Life Lines

Putting in a second phone line.

Homes with more than one phone line used to be rare, but the dramatic rise in the number of U.S. households with fax machines and Internet connections has phone companies working overtime installing multiple phone lines. According to the FCC, in 1996, 16.5 percent of households were equipped with multiple phone lines, a 13 percent increase from a decade earlier.

Still, not everyone is getting wired. Ever cost-conscious, many homebased business owners are "holding the line," making do with one phone line to service their telephone, fax machine and Internet connection, and frustrating their callers with a busy signal or a trip to voice-mail purgatory.

The consequences of restricting yourself to one phone line could be serious, says Sid Williams, founder and owner of New York City-based management consulting and investment advisory firm Axia Partners. That busy signal or endless game of phone tag may damage your priceless relationships with customers.

In its first few months of operation, Axia Partners relied on a single residential phone line that did triple duty as a voice, fax and data link. Clients who called when the line was busy were transferred to an answering service. "People got uncomfortable because they didn't have immediate access to us," says Williams. "As a consulting business, access is extremely important to our clients."

Eventually, Williams added a business phone line and a dedicated data fax line, but not before losing a potential customer who searched fruitlessly for Williams' home office in a directory that only listed phone numbers for business lines.

Rona Hamada, president of Andrews Telecommunications, a Newton, Massachusetts, telecommunications agency, believes a busy signal sends callers a negative message about your business. "When callers get a busy signal or voice mail, they don't know if you can't afford enough lines, if you're understaffed, if you're out of the office a lot, or if you just don't think their calls are very important," she says.

This misconception can become a painful reality, especially when you're trying to drum up interest in a new product or service. Kyle Donovan, founder and owner of New York City-based Envy Publications, plans to debut NV, a magazine for young black professionals, early next year. "With any new venture, when people call and get a busy signal, they [size up] your business," says Donovan, 26, whose homebased office is currently equipped with four phone lines. "We plan to add many more lines when the magazine gets off the ground."

To avoid mixed signals, says Hamada, homebased business owners must realize their telephone is their front door, and have a live operator answer calls during business hours. This means having sufficient lines to handle your call volume, and giving data and fax traffic lines of their own.

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