Get Your Phones Right!

gypDo YOU HAVE THE RIGHT MIX OF TELEPHONE EQUIPMENT and services to meet your customers’ needs? You’ll travel a complex maze sorting through how many telephone lines you’ll need, what special local phone company features you should order, and what equipment you need to buy immediately and what you should purchase later. Answers to a few simple questions will help you make short-term decisions to keep your business poised for future growth.

How many phone lines should I install? The number and type of telephone lines you order depend greatly on the kind of products or services you’re planning to offer. The ideal business setup includes at least two phone lines. (If you work out of your home, that’s two lines in addition to your existing lines for personal calls.) One line handles all your voice calls; the other handles faxes and online access. With a two-line telephone such as Lucent Technologies’s $203.99 model 882 Personal Information Center, you can also use the second line for conference calls. Depending on how often you receive faxes and go online, you’ll probably need separate lines for both your computer and fax machine (see below). Also, count on needing at least one extra voice line per employee.

Will my clients need to fax me? Although you may love e-mail, your clients may insist on sending documents by fax. They pay the bills, so be ready to send or receive documents the way they want to work. A fax machine such as Brother International’s IntelliFax 1550MC costs only $500 on the street and works at 14.4Kbps–the fastest faxing speed available.

If you expect to send or receive just a few faxes, make sure your fax machine can detect an incoming fax. The machine can then share the line with your PC. If you’re online, the fax trying to reach you will call back in a few minutes if it hears a busy signal.

If you receive a lot of faxes, plan on dedicating a phone line to your fax machine. Alternatively, you can share a line with your PC by using a local telephone company’s fax service, such as U.S. West’s Never-Busy Fax, to receive faxes while you’re online. The phone company receives your fax while you’re online and, once you hang up, sends it to your fax machine.

Can I use my PC’s fax capability? In addition to gobbling up a substantial amount of your disk space, fax programs require that you leave your computer on all the time to receive incoming faxes. Some PCs, such as IBM’s Aptiva and Compaq’s Presario, smooth over this problem by using wake-up-on-ring technology, allowing them to slumber while they wait for incoming calls. However, incoming faxes will demand the majority of your PC’s resources. You’ll most likely have to stop whatever else you’re working on when you receive a fax via fax/modem. That’s OK for the occasional fax. For heavy incoming fax traffic, however, you’re better off buying a standalone fax machine.

Will I do lots of online research? If so, think about dedicating an extra line for online use. If you do a great deal of research online, you may want to consider getting an ISDN connection for your second line. Although ISDN service costs considerably more than a standard business line, it can provide up to four times faster access that will cut down on the amount of time you spend waiting for graphics-laden Web pages to load. However, there is no benefit at this time to using an ISDN line for voice communications.

Will customers need toll-free access? If a significant number of your customers live outside your area, you might want to consider a toll-free number (either 800 or 888). Since you pay for every call received, this works best for companies receiving orders over the phone. In a start-up phase, you might be able to do without the cost of a toll-free number as long as your product or service is unique. However, potential competitors will recognize your lack of tollfree access as one way to attack your market share.

How will my clients leave voice messages? Whether you’re at a meeting or just running out to get more printer paper, there will be times when you’re not available to answer the phone. Tape answering machines such as the $49.95 GE Microcassette Answering Machine (model 2-9815) record 15 to 30 minutes worth of messages. Digital machines such as the $130.49 Lucent Technologies Digital Answering Machine (model 1772) handle about 24 minutes. Tapes can break and sometimes digital recordings can sound distorted. Both solutions are also susceptible to power outages.

Central office voice mail is a ready alternative from your local telephone service. Used in combination with your answering machine, voice mail ensures that you’ll never miss a call. It’s also the best solution if you only have one voice line in your ofrice. Just remember to check for the broken dial tone that indicates you’ve got a message. Better yet, plan on buying a $35 voice-mail notification device such as Consumerware’s VoiceMail Light to show you when messages are waiting.

Will I need to screen incoming calls? Although you can screen incoming calls by listening to messages as they are being left on your answering machine, you’ 11 quickly lose professional credibility if you constantly pick up in the middle of a client’s message. Instead, see if caller ID is available from your local phone company. This feature lets you see who’s calling simply by looking at the LCD display on caller IDenabled phones such as Sony’s $149.95 Model IT-ID500. You can pick up the phone before the call goes into your answering machine or voice mail.

Will my clients demand that I be accessible? When you need to make sure your clients’ calls get through, check out the call-forwarding option offered by your phone company. You dial up the phone company and punch some numbers; incoming calls will automatically get routed to another number–perhaps your cellular phone. You may even be able change the number to which calls are transferred while you’re on the go.

To keep expenses low (especially when forwarding calls to your cellular phone), some service providers let you select which numbers you want to be forwarded. Alternatively, you could ask to be notified, via pager, that you have messages waiting. You can then retrieve the desired messages and call your clients.

Why Not One Line?

Although we don’t advise it, some people get along with a single phone line if most of their calls are outgoing. This method can save you some cash in the short term, but it could mean that you lose business when potential customers need to call you.

The obvious disadvantage is that the single line can handle only one call (or fax or online session) at a time. To field all different types of calls, you can buy an $89.95.device such as Command Communication’s CS350 Home Fax Switch. The unit plugs into your telephone’s wall outlet, senses the type of incoming call, and routes it to your fax machine or telephone handset. You can also add a service such as central office voice mail or fax mail (see main story) to take voice-mall messages and receive faxes when you’re online. But be careful, these services can really add up on your bill. Weigh your options carefully, and you might find that a second, incremental phone line is more cost-effective.

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