“ Manufacturer: BT / cordless phone / 2 line / supports 8 handsets. „
John Reid, when he was Home Secretary, famously remarked that the Home Office was "not fit for purpose". He would love this product, which fits its purpose like a glove. The environment, however, is the lower case home office.
Basically, it is a 2 or 4 line switching system which supports up to 8 cordless handsets; more importantly, it is a compact and flexible system which allows a small business to function as if it were a large organisation (at least in telephony terms - huge profits not guaranteed!). Compactness is vital in a small office where space is at a premium, and flexibility in an environment where everyone wears many hats is equally important. I have used this for about three years and I have yet to find a problem. At most, there are a couple of niggles, but compared to the enormous benefits these are insignificant. It is a BT branded product but for some reason it was never marketed very extensively by them, and many of their own customer service people had never heard of it. Now they don't sell it at all, but it is sold by a company called Discom who also handle the helpdesk. Yet my first piece of advice to any small company starting up would be: get yourself an Airway system.
To details. The brain of the thing is called the Controller. Thin, not fat, it is a compact 12cm x 18cm and is fitted to the wall near your incoming phone lines and a power socket. The phone line or lines plug into the controller, and there are also sockets for a fax machine and a PC. Extra cards can be bought for ISDN 2e capability and for an answering machine. If your internet/e-mail access is through one of these lines, and you haven't yet got broadband, then an ISDN card would be a good idea. I would certainly recommend the answering machine card as this capability is then part of the phone system and that's another piece of electronic clutter you can dispense with. The cards are similar in size to PC video or sound cards and are easily slotted into the controller. You don't even need a screwdriver. As I said above, it is powered by a mains socket, but there is a back-up 9V battery in case of a power failure. This will keep it going for half an hour. When it is starting to die a warning signal will appear on the handsets so you won't be left with a dud battery in the event of a power failure. I have had to replace this quite often as out here in the sticks we have overhead power lines which don't deliver a consistent level of power. (Our mains switch trips quite frequently and the network computer has to be protected by an uninterruptible power supply. The joys of living in the 21st century.) There are no keyboard or function buttons on the controller itself - control of the controller, if you like, is done from the handsets.
The handsets are completely cordless, not even a pull-out aerial. They are smaller but heavier than corded handsets but feel solid and comfortable in the hand and can be wedged under the chin if you're multi-tasking! There is a conventional phone keypad, above that 3 menu navigation and selection buttons, and above those a 30mm x 35mm LCD screen. At rest it displays the BT logo, date, time, battery level, signal strength. Access to the functions is via the menu buttons, and to change settings it is password controlled (4 digits). It comes with a pre-set factory password which you can amend. The screen is clear and easy to read, and the navigation is quite intuitive - once you've got the hang of it you don't need to be constantly referring to the handbook. Settings can be amended at controller level, which affects all the handsets, or for an individual handset, for example the ring-tone volume.
Call handling is the same as for bigger switches. When your handset rings the screen automatically changes to display the list of lines and handsets and you can tell whether the call is internal or external. If external, you can put it on hold, or ring another handset, introduce the caller and transfer the call (or alternatively go back and tell the caller to get lost). You can also see if the other lines are already busy and can tell the caller straightaway that so-and-so is engaged. Other functions include call forwarding without having to involve the BT exchange, call barring, caller display (if facility arranged with your calls provider). There is a stored number directory holding up to 200 numbers in the system, and 50 numbers per handset. The answering machine menus give you every option you would ever need, including remote access to messages and a memo system if you want to leave a message for another member of staff. Better than post-it notes.
Essentially you get all the functionality, and more, of a bigger system but in a much more compact and small business friendly package. Yes, there are some things it can't do, hands free and conference calls for example, but I personally can live without those.
Still comparing it with bigger systems, cordlessness is not an issue in big corporations. Speaking as someone who has worked for one of the biggest, after a certain point is reached on the corporate ladder you acquire gofers, file-carriers, message-takers and the whole corporate administrative back-up; all you have to do is haul your highly-paid ass to the next high level meeting. In a small business resources are spread much more thinly. You are as likely to find yourself buried in a filing cabinet, unjamming the photocopier, sorting the post or outside arguing about parking spaces, as you are actually dealing with customers. So a handset you can stuff in your pocket and carry around allows business to carry on as smoothly as it can do. Think, too, of the benefits in a home office environment. No wires running everywhere for a start. If the local council starts to resurface the road outside in the middle of a heatwave when you want all the windows open, no problem - move to another room. You don't have to have your lunch at the desk, minding the phone. At the other extreme, you can take calls in your sickbed - the business must go on.
The range from the controller is about 50 metres indoors and 300 metres outdoors. In practice, that means the handsets are useable in every room of our house except one which is at the furthest point from the controller. I can even walk across the road to the postbox. You know when you have lost the signal - the screen goes blank.
My partner and I work at opposite ends of the house (best way, believe me) so having an internal connection handset to handset is a bonus. It means we can have high level discussions such as whose turn it is to make the coffee, or ask if there's any paper in the printer without having to trek to and fro. If you're lying in your aforementioned sickbed you can also call your partner and ask for a cup of tea. As your partner is probably running around like a headless chicken doing two jobs you'll probably get a load of abuse but it's worth a try. I bet the manufacturer didn't realise either that it has a tracker function. Carrying the phone round with you leads inevitably to wails of "Where did I leave my phone?" No problem. Just ring it from the other handset and follow the sound, to the fridge, behind the sofa, in the filing cabinet, or wherever.
The instruction books are well written and take you step by step through the functions with accompanying diagrams of what the screen displays at each stage. There are separate booklets for the system, handsets and answering machine if you have opted for that. If you're stuck, there is a very good helpline, no queue, and with guys who know what they are talking about on the other end.
You could argue that a mobile phone performs many of the functions I have described: cordless, compact, built-in answering machine. What they don't do is enable call switching within the organisation and the signal is not always reliable. You can't handle all business calls as if you're speaking from the bottom of a well. Plus, of course, the cost of calls would be prohibitive if your business is a heavy phone user.
And the niggles? Well, when you are using the handset and another external line rings you hear a call-waiting beep, repeated every few seconds until someone answers it. The problem is that the beep cuts out the caller's voice just enough to miss a few syllables, so you're constantly asking them to repeat themselves or guessing at the missing bits. About 1 or 2% of the time the connection to another handset is not made and you have to try again. The handset charging cradle is quite light in weight and easily knocked off a surface. It can also be wall mounted, but I can't see how the handset would stay in place. And lastly, you can have any colour you like as long as it's dark grey - but at least it doesn't show finger marks.
E-mail is terrific but we'll always need phones. Whatever the size of your business, you must be able to handle phone calls smartly and efficiently or customers will simply go elsewhere. At £400 for a "starter-pack" of two-line controller and two handsets it must be within all budgets. Additional handsets are about £100, ISDN cards about £100 and answering machine cards about £50.