Switchboard systems have certainly evolved since the early days of the telephone in the late 1800s. They now include numerous features and functions which can significantly improve customer service standards, make cost savings and reduce the workload for call operators.
In this guide you will discover what phone switchboards are, their history, key advantages of phone switchboards and the various types that are available for business owners.
If you just want to know how to find the best phone provider for your business, use our phone systems comparison tool for a free, no obligation quote tailored to your needs.
What Are Phone Switchboards?
A telephone switchboard is a system used to connect different parts of a telephone system, to establish a call. Today’s switchboards more commonly operate using a set of automated algorithms that connect and direct call traffic without the assistance of a human operator.
Multi line phone systems for small businesses have advanced considerably in the past few decades, becoming more capable of dealing with the demands of modern day business communications. Gone are the days when a switchboard system needed their own room to fit all of the various pieces of equipment to make the system work or a team of receptionists to pull wires from one location and plug them into another to connect a call to the right department.
Depending on the setup of your business, its complexity, and your requirements, there are a number of telephone switchboard solutions which are available for your business. Today’s switchboards commonly rely on a simple hardware framework and configuration, but sometimes run just on a software system. A modern switchboard system relies upon a private branch exchange installation to function properly. This setup will use a router, computer and switch to form the actual telephony system. Connected lines and extensions within a regular telephone system will be used. Or, in the case of an internet-based system, IP-PBX technologies will be deployed.
To complete the installation of a switchboard system all you need is a set of phones that are able to distribute calls within an enterprise network – these could be VoIP phones. Once the basics are in place a business can effectively manage call queues, identify which representative is available, place callers on hold and direct calls to any extension within the network.
Virtual PBX systems take this a step further because they are located entirely online. Users don’t even have to install any software if it's a cloud based system with softphones. The switchboard is completely virtual and operated directly through a desktop computer, controlled with an easy to navigate user interface.
The 3 Types of Switchboard
Modern phone switchboards fall into three categories: On-premise PBX, IP-PBX and Virtual PBX:
1. On-premise PBX
As the name suggests, an on-premise PBX is a phone switchboard which physically resides in your company building, and is maintained by your own staff. The system works by diverting all internal and external calls through a small device. Your employees phones run the software, and it offers the full suite of VoIP options, with you in complete control.
An IP-PBX means that you rent the services of the PBX from a third party. While the end result is exactly the same as it would be if you owned the equipment yourself, the set-up is usually a subscription service, with the company charging you per user. In essence, it removes all the responsibility and potential headaches of the PBX system and places them with someone else.
3. Virtual PBX
A virtual PBX is a phone switchboard that lives in the cloud. There's no physical equipment to consider, and again, you're paying a third party for the service. While they can be more limited than a traditional PBX system, they also tend to be considerably cheaper. While they're not recommended for large companies, they can be a huge boon for smaller firms looking for their first PBX.
Additional Phone Switchboard Features
Interactive Voice Response
This type of system, often known as IVR, is most commonly used for the purpose of incoming calls. For example, in a customer service environment the caller may hear a number of automated options- “press 1 for… or press 2 for…” and then the call direction is achieved through speech recognition or typing in options on the keypad. The options selected by the customer will connect them to the right department.
IVR is best for businesses who do not require a dedicated human operator to physically screen and direct calls to the right place.
Although the use of incoming-only IVR is the most common, there are three main types of IVR switchboard:
Incoming – Equip companies with the ability to manage callers who are on the line, redirect calls, secure business, record calls and provide information
Outgoing – Distribute invitations and reminders for scheduled appointments, issue updates on shipping and stock and manage customer surveys
Incoming and Outgoing – A combination of the two options above
Automatic Call Distributor
An ACD phone switchboard system is slightly more advanced than IVR. The technology is also used to process incoming calls, but is usually adopted by larger companies who are responsible for dealing with thousands of calls each day.
An ACD system automatically directs calls to the most suitable employee be applying predefined business rules, as well as integration with a customer management system (CRM), to identify the caller.
Dialing switchboard technology is used by businesses which makes a lot of outbound telephone calls. Commonly used in telesales, this type of system will process a correspondent list which has been uploaded to the system. Using the list of numbers, the system will then identify when an operator is free and then automatically dial numbers using predictive dialling features.
These main three uses of a telephone switchboard (call screening) system are a world away from the switchboard systems in early telephone networks. In the next section we will explore the history of phone switchboards and how they have evolved to the modern systems that we rely on today.
A Brief History of Switchboards
In 1878, George Coy introduced the first telephone exchange and shortly after the manual switchboard followed. This device was at the centre of all telephone exchanges and served as a method of coordinating the required activities for telecommunications. Using an electrical cord or switch, a switchboard enabled a connection with different lines using manual procedures carried out in a central office.
Shortly after the switchboard was introduced, telephone companies such as the Boston Telephone Dispatch company employed operators to screen incoming calls and then transfer them to the right department. Often these operators were young boys and although they did prove successful, their manner, attitude and general behavior was not deemed to be of a high enough standard to manage incoming telephone calls. The business decided to employ women operators and Emma Nutt was the first woman telephone operator. Early switchboard operation was not the easiest of jobs, demanding a high degree of accuracy, concentration and dexterity. Operators had to complete a period of training before they could use the boards effectively.
When telephones were first introduced they were hard wired and they could only communicate with one other telephone. Transmission was very poor and telephone use was limited to business use.
Within a small town there would be a switchboard that was installed in the home of the operator so calls could be answered 24 hours a day. It was in 1894 that the first battery operated switchboard was set up by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company in Massachusetts.
Phone Switchboard Development
As the switchboard began to develop, the systems could be scaled for use in large cities. The equipment was vast with a floor to ceiling column allowing an operator to connect all lines required in the exchange. These operators were boys who would climb up and down ladders to connect the calls to the required lines. In the late 1890’s these systems could not cope with demand.
It was Milo Kellogg who launched the Divided Multiple Switchboard which allowed operators to collaborate working on what was known as an A Board and a B Board. The panel switch and other automated technologies gradually eliminated the requirement for the B Board and gradually the systems evolved further so the B Board was also obsolete. The switchboards in rural and suburban areas remained quite straightforward and many customers knew the operator by their name.
Over the years that followed, telephone exchanges changed to an automatic dial system, although switchboards were still important. Before long distance calls could be dialed directly, a caller would need to call a long distance operator to make the required call.
In a large city this would be a designated number which would ring a long distance operator who would carefully record the city that the caller required and their name. The caller would then be instructed to hang up and wait for the call to be carried out. Each centre would only have a certain amount of trunks to reach long distance cities and if those circuits were engaged, the operator would have to try an alternative route using intermediate cities.
Operators would plug a line into a trunk for the required city and a local operator would answer the call. Inward operators would then collect the number and call the customer who needs to make the long distance call. These early systems were very complex and involved, requiring lots of technical processes.
Then vs Now
Switchboard systems have changed considerably in recent years, and no longer resemble a spaghetti-like jumble of wires
Phone Switchboard in the 1900s
It wasn’t until the 1940s that a dial pulse was introduced along with multi-frequency operator dialing. With these new systems an operator would plug into what was known as a tandem trunk before dialing the area code and operator code to reach an operator in the required city.
The 1960s brought with it a single type of operator who was able to handle the majority of callers for both long distance and local calls.
In the 1970s and 1980s, cord switchboards were replaced and TSPS systems were introduced, significantly streamlining the involvement of operators in handling calls.
Over time, switchboard operators evolved into operators or receptionists and their jobs have been replaced by automated systems.
Find the Best Phone System for You
Now that you have a clear understanding of what a phone switchboard is, what it can do for you, what types of phone switchboards are out there, and the history of this storied technology, you're starting to get a clearer picture of whether or not this technology can help your company. Now, you just have to find out how much it's going to cost.
Fortunately, we've put together a helpful tool that can make getting a quote easier than ever. Use our quotes form to receive real pricing based on your own needs.
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