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.