The pros and cons of Google Voice for small business
I signed up with Google Voice when I first heard about it and received my first call on July 14th, 2009. I have used it as my main telephone number for my business ever since.
While there are some disadvantages and problems with Google Voice, the advantages for a sole proprietor like me are great. In this article, I'll cover everything I like about Google Voice as well as everything that causes problems.
Let's talk about the good first. One of the main reasons I wanted Google Voice is because cell phone reception can sometimes be very poor in my home office. It's one of those "it depends on the weather" things - some days reception is crystal clear, sometimes it is not. What on earth does that have to do with Google Voice?
Nothing directly. But both because I am often out on the road and can only be reached by cell, and because I don't want most customers to have my home phone number, I was in the habit of giving them my cell number as the best number to use.
It really was the best number for many years. I was seldom in my office; the cell was the most reliable way to find me. I had a separate business line in my home office, but it was rarely used as I was out so much. The cell was what I advertised on my business card for just that reason.
Of course I could have used forwarding, and I actually did try that early on. The problems came when I'd forget to forward - losing calls that way just a few times caused me to switch to using the cell number.
Then we moved. Because I had not made any real use of the separate business line for so many years, I dropped that line then and now relied solely on the cell. As noted above, sometimes that was fine, but on other days it was not, and the ubiquity of high speed internet connections at my customers sites meant I was working from home more often than not. The spotty cell phone service was beginning to be a problem.
Google Voice lets me use my home line
It was so annoying that I was just about to order a separate line for my home office. Fortunately, I heard about Google Voice.
Google Voice lets have a main number (either assigned by them or you can port an existing number over to them). That number can be told to ring multiple other phones. In my case, I have it ring both my cell phone and my home phone. If I am out of office, I pick up on the cell. If I'm in my office, I pick up the home phone. The caller doesn't know anything but the Google Voice number in either case.
That solved my reception problem. Not immediately, however, as many customers still called the cell phone number directly. But over time, as I asked them to call back for better reception, they took note and it is now quite rare for a direct call to come in.
No cell phone lock in
Because I control what phones ring, I'm no longer locked to my cell phone company. I can switch numbers at any time and have Google Voice forward to the new number. Obviously I can do the same thing with the home phone number should we ever move again: my customers would still use the Google Voice number and it would simply go to my new numbers.
This also means that we can go visit someone in another State for a week and have the Google Voice ring there or even at a friends house if I am expecting a truly urgent call. Google Voice gives complete transparency to my phone usage.
It also allows privacy. I can use the Web interface to stop any phone from ringing at any time. I can also program the hours and days that it will ring. For example, my phones don't ring outside of the hours I set: they go directly to voice mail when I don't want to be disturbed. I can set different schedules for weekdays and weekends, also.
If I happen to take a call on my cell and return to my office while still on the call, I can easily switch the call to my home phone. The reverse is just as easy: if I took the call on my home phone, I can transfer it to my cell if I have to go out. All that is needed is to press * - the other phones start ringing. Pick it up, and continue the call.
Conference calling with Google Voice is also very easy.
If I'm not sure that I want to accept a call, I can screen it. If the call will be very technical, I can (with the caller's consent) record it for later review.
Spammers and other unwanted calls
There are some people you just don't want to speak to. I don't happen to have any of those, but if I ever do, I can block them outright or just automatically send them to voicemail. There is actually another level here where you can have the caller leave a message, but it gets marked as spam. It's still available if you want to see it, but it won't be in your desired calls.
Whenever a call goes to voicemail, Google also attempts a text transcription. These are available through the web interface, but you can also have them sent to your email. That's a handy way to be quietly notified of new voice mail when you would not want to actually hear the call.
The transcription is not perfect, however it is almost always good enough that you know what the call is about and whether you need to return it soon.
You can set specific announcements for groups or individual numbers. For example, if I know I am going to be unavailable but also know that a specific customer is likely to be calling me, I can tailor a special message for that customer alone.
The ability to do that with groups could be very useful. For example, if I put all my Kerio Mail Server customers into a group by that name, I could have them hear a message that would alert them to important upgrades.
There are more features. Text messages through Google Voice are entirely free - if you have people use your Google Voice number, you can have those texts forwarded only to email to avoid SMS charges from your mobile provider.
You can also send text messages to any number.
But there are downsides
Two of the biggest annoyances have to do with Caller ID. Obviously if you call from your normal phone, that Caller ID will appear at the other end unless you block it. You CAN use your computer to place a call through Google Voice - the Google Voice number will appear as the caller ID, but you need to be at a computer to do this.
More annoying is that there is no easy way to know that incoming calls are from your Google Voice number. For example, say that I have left my office and I have forgotten to un-click the forwarding to my home phone (I do try to remember, but I do forget). If a call comes in, both my cell and my home phone will ring. If my wife is at home, she has no way to tell if the call is for her or for me.
Dropped calls, scratchy calls
Even though you have picked up your land line to take a call, this is VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). The conversation is moving across Internet routers for part of its journey. The call quality is usually excellent, but it is not always so. I have certain customers who always complain of a scratchy connection (although I can hear them clearly).
Certain phone numbers simply cannot call your Google Voice number and you can't call them. This was fairly common when I first started using Google Voice, but I have not had a recent example of it. They may have cleared all that up - I notice that there "Known Issues" page still mentions certain SMS issues, though.
I have other customers where their initial call never seems to work, but they get through on the second try.
I have also sometimes had problems where the cell phone rings, but the home phone does not. If that happens on a day where cell phone reception is poor, that's very annoying.
If you were a user of Google-411, Microsoft's Bing-411 is a decent replacement.
Google Voice is entirely free right now, but that could change. They may start charging for it or may add annoying advertisements that might affect you or your callers.
We've seen that quite recently: Google used to have a very nice Google-411 information service. They abruptly dropped that toward the end of 2010 - it simply does not exist any more. The same thing could happen to Google Voice.
Overall, I love Google Voice. It gives me convenience, privacy and real power to control my business calls.
It's also great for personal use - my wife has her own Google Voice number which helps our children and friends find her easily wherever she is. This is particularly useful to give to doctors and dentists so that important calls have less chance of being missed.
If you don't have a Google Voice number, it's easy enough to get - you can apply directly or ask someone you know that does have one to invite you. Be sure to consider all the aspects of this before doing anything permanent like porting your existing mobile number to Google Voice, though.
I'm very happy with Google Voice and would strongly recommend it to you.