Q: Since I'm in school during the day, I'm not available to take calls from customers. People call, get the answering machine and hang up. I've thought of sending out postcards listing my hours as evening hours. Do you think people would be turned off by not being able to make contact during the day?

A: I don't necessarily think potential clients would be turned off by not being able to talk to you personally during the day. What will turn them off is getting a message on an answering machine that doesn't give them the information they're looking for. Although I don't know what your current message says on your machine, I'm guessing the reason potential clients hang up is that you haven't provided them with options.

What do I mean by options? I mean it's time to invest in a more sophisticated system that will allow users to get the information they need even when you're not there. Because you work during the day and rely on your phone system to be a kind of personal assistant, it's worth it to make that investment. And, in actuality, it can make you look quite professional. Think about it: When you call a large corporation, don't you often get a voice-mail message instructing you to punch in various numbers on your keypad to take you to the information you need? You can allow callers to press different numbers for leaving a message, hearing certain prerecorded information about your company, etc.

When creating your voice-mail message, make sure it's professional and polite. Begin the message by stating the name of your business, e.g., "You have reached XYZ Corp." From there, you can allow callers to choose from a variety of options: In addition to leaving a message, they can listen to a list of your services, obtain your address, find out how to place an order and so on. Basically, you want to provide them with the kind of information you think they're looking for that can be easily and clearly conveyed in a voice-mail message. If you're not sure what they want, think about the kind of information you look for when calling a company for information, and that may help you come up with some answers.

Another option is to use an answering service to handle incoming calls. If you do this, however, make sure you periodically call the service yourself to make sure it's polite, prompt and accurate--the last thing you want is someone rude answering your business phone. In your case, though, I would recommend starting with a beefed-up voice-mail system. Contact your phone company to find out what options are available, then contact a few private voice-mail services to compare prices and features. See how many new clients you get once you've implemented this system, and make any adjustments from there.