Bad times or not: Be careful if you're considering switching to a new-fangled phone service to save money. Few companies raise the ire of small-business owners more than Verizon ( VZ), AT&T ( T), Cablevision ( CVC), Time Warner Cable ( TWC) and Qwest ( Q). So it's no surprise that a tide of low-cost telecom companies is trying to cash in on the angst. Vonage ( VG), Fonality, Nextiva and others offer conference calling, call forwarding and unlimited usage at dirt-cheap prices. In these lean times, it's a tempting way to save. Turning on Toktumi: Last fall, I tested Toktumi, a low-cost telecom service targeting small businesses in my little digital world. Founder Peter Sisson, 46, had what seemed like a breakthrough idea: create a virtual phone system without the phones. For $15 a month, San Francisco-based Toktumi gives users a dedicated number that hosts incoming and outgoing calls made on home or mobile phones, or the Internet. The Web-based system works with any existing landline, cell phone or computer. The service includes unlimited calling, a sophisticated online assistant and other cool business tools. At first, it worked as advertised. The service created a professional-sounding number for my business, Blumsday. It connected with the beehive of test phones and communication devices I use. The system also ran flawlessly on a variety of computers. Voice quality depended on the Web connection; sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn't. Toktumi's a valuable tool, particularly for individual users looking for a business number on the cheap. But for larger companies, even those with just a few extensions, Toktumi presents serious challenges, based on my tests.
Turning off Toktumi: I tried deploying Toktumi more broadly this year to seven employees. The idea was to create a centralized phone system with the appearance and functionality of a fancy digital service, despite the lack of an actual office or inhouse telecom tool. While the system worked, problems emerged. First off, if your employees use their own phones, computers or mobile devices, Toktumi puts you in the odd position of running your business on their phone networks. The system also lacks a central administration, so quality control falls on employees, who must make sure that calls transfer successfully and that outbound messages are correct. Training, which must be paid for, also became an issue. Workers questioned why they had to learn a tool that replicates the services their phones already offer. For example, employees had to go through a dedicated number to make calls using their cell phones. It's easy to program the number into their phones, but many didn't see the need. They made their business calls directly from their cell phones, avoiding Toktumi. It's not like clients loved the idea either. When we sent out a holiday mailer with the new contact information, customers asked if we were moving. I explained that we were using a new service that ran on the same phone, but clients were confused. They simply asked for my "real" cell phone or office number. What was I going to do? Say no? For the sole proprietor who's working at home or in a remote location and looking for a second number that's different from his personal phone, Toktumi can work.
"Toktumi addresses the question of what happens if you run your business off a laptop, Wi-Fi and mobile phones," Sisson says. "More complex businesses may find that environment a challenge to manage right now. But for the single user, or small business looking to save money on a second phone, we are finding a market." But in these challenging times, do you want to pay your people to move to a loosely connected network of cell phones and computers? Or force your clients to learn a new system? Bottom line: Toktumi is a great tool for individual business owners. But if you're even a little bigger, Toktumi isn't worth the risk, at least not now. As crappy and expensive real phones can be, it's probably best to stick with them.