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The Worst VoIP Gotchas

Anyone thinking a switch to a voice-over-IP phone system will be smooth and easy should remember Ruth Harenchar's ruby-red nail polish. At the Hobart West Group, where Harenchar is CIO, the company's VoIP project required tough decisions, like whether to spend money training existing IT staff or hire expensive consultants. It meant learning to live without certain common telecom features in order to get the savings the company wanted. And it involved helping employees through the culture shock of replacing the familiar phones they'd been using for years. That's where the red nail polish comes in.

Businesses love VoIP's promised benefits, but too many underestimate just how arduous implementations can be. Hobart West, a legal-services and commercial-staffing firm, bought Cisco IP phones with gray "hold" buttons; administrative staffers, used to red hold buttons, were constantly hitting the wrong key and dropping calls. Harenchar's low-tech answer, implemented in 60 offices nationwide: Paint red nail polish on handset hold buttons.

If only the rest of the challenges had such simple solutions. VoIP has hit the mainstream, but when it comes to installing the technology on a large scale, there's hard work ahead. "There's a reason it's called the bleeding edge," Harenchar says. "It's painful."

For example, although caller ID is a staple at many companies, Hobart West's VoIP system won't tell employees who's calling. A special kind of telecom circuit, called primary-rate interface ISDN, is necessary for caller ID on VoIP, as is a module for the call-management system. Together, they were too expensive.

And Harenchar discovered that simple mistakes can cause big problems. A recently hired network engineer clicked on the wrong item in the call-manager software and accidentally routed all calls through Hobart West's Houston office, overloading the VoIP network. "He made a decision he thought was simple and brought down the whole system," Harenchar says. "There are so many little places in the call-management system that have to be programmed exactly, perfectly right for even the easiest things to work the way they did."

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