesforce, Outlook and Box.net, in order to expand the functionality available. The caller information shared in Salesforce combined with the phone system would make it easier for businesses to keep on top of customer calls.
Administrators can also monitor and manage the system using their mobile devices. The company has apps available for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry. Users can make or receive calls, change their settings, and access their call logs and notifications, right from the mobile app.
Call quality is important, especially in a business environment. During the course of testing, I didn’t notice any delays in hearing people to talk, and our conversations were loud and clear. The company does a lot of tweaking internally to make sure that everyone gets good call quality, regardless of whether they are using DSL, cable modem, or some other fast broadband option.
I set up RingCentral on network with a fairly locked down firewall and encountered no issues or problems with voice quality. RingCentral told me that if users are having a problem with the system, it’s usually related to the firewall’s configuration.
Depending on the feature set and call rules in place, callers may hear an extra ring or two as the RingCentral system routes calls over the Internet. If you define call groups, where it will ring different groups of phones until someone picks up, the caller may have more rings than other systems. It’s still a pretty quick system from the caller’s view.
I tried making phone calls while stressing the network with a few other high-bandwidth activities, such as BitTorrent, video streaming and Web conferencing, but didn’t notice any degradation in call service.
It’s worth noting that if the network is under heavy load, the Web portal may be a little sluggish. It doesn’t affect call quality at all, but the pages on the portal may be slow to load.
Sophisticated and Clear for SMBs
For businesses interested in setting up a VoIP platform for the first time, or thinking about abandoning their existing on-premise system, going to the cloud may be the answer. The RingCentral system is extremely versatile and can be configured to fit practically any kind of business, whether it’s a multi-branch organization, a small business with a high number of callers, or just a business trying to keep up a professional image. Even for a highly mobile workforce, the fact that RingCentral can route calls to employee phones means employees never have to give out their personal numbers, but still be reachable.
I found RingCentral an impressive, professional VoIP platform for businesses that is much easier than you would expect such a complex platform to be. If you are in the market for a virtual PBX system that provides incoming and outgoing service, RingCentral Office is highly recommended, making it an Editors’ Choice for VoIP platforms.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc