What are virtual phone numbers?

Virtual phone numbers (or virtual numbers) are telephone numbers that exist without an associated physical telephone line or a sim card. They offer a variety of benefits over conventional telephone numbers.

For instance, virtual numbers use the internet to make and receive calls. They can be used on any device such as a computer, mobile phone or a telephone (and are typically associated with a virtual phone system). With virtual phone numbers, you can make and receive calls from anyone, anywhere in the world, just like you would with a telephone but without the hassle of wires or lines.

How were things before virtual phone numbers?

Take someone like Freida, owner of a small and growing business. She has customers who are not in her country and a few employees who use desk phones to make and receive calls. She is also looking to expand her business. However she faces certain challenges preventing her from building the business of her dreams.

Since Freida has customers abroad, international call charges are already burning a hole in her pocket and it is only going to increase as she gains more customers.

It is now clear that if Freida wants to expand her business, she has to opt for a business phone system with international calling capability and one that will support her as she scales.  Her first option is to go for an on-premise phone system, as this is something businesses have used for decades.

With an on-premise phone system, she would have to physically draw telephone lines. She will also have to buy and maintain more hardware. Adding more features like call routing, forwarding and auto-receptionist to handle her call loads would mean setting up a complete phone system in her office consisting of servers, cables and network cards. These occupy a lot of space, take time to set up and are expensive.

For small business owners like Freida, who are looking for flexibility and a cost-effective solution, an on-premise solution is not practical.

What does she do now?

Era of the cloud

This is where virtual phone numbers and virtual phone systems come in. They are especially advantageous for small businesses looking to grow. They can help businesses become more efficient, cut their costs significantly and do away with the clutter and hardware attached to old telephone systems.

There are different types of virtual numbers, each with a specific purpose. Let’s understand how we can use them to do better business.

The types of virtual phone numbers

Local Numbers

With local virtual numbers, you could be located in the US, get a number in Australia, use it to make and receive calls. Since this is a local number in Australia, despite being situated in the US, you will be charged only at local rates.

The greatest advantage of local virtual numbers is that it removes all regional barriers. Businesses use them to connect better with customers and to cut down on international call charges.

Parts of a phone number | Country code - Area code - Exchange code - Subscriber number

Parts of a phone number

Toll-free Numbers

As the name suggests — ‘toll-free’ — calls to these numbers are free of cost, they start with any of the prefixes — 800, 855, 866, 877, or 888. They are paid by the receiver and hence all calls to this number are free for the caller.

Potential buyers and customers are more likely to call a number when they know they will not be charged for it. Businesses usually have a toll-free number to encourage people to call them.

Vanity Numbers

Let’s say Freida is a retail florist — she may want a number that conveys the kind of business she has. This is possible with vanity numbers, her business number can be 1-800-FLOWERS. This ensures that once people look at her number, they know exactly what her business is about.

Vanity numbers are usually a mixture of numbers and words. They can also be plain numbers, in that case it is usually a repetition of digits, these are mostly used by taxi or food delivery companies. For example — 241 pizza (two pizzas for the price of one) — a pizza restaurant has the number 241-0-241.

Vanity numbers are for a very specific purpose — easy recall. If you use a vanity number chances are people will remember you better thus translating to more calls for your business. They also serve as a good marketing strategy for businesses. Vanity numbers are mostly toll-free numbers.

Why get virtual phone numbers

Appear and sound like a pro

For most customers, the first contact they have with a business is over the phone. It is therefore important for small businesses to appear professional and establish trust. Like mentioned earlier, virtual numbers are used in conjunction with virtual phone systems — with these you can direct incoming calls to auto receptionist or voicemails, forward to particular teams or route calls to an external number.

They are operated over the internet and all data is present on the cloud. By giving smaller businesses a professional outlook, it bridges the gap between small and big businesses.

Get rid of your hardware

Virtual phone numbers allow you to operate without the clunky hardware that comes along with on-premise phones. When you get a virtual phone number you can use it along with your existing phones, computers or even mobiles without being tied to desk phones or telephone lines, allowing you to operate from anywhere. This provides great flexibility and can come in handy if you are a growing business.

Call international at local rates

Consider Freida, if she wants to expand her business outside her country, she would have to spend a lot on international call charges. Even if people are interested in her business, they may hesitate to call a number belonging to another country fearing call charges.

If she buys a virtual number in a different country, she can call at local rates, translating to significant savings. At the same time, her customers would be more comfortable calling a local number.

Establish a local presence without a physical presence

People are usually skeptical about picking up calls from international numbers as they fear incoming call charges. Local virtual numbers eliminate this problem by helping businesses develop a local presence without having to set up a physical office. Calling from a number belonging to the customers’ region also helps establish trust.

How to get virtual phone numbers

Most businesses wouldn’t buy virtual numbers individually, they would require a business phone system software. When that is the case, numbers are bought through the software. You can choose the country you want to buy a number in and start using it immediately as well.

Calls are usually charged on a per minute basis and number charges vary depending on the type of virtual number you want to buy.

Through a virtual phone system, all numbers — toll-free or local — can be managed from one place. This helps the business keep track of the different numbers they have.

If you, however, want to get individual virtual numbers, there are providers that sell only numbers. You can buy a virtual number and configure it to work with the device of your choice. You can even use multiple virtual phone numbers on one device or use the same number from different devices.

How to get a virtual phone number for free

Most websites that claim to offer free virtual phone numbers are scams, so be wary of them. Having said that Google voice offers a free virtual phone number within the United States only, however, keep in mind, it is only the number that is ‘free’, call charges still apply.

Google Voice is also not built for businesses, it lacks basic features that a business would require. For example, there is no way to buy toll-free numbers or monitor calls.

Someone like Freida, who has an expanding business, would be better off with a Google Voice alternative.

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Virtual phone numbers act like telephone numbers but without the fuss that comes with setting up traditional telephone systems. Virtual numbers are device-independent, they can be configured to work with a mobile phone or computer.

There are also different types of virtual numbers, each with a specific purpose. We also looked at ways on how you can buy a virtual number.

Earlier businesses invested huge sums of money in setting up and maintaining on-premise phone systems, there is no need for that now, as all of it has moved to the cloud.

Business teams would require features like smart escalations to redirect calls to other teams or to an external number when they are unavailable. There must also be an efficient way to manage the phone system, features like real-time dashboard and call monitoring can help in this regard. Virtual phone systems can provide these features and more.

Thanks to virtual phone systems (and numbers) Freida can get her phone center up and running in a matter of minutes, give her business a global reach and expand freely as per her needs. She can now focus on what really matters to her — doing business.

Illustrations by Nikhil Kanda.