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.