IF YOU’RE LIKE MOST PEOPLE, THOSE ADORABLE brochures that are stuffed in with your phone bill get scrapped instead of read. Problem is, these are where the phone company touts its latest goodies–from 500 numbers to 100 new ways to use your pound (#) and star (*) keys. New services, it seems, are added monthly by local and long-distance carriers alike. You may be missing out on some cheap and easy ways to enhance your communications.
To keep you informed, we’ve rounded up the most useful new offerings. Note: All prices vary by region. In addition, if you can’t find a service that’s mentioned here, it may be offered under a different name by your carrier or soon will be added to the menu. Don’t be afraid to request services you,d like.
Extend the geographic presence of a company with remote call forwarding. This lets you advertise a phone number in a remote region that is also serviced by your local telephone company. Calls are automatically routed to your home market, so clients can reach you without paying long-distance rates. (You pay instead.) Combine this service with distinctive ringing, which assigns unique rings to different numbers on one phone line, so you can identify those calls in advance and answer the phone appropriately. Remote call forwarding costs about $16 a month and $40 to $100 for installation. Expect to pay $4 to $20 a month for distinctive ringing with a wide range of installation costs.
Enhanced 800 numbers.
The success of 800 numbers and heated long-distance competition have inspired a host of new services. If your carrier doesn’t offer such extras, though, or you want to shop around for a better price, you can now change long-distance carriers and keep your old number–the one you may have spent thousands to promote.
If you do business nationally and want to segment 800 numbers by their place of origin, check out area of service. Calls stimulated by an ad in a West Coast newspaper, for instance, can be routed to your order-fulfillment house in San Jose.
If your week is divided between multiple offices, time of day service lets you route 800-number calls based on the time and/or the day they’re made. Calls can also be divided among long-distance carriers to take advantage of time-sensitive calling plans.
Direct termination overflow sounds more technical than it is. It’s simply sending calls to a secondary 800 line when the first is busy–which could mean the difference between taking an order and missing it.
Basic 800 service costs about $15 a month plus 20 cents per minute for each inbound call, along with a onetime charge of about $25. Prices for 800-number features vary dramatically.
Virtual receptionist. You’ve probably heard of caller ID, but consider caller ID with name (slightly more expensive), which displays the number and the name of the caller on a standalone machine, phone, or answering machine. (For interesting caller ID phones, see “Ring Fever” in the May issue.)
Combine either type of caller ID with selective call forwarding and only callers you specify can be transferred to another number–perhaps your cellular phone. Caller ID with name costs about $8 a month plus a $30 setup fee. You’ll pay around $7 to install selective call forwarding, with a $4 monthly charge.
When you’re at a remote phone–at a friend’s house or in a hotel room, for example–all your calls can be routed there. Just sign up for 500-number service, also often called follow me.
All you do is dial a special access number and instruct the service to route calls to a temporary location. A sequenced approach is also possible, so, for example, the phone can ring first in your hotel room, then on your cellular, and if necessary, alert your pager. You’ll never be out of reach again.
Go digital. ISDN (integrated services digital network) is a complex topic, but one worth mentioning. Available from an increasing number of local phone companies, ISDN offers businesses and residential customers high-bandwidth, digital transmission of both voice and data. A normal phone line can carry information at 28.8Kbps, but an ISDN line provides speeds up to 128Kbps. High-speed Internet access, simultaneous voice conversations and data transmission, and desktop videoconferencing all are made possible through ISDN.
The downside is threefold: Availability varies greatly from region to region, phone companies aren’t yet up to snuff at handling requests, and setting up the equipment, which includes replacing your trusty modem with an unfriendly terminal adapter, can be difficult. Typical pricing ranges from $35 to $50 per month plus per-minute charges of around five cents. Additional phone equipment must be purchased as well.
If managing your busy phone system has you seeing stars, do more than pound your fist. Try hitting the pound or star keys on your phone to access some smart new features.
When your intended can’t be reached, delayed messaging, often activated by #123, delivers a voice message. This long-distance option lets you record your greeting and then attempts to deliver it by ringing the recipient’s phone every 30 minutes for up to six hours. It also can deliver a message at a preselected time. The cost to the caller is about $1.75 per use, which can be billed to a calling card or credit card.
Just missed a call or got a mysterious hang-up? Automatic callback dials the number of the last incoming call with in 30 minutes (times vary), even if you didn’t answer your phone. Dial *69, keeping in mind that this may be limited to the calling area of your service provider. The cost is roughly 75 cents per use or $4 per month with a $30 or so installation fee.
If you have no patience for busy signals, repeat dialing continues to try the number for up to 30 minutes, or until the line is free, whichever comes first. To activate this service, tap the disconnect button, dial *66, and hang up. When the line is free, your phone rings with a distinctive sound, and the call is completed when you pick up the receiver. There’s also a distinctive beep when repeat dialing is used with calling waiting. The service runs about 75 cents per use or $3 a month with a setup fee that can range from $13 to $33.
If you get a threatening call, press *57 to activate call trace. This holds the caller’s number in the phone company’s computer so the number can be reported to the police. Finally, call block (*60 to activate and *80 to deactivate) lets you block calls from being made to specific phone members for around $4.50 per month
Of all the options available, the ones that work best are those with which you are most comfortable. Start with one or two features and then add a few others as your comfort level and your business grow.