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Want to Make Your Startup Look Bigger? Tweak Your Phone System When you're just starting up and you want to land top-tier clients, you'd be surprised how important a proper communications regimen can be.

By Steve Cook Edited by Dan Bova


When you're just starting up, words like "scrappy" and "lean" spring to mind. But that thriftiness can be a turnoff to some customers or clients who are used to dealing with bigger -- and flusher -- competitors.

So what's a cash-strapped startup to do? Start with your amping up your phone system. It may sound like a strange place to begin. But even if you don't have an actual "office," you'd be surprised how much bigger your company will appear by adopting a professional phone system.

When I co-founded my first company in 2004, the last thing on our list of priorities was an automated system to handle or track incoming calls. Admittedly, the technology available at the time was expensive, complicated or inflexible. But between web technology companies like Voxeo, Twilio, Plivio and virtual assistants like Ruby Receptionists and, startups today have a raft of options that can get the job done much more cheaply.

Although every business will have different needs, here's a look at three key areas you might consider tweaking:

How you route calls
Specifically, at my legal-marketing company, I've used Twilio, which is a cloud-based telecommunications provider that can process everything from VoIP and traditional voice calls to SMS messages. Through the company, we've established a call-handling system that allows callers to select the party -- for example, sales, technical support, billing -- with whom they would like to speak using their touchtone keypad. While the system isn't particularly noteworthy, the cost is.

Related: Messy Office? 7 Ways to Spruce Up Your Startup

We pay $2 per month for a toll-free number plus a nominal per minute rate of 3 cents per minute for incoming calls. If that is too expensive, however, businesses can opt to pay $1 per month for a local number and 1 cent per minute for incoming calls.

How you track calls
Then, at my law firm, we've set up a call-tracking system. We have a full-time receptionist who handles incoming calls. However, we do need a system that allows us to track the source of potential clients.

Again, using Twilio's platform, we developed a system that tracks call source information by assigning different local phone numbers to each marketing channel that we use. For instance, if we were to place an ad in Super Lawyers we would have a dedicated phone number only for that ad.

Related: Your Business Leaking Money? 5 Holes to Plug

When a potential client calls the firm using one of those tracking numbers, Twilio audibly announces the source of the call to the firm's receptionist. This receptionist then logs that information, along with other information about the call and caller, into our lead tracking software. With this information, we can tell whether a marketing medium is effective or if we need to switch to one that is.

How you answer calls
Some types of businesses still need a live receptionist to handle calls. But you may not need a full-time receptionist. These businesses can benefit from virtual assistants. These receptionists can, among other things, answer calls using a business' name, transfer calls and even provide limited information about the products or services that a business provides.

Related: Moving Beyond Startup Mode: 5 Tips for Building a Solid Infrastructure

While fees and the types of services offered by virtual-assistant providers will vary, chances are, they're substantially less than the cost of hiring a full-time receptionist.

How would you recommend startups do to look bigger than they are? Let us know in the comments section.

Steve Cook

Attorney, Cook & Cook PC

Steve Cook is an attorney in Mesa, Ariz. He represents both small and medium-sized businesses in matters ranging from entity formation, venture capital funding, to mergers, acquisitions and dispositions.

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