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Microsoft 365 Business Voice - Review 2021

Microsoft introduced Microsoft 365 Business Voice as an add-on to its very popular Microsoft Teams platform early in 2020. This voice over IP (VoIP) add-on is available through Microsoft 365 or Microsoft 365 Business, previously known as Office 365. Some might dismiss it as a pared-down bolt-on VoIP solution for Teams, but we found both its features and Microsoft’s integration efforts to be excellent, especially with Teams, but also with the rest of Microsoft 365. Some unwieldy setup choices and a cap on both calling plans and users is most of what keeps this offering behind our Editors’ Choice winners in the VoIP category, including offerings like RingCentral Office and Intermedia Unite.

This product delivers all the features you would expect from a small business VoIP solution, including auto attendants, call queues, group calling, and the added bonus of deep integration into the Microsoft ecosystem. However, the gateway to that integration must begin with Teams. Since Microsoft Teams has slowly worked its way into the critical productivity app category for many organizations, especially those coping with large numbers of work-from-home employees during the pandemic, this isn’t too harsh of a prerequisite. However, both Teams and Microsoft 365 will be factors when you calculate the solution’s overall cost for your organization.

Microsoft Teams client view with Business Voice enabled

Microsoft Teams Pricing and Plans

As an add-on to Teams, you might expect it to focus mainly on software with an emphasis on mobile, but Microsoft took pains to make sure this platform would work in a standard office environment, too. To prove it, the company provided us with a Yealink MP56, a fairly standard VoIP-compatible desktop phone. While SIP support was somewhat custom for this desktop phone, so was a Microsoft Teams certification. Microsoft has a list of Teams-certified devices on its website, and the company emphasizes that this certification is important to ensure the best experience.

What this means for pricing is that aside from having to pay for specific hardware (should that be a requirement), you’ll also need a Microsoft 365 subscription. The company offers a wide range of plan options, starting at $5 per user per month. That’s for Microsoft 365 Business Basic, which includes web and mobile versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Pricing for Microsoft 365 Business Voice is currently a single $20 fee on top of any Microsoft 365 plan, but there are two key limitations. First, there’s the number of minutes, which is fixed at 3,000 per month. That works out to 50 hours per month, which might sound like enough, but could easily be a factor for voice-heavy roles like customer support or sales. Microsoft should look to expand this constraint. The other limitation is the number of licenses, which tops out at 300. That restricts Microsoft 365 Business Voice to being a small to midsized business (SMB) solution, unless the customer is willing to juggle multiple accounts.

This means it can’t compete with enterprise-oriented offerings, like Editors’ Choice winner, RingCentral or Vonage Business Cloud, but instead seeks to compete with SMB-oriented offerings, like Intermedia Unite or 8×8’s X Series. Purely on price-per-feature, Microsoft 365 Business Voice doesn’t compare overly well against these SMB-oriented competitors, though it’s not bad. But for companies that are already steeped in Microsoft Teams, its price and its ease of use will make it an extremely attractive option, especially now that its abilities are being enhanced.

Microsoft 365 Business Voice call settings screen shot

The Microsoft Voice Portfolio

From 2020 through 2021, Microsoft has made several announcements and releases around enhancing Teams as well as its VoIP, video conferencing, and collaboration technologies. So it’s worth describing where Microsoft 365 Business Voice fits in, especially since there is another technology being touted by Microsoft Azure, called Azure Communications Services (ACS) that also offers many of the same voice capabilities as Teams with Microsoft 365 Business Voice. And, of course, there are still instances of Skype for Business floating around, though Microsoft has announced that Teams will eventually supplant Skype for business users.

As far as Microsoft 365 Business Voice versus ACS goes, the short explanation is that Business Voice is a user-facing application that delivers voice capability to Microsoft Teams subscribers, while ACS is a series of Azure voice and collaboration services aimed at application developers who’ve standardized on the Azure stack and wish to add those technologies to their applications. While they’re based on some of the same Microsoft core technologies, ACS is largely targeting help desk and similar menu-driven voice applications. That means it’s focused on developers working on scenarios like app-to-app, browser-to-app, and browser-to-browser communication. It also integrates with the Azure Bot Service, which is Azure’s smart chatbot offering. That means a typical ACS app might be a smart IVR or chat experience for service desks or sales departments.

Business Voice, on the other hand, is a user-facing set of VoIP capabilities that’s fully integrated into Microsoft Teams, essentially turning Teams into a cloud PBX for smaller companies. However, Microsoft is extending Business Voice’s capabilities in a different direction than some the other players in this roundup through its Teams Displays, especially now that Teams has implemented support for a SIP gateway.

Early in 2021, Microsoft announced it was placing a full SIP gateway into the Microsoft Teams public preview. That meant that straight telephony features, like call transfer, device-based do not disturb, and inbound and outbound calling would become easier over SIP-compliant hardware, meaning desk handsets. At the time of the announcement, Microsoft listed specific handsets that would support its gateway, including Cisco IP phones with multi-platform firmware, Polycom’s VVX series, and Yealink’s T20-T50 series. The addition of SIP will also help enhance the capabilities of Microsoft Teams displays.

Team Displays, like the Lenovo ThinksSmart View, are smart speakers Lenovo developed specifically for Microsoft Teams and they’re aimed at business desktops. Essentially, they’re speaker phones with a full-color touch display that not only support voice, but also video calling and virtual meeting features. They even have Cortana with voice control, so users can ask questions, like “Cortana, what’s today’s weather forecast?”

For its part, Microsoft 365 Business VoIP is aimed purely at equipping Teams users with voice capabilities through the Teams app interface, and that’s what we’ve tested here. The Microsoft SIP gateway, once it’s released out of the Public Preview, will extend Business Voice to a growing list of compatible hardware, which will help Teams better compete with full-on cloud PBXes. However, the preview version with the SIP gateway was unavailable at the time of this review, so we were unable to test it this time around.

Microsoft Teams User Voice Experience

Even without SIP support, however, Microsoft 365 Business Voice gets a big a leg up through its Teams partnership. As you might expect, Teams has received a huge amount of interest recently due to the many companies supporting work-from-home scenarios during the pandemic. Teams and similar platforms, such as Slack, have become the inter-office communications backbone for many businesses, so using that foundation for voice makes much more sense than when everyone was working in a centralized office space.

For existing users, adding the Microsoft 365 Business Voice option into Teams is a no-brainer. It just feels natural if you have used Teams for any length of time. Without SIP, Microsoft Teams still supported several VoIP handsets and hardware devices, though with somewhat limited features. We tested it with Yealink UH36 USB Wired Headset and found it more than adequate. Calls made through Teams with this headset were clear and crisp even on a non-segmented network.

Having direct access to your contact list from Microsoft Outlook increases convenience and productivity when you need to connect with someone outside your company. Just a single click can initiate a call or Teams conference. For contacts inside your company you have a wide range of options for communication. The presence indicator saves time if you just need to exchange a quick chat message with a coworker.

The Microsoft Teams mobile client handles everything the desktop client does from your phone or tablet. We tested teams on both an Android phone and Apple iOS using an iPad Pro. Both experiences were well-designed for these respective operating systems, and while they didn’t have all the functionality of the desktop client, they delivered what you would expect from a mobile platform and did so in a consistent way across operating environments. The key here is making it possible to continue your work communications on a personally-owned device, which is certainly doable using Microsoft 365 Business Voice.

Microsoft 365 Business Voice auto attendant settings screen shot

Microsoft 365 Business Voice System Administration

All administrative functions happen from the admin.teams.microsoft.com website. With the administration page open, you have access to all the features administrators will need, including control over who can access which features, reporting, and user management. These capabilities don’t need to be managed on a user-by-user basis, either. Microsoft uses its Active Directory experience to let administrators manage security features and user access through policies they can aim at specific user groups. Those can be organized around practically anything, like job role, geographic location, or even what kind of device is being used. You can also use policies to grant control over things like meetings, live events, and conference bridges.

Creating a call attendant consists of answering a series of questions to set the default actions for each function. This includes prescribing a call flow to determine how each call will be answered and handled. This can be playing an audio file or specific message. It also covers creating a menu of options that let the caller help route their call to the right resource. Unfortunately, we found that setting business hours is much more tedious than in most of the other products we looked at, notably those that are ease-of-use-focused, like Freshcaller. That’s because you have to set the start and end times individually for each day of the week.

Reporting capabilities include the standard call usage and call quality reports you need to gauge the performance of a VoIP system. The Call Quality Dashboard is a separate part of the Teams administration function with both standard default reports and the ability to create your own. Links to Microsoft’s Power BI platform using the Microsoft Call Quality Connector present an opportunity to go deeper into your organization’s voice data metrics than most of the other products in this review.

Microsoft 365 Business Voice call quality dashboard screen shot

Other Key Features

As you might expect, Microsoft has a long list of applications that integrate with Microsoft Teams. While the majority of these are not currently voice related, that will change as more developers build third-party apps around ACS.

When you evaluate other vendors in the VoIP space you will find most providing some type of integration with Microsoft 365. That puts some pressure on Microsoft to ensure that its own solution has the best integration with its own product, and it seems the company has worked hard to make that true. Teams fully supports other offerings like those from Atlassian and Salesforce. They also provide tools to evaluate specific kinds of voice workloads and then provide recommendations for roll-out and implementation.

Flexible But Not for Everyone

All that said, Microsoft 365 Business Voice is definitely not designed as a solution for everyone. This first iteration of the product is notably aimed at general-purpose VoIP for smaller organizations that invested in Microsoft Teams. For those organizations, this solution is fantastic and a no-brainer to implement.

However, companies that are looking for a sales- or support-oriented solution with features like call parking, administration for large numbers of operators, or similar call center-style capabilities will wind up looking for workarounds as advanced versions of these features aren’t yet part of the solution. While the upcoming SIP gateway as well as the addition of more third-party ACS apps may change this over time, those looking for large-scale VoIP implementations will likely not be looking at Business Voice.

On the plus side, Microsoft has really done a good job integrating both teams and Business Voice with the rest of its software portfolio. Not only does it go deep with the core apps of Microsoft 365, like Outlook and Word, it’s also got access to the extended family of Microsoft productivity solutions, including Power BI and the various Microsoft development environments, especially ACS. That means rolling your own customized instance of Microsoft 365 Business Voice has many more options and certainly more robust tools than you’ll find with most VoIP competitors.

If you’re willing to put in some significant work, this platform presents excellent customization possibilities on top of a fairly robust, general-purpose VoIP offering that’s easy to implement out of the box. If you’re not willing to put in the work, there’s probably a Microsoft partner willing to do it or perhaps already offering what you’re looking for as a value-add solution. But if you’re looking for a large-scale communications solution you can deploy immediately, Microsoft 365 Business Voice probably isn’t it.

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