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Got It Handled?

If your business needs to take call handling to the next level, an IP telephony system could be the answer.

It's smaller than a breadbox, a little larger than a ream of paper. But it delivers the kind of enterprise-class call handling usually reserved for large corporations. To me, Avaya's IP Office-Small Office Edition (SOE) holds the same potential the PC did in the early '80s as a springboard for the next great leap in office productivity.

At a breakthrough price of about $2,000 (street), SOE hooks in to your office LAN, making it easy to administer up to 16 extensions and giving employees expanded voice-mail and calling options. It enables four-digit dialing and toll-free calling among similarly equipped offices or key employee homes-actually, free long distance for any traveling employee with a broadband Internet connection, even a wireless one. Incoming office calls can be routed to cell or home phones or voice mail, depending on preselected handling priorities for individual callers.

Of course, much of IP telephony's promise depends on how quickly your company adopts other pieces of the puzzle-broadband phone service, wireless calling over LAN, cellular to land-line handoffs and videoconferencing. But a digital PBX like SOE is a good first step, a convenient hub from which other services can be managed as they come online.

The nice thing about SOE is that you don't have to be an IT manager to set it up. It was drop-shipped to my home office with a couple of telephones, and it only took me 15 minutes to unpack the server, plug one line into the wall jack and another into a phone, and start making calls. Consider that seamless compatibility with today's Public Switched Telephone Network.

Full functionality, though, requires integration with your office LAN. Plug SOE's cable into an Ethernet port, run the configuration CD, and set up Phone Manager as you would any Windows application. There are a few IP addresses and passwords to juggle-lots of user-configuration options. It's about as hard as setting up a Wi-Fi network.

It's easier to have your Avaya reseller (www.avaya.com) do it. But after that, you can save time and money by managing your own phone system yourself. Despite the system's many features and extensive configuration options, the Phone Manager and Monitor utilities are so intuitive you can easily reconfigure the system on the fly. You can move extensions around, add a voice-mail server or wireless connectivity, and change connection types as needed, without waiting for a highly trained technician to come visit your telecom closet.

Actually, you won't need a telecom closet. SOE hangs on a wall, and, unlike any analog PBX or Centrex system I've ever known, an average human can actually transfer a call or set up a three-way conference using it.

A productivity boost comparable to what we got from the PC? Yeah, that sounds about right.

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This article was originally published in the April 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Got It Handled?.

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