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Your (Virtual) Operator Is Standing by

Having a professional voice--and a professional phone system--instantly makes a bigger impression on your customers

When you started your first business, who answered the phones? Was it you? Your mother? That nice guy you hired for his baritone pipes, until he billed thousands of dollars in "inappropriate" charges to your fledgling firm?

It probably didn't take long to realize that you need to immediately make a strong, professional impression for your clients to take you seriously. You want them to make contact and imagine a corporate army at the end of the line, even if your troops consist of just a dedicated three or four.

The solution for more and more small businesses is voice over IP, or VoIP--the shorthand for phone systems that run through the Internet rather than over traditional telephone networks.

VoIP companies often specifically target small businesses, offering full business telephone services--from automated voice answering to conferencing--without having to buy a $50,000 piece of communications hardware the size of your garage beer fridge. Aptela is one example: All you need is a broadband connection--T-1, cable modem or DSL will do. Aptela doesn't even require you to buy specific phones, though the company does recommend Polycom softphones.

Service plans that include unlimited calling start at $29.99 per month, but the Herndon, Va., company also offers a 250-minute business calling plan or a metered usage plan. The price can be 40 percent to 60 percent cheaper than comparable service from a telephone company.

"Most small companies want to know, 'How can I look bigger and have the appearance of a Fortune 500 company?'" says Larry Barker, president and CEO of Aptela. The company's auto attendant service provides automated phone answering and routing functions with voice talent and scripting customized for your business.

The auto attendant not only asks who is calling, but also announces the caller after the connection is made. (Who said the age of heraldry had come and gone?)

Other key features include conferencing, integrating with Outlook and routing calls to mobile phones, which comes in mighty handy for a small company.

"You can be in different cities or at a vacation home or a hotel, and no one knows," Barker says. These are the kinds of features that can help make a start-up company seem like it's been in business forever.

Peter Norton, the owner and managing partner of Sanford Rose, an executive recruiting firm, says his experience with the auto attendant feature has been good so far.

"We feel like it gives us a competitive advantage because we're always on the phone," he says, "but we need to be available and know who's calling."

That point isn't lost on Steve Roberson, the co-founder and technical lead of Start-Up Hire, a new job site for venture capital-backed companies.

"It makes your company seem more polished--like it has a cohesive presence, even if everyone is spread out," Roberson says. As Roberson puts it, it's like that old New Yorker cartoon: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Dan O'Shea is a Chicago-based writer who has been covering telecom, mobile and other high-tech topics for nearly 20 years.

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