Softphone: What Is It and How Does It Work? - Aircall Blog

Softphone: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Cloud-based softphone solutions are the new normal for business phone systems. Here's what they are, why they're beneficial, and how your team can implement a cloud-based softphone solution.
Daniel Weiss

Softphones represent the future, and for many companies, the present of business phone systems. Rather than having a desk phone that’s connected to landline service, a softphone system is operated using IP technology (internet protocol).

What Is a Softphone?

With a softphone, calls are placed using a desktop or internet browser-based application, rather than a physical dial pad. Softphone technology relies on your computer’s speaker and microphone system to transmit voice packets to the intended recipient. 

While this software-centric solution may seem foreign to new users at first, these softphone solutions have all the functionality of a hardphone, plus many time-saving benefits. They’re also more flexible in terms of setup and adjustments, and most VoIP phone systems (voice over internet protocol) will be more cost-effective — in both the long and short-terms.

Softphones, depending on which solution you choose, can operate entirely on the cloud, which makes them accessible from anywhere with an internet connection. Remote work and work from home scenarios are possible with browser-based, mobile, and downloadable desktop phone applications.

How do VoIP softphones work?

VoIP phone systems send voice data to recipients using the same pathways that email sends words and photographs. The data (in this case sound data) is broken up into segments and converted into binary code through a piece of software known as a codec. These codes can then be sent from computer to computer and “decoded” back into the original sounds.

The process is rather complicated and mostly unnecessary for end-users to understand, but there are a few takeaways users of VoIP phones should acknowledge.

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For one, even though your softphone service is a web-based application, it can be affiliated with a “real” telephone number, complete with a local area code if desired. This means your softphone is completely accessible to landline-based phones. VoIP software providers can do this by purchasing numbers from “carrier” networks like Voxbone, Plivo, Twilio, and others, depending on your country. 

Furthermore, if you’re switching from landline service to a cloud-based option, you can keep your current number through a process called porting, whereby numbers are transferred between carriers with minimal downtime. (More on this later)

Second, users of VoIP softphones should be aware of risks to call quality and how to mitigate them. Since cloud-based solutions are dependent on an internet connection, they’re susceptible to many of the same problems all internet-based applications experience. Namely, slow performance due to limited bandwidth.

Bandwidth issues manifest themselves mostly through jitter and latency (which sounds like skipping or garbled speech on the phone) and dropped calls. However, these issues can be eliminated with careful planning. QoS (quality of service) adjustments can be made to your router in order to prioritize voice packets over other, less time-sensitive, information. Most VoIP softphone services can do this for you remotely.

What Types of Softphones Are Available?

There are currently many kinds of phone system setups available to businesses. Some of these are compatible with softphone technologies, while others must rely on landline and desk phones to make and receive phone calls.

Twenty years ago, PBX phone systems were the gold standard of business telephony. These, at the time, state-of-the-art systems required in-house technology, servers, and physical desk phones for all employees. Many businesses still use these legacy systems, and stand by them for their perceived reliability. It’s true: If internet service (or in some cases power) is disrupted, PBX phone systems will remain operable since they connect directly to a landline.

In order to modernize these legacy systems, some phone service providers will encourage businesses using PBX phones to upgrade to IP-PBX. This hybrid approach keeps the infrastructure of the PBX system (that is to say, onsite servers), but allows users to connect using “softphones” at their work stations.

While IP-PBX software eliminates the need for desk phones, it still comes with the limitations of PBX. Servers require maintenance, and this knowledge gap requires an IT team to compensate. These types of solutions are usually used as a way for enterprise phone system companies to “modernize” their current clients’ infrastructure. The end result is an absence of a physical desk phone without the advantages that come with a fully software-based virtual phone system. Additionally, making adjustments to the phone system—like adding new users and numbers—is difficult.

The newest innovation in softphone technology has been the cloud-based VoIP phone system. Cloud-based solutions completely eliminate the need for onsite servers and physical phones. These business phones are downloadable software applications that can run on multiple devices. This creates a few primary advantages.

Advantages of Cloud-Based Softphones

Cloud-based solutions are not location-dependent. Employees of businesses that have a virtual phone system can work from home so long as they have a reliable internet connection. The cloud has created a revolution in terms of remote work capabilities as well — entire companies are saving on overhead costs by operating a completely remote workforce.

Furthermore, software products are able to communicate with each other in ways that traditional solutions couldn’t. For example, integrations between CRM (customer relationship management) tools and phone systems are commonplace. All calls with customers can be logged and documented automatically.

Accessing call recordings is much easier with cloud-based solutions. In many cases, a link to an online audio file is automatically created after each call and can be stored or shared with ease. This can be used for quality assurance or training purposes.

Adjustments to call routing structures (how incoming calls are categorized and who’s phone rings in what order) were extremely difficult with legacy phone systems. On virtual softphones, this process is as easy as adjusting your email inbox settings. Additional customizations, like an IVR system or personalized voicemail messages, are achievable through the admin dashboard.

These types of adjustments used to take hours of a qualified professional’s time, but with the cloud-based option, they take mere minutes.

How to Switch to a Softphone From Other Systems

Switching to a softphone solution from other legacy systems is simple, particularly if you’re adopting a cloud-based phone.

First off, you won’t need to purchase any specific hardware to accommodate the new system. Cloud-based phones operate either directly in the browser or via a downloadable desktop or mobile application. That being said, if remote work is one of your business goals, it makes sense to invest in laptop computers or other portable devices for your employees.

Another note on equipment: It’s vital that your users have quality headsets and microphones. While your VoIP softphone can use the audio outputs and microphone inputs on any device, the overall call quality will be better if the headset is specifically designed for making IP phone calls. The Jabra 40 is a quality entry-level model for teams looking to make the switch to VoIP.

Many new users of cloud-based phone solutions worry about downtime when switching. They think, “Will I have to switch phone numbers? Will our customers be unable to reach us for any amount of time?”

Transferring Numbers When Switching to Softphone Service

Number porting is a process involving four parties: you, your current provider, your new provider, and a network carrier.

The bad news is: You’ll need to fill out some paperwork. The good news is: Your new phone provider will do a vast majority of the heavy lifting.

All you need to provide is:

  • The name of your current phone provider
  • The name of each number’s account owner
  • A full address associated with each number
  • A copy of the last bill for each number

If you can provide each number’s CSR (Customer Service Record), this document will contain most of the necessary information, thus expediting the process.

From there, all interactions with your legacy phone system will be handled by the new, cloud-based provider. Porting requests will be scheduled with a carrier (e.g. Voxbone or Twilio). This ensures your numbers are officially active and accessible.

Remember, while the process is simpler in many cases than anticipated, number porting isn’t instant. Requests with carriers must be scheduled at least 8 days in advance. This time frame — plus collecting the necessary information — means you should plan on budgeting at least 2 weeks for the full transition.

Softphone Features

If you’re ready to switch to a softphone, there are some essential features you need to consider. Here are our top five must-haves:

  • Voicemail — allows you to record, upload, or write the script for a customized message to greet callers when you’re away.
  • Shared Contact Directory — helps you create and share selected contacts with your team so everyone can follow the conversation.
  • Click to Dial — allows you to save minutes every day by launching calls in the Aircall app with a single click.
  • Call Recording — an easy way to confirm details, monitor quality, and guide training sessions.
  • Power Dialer — allows you to make calls in rapid succession with a powerful sales dialer that automatically adds numbers from any webpage.

To learn more about what features you should look for, check out our comprehensive guide.

Softphone security concerns

Whereas phone system security was a common concern for on-site systems (that is to say, when servers are hosted in your office), VoIP security shouldn’t be a top concern for end users.

Your data and privacy are protected by laws and failsafe measures. Basically, economies of scale are much safer than your individual onsite phone system. Amazon (AWS) and similar hosting companies employ security teams of thousands to make sure their data is protected. Furthermore, software updates are frequent with cloud-based business tools. Your legacy hardphone system isn’t constantly iterating to provide the most up-to-date security possible, but software companies are.

VoIP softphone quality

As mentioned earlier, internet-based services have gathered a reputation for being less reliable or of poorer quality than their legacy counterparts. This may have been true ten-to-fifteen years ago, when technologies weren’t as streamlined as they are today.

That is to say, the internet wasn’t originally designed to send audio or video data via packets. Packets work well for transmitting written data, because delivery is usually completed asynchronously (the data packets aren’t necessarily sent in a “linear” fashion).

However, delays in audio and unclear speech have been largely eliminated from VoIP calls because of improved router technology and greater bandwidth prioritization. Innovations like fiber-optic internet and newer cellular data signals mean that the quality of these IP phone systems will continue to improve.

Also, whenever possible, it’s a good idea to use an ethernet internet connection. Wifi is miles ahead of where it was even 5 years ago, but wires still provide the most stable and reliable connection. If ethernet isn’t an option, it’s best to not move from one end of your office, apartment, or beachfront villa to the other while on the call. Lagging can occur when moving between wifi hotspots, and walls can still be an issue for at-home routers.

Cloud-based softphones integrate with other software tools

The phone has traditionally been a device used in conjunction with other essential business tools, but still disconnected from them. Note taking while on calls was imperfect and cumbersome, plus calls were considered temporary — once you hang up, the conversation is gone forever except for what you could jot down.

Software technologies enable a wide range of possibilities in terms of collaboration and productivity. A cloud-based softphone can connect with nearly every business tool you use to produce faster workflows and less human error. With integrated phone software, you can:

  • Make calls from directly within your CRM
  • Sync call data and notes between applications
  • Enhance customer surveys
  • Assist with sales automation
  • Connect with transcription and AI services

And this is just the beginning. Check out Aircall’s integration app marketplace for a complete idea of what integrated phone software can do.

How softphones enable remote work and flexible office arrangements

The main advantages of a cloud-based softphone all relate to the fact that there isn’t a centralized piece of hardware processing your calls. This means administrators can make easy adjustments to the calls, and agents aren’t required to work from their desks all day.

It also enables work from home possibilities for positions that would otherwise be in-office only, like call center employees.

Using cloud technologies, your business phone system is accessible from anywhere with internet connection, including a home, a coffee shop, a coworking space, or even your mobile device. Call quality won’t be an issue as long as your home router has enough bandwidth to support voice packets. 

Working from home lets businesses continue to operate while offering their employees greater freedom to find solutions that work best for them. Remember: An ethernet connection is always better than wifi, and streaming Netflix while you work will distract from more than just your mental bandwidth. (We’ve compiled some additional relevant work from home tips on the Aircall blog)

Connecting with Aircall

Making the switch to a cloud-based softphone may seem like a daunting task, especially if it’s on short notice. If you’re curious about the process and want to know about additional options, feel free to reach out to us.

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