If you've been looking at business telephone systems and indeed VoIP services, it's more than likely you've come across the term "softphone", as they're part of most, if not all, of the best services available. You probably understand what a softphone is already, but perhaps not all of the features and benefits they can bring to a business.
A softphone is a software app installed on various devices, allowing users to make and receive telephone calls over the internet.
Softphones typically have all of the features you would expect of a desk phone, but with added benefits such as portability. Unlike a desk phone that is tethered to a fixed location, a softphone installed on your laptop or mobile phone can be taken anywhere.
The interface for a softphone typically is in keeping with a traditional telephone, but with added information on display, such as the caller's ID, contact information, contact history, and more.
Alongside the additional calling functions and flexibility, softphones allow users to access all of the other features provided by their business VoIP provider in a single place. These features include team messaging tools, video conferencing, call recording and more.
A softphone will be connected to your business VoIP service via the internet, making it far from a standalone product. So as long as you have a working internet connection, you'll have your business phone service with you.
The best softphones will be compatible with Windows, Mac OS, Android and iOS, and with most of us having at least one of those devices, you.
As a softphone allows you to use your business phone services on your laptop, computer, tablet or mobile, you can eliminate the need to purchase desk handsets at all. This reduces costs while increasing flexibility and giving your team many more features at the same time.
One of the most significant benefits of using softphones is that they reduce costs as it reduces the amount of hardware you need. If you already have a VoIP phone service, adding new users becomes relatively straightforward. Ok, you might need to provide your users with a headset, but aside from that, as long as they have a mobile phone or computer, they'll have a business phone. Softphones make accessing a business phone system inexpensive, which is one of the primary reasons businesses embrace them.
Perhaps more of a benefit of VoIP in general rather than specifically softphones. The fact you're making calls over the internet rather than using traditional landlines or mobile services again significantly reduces your costs, which is emphasised further if you and your business needs to make costly international calls.
Finally, again on the subject of cost reduction, as most softphones are equipped to handle audio and even video conferencing, you'll no longer need to pay for expensive conference room hardware and associated services.
Aside from the inherent cost savings of using softphones and VoIP, they provide several additional benefits to today's increasingly remote workforce. These softphone benefits include:
- Flexibility - take your business phone service with you
- Ease of use and intuitive interface
- Works with existing hardware and software
- No need for a dedicated phone line
- Software is easy to upgrade
- They can be integrated with your CRM
- Future proof and regularly upgraded by the provider
- They eliminate the need for a physical phone
- Quick setup for new users
- Improved productivity
- Video calling from any device
Let's drill down into some of the most prominent benefits to explain how they will give your team the edge over your competitors.
Your softphone will contact both your contact list, but also a global list provided by your company. This means everyone in the company has immediate access to the contact details of the most important individuals, inside and outside of the business. This feature alone saves companies a tremendous amount of time; no more looking up numbers in your CRM than dialling, find a contact, then click to dial.
Softphone clients allow you to see when other team members are online and when they are already on a call or even in a meeting. Instead of trying to call someone and getting a busy tone, you'll know they are already engaged and perhaps can choose to send them an instant message instead if it's something that cannot wait. Presence empowers productive communications by reducing wasted time.
While there are many ways to send text messages or emails, by centralising your communications into a single stream managed through your softphone, you reduce the complexity of your tech stack. Users need less training and spend less time switching between applications, both of which improve productivity and drive down costs.
Video calling has become the norm, especially since the pandemic. With many businesses using disparate systems for their video calls, Zoom or something else introduces another software application that needs paying for and management. A good softphone will allow you to make and receive video calls and host video conferences, removing the need for additional software and, again, centralising systems that reduce maintenance, training, and costs.
Perhaps one of the most appealing benefits that a softphone brings when set up alongside a business VoIP service is portability and flexibility. Employees are no longer tied to their desks; they can take their business phone system with them wherever they are, so long as they have an internet connection. They could be travelling the world and still be receiving calls on their local business number. The key here is the internet connection quality; so long as the internet connection's performance is good enough, users can enjoy almost unlimited flexibility. We predict that as technologies such as 5g are rolled out globally in the coming years, the portability that softphones give users will only become more critical and pronounced.
Once you have your softphone installed on your computer or mobile phone, your voicemail will always be with you. You will get the ability to configure it to your requirements, so if, for instance, you need to nip out for lunch, activate your voicemail for a short period. When you're back, you'll have a list of any missed calls, and indeed any messages received waiting for you on your return.
System management and changes
Unlike traditional phone systems, where you get to choose from a list of specific handsets that are compatible, using VoIP with softphones puts you in the position of not being tied to legacy equipment. Most, if not all VoIP softphones will work with Windows, Mac OS and popular mobile operating systems, so should you decide to switch providers, you won't need to replace lots of handsets; it'll merely be a case of uninstalling the old softphone and replacing it with the new.
Though softphones have significant advantages over desk phones that may become obsolete, there are a few disadvantages to consider when comparing softphones to desk phones.
The most significant disadvantage is that you become very reliant on a single device, meaning that your phone calls will be impacted if you have an issue with your desktop or mobile device. With a separate desk phone, this isn't an issue, as while you may have problems with your computer, you can still carry on making and receiving calls. That said, if you have a softphone client installed on both your desktop and mobile, then perhaps you mitigate this risk, as if one isn't working, the chances are the other will be.
Another consideration is your internet connection and usage on your device of choice. For example, suppose you're a graphic designer or perhaps a video editor who regularly syncs data to the cloud or even has applications like Adobe Photoshop installed, which frequently download enormous updates. In that case, these could impact your telephone calls. By having your voice calls being transmitted from the same device that is perhaps uploading a large amount of data, you're likely to see some degradation in call quality.
As you can see, these two disadvantages of softphones have one thing in common; they are both the result of a reliance on a single device. Both can be mitigated by having backup devices such as mobile phones.
For many businesses, the advantages of softphones far outweigh the disadvantages. Nevertheless, it's essential to be aware of the downsides to having business continuity plans in place to minimise them.
A softphone is essentially a software-based phone, mimicking a desk phone on your computer or mobile device. Along with an onscreen dial pad, users will have access to various call handling tools, such as mute, hold, transfer and more. As softphones are installed on your computer or mobile device, they tend to be far more potent than your average desk phone. Additional features include; chat, video calling, conferencing, voicemail management, SMS capabilities and more. A softphone is your gateway to unified communications.
How do they work technically?
When you make or receive calls with a traditional desk phone, the sound is transmitted over a network of wires and ultimately across the internet. Smartphones, however, send electrical signals back to telephone masts and then onto a network of cables.
Whether installed on your computer or mobile phone, softphones use the internet to connect back to your VoIP service, which then connects your call to its ultimate destination. As softphones need to connect to your VoIP service over the internet, you'll need either a good wireless connection or high-speed broadband to make and receive calls. You'll also need a device with internet access, a speaker and either a built-in microphone or a headset.
Analogue to digital conversion
For sound waves to be transmitted over the internet, it needs to be converted into a digital signal. In this example, it's your softphone that performs that conversion. Once your voice has been converted into digital packets, it's relatively straightforward for those packets to be transmitted over the internet. Once received by another phone service, the packets are converted back into sound waves so that the receiving individual can listen and indeed respond to what's being said. This is all happening in milliseconds, across national and even global computer networks; it's impressive.
A term you will likely encounter when looking at VoIP is SIP, which is short for Session Initiation Protocol. If you have an onsite VoIP phone system, you'll probably also have SIP trunks, and if you have a cloud-based VoIP phone system, your provider will be using SIP to initiate your calls.
SIP is a network protocol used to connect calls; other protocols are then used to transfer the packets containing voice data.
SIP is seen as a flexible protocol that has significant advantages and depth. At its core, it is a general-purpose way to set up real-time multimedia sessions between participants. For example, SIP can set up video calls or instant messaging conferences in addition to simple telephone calls.
In time, we'll create a guide that further explains the technicalities and benefits of SIP, but hopefully, you now know enough in the context of softphones.
Increasingly, softphones are compatible with various devices, such as computers, laptops, tablets or phones. Indeed, it doesn't matter what operating system your device has, and most softphones will work with the device of your choosing. The key with softphones is making sure you have a good microphone and headphone for the calls. Whilst you can use the inbuilt microphone of your chosen device, we'd usually recommend looking at a dedicated headset to give you the very best performance and call quality.
The softphone apps available with our Horizon platform are compatible with Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, which means that in most cases, your users won't need a handset as they already have one of these devices.
Integration with other applications
Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of using a softphone over a traditional desk phone is the broad range of integration options available. Modern softphones can integrate seamlessly with the other tools your team are already using, such as:
- Email clients like Microsoft Outlook
- Popular CRMs
- Web browsers such as Chrome, Safari and Edge
- With more being added all the time
By integrating your softphone with your email client and CRM, you immediately enhance productivity, connect previously disconnected systems, and create what is genuinely and an environment of unified communications.
Softphones all look alike so much that a dial pad is central to the user experience. Dialpad aside, how a softphone looks will vary from platform to platform.
As we've explained, our Horizon softphone interface starts with a dial pad, but as you can see, there are various options in addition to that. On the left-hand side, you can access both your call history and your contact list, and along the top are a variety of additional features to choose from. It's important to note that the interface shown is the simple soft client we provide customers. If you opt for our Horizon Collaborate service, you will have even greater functionality and integration with your other desktop applications.
Softphones are undoubtedly most useful for businesses as it's in an industry where we are more focused on reducing costs and maximising efficiency. To give you an example, your team will no longer need to share their mobile numbers with others; they'll also be available on their business phone number, regardless of their location. That saves both your team's and your customer's time, as you no longer need to try multiple numbers to reach someone. You have one number for each person, significantly streamlining operations. This, of course, is just one example of the benefits softphones bring to businesses.
When you're considering which VoIP service to use, and if you recognise that softphone functionality is essential to you and your business, then these are some of the features you should look out for:
- Presence (shows other team member's availability)
- Real-time chat
- Video and audio conferencing
- Video calling and screen sharing
- Call history
- Contact management
- Live notifications
- Voicemail management
- Caller ID
- Do not disturb
- Auto dialling capabilities
- CRM integration
- One-click calling
As we've already explained, softphones are merely software applications that have been installed on your desktop and/or your mobile device. Installing a softphone is a case of downloading the required software and then following the installation instructions. You will need certain details, such as your unique username and password, but installation is typically straightforward and largely automatic.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does a softphone work?
A softphone converts your voice into an electronic signal and then sends it across the internet via your hosted PBX. It works much like a desk phone, albeit the software is running on your computer or smartphone rather than a handset.
With softphones now being adopted en masse, many companies provide their employees with headsets that can work with softphones rather than traditional desk phones.
What does a softphone look like?
A softphone looks like a dial pad on a normal desk phone, albeit with some additional buttons and more display information.
How do you use as a softphone?
You use a softphone as you would a desk phone, albeit you'll hear through your computer's speakers and take via the microphone. You can opt for a headset, which makes the experience even better.
If you're comfortable using a phone, as soon as you see a softphone interface you'll know how to use it.
What's the best softphone?
With so many providers having their softphones, there isn't a current "best". We'd suggest that rather than comparing softphones, you should look at VoIP providers' cloud-based VoIP services and see how they compare.