Virtual numbers are allowing businesses to forget about having a business phone system while still having a phone number customers can call.
Virtual phone numbers, programmed to strictly forward calls to other phone lines, offer a variety of benefits, including letting remote employees maintain a business phone line and allowing businesses to have a local presence anywhere in the world, regardless of their location.
"A virtual number is one that is not attached to a piece of hardware," said Phillip Jones, vice president of telephony services for virtual number provider Vumber. "Calls are forwarded to existing phone lines, smartphone apps or just to a voicemail box."
Virtual phone number for a local presence
In recent years, many businesses have started using virtual phone numbers in conjunction with their regular phone system to give themselves a presence in cities and countries other than the one they call home.
"A virtual phone number provides businesses with a local presence and eliminates long-distance toll charges for anyone calling within that number's area code," said Tina Liu, senior product marketing manager for VoIP phone system provider 8x8.
For example, a New York City-based business wanting to attract customers in Philadelphia could get a virtual number with that city's 215 area code rather than sticking with their usual 212 number. Calls made to the 215 number are instantly transferred to their main business phone – even though it has a different area code. [See Related Story: RingCentral Review: Best Virtual Phone System]
Jones said this benefits businesses because customers are more likely to call a local number and answer a local number when called by one.
"Instantly provisioning a local number in any city in the U.S. is an extremely powerful marketing tool," Jones said.
Zach Everson is the founder of Derby Home Rental, which advertises homes for rent in Louisville the weekend of the Kentucky Derby. He launched the business while living in Louisville but moved to Washington, D.C., a few years ago and said having a virtual number allows him to maintain the local Louisville area code (502) despite living a few hundred miles away.
"Louisville homeowners want to work with someone who knows their city, and having a 502 area code helps in that regard," Everson said.
In addition to virtual numbers for other U.S. cities, businesses can get virtual international numbers. Anna O'Toole, a digital analyst for hmWorks, said this option has been especially valuable to her company, which has employees and customers dispersed across multiple countries.
"A potential customer could be calling [our virtual number] in one country and actually might end up speaking to someone in a completely other country for the expertise they need," O'Toole said, adding that this is a large cost savings for the customer, because the customer is calling a local number rather than an international one.
Virtual phone systems
Instead of using virtual numbers in conjunction with their VoIP phone systems, some businesses are employing an entire virtual phone system. These are extensive call-forwarding solutions that route calls from a main business phone number to employees' mobile and home phones.
The most well-known version of this is Google Voice, which provides a free virtual phone number to a Google account holder.
The difference between a physical phone system and a virtual phone system is that since virtual systems work with an existing phone, businesses don't have to purchase, install or maintain expensive phone hardware, said Taylor Aldredge, ambassador of buzz for virtual phone system provider Grasshopper.
With these systems, a business purchases one main number and assigns employees their own extension. When a customer dials the main business line – a virtual number – the call is answered by an autoreceptionist and transferred to the extension of the employee the customer is trying to reach. In addition to transferring calls to employees working inside the business office, the system can route calls to mobile or home phones when employees are working remotely.
T-Mobile launched its DIGITS program, which makes its mobile phone numbers completely virtual. A DIGITS number can work with any mobile device through its app, regardless of phone type or mobile carrier. In turn, the app can have access to multiple phone numbers. The company says this program eliminates the need for employees to carry multiple mobile devices for business and personal phone numbers.
The program is customizable to the user who can choose to have one phone number ring multiple devices, whether it's their phone, tablet or smartwatch. DIGITS, like other virtual number programs, means that mobile numbers are no longer tied down to one device. The drawback for users is that calls and texts going through an app on a mobile device tied to another carrier, draws from that device's mobile plan.
"The [virtual phone system] allows them to not be chained to a desk for a work phone call," Aldredge said.
Virtual systems have the added benefit of offering a wide range of features found in a VoIP or landline phone system. That includes autoreceptionists, voicemail, music on hold, conference calling, call screening, voicemail-to-email and online faxing.
"You're using the [virtual] phone system for the exchange and call-routing features that you get with a physical phone system," Aldredge said.
Since he has employees that work in other cities and locally outside the office, Chris Post, CEO and founder of Post Modern Marketing, said a regular phone system made little sense for his company.
"We liked how we could all have the same main number but [have] each extension go to our team member's choice of communication platform," Post said. "Everything from their cellphone to a Google Voice number to a Skype phone number."
While Aldredge acknowledges it depends on the makeup of a business, he said small businesses that don't want to spend money installing and maintaining a full-fledged phone system can benefit the most from a virtual system.
"I think it's very circumstantial, but small businesses, above all, stand to gain the most because of the cost-saving benefits," he said.
How to get a virtual phone number or system
Virtual numbers can be purchased several ways. Businesses that already have a VoIP phone system can add virtual numbers to their service package via their current provider. This typically costs between $5 and $10 per month per number.
There are several services that only sell virtual numbers. With these services, businesses can purchase a virtual number to work in conjunction with a mobile or home phone.
Businesses can purchase mobile phone lines with T-Mobile's DIGITS that are talk-and-text-only lines, which allows employees to answer and makes calls with their business number on their personal mobile device.
For example, sole proprietors working from home can buy one virtual number and program it to forward all calls to a home line. This maintains privacy while saving the cost of purchasing a whole separate business phone line. These types of virtual numbers can be purchased for as little as $2.50 per month.
There are also providers that offer entire virtual phone systems. With each of these, you purchase a package that includes at least one virtual number and an allotted number of extensions and minutes.
Minutes are incurred based on how long you're talking on the "business line." For example, if a customer calls a business using a virtual phone system and is transferred to an employee's extension, minutes are used for the call's duration.
Depending on the service, plans range from $10 to $12 per month for one or two virtual numbers (and 300 to 500 minutes) to $25 to $50 per month for up to two virtual numbers (and between 2,000 and 3,000 minutes).
If you think a virtual phone system is right for you, we encourage you to check out our choices for the best virtual phone systems for businesses with a remote workforce. If our choice doesn't work for you, check out our best business phone systems roundup page, which has a comprehensive list of both VoIP and virtual phone system providers.