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is no small thing

Union of computer, telephone
is no small thing

Computers and telephones. Phones and computers. Both a vital part of any business. You have to have them, and hooking them together can have many benefits. This column is the first of a series about the marriage of computer and phone: computer telephony. We will focus this month on solutions for very small offices.
Purists argue about the terms used for various implementations of this technology, in particular computer telephone integration (CTI) and computer telephony (CT). One way or the other, the symbiotic mixing of telephones and computers has a number of benefits, and the costs and expertise needed to install these systems drop while the benefits soar.
The SOHO marketplace
From the early 1980s on, the number of people working at home or in small offices has been increasing. Without corporate support, SOHO business people have a number of needs. These include:
1. Portraying the venture as a viable business. Phone systems make an important first impression on callers, good or bad.
2. A way not to miss important callers and calls. Phone tag is time-consuming and decisions have to be made quickly. Who wants to be tied to the answering machine at night, monitoring calls so an important call is not missed?
3. A way to filter out less important calls. Calls that do not require an immediate response can be answered at more convenient times in less expensive ways.
4. Ways to keep costs down. Giving everyone the cellular phone’s number can get expensive and be abused. Making credit-card calls can be more expensive than calling from the office.
5. A way to take the office along when on the road or out of town.
Computer telephony could be the SOHO businessperson’s friend. CT does not replace the cell phone, pager or answering machine, but makes each a coordinated part of a small-businessperson’s arsenal. The solutions listed all work with analog (standard residential) lines.
What’s my (single) line?
Simple single-phone-line solutions ship with almost every computer sold today. These offer voice mail and automated fax delivery (to the computer itself, not to an external fax machine). They offer an address book for maintaining lists of important phone numbers and auto-dialing the numbers. Some can even send a message to a pager or cell phone to let you know a call has come in. Some offer caller-ID capabilities that let you know the caller, and can be integrated with desktop applications like a contact management system.
Step over the (second) line
While suitable for the home, single-line systems make it impossible to surf the Web and send a fax or wait for a call. Adding a second line to the mix makes this type of system more useful for the SOHO office. Voice Technologies Group (Buffalo, 716-689-6700, www.vtg.com) offers PhoneCetera, a two-line solution offering multiple voice mailboxes, music on hold, caller ID, fax capabilities, overhead (internal) and message (pager) paging, and call-forwarding capabilities through the two lines. PhoneCetera is a board that loads inside a Windows 95 PC, and related software.
Digital receptionist
While the solutions discussed so far will help with calls and faxes, they do little for getting the right messages to the businessperson. Enter SmartCenter, from SoloPoint (Los Gatos, Calif., 408-364-8850, www.solopoint.com), a terrific tool for the mobile businessperson.
SmartCenter offers an auto-attendant feature, giving callers choices of extensions that can include four local extensions (including fax and answering machine) and the second line, perhaps to your cell phone or a remote office. You can set up different messages based on the time of day or the day of the week. Someone can be told, “Reach Eric Cohen on line 2,” and be directed to your cell phone during the day and home phone at night, without knowing it.
Calls can be directed by caller ID or distinctive ring. Faxes are automatically recognized and routed. You can monitor all incoming calls from your cell, home or remote phone, and choose whether to answer or let it go to your answering machine at the office. Important callers can be given a priority code that overrides your system and gets right to you.
SmartCenter maintains detailed records of its incoming and outgoing calls, and can do almost everything independently of a computer. The computer makes programming the features and analyzing the records easier. With no need for a dedicated computer, and available for less than $500, SmartCenter can be a great way to make sure you get your messages at the right place and the right time.
Every shop needs a switchboard
Centrepoint Technologies Inc. (Ottawa, 613-725-2980, www.ctrpoint.com) has taken a different approach with Concero Switchboard, also an external unit that can work with–but does not require –a computer. It also offers four local extensions, the computer as line 5, and the ability to treat an outside phone number as a logical extension.
Its name highlights its main difference: Switchboard becomes your small business’s internal switchboard, and creates an internal phone system. Each of the extensions can be called by the other extension by dialing its extension. Reaching an outside line requires dialing a 9 or 8 for line 1 or 2.
Your single-line phones can answer or call out either line. Incoming calls can reach the extensions individually and routing can ring the extensions in an order you choose. Calls can be transferred between the extensions.
One very helpful feature of Switchboard: You can call into one line and out the other. You can call a preprogrammed number, or dial any number on the fly, a unique feature. For example, if you are at a customer’s business and need to make a series of long-distance calls, you can make one call to your office and make multiple calls using your second line, instead of using a more expensive calling card. Three-way conference calls also can be established.
Switchboard turns single-line phones into multiline extensions on an internal phone system, can get calls to you wherever you are as if on-site, and offers many other options. Our test unit worked perfectly and was relatively simple to set up. Once again, for less than $500, your small office can become a real office.
Drawing outside the lines
One last tool for the mobile worker is called Wildfire (800-WILDFIRE, www.wildfire.com), a speech-driven service that tracks you down, takes voice commands, screens and announces calls, can create conference calls on the fly, announce callers during calls … all using equipment located somewhere but not at your office. Wildfire is a robot administrative assistant–listen to the way-cool demo by calling the number listed above. It’s expensive, but Wildfire can do things you couldn’t otherwise do.
Conclusion, part 1
Small offices can benefit when computers and telephones meet. Next time: replacing traditional phone systems.
(Eric E. Cohen, CPA, owns Cohen Computer Consulting, which helps growing businesses cope with and benefit from information technology. He is author of the new book, “Accountant’s Guide to the Internet” (John Wiley & Sons Inc.). His home page is http:// www.computercpa.com.)

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