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Vlad Shmunis, founder and CEO of the cloud communications company RingCentral, says new cloud-based phone technology lets customers take calls, listen to voice mail and send and receive faxes from anywhere.

What is cloud-based technology?

Cloud-based phone systems leverage the power of cloud computing to give customers the functionality of an expensive corporate private branch exchange, or PBX (telephone switching system). In plain English, cloud-based systems are hosted on off-site serversand are provided as a service. Because they don't require customers to buy and maintain expensive telecommunications equipment, they're much more affordable than conventional PBXs. In simple terms, this refers to any switchboard system, and because cloud-based phone technology exists on the Web, it can be accessed from anywhere — a desk phone, a cellphone or even a PC or tablet. Cloud-based phone service lets customers do almost anything on a phone inside and outside the office, enabling greater mobility and flexibility than conventional phone systems allow.

How can a small business afford such services?

Cloud-based phone technology is surprisingly affordable, due in large part to the fact that it's hosted on the Web. Providers use the same technological backbone for all of their customers, so they can take advantage of scale economies in designing and implementing their networks. Cloud-based systems are vastly less expensive than physical PBXs — and they're simpler to use, too. Setting up a virtual PBX is as easy as plugging a VoIP (voice-over Internet protocol)-capable desk phone into an Ethernet line and logging in to your phone-system account on the Web or from your smartphone.

How do these services help create a virtual office?

By using VoIP technology, cloud-based phone services can route calls to any number over the internet — including desk phones, mobile phones, soft phones or home phones. In addition, they include features such as an auto attendant, call answering, call forwarding, online fax, voice mail and intelligent call management. Companies that use cloud-based systems not only project a professional image, but also gain access to enterprise–level telecom features from any device with an Internet connection. It's possible to run a company virtually — to take calls, make calls, listen to voice mail, send faxes faxes from anywhere. Cloud-based phone systems enable business owners to stay connected with customers, suppliers, partners and vendors, whether they're in the office or working remotely.

Give tips in deciding on a provider.

Conduct some online research by checking review sites, social networks and getting recommendations from trusted friends and associates. You can call each provider to find out how they treat customers over the phone. The ideal provider will offer a simple, comprehensive solution with excellent reliability, as well as superb call quality. The service should be easy to set up, intuitive to use and be accessible from Web and mobile devices. Look for signs that customer service is available 24-7 through a variety of channels (phone, online and social networks). Conduct a price and feature comparison to make sure there are no hidden costs for extra functionality.

Twitter@DawnHouseTrib Vlad Shmunis, executive