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Updated Mar 28, 2024

What Are Multiline Phone Systems?

Learn how to improve communications and optimize your entire business with a phone system that's capable of handling multiple calls simultaneously.

Mark Fairlie
Mark Fairlie, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Most businesses need a business phone system that can handle more than one call at a time. When you have multiple employees, you want them to be able to make or receive calls as needed, regardless of whether someone else is on a call. Customers should never get a busy signal when trying to call your business, either. That’s why most companies need some form of multiline phone system. 

Editor’s note: Looking for the right business phone system for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

What is a multiline phone system?

A multiline phone system is any telephonic connection that allows the simultaneous use of two or more lines. In fact, you probably already have one. Many mobile phones already support multiple lines to hold calls, switch between callers, and have a conference with up to three people. 

But what happens when you need more lines to support a larger workforce? That’s when the situation becomes more complicated. But it may also prompt you to help your business become more efficient, especially when you need fast, friendly customer service. 

With the right kind of multiline phone system, you can build a private, secure and cost-effective contact center.

How does a multiline phone system work?

A multiline phone system creates a network with an individual line for each employee. You can set up each line so that customers and suppliers have a dedicated number they can use to reach the specific person they’re trying to contact. 

The handsets you use for your phone system also make a difference. Some handsets can support multiple lines on their own or have multiple lines installed for each phone. 

Another route is a private branch exchange (PBX) line. With a PBX multiline phone system, calls are routed through the main line so the office can screen and redirect calls as they come in. A PBX system can be automated, in which it offers specific prompts and extensions to guide callers to the right representatives. Alternatively, to provide more personal service, you can employ a receptionist to direct clients to the person they’re trying to contact.

>> Learn more: What Is Interactive Voice Response (IVR)?

How do traditional and cloud-based multiline phone systems differ?

Traditional and cloud-based multiline phone systems rely on different technologies, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Traditional multiline phone systems

Traditional telephone systems rely on physical copper-wine landline connections. You need a representative or engineer from your local telephone company to come to your premises to install and configure your multiline system. However, having multiple, dedicated landlines in the same location can be costly, as each line has a monthly line rental. [Related article: Choosing a Business Phone System]

Landline-based traditional multiline phone systems have some limitations. Although they’re excellent for audio-only interactions, they’re not always suitable for more advanced forms of communication. They struggle with video conferencing and text communications, especially compared with more modern Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems. 

In addition, landline-based networks might become overloaded if you have a limited number of lines, thereby preventing your customers from connecting with your business. You can use services to put callers on hold while representatives go through the queue, but options like these come at an added cost.

Cloud-based phone systems

A cloud-based PBX like VoIP uses the internet to establish a telephone connection rather than relying on traditional landlines. One benefit of a VoIP system for a small business is that it lowers the cost of communication. Because a cloud-based phone system offers the flexibility to use multiple kinds of devices to make a call, including a desktop or laptop computer, you don’t need to buy dedicated telephone hardware. That keeps your operating expenses down.

Bottom LineBottom line
A cloud-based phone system lowers your expenses because you can use your computer to make calls and don’t need dedicated telephone hardware.

One of the major selling points of a cloud-based system is that you can create new numbers on the fly and scale up the system as your organization grows. All it takes is a few clicks from your system administrator to set up a number for each new employee. And because calls can be taken from a computer or even a mobile device, a cloud-based system enables your team to send multiple types of files and messages, even while on the go. 

One reason some businesses still prefer traditional landlines is that any cloud-based phone system relies on a high-speed broadband internet connection. That can become a problem in remote areas or regions with spotty or outdated internet services. Even with strong internet service, you may face bandwidth issues that lead to problems with audio fidelity or dropped calls.

FYIDid you know
There is a third type of PBX: a hybrid system using SIP trunking. These systems are used by companies with traditional PBX hardware on premises and allow access to some cloud PBX features, like easy remote access and integration with a customer relationship management system. Although hybrid systems cost more than cloud-only systems, many companies like hybrid PBXs for their greater degree of customization and control.

Types of multiline phone systems

It’s pretty simple to figure out how many phone lines you need: Just add up how many employees need a dedicated line, how many shared lines you need, and how many lines you need for fax machines or automated reception services.  

Once you know what you need, these are your options:

Two-line phones

Two-line phone systems are common among entrepreneurs who are opening their first business. Many people who work from home now also use two-line phone systems so they have a business number that is separate from their personal number. This allows them to prioritize calls and add a more professional touch for customers and clients.

Two-line phone systems are typically used by contract or gig workers, small offices and businesses, and one-person operations that regularly receive a moderate volume of calls. 

>> Learn more: What Is a Virtual Phone Number?

Four-line phones

A four-line phone system might be the right choice for a small or midsize business with a dedicated team that works in an office and answers customer calls regularly. For example, if your company has a sales team, along with an accounts payable team or other support personnel, a four-line phone system would be a good option because it provides dedicated lines for employees who need them and shared lines or a fax line for the rest of the team. 

Four-line phone systems are also ideal for midsize contact centers and receptionists who must put calls on hold and route them through an office. 

Six-line phones and beyond

Larger businesses should consider a six-line phone system (and beyond). For example, a creative services production agency may need a dedicated phone line for a fax machine, a phone line for the project manager, and a line for each team member to provide quick responses to various requests. As your business grows, so do large-scale multiline phone system options. VoIP offers the most scalability. 

Did You Know?Did you know
Modern VoIP systems are built to scale. One reason they’re so flexible is that it’s possible to add new lines to desktop and laptop computers, cellphones and other devices. This is possible through downloadable softphone apps that connect these devices to your business VoIP network.

What features should you look for in a multiline phone system?

You’ll find these features in most multiline system offers from telephone providers:

Caller ID

With caller ID included in your multiline phone system, you can screen any call and see the name and number displayed on your desk phone. This is particularly handy for filtering out spam calls. 

Volume control

Volume control allows you to find a comfortable volume while you’re on the phone.

Voicemail

A voicemail system takes messages from customers when no one has picked up the phone so you can get in touch with them later. 

“Message waiting” indicator

It’s easy to forget to check your messages. That’s where a “message waiting” indicator can help. Whether it’s a light on a handset or an icon on a screen, an indicator can ensure your team takes quick action on missed calls. 

Headset compatibility

A headset is a lifesaver when you need to use both hands to assist a customer or take notes during a meeting. Some multiline phone systems include a physical port on the hardware, but many telephones also have Bluetooth compatibility for wireless headsets. Whichever type you get, a phone that can support a hands-free headset will allow your team to multitask and provide efficient service to clients and customers.

Do not disturb

Interruptions can be highly inconvenient during an important conference call with a key client. However, a do-not-disturb feature can help you avoid unnecessary disruptions during a sales pitch.

Auto-attendant

Businesses that receive high volumes of inbound calls will benefit from an auto-attendant feature, which routes calls from a central number to the right people. You might see the term “multilevel auto-attendant” when selecting a multiline phone system for your business. This allows you to present further options to callers once they’ve made their initial selection. For example, if someone pressed 3 for accounts, you could then prompt them to press 1 for accounts payable and 2 for accounts receivable.

Conferencing

A phone system with a conferencing feature allows you to talk to multiple people simultaneously. This capability is great for business meetings with employees in various locations.

Inclusive installation charges

Some multiline phone systems include installation in the price to make sure everything’s connected properly. 

Customer support

Access to a customer support line ensures a quick resolution and continuous operation for your business in the event of a problem. 

>> Learn more: Types of Phone Systems for Small Businesses

What are the benefits of multiline phone systems?

Modern multiline phone systems deliver the following benefits to small businesses:

Cost-effectiveness

VoIP phone services are among the most affordable options for multiline phone systems. Because traditional phone services depend on landlines, you’ll need dedicated hardware for every line in your multiline phone system. VoIP phone systems, by contrast, do not depend on separate hardware, so that cost is removed. 

Flexibility

Multiline phone systems are flexible. You can choose the number of lines you need and select from multiple solutions to help your team quickly answer incoming calls. There are also options to help your team receive other types of data over the phone, such as emails, text messages and images.

Scalability

Multiline phone systems are designed for growth. If you use a traditional phone service, a representative must come to your office and manually install the new lines. With a VoIP service, you can update the number of lines and activate service from your computer or mobile device. 

Call management

A multiline phone system can record when you made and received calls, how long calls lasted, who called you, who you called and who participated in a conference call. This information allows you to track peak call hours, how long an average support call lasts and who dialed into a meeting.

If you run an outbound telesales team, a multiline phone system might offer an auto-dialer as a built-in or plug-in option. These systems predict when a rep is about to end a call and then dial a new number to reduce downtime and increase productivity.

Security

Multiline phone systems may offer security features that block spam calls, as well as privacy features to prevent your phone number from getting out. VoIP phone systems can encrypt your phone calls for added security.

Did You Know?Did you know
If your business operates in a heavily regulated sector, there are multiline VoIP and call center systems that can help you stay compliant with regulations such as HIPAA, GDPR, CCPA and more.

How do you set up a multiline phone system?

Setting up a multiline phone system for your business is fairly straightforward. If you opt for a traditional landline service, you need to contact your local phone company to install the lines for you. Traditional systems have the added costs of an onsite PBX and any necessary technicians.

>> Learn more: When Should You Upgrade Your Business Phone System?

With VoIP, you can set up a multiline phone system in three easy steps:

  1. Choose your provider and phone plan. All of the major service providers offer reliable service with a variety of features for competitive rates, so pick the provider that appeals to you. (See our picks below.)
  2. Assign phone extensions. Each employee will have their own line, and you can assign specific extensions or full numbers to each team member. This should take only a few minutes.
  3. Start making and answering calls. Use your new multiline phone system to support your customers, close deals and catch up with colleagues.

Best multiline phone options

Countries around the world have begun to switch off their old analog networks, signaling the demise of the standard telephone line. Within 10 years, expect to see all businesses, no matter their size, to be connected to a VoIP system.

Many of the best business phone systems that offer multiple lines have lower monthly line rental charges, cheaper calls and greater functionality than those offered by traditional telephone networks.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the best multiline phone system services from the country’s largest providers. 

8×8

8×8’s smart VoIP platform allows you to instantly add and delete lines as needed. With prices starting at $24 per user per month, this unified communication suite offers high-level contact center functionality, audio and video conferencing, multilevel auto-attendants and much more. 8×8’s third-party app marketplace is also impressive, meaning you can customize your system with extra features.

Read our in-depth 8×8 review.

Dialpad

Dialpad’s setup is straightforward, and it’s easy to add new lines to your network with the user-friendly web portal. You can import your existing numbers into Dialpad and purchase top-up numbers for new staff members or specific marketing campaigns. Users benefit from features such as call transcriptions, internet faxing, customizable voicemail, self-service chatbots, social media messaging, SMS connectivity and more. Prices start at $15 per user per month and include unlimited calling to U.S. and Canadian numbers.

Read our comprehensive Dialpad review.

GoTo Connect

You can add new users, numbers and extensions quickly and easily on GoTo’s intuitive platform. Offer better and faster customer support with features like auto-attendants, call queueing, intelligent call routing, ring groups and hot desking. This blended system manages both inbound and outbound calling well, and there’s excellent connectivity with major apps, including Microsoft Teams, Salesforce and Slack. Prices start at $27 per user per month.

Read our latest GoTo Connect review.

NextivaONE

Flexibility and scalability are built into Nextiva’s easy-to-use cloud-based multiline VoIP system. It’s easy to add and remove lines, and the system benefits from many productivity-increasing PBX features, like HD audio calls, call routing, auto-attendants and voicemail-to-email notifications. This omnichannel system allows reps to contact you by phone, text message, social media and more from one platform. Nextiva pricing starts at $17.95 per user per month.

Read our up-to-date NextivaONE review.

Ooma Office

From just $19.95 per user per month, Ooma Office is a standout multiline VoIP PBX system with an array of features, including call forwarding, virtual faxing, voicemail transcription, virtual reception (auto-attendant), hunt groups and more. The integrated call, fax and message apps help you keep track of all communications with your customers on this impressive omnichannel system. 

Read our in-depth review of Ooma Office.

RingCentral

The highly scalable RingCentral features an easy-to-use web-based interface. From it, you can increase or decrease the number of lines on your system, as well as add call queues, unlimited audio conferencing, team messaging, multilevel auto-attendant, hot desking and more. Sales managers will appreciate the monitor, whisper and barge functionality. Plans start at just $20 per user per month.

Read our comprehensive review of RingCentral.

Vonage

Vonage’s cloud-based PBX multiline phone system offers an impressive array of features, including call groups, multilevel auto-attendants, HD audio quality, call monitoring, call queueing and more. Starting at $17.99 per user per month, the network also offers high security and privacy and is compliant with HIPAA, GDPR and other legislation. Some of the higher subscriptions include unlimited calling and text messaging. 

Read our latest review of Vonage.

Zoom

Zoom has become a favorite VoIP platform among small and midsize businesses, partly because of its ultracompetitive starter plan, which costs just $10 per user per month. Although the price is attractive, this full-featured system gives firms maximum flexibility. You get a wide selection of network features, like call management; free extension-to-extension calling; and call barge, monitor and whispering.

Read our up-to-date review of Zoom.

Eduardo Vasconcellos contributed to this article.

Mark Fairlie
Mark Fairlie, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Mark Fairlie brings decades of expertise in telecommunications and telemarketing to the forefront as the former business owner of a direct marketing company. Also well-versed in a variety of other B2B topics, such as taxation, investments and cybersecurity, he now advises fellow entrepreneurs on the best business practices. With a background in advertising and sales, Fairlie made his mark as the former co-owner of Meridian Delta, which saw a successful transition of ownership in 2015. Through this journey, Fairlie gained invaluable hands-on experience in everything from founding a business to expanding and selling it. Since then, Fairlie has embarked on new ventures, launching a second marketing company and establishing a thriving sole proprietorship.
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