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, and the various types that are available for business owners.
What Is a Phone Switchboard?
A switchboard is a central function used to connect different parts of a telephone system, to establish a call. Today’s switchboards commonly operate using a set of automated algorithms that hold and direct call traffic, without the assistance of a human operator. However, call center teams who connect callers to the right phone line in a business, or resource on a helpline, may also be known as ‘switchboards'.
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 its own room to fit all of the various pieces of equipment, or a team of receptionists to pull wires from one location and plug them into another to connect calls to the right department.
Depending on the setup of your business, its complexity, and your requirements, there are a number of telephone switchboard solutions 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.
Why Use a Telephone Switchboard System?
Effective communication with your customers, clients and fellow employees is essential to a successful business and positive reputation. So how will a switchboard phone system help you achieve this?
No unanswered calls
Customers will become frustrated quickly if they are calling your office and no one picks up. A switchboard will ensure that every customer receives a response, even when you’re unavailable, either via a message-recording setup or through effectively rerouting their inquiry to someone who is available.
If you have employees across multiple teams and sites, reaching the right person on the other end of the line can be difficult and time-consuming for customers. It’s also a waste of your staff’s time to speak to customers who are looking for someone else. And time is money.
A switchboard can solve these problems and significantly reduce the number of steps that a customer has to go through, by automating the routing of their call to the right extension or department straight away.
More and more businesses are relying on remote workers to support their everyday operations. Switchboards enable calls to be transferred to remote workers, wherever they are.
Having a switchboard in place can help even the smallest businesses give customers the impression of an established and professional organization. It also demonstrates that you value customer service, which will result in increased trust in your company.
Lower maintenance costs
Modern switchboard phone systems are far more affordable as far as maintenance and infrastructure are concerned. You won't be shutting your office down to rewire the break room or shelling out thousands for a new system when the old one breaks down every few months. You'll have an easy to use, modern system that does the hard work for you.
The 3 Types of Switchboards
Modern phone switchboards fall into three categories: On-premises PBX, IP-PBX and Virtual PBX:
1. On-premises PBX
As the name suggests, an on-premises 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.
- Full control over implementation of features
- Not reliant on a third party
- No extra fees for adding more lines
- Low running cost
- Initial installation costs are very high
- Requires in-house support, which may require training or extra resource
- Hardware depreciates and can become outdated
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.
- Technical support included
- No need to worry about hardware upkeep
- Little upfront cost
- Cost is per user
- Some aspects of service are totally out of your control
- The more users, the higher the cost
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.
- Cheapest point of entry for PBX
- Can make smaller companies appear more professional
- Cloud connection is less reliable than on-premises
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 center would only have a certain number 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.
Now, thanks to developments in telephone technology, virtual PBX systems allow businesses to manage their calls without the need for hardware. Not only does this result in lower start-up and maintenance costs, but these systems also offer additional calling features that make communicating with clients and customers even easier.
With so many switchboard services to choose from, however, sifting through solutions can be a confusing and time-consuming process. Fortunately, we've researched the best switchboard phones on the market, to make your search for the ideal system as straightforward as possible.
Best Switchboard Phones
If you opt for a virtual switchboard over an in-premise PBX or IP-PBX, your system will be relying on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to carry out calls. This piece of software will be able to run on computers, desk phones, and smartphones, allowing you to make and manage calls wherever you have a stable internet connection.
Compared to traditional switchboard technology and legacy phone systems, VoIP software is much more versatile and flexible. This is because it's managed in the cloud rather than requiring bulky hardware installation or physical changes to adapt to your needs. VoIP switchboard phones are able to scale with your businesses much more easily, plus they offer heaps more features that aren't available on manual models.
If you're new to the technology, here are just a few useful functions that virtual switchboard systems offer:
- Call queue – Directs callers into a virtual queue until an agent is available to assist them
- Call hold – Places a caller on hold so they aren't able to hear your side of the line
- Call forwarding – Sends incoming calls through to a different number so they can reach the correct line
- Virtual receptionist – Uses voice-recognition or other customer-input technology to tend to customers' queries automatically
- Call analytics – Collects and displays important calling data to monitor the performance of your business
If you're interested in finding the best virtual switchboard services, discover our top picks in our table below.
The typical lowest starting price. The lowest price available for your business will depend on your needs.
Poly VVX 601
Best overall VoIP phone
Best value VoIP phone
Best for working from home
Best for features
Best for video conferencing
Best for a budget
Very comfortable to use
Unlimited nationwide calling
8 dedicated feature keys
44 customizable digital keys
AC adapter not included
Small, gray-scale display
Poor button haptics
Pricier than similar models
Priced on the high end
Only 480×272 pixel display
Small 1.8-inch display
About Our Research
We know how difficult it can be to find top-notch business software, so we take product recommendations very seriously at Tech.co. Our in-house team of researchers has spent days researching the top contenders in the market to help teams to identify solutions that work well for them.
Then, after we've whittled down the best VoIP options, we compare them against a number of key metrics including cost, connectivity, customer support options, and customer satisfaction to accurately rank their overall offering. We also award each system we review a unique 5-star rating across a number of key categories, to make it easier for businesses to find out which products align with their top priorities.
This really is only the half of it though. You can find out more about our extensive research process here.
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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