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Phone Switchboard Guide 2019

June 20, 2018

11:20 am

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.

What are phone switchboards?

Telephone systems 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 or sometimes just 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 special phones which are able to distribute calls within an enterprise network. 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 is a cloud based system; the switchboard is completely virtual and operated directly through a desktop computer, controlled with an easy to navigate user interface.

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Different types of switchboard

The majority of modern switchboards include a range of features such as voice response, automatic call distribution or dialing functionality in addition to the basic system.

Interactive Voice Response

This type of system, commonly known as IVR is used for the purpose of incoming calls. Commonly used in a customer service environment where the caller receives a number of automated options, press 1 for… or press 2 for… achieved through speech recognition or typing in options on the keypad. The options selected by the customer will then direct them to the right department. This is common for businesses who do not require a dedicated human operator to physically screen and direct calls to the right place.

Automatic Call Distributor

An ACD is even more advanced and the technology is used to process incoming calls, usually adopted by larger companies who are responsible for dealing with thousands of calls each day. Applying predefined business rules and integration with a customer management system such as CRM, an ACD can automatically direct the caller to the most suitable employee.


Dialing technology is used by any business who makes lots 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 identify when an operator is free and then automatically dial numbers using predictive dialing features.

These are just the main features of a call screening system and it is 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.

History of the Phone Switchboard

An old-fashioned phone switchboard

Phone Switchboard origins

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.

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.

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Advantages of Phone Switchboards for Business

Businesses can enjoy countless benefits of a modern day switchboard. When customers call your business, the first point of contact is crucial because within this initial communication, a customer will form an opinion of your company.

The right place and the right person

If you have countless employees across multiple sites, reaching the right person can be both difficult and problematic for customers.

A switchboard can significantly reduce the number of steps that a customer has to go through by routing them to the right extension or department so they can speak to the required member of staff.

Improved call handling

Customers may soon become frustrated if they are calling the office and no one picks up. If you are frequently on appointments, or at meetings a switchboard will ensure that the customers call is answered and their message recorded and passed on to the member of staff.

Even if a customer doesn’t speak to the individual they require when they call, they will have confidence that their query is being dealt with.

Improves collaboration

More and more businesses are relying on remote workers to support their everyday operations. Switchboards can be crucial in routing calls to a remote worker, wherever they are.

Resource Savings

The right switchboard system can save your business resources and money. Correct screening of incoming calls will ensure that the customer is directed to the right person or the right department avoiding the wrong member of staff taking the call.

Improved reach

A switchboard can prove instrumental in giving the impression of a larger organization which is particularly beneficial for a small business.

In addition, switchboards create a more professional impression of your business, giving customer’s confidence that you are organized and you value customer service which results in increased trust.

An overview of switchboards for business

Now that you understand the benefits of having a switchboard in place for your business, it is important to understand the different types.

There are currently two types of switchboard which are Interactive Voice Response and an Automatic Call Distribution system. There are also Virtual switchboards although they are not technically a switchboard but they will be discussed in this section too.

Automatic Call Distributor

Based on a database which manages commands, an Automatic Call Distributor will carefully handle calls based on the number that has been dialed.

These systems are used by many businesses who provide technical or sales support to make outbound calls, forward calls to the right people, enable a caller to record a message, collect statistics on usage and manage the use of phone lines, making sure they are efficiently operating.

Running on a computerized system, this type of call management technology is most suited to large businesses or those who need a call center function.

Interactive Voice Response

The preferred choice for many smaller businesses, an Interactive Voice Response system is suitable for those companies where a customer needs to speak to a specific department such as technical support, customer service or finance.

A front reception desk will usually use this type of system and then any incoming calls are directed accordingly. Callers are also able to use voice or keypad commands to reach the required department or person.

A switchboard is an essential tool for a number of businesses who rely on these systems to process customer calls. Many of the modern switchboard systems can be scaled to suit the requirements of the business, resulting in a flexible and extremely affordable solution. Having a good communications infrastructure is essential for many businesses which makes a switchboard an important resource.

There are numerous switchboards available for business owners and it is recommended that you explore which one is the best for your business. Many offer additional features such as customer service management, reporting, enhanced security and record keeping, all of which will prove beneficial to any business owner.

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

Virtual Switchboards

The final type of switchboard is a virtual one which gives a company a switchboard function without the initial expense of setting up the infrastructure or the ongoing costs associated with maintaining the system.

Virtual switchboards use virtual operators who are accountable for placing a caller on hold and then alerting you that you have a call waiting for a specific department.

Virtual systems significantly improve customer service. Rather than customers calling to have their call unanswered, they can leave a message or be routed to someone who is available. Customers can also choose which department they need to speak to which reduces their wait time and also decreases the number of calls which are received by a front desk.

Great for businesses who require an affordable switchboard solution while offering the same features as a more advanced switchboard. Hosted on the cloud, virtual calls can help smaller businesses improve their customer service, reduce call times and improve communication channels all round.

Phone switchboards for business are changing all the time and with more people using cloud technologies, many of them won’t even require any physical equipment.

Greater efficiency, better call quality and more effective call handling are just some of the many benefits of phone switchboards.

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Jack is a senior writer at with over a decade's experience researching and writing about consumer technology, from security and privacy to product reviews and tech news.

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