Phones That Do It All Except Make Coffee

So you've decided to get out of the corporate rat race and start your own

business at home. But you're used to all those wonderful support services back at headquarters--receptionists, voice mail, fax machines scattered about, conference calls. And although you may want to scrap the daily commute, you're not keen about customers and suppliers thinking you're some fly-by-night operation run out of the back bedroom.

Well, the good news is it's easy to create the illusion that a one-person, home-based operation is a much larger company. And you don't have to shell out thousands of dollars on integrated personal computer/telephones and sophisticated telecommunications equipment. In most regions of the U.S., home workers can get office-like phone services for an additional $10 to $12 a month from the local phone company.

You may already subscribe to one or two--call waiting or voice messaging, for example. But, say phone company marketers, it doesn't take long for home-office users to realize they could be much more efficient with a few more, such as call forwarding, caller identification, three-way calling, and call blocking.

Even the most popular services can be embellished for business use. Take voice messaging. Most subscribers use this at-home version of the voice-mail service found in large offices as an answering-machine substitute. But in almost every state you can add features that will forward a message to your beeper, allow you to set up several mailboxes for other family members or co-workers, or send a message to another number to be delivered at a future date. Pacific Bell is testing a Daily Reporter service that gives voice-message subscribers information on more than 100 topics, such as the latest news from Washington and Wall Street, while Bell Atlantic just introduced a feature in Montgomery County, Md., that allows users to broadcast a message to every other subscriber in the county.

Once you've got a fancy voice-message service, you might want to think about caller ID. Available in every state except California, it displays the phone number of an incoming call on a screen located on the phone or an attached computer monitor. Caller ID rates range from $4 to $7.50 a month, but to use it you must invest at least $50 in a phone with an LCD screen. Also, it has generally not worked for long-distance calls, but as of this month, a Federal Communications Commission ruling requires long-distance carriers to start passing calling information to the local phone companies.

As consulting group BIS Strategic Decisions notes, caller ID combined with a PC and special software "can allow for a variety of never-before-imagined capabilities and benefits." For example, your PC can be programmed so that a file on regular customers pops up before the call is answered. U S West can combine call waiting, caller ID, and voice messaging: When you hear the call-waiting tone, you can identify the call and either take it or forward it to voice mail.

MORE LINES. Once you've got all these services, you're probably going to need extra phone lines, especially if you are running a fax and sending data out from your computer. At that point you might want to install an integrated services digital network line. An ISDN line is essentially three high-speed digital phone lines rolled into one, allowing you to simultaneously send and receive voice calls, faxes, and computer data, all at much higher speeds than a standard analog phone line. The cost of ISDN installation is high--from $80 to $250, depending on the provider--but the monthly charge is usually about the same as two standard phone lines.

Besides, by adding ISDN and the like, you might start feeling like you've got all the advantages of the corporate setting again--without the rat race.

Who Needs a Receptionist?

There are plenty of local phone company services that can make the plain-vanilla handset at your home-based business work like a corporate telecom system

VOICE MAIL Some carriers offer more sophisticated features, such as pager

notification and separate mailboxes for each household member.

AUTOMATIC Press a code, hang up, and your phone will keep dialing a busy

REDIAL or unanswered number. When a connection is made, your phone

will ring, signaling you to pick up.

THREE-WAY Lets you add a third person to a call, allowing on-the-fly

CALLING conferencing; especially helpful to connect clients with your

contract workers in faraway cities.

CALLER ID This feature displays the number of the incoming call on the

screen of a specially equipped phone or can be linked to your

PC, allowing you to greet customers by name or instantly

access their customer file.

ISDN LINE A high-speed phone line that can send and receive voice,

faxes, and computer transmissions simultaneously.


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