From the July 1997 issue of Startups

Remain accessible to your customers by automating your front desk.

When customers contact you by phone, a busy signal is one sound you don't want them to hear. Besides turning away potential business, a busy signal announces that your business operates with a single phone line and little or no staff.

That's not exactly the image you want to create. As a business owner, you want your customers to keep coming back. Obviously, a busy signal won't help. Since you can't guarantee you'll always have an open phone line, you need some way to handle the calls you and your staff can't field personally. Voice mail may be just what your business needs.

What Is Voice Mail?

On the surface, voice mail might sound like just a fancy name for an answering machine, but it's much more. Answering machines can't take calls that come in while you're on the phone. Voice mail can. Voice mail also offers added features such as multiple voice-mailboxes, pager notification and remote access.

Perhaps most important, voice mail can create the illusion that yours is a much larger company. "It can make a one-line business seem an awful lot bigger," says Lisa Harrison, business call answering product manager for Nynex, a voice-mail provider in New York City. "That can be a real boost."

Used properly, your voice mail can even serve as a sales and marketing tool. Mark Gordon, president of national voice-mail service provider American Voice Mail, based in Los Angeles, advises recording a greeting that says more than "I'm not available."

"Use it to paint a picture, no matter what you're selling, and get people to want to buy it. You're automating a tremendous amount of work this way," says Gordon, explaining that you can give your sales pitch just once, and every caller will hear it.

There are hundreds of individual voice-mail options, which can make your selection overwhelming. Essentially, however, voice-mail options fall into two categories: voice-mail services you subscribe to and systems you can purchase.

Voice-Mail Services

When you subscribe to most voice-mail services, the company assigns you one phone number for customers to call. You use another, private number to access your messages. Most companies can have your voice-mail service up and running within 24 hours from the time you order it.

"We can do everything from wake-up calls to reminder calls," says Gordon, whose company offers a basic package for $9.95 per month in most areas of the country. This type of service is great for someone starting a sideline business while still employed elsewhere. While you're busy at your job, your voice mail can handle your sideline business calls.

For those who want customers to be able to contact them free of charge, American Voice Mail offers toll-free service for $4.95 per month, plus 10.9 cents per minute.

Because most business is done locally, however, many business owners actually prefer using a local number in the area where they do business, says Gordon. A local number helps a company appear to be a part of the local community, even if it's actually located in another state. With offices in 65 cities across the country, American Voice Mail can usually provide you with a local number.

If you prefer toll-free service at a flat rate, Alpha Voice Mail in Grand Junction, Colorado, offers a complete, toll-free, voice-mail-service package for $46 per month. Your customers have the convenience of using a toll-free number to contact you, and you use a toll-free number to retrieve your messages. Because customers can call you without charge, you may get leads you wouldn't get otherwise, says James Santacroce, one of Alpha's principals. And your cost won't vary with the number or length of calls you receive.

For those who travel extensively, a flat-rate, toll-free service is simply the most convenient system. "I have a lot of truck drivers who use it just to keep in touch with people," says Santacroce.

"You can easily drop $50 to $100 per month on these services," warns John Jainschigg, editor of Teleconnect, a monthly communications magazine, explaining that subscriber services are among the most expensive. Basic service might be only $10 per month, but each option costs extra. So by the time you add all the extra features you want, service can get pricey. Phone company rates are generally lower.

As a more economical option, consider using the voice-mail services offered through your local phone company. You can continue to use your existing phone number--with voice mail--for a monthly fee ranging from $6 to $20 per month, depending on where you live. Some phone companies may also charge a one-time setup fee, ranging from $10 to $65. All these costs are simply added to your phone bill.

Phone companies typically charge businesses a higher rate than residential customers. "It's a policy established by the Communications Act of 1934," explains Joan Rasmussen of Bell Atlantic, an Arlington, Virginia-based phone company. The legislation mandates that telephone service be made affordable to residential customers by charging them lower rates than businesses. In effect, businesses subsidize residential phone-service rates.

If your business is homebased, however, you may qualify for the lower residential rates. Most phone companies charge business rates only when the business is based outside the home and has extensive communications needs.

One drawback of using phone-company services is the fact that they can't always offer what you need. For instance, Nynex offers pager notification only to customers living in New York state.

Regardless of whether you use your phone company or another service, you won't have to purchase or maintain equipment. That means you don't have to worry about expensive repairs, and your voice-mail service won't produce additional office clutter, something that can be crucial in tight quarters. Representatives of most such services are also available around the clock to answer questions. And if the service you ordered isn't meeting your needs, in most cases, you're not obligated to continue it.

Changing technology is another consideration. "If you buy something, you have whatever its capabilities are today," Rasmussen says. "Some of these technologies are changing so much. You will get the advantage of these advances because we're making the upgrades."

Either way, you're obligating yourself to pay monthly fees, but that may be the best way to go if you have limited capital. "What you're doing is exchanging upfront costs for running costs," says Jainschigg, explaining that, with a system purchase, you lay out your cash up front; with a service, you pay monthly fees.

Voice-Mail Equipment for Purchase

For those who prefer upfront costs to running costs, Jainschigg estimates there are between 50 and 100 systems for sale, most of which work with your personal computer. Though most are priced well over $1,000, with many falling in the $5,000-to-$25,000 range, a handful of systems with price tags of $500 or less are available to meet the needs of small companies with limited resources.

Most voice-mail systems offer a variety of useful options that help make your company seem bigger and more professional. If you spend a lot of time away from your office, you'll want a system with pager notification. This feature beeps your pager or forwards your calls to another phone of your choice whenever a message comes in.

Another useful feature is the capability for multiple mailboxes. Systems with this feature can be programmed to ask callers to press a certain number, depending on the reason for their call. For instance, callers can be instructed to press "1" for sales, "2" for billing or "3" for technical support. Not only does this make your company seem larger, but it also helps you sort your messages by priority and type. If your business emphasizes phone sales, be sure to look for a system with ample recording time.

When choosing a voice-mail system, advises Jainschigg, it's important to get one that's not only compatible with your phone system, but one that can be integrated with it as well. If your systems aren't integrated, voice mail could unwittingly send a call to a busy extension, allowing the call to be "dropped on the floor"--the caller will get disconnected rather than reaching your voice mail.

Telephony Experts handles such problems by offering to preprogram its product, the Small Business Assistant, with settings designed to integrate its system with your existing phone system, says Shelton Glenn, a salesperson at Telephony Experts.

Setting up the Small Business Assistant also requires the installation of some hardware. "People are not always comfortable with opening up their PCs," Glenn acknowledges. For those customers, the company offers a free month of technical support, which can be used to guide the purchaser step by step through the installation process.

Your computer's operating system is another consideration in choosing a voice-mail system. Windows 95, for instance, is not designed to be mission-critical, which means it can seize up at any time. If your computer's operating system crashes, so will your voice mail system.

In order to minimize the risk of crashes, Glenn advises using one computer for nothing but your voice-mail system. If you can't afford to dedicate a computer just to voice mail, you'll be safest if you stick with typical computer uses such as word-processing and spreadsheet programs. You could run into trouble, however, when using "high-stress" programs such as page layout and graphics programs, he says.

If you envision heavy computer use and don't have the means to dedicate a separate computer to your voice-mail system, consider buying a stand-alone system. The most affordable stand-alone system on the market is Tina, from Datacom International in Telford, Pennsylvania.

Tina is a box, about the size of a TV remote control, that has a jack to plug into your phone, and both a jack and an electrical plug to connect to the wall.

Tina's features are comparable to those of any computer-based voice-mail system. If you're swamped with paperwork and don't want to take calls, for instance, you can program Tina to route callers to voice mail without ringing your phone. If you're waiting for an important call, you can program the machine to ring your phone only for that call. You can also program it to forward calls to a cellular phone, a pager or a fax machine.

"Some of these little stand-alone boxes are awesome," says Jainschigg. But before you choose a stand-alone system, be sure your phone system has the capability to use all its features. Tina, for example, will work with any phone system, but you must have caller ID and three-way calling in order to take advantage of all its features.

Whether you're looking for voice-mail software or a stand-alone system, the place to shop is a specialized retail store that sells only telecommunications equipment, computers and other business equipment. Another option is to order directly from the manufacturers.

Whatever you buy, consider your business's future needs. If you buy a system designed to handle two phone lines, you may need to buy another system when your company grows and you need to add phone lines down the road. "It wouldn't be practical to run a one- or two-line system with 10 people in your office," Jainschigg says.

Whatever type of voice mail you opt for, you can rest assured that you won't be missing important calls. And when you're in business, every call is an important call.

Ameritech

Serves: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin

Monthly cost: $6.75 to $13.45

Setup fee: $10 for residential customers, $15 for businesses

To order: Call (800) PROFITS or your local phone company

Bell Atlantic

Serves: Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, DC, and West Virginia

Monthly cost: $8.50 and up

Setup fee: $10

To order: Call your local phone company

Bell South

Serves: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee

Monthly cost: $6.50 to $12.95

Setup fee: None

To order: Call your local phone company

Nevada Bell

Serves: Nevada

Monthly cost: $19.95

Setup fee: $15

To order: Dial 811 (within Nevada)

Nynex

Serves: New England states and New York state

Monthly cost: $12 and up

Setup fee: $60.15 in New York only; $34.71 in Massachusetts only

To order: Call (800) 343-4343

Pacific Bell

Serves: California

Monthly cost: $9.95 + 10 cents per minute, to flat rate of $19.95 per mailbox

Setup fee: $19.95 per mailbox

To order: Call your local phone company

Southwest Bell

Serves: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas

Monthly cost: $6.95 and up

Setup fees: $11 residential; $23 businesses

To order: Homebased business owners, call (800) 504-9514. Other business customers, call (800) 773-7928

US West

Serves: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming

Monthly cost: Basic, $12.75; additional features, $3 to $20.75

Setup fee: $10

To order: Call numbers listed in the Call Guide in your local phone book

Note: If you decide not to go with one of your local telephone company's voice-mail services, you should check out these voice-mail hardware and software systems. The systems work with your computer to give you the versatility to forward your calls, notify your pager or take a message.

  • Tina is offered in both a one-line (model # 3354, $229) and two-line (model #3365, $299) version. Tina is available through retailers, or by calling Datacom International at (215) 723-3805. For a demonstration, call (888) DCI-TINA.
  • The Small Business Assistant is a PC-based system that uses Windows 3.1, 3.11 or 95. The one- or two-line version costs $395 and the three-to-24-line version costs $795. To order, call Telephony Experts at (800) 838-8642.
  • VoiceFX is a PC-based software package available in a single-line format for $99, or a multiline format for $199 (handles up to eight lines). To order, call Orion Telecom at (800) 669-8088.

Local Service Providers

Local phone companies will add voice mail to your basic telephone service for monthly fees of $6.25 or more, with most averaging between $10 and $20. Some companies also charge one-time installation fees of $10 to $65. To order, contact your local phone company. Here are some examples.

  • Alpha Voice Mail, in Grand Junction, Colorado, offers a complete toll-free and voice-mail service package for a flat fee of $46 per month with no installation or activation fees. To order, call (800) 300-9712.
  • American Voice Mail, in Los Angeles, offers basic voice-mail service for $9.95 per month. Toll-free service costs $4.95 per month, plus 10.9 cents per minute. Other premium features are also available for an additional monthly charge. To order, call (800) 347-2861.