A phone tree is a menu-driven phone system that routes callers to an extension or person as well as sends messages to a large group of people. Setting up a phone tree is a three-step process that includes drawing out your tree, assigning employees to call groups, and programming the tree into your VoIP system.
How a Phone Tree Works
Before internet phone systems became popular, a phone tree was simply a list of phone numbers you were responsible for manually dialing during an emergency to ensure important messages were quickly disseminated. However, the term “phone tree” now describes a feature set up in VoIP phone systems that automatically routes callers to the destination they are trying to reach, based on predetermined rules you define.
Modern phone trees do this by greeting callers with a series of voice menus. Callers respond to a phone tree’s menu prompts either by pressing phone keys or saying specific words or phrases. The system recognizes these tone presses or phrases and then routes callers based on your programmed rules to the right number or extension. Outgoing emergency phone trees can also be set up, using the same feature, to connect callers without human intervention.
Phone trees are designed to help businesses save money as it minimizes, if not eliminates, the need for a full-time live receptionist. Also, while a phone tree’s auto-attendant may not be as personable as a receptionist, it reduces the risk of a call being sent to the wrong person or wrong department due to operator error.
In addition, it can also minimize leads being sent to voicemail. This is an important benefit as, according to Forbes, 80% of callers sent to a business’ voicemail don’t leave a message. For example, rather than relying on callers to leave a detailed message, phone trees can route calls to an alternate line like a mobile phone when the call is placed outside of regular business hours.
Who a Phone Tree Is Right For
If you have a smaller team, a phone tree can create the impression your business is much larger than it actually is, which can leave a favorable impression in your callers. No one needs to know that your customer service “department” is just you—and that you’re also sales, billing, and technical support. On the other hand, larger organizations benefit from the efficient routing made possible by a phone tree.
Phone Tree Costs
Phone trees are a feature found in many business VoIP phone systems. As such, the price of a phone tree will largely depend on the overall cost of your VoIP provider. Prices can start anywhere from $12.99 per month for systems like Grasshopper, or up to $55 per month for 8×8. For more information on VoIP solutions, check out our guide to business phone systems features.
Phone Tree Providers
Most of the leading VoIP services on the market will allow you to set up and deploy phone trees for your callers. There is a wide range of options available to suit virtually every type of business and budget. For more information about VoIP providers, check out our small business VoIP buyer’s guide.
Vonage is not only one of the best VoIP systems on the market today, it also provides one of the best phone tree builders of any phone system available. Click the link below to start your 14-day free trial.
How to Set Up a Phone Tree
Before programming your phone tree, draw up a rough draft of how you want your voice menu to behave. You will also want to assign your employees to different call groups. After you’ve visualized your phone tree, go into your VoIP service’s administration portal and program the tree. We’ve broken the process down into steps, using Vonage’s settings menu as an example.
There are three important steps to follow when setting up a phone tree:
1. Draw Up the Phone Tree
Before you configure a phone tree in your VoIP system, it’s helpful to draw out a flowchart laying out what sort of options you want to offer your callers. You can either use a program like MS Paint or Canva to perform this step, or draw one by hand on a piece of paper. This flowchart should include key components such as your main greeting, language options, call groups, keypad options, directory, and department extensions.
The common components of a phone tree are defined per the following:
The main greeting will be the first thing that customers and associates hear when they call your organization. This greeting will identify the company so that callers know they’ve dialed the number correctly. It will also provide all of the voice menu options that will list each option that the caller can press at any time. Most VoIP business systems will have one or two different voice options for menus.
It’s a good idea to offer your voice menu in multiple languages so that navigating the voice menu is easier for non-native English speakers. Make this the first voice menu option so that these callers can hear the rest of the menu in their preferred language. Many systems, including Vonage, allow you to configure your voice menu to be in English, Spanish, and other languages.
Sometimes, your customers may call to find out general information, such as store hours or directions. Rather than taking up your staff’s time to answer these routine questions, you can provide that information automatically with your phone menu. Your automated attendant can say “press two for store hours,” and callers can then press two to hear when your business will be open.
The most important part of your phone tree is offering callers an option for reaching different departments in your organization, otherwise known as call groups. In most cases, you’ll want to provide voice menu options to quickly reach your sales and support teams. However, you might also find it useful for your organization’s needs to route callers to departments like accounts payable or sending and receiving.
In addition to routing callers to call groups, a phone tree gives your customers the ability to reach individual employees at your company. This dial-by-name directory can ask callers to enter the three- or four-digit extension they want and quickly be routed to the person they wish to speak with.
2. Assign Employees to Call Groups
Once you have your phone tree drawn into a flowchart, the next thing you should do is note which employees will be part of each call group. This will help when you program your auto-attendant into your VoIP system and have to assign employee extensions to every department. You can either write these assignments in your flowchart bubbles, or as a list below your phone tree.
For the most part, this process will be straightforward: Salespersons should be placed in your sales call group, and customer support agents should be in a support call group. Some systems, like Vonage, will also let you assign one employee to multiple call groups, which can be beneficial in cases where employees float between different departments.
3. Set Up Your Phone Tree in a VoIP System
Once you have your phone tree drawn out and you have figured out what call groups your employees will be part of, it is time to program the voice menu in your business VoIP system. To demonstrate how this is done, we will be using Vonage as an example, but the process will likely be similar whether you have Nextiva, RingCentral, or any other popular VoIP service.
Here is the process of programming a phone tree:
Open the Automated Attendant Menu
Depending on what service you have, your phone tree may be referred to as an automated attendant, voice menu, or virtual receptionist rather than a phone tree. Find this option on your phone system’s management portal to get started. However, if you are using Vonage, simply click the “My Receptionist” icon on the home page or click on the “Phone System” icon at the top of the page and then “Virtual Receptionist” in the navigation pane.
From there, your VoIP system should have an option for adding a new menu. In Vonage’s case, you can click the “Add New” button and select “Advanced Virtual Receptionist” to have full control over menu options.
Configure Phone Tree Settings
The next step in the process is to configure your phone tree options. Use your written chart and call group assignments to guide the options, flow, and scheduling of your automated attendant. You will likely find equivalent options in your VoIP systems, but this is how you would complete the configuration process in Vonage:
Establish your initial settings:
- Name and extension: Specify a unique identifier (usually a department or employee’s name) of up to 30 characters and enter an extension number of between two and six digits. Repeat for every individual in your organization.
- Telephone numbers: Associate one or more phone numbers with your receptionist. By default, your business’ main phone number is listed here as well as any other available phone numbers on your account.
- Try live operator first: Indicate whether calls go directly to the virtual receptionist or ring an extension first. If you send the call to an extension, specify how much time elapses before ringing your receptionist
Next, you will need to define how your calls should be routed. These are also known as your phone tree option settings. For example, you may be able to specify that the system route calls to extensions, virtual receptionists, call groups, call queues, or an outside number from a recorded list of options.
Vonage’s phone tree call handling options and their definitions are as follows:
- Forward to single extension: This allows you to connect to an extension with the option to record a greeting.
- Forward to voicemail: Select this to send to the voicemail of an extension and opt to play a greeting first.
- Play greeting and repeat: This option plays a recorded greeting and gives the customer the option of dialing an extension directly at any time.
- Play greeting once and disconnect: When you select this option, the system plays a recorded greeting once, gives the customer the option to dial an extension, and then disconnects the call.
In addition, Vonage allows you to select play options for your menus such as:
- Dial by name: This instructs the caller to search by entering the first few letters of the person’s first or last name.
- Repeat this menu: When enabled, the phone tree lets the caller hear the menu options again.
- Go to the previous menu: This option returns the caller to the previous menu if you have multiple tiers of menus.
- Do not use this button: You can also set up your system to clear a previous setting for the selected button.
Depending on how your system is set up, you can also enable more advanced options.
Advanced Phone Tree Options
|Advanced Phone Tree Options||Description|
|Record Business Hours Greeting||Lets you record a greeting that advises callers of your regular business hours.|
|After-hours Virtual Receptionist||If you decide to configure separate options for non-business hours, you can specify whether a live operator picks up a call first and where to route the call.|
|Non-business Hours Greeting||This option lets you record a greeting to let callers know that the office is closed.|
|Virtual Receptionist Schedule||You can specify whether the system will use a 24-hour a day, seven-day a week answering service or configure separate options for non-business hours.|
|Manual Schedule Override||This option allows you to bypass the schedule in place and is only available after you set up and save your virtual receptionist.|
Define Scheduling & Complete
If you want your virtual receptionist to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, then your setup is complete. However, if you want to create other voice menu options for off-hours, you can usually configure that in the management console. In Vonage, simply click “configure” and you can further customize your menu based on time and day of the week. Once you are done, click “save” and your phone tree is set up.
How to Make Your Phone Tree More Effective
Now that you know how to create phone trees for your VoIP system, there are some important considerations to make your voice menu effective. According to Harris Interactive, 75% of callers believe that it takes too long to connect with a live person. The primary cause of the wait is often overly-complicated phone trees. We can all relate to the frustration of choosing between a seemingly endless number of options, only to keep hearing more options.
Your business can do the following prevent caller frustration:
- Keep greetings short: Keep your main greeting as brief as possible. Identify the name of your organization, and then immediately give callers the voice options.
- Stick to a single “layer” of menus: Whenever possible, your callers should only be a single option away from connecting to a live person
- Setup a dial-by-name directory: This allows callers to find the specific employee they need to reach by typing their name through the keypad
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Do I need to record my phone tree menu?
Most VoIP phone systems will come with at least one voice for your virtual receptionist. However, Vonage and other vendors also have professionally recorded greetings that you can upload to your phone system. You can also upload your own voice if you think that it sounds professional enough to represent your company.
What is the difference between a phone tree, an automated attendant & a virtual receptionist?
Software providers use different names for phone tree features for marketing purposes. Your VoIP system might refer to a phone tree as an automated attendant or a virtual receptionist, but they are all different terms for what amounts to the same thing.
Are there phone tree templates available?
If you do not have time to draw up your own phone tree, a quick online search can direct you to a wide range of pre-made phone tree templates that can get you up and running. On the other hand, Vonage and other systems are intuitive enough that you can build a simple voice menu in just a few minutes, and you can add more options to it later.
Other than voice menus, do phone trees have other uses?
In addition to greeting callers and voice menus, phone trees can also be configured to send out emergency notifications to a preconfigured list of phone numbers. An example of this would be a company sending out a message to all employees that the office is closed due to inclement weather. These messages can be voice calls, SMS, or both.
An effective phone tree is both comprehensive enough to route callers to all areas of your business while being simple enough that it does not confuse callers. Fortunately, Vonage and other VoIP business systems make building phone trees a simple and relatively painless task.