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Telecommunications for the SOHO
(Small Office / Home Office)

A guide to the latest in communications technology and services for the small office and home office business people.

Congratulations!

Welcome to the legions of business people who have decided to work from their homes. Now that you've made the move, one of your highest priorities should be how you're going to keep in touch with the rest of the business world.

The Telephone

SOHO business people come to regard their telephone as the single most important tool in their business. It's your business lifeline so the model of phone you choose must be a real help - not a hindrance - in your daily routines.

There's no shortage of different models of phones on the market with a variety of features essential to SOHO businesses. Here are some of the more popular features you'll want to consider:

  • Speed Dialing affords one-touch dialing of your more frequently called numbers
  • Re-Dial lets you call the last number you dialed with the touch of one button
  • Speaker Phones allow you to talk without having to hang onto the receiver so you can carry on with what you're doing while you talk.
  • Call Logging records up to the last 15 calls received by the phone, answered or unanswered.
  • Cordless Phones give you the freedom of movement while you talk to important callers
  • PCS and Cellular Phones give you complete freedom to make and return important calls no matter where you are.
When choosing your phone, keep in mind the number of lines you'll have coming into it so you can take advantage of all the latest phone line features highlighted in the next section.

Telephone Line Features

Thanks to the introduction of digital telephone service, several new time and money-saving features are available on your phone line(s) through your phone company. These features are a real boon to SOHO businesses because they help you stay in touch no matter where you are.

  • Touch-Tone service on your line is essential to be able to tap into all of the other helpful features available from your phone company.
  • Call Forwarding lets you redirect calls to another number so you won't miss any important calls.
  • Call Waiting notifies you, while you are on the line, of another incoming call with a soft beep.
  • 3-Way Calling lets you talk to two other people at the same time.
  • Call Display lets you see the number of the person calling so you know before you answer whether it's an important call to take immediately.
  • Call Return monitors a busy line for up to 30 minutes and automatically redials the number when its free.
  • Ident-A-Call provides for up to 3 numbers on your line, each with its own distinctive ring so you can easily distinguish between business and personal calls and answer them appropriately.
  • Call Forwarding - Busy - No Answer automatically re-routes calls to a pre-determined number when you are on the line or you're out.

Long Distance Savings Plans

If you're in business from your home, you'll be making a lot of long distance calls.

Thanks to deregulation of the telephone industry, there are several companies offering a variety of long-distance savings plans to consider.

Discount Savings Plans

Discount plans, available through your phone company or private competitor, offer percentage discounts off the regular long-distance rates depending on the time of day you call or, in some cases, where you call.

Most phone companies offer discount savings to high-volume business callers in addition to the usual discounts they offer at certain times of the day and days of the week to residential customers.

Depending on the volume of calls, some plans offer up to 50% off regular rates, even during "prime time". Some of these plans require a monthly "subscription" fee as well as a minimum dollar volume of calls each month before the discounts kick in.

Check with your phone company to see what it has to offer.

Flat Rate Calling Plans

A new breed of competition for the phone companies has arisen in the form of competitors who offer Flat Rate Calling Plans.

These plans allow subscribers to call anywhere within a defined area (usually defined by area codes and exchanges within them) and talk as long as they like for one monthly flat rate. Some o these plans are based on time-of-day as well as the geographical area while others, usually more expensive, let subscribers call whenever they like within the flat rate area for the monthly charge.

Many of the plans offered by the telephone companies' competitors require the installation of an electronic device called a dialer. It plugs into the wall jack for your phone line and then into your phone. To access the network, you dial a code to activate the dialer and then area code and the number.

Most of these companies charge a one-time installation and/or activation fee in addition to the monthly flat rate charge or discounted monthly billings.

Pagers

Pagers, often called beepers, are a low-cost way to keep in touch when you're away from your office.

Paging services assign you a phone number, which you give to business associates so they can contact you when you're out. Then call goes to the service, which takes the message and then sends out an electronic signal to your pager to let you know you've had a call.

There are four types of pagers you can get:

  • Tone pagers simply "beep" or vibrate to let you know you've had a call. You then call the answering service or your voice mailbox to pick up the message.
  • Numeric pagers "beep" or vibrate to let you know you've been called and then show the number of the party calling you on pager's screen. The number can be stored for later use.
  • Alpha-numeric pagers function in the same way as numeric pagers plus they display the name of the party who called you along with their number and even a brief message.
  • Voice pagers "beep" or vibrate to let you know you've been called, then provide an audio recording of the voice message left by the caller. Think of it as the world's smallest answering machine. Voice communications can sometimes means more explicit message transmission.
Faxes

The fax machine is an indispensable business. It is important to those who work at home and need to send out letters, proposals, artwork, etc., quickly to suppliers or clients.

There are three basic options to look at when you consider your faxing needs:

  • You can sign up with a business services bureau which offers faxing
  • Buy or lease a fax machine from an office equipment supplier or general retailer
  • Install a fax/modem in your computer which allows you to use your computer and its printer just like a fax machine.
Your choice for faxing will depend on several variables, such as cash flow, but here are a few things to keep in mind regarding these options:
  • Fax services' charges can add up quickly if you do a lot of faxing because they charge per page sent and received plus a monthly flat rate for access to the service.
  • If you do a lot of faxing, you'll want a phone line just for your fax machine; sing up for Ident-A-Call and use one of the 3 numbers for your fax machine.
  • If you don't want to get another line, get a fax machine that sorts out whether an incoming call is a fax or voice call.
  • If you buy or lease a fax machine, get a maintenance agreement on it after the warranty expires; it's cheap insurance against costly, unexpected repair bills.
  • If you opt for a fax/modem, make sure your fax software will convert files from all the other software you use or you won't be able to fax the material from your computer.
  • Depending on the nature of your business, you may want to use your fax/modem to send or to receive information directly from another computer.
  • You can also use your fax/modem to subscribe to hundreds of on-line services which give you access to new programs, libraries of information and non-copyrighted artwork, etc., which could be very useful to your business.
Cellular Phones

A cellular telephone is a great way to keep in touch no matter where you are. Here again, there are several options to consider.

First, do you want one installed in your car or do you want one to carry with you?

The fully-portable phones are don't always work well inside a car because the antenna is inside the car. And because they work on batteries rather that a car's power supply, they often don't have the range of a car phone.

Second, you have to sign onto a cellular network to use your phone, requiring a monthly subscription or access fee plus per-minute charges each time you use the phone.

Airtime on a cellular network can run at about 50 cents a minute but savings packages are available so shop around for the best deal.

Third, be selective in giving out your cellular number in order to keep your airtime charges down. You pay for the airtime whether you make or receive the call.

You can save substantially on your airtime charges if you use a pager to notify you of messages and the return your calls on your cellular phone.

Fourth, many of the time and money-saving telephone line feature you have on your line at home, such as call waiting and call forwarding, are available on your cellular line as well.

Who Answers When You're Out?

When you're away from your office, it's important that your phone is answered in a manner which reflects your professional approach to your business. So you should give careful though to how - or by whom - your calls will be answered when you are not available.

Here are three options to consider:

  • Get an answering machine
  • Subscribe to a voice mail service
  • Subscribe to a telephone message service (answering service) that offers both voice mail and remote receptionist services
Answering machines are not recommended because of their inferior voice quality and potential to break down, usually at the worst possible time.

A voice mail service allows you to record your own customized greeting and gives callers the opportunity to leave you a detailed voice message, eliminating time-wasting ambiguity. The system can also alert you by pager that you have received a message.

A telephone message service (answering service), that offers both voice mail and live remote-receptionist services, gives you the best of all telephone-answering worlds. The "live" voice on the phone makes your business seem "bigger" than it is, plus you get the convenience of voice mail for detailed voice messages.

Install call forwarding on your line and you simply forward it to the telephone messages service just as you go out. Your calls are then automatically re-directed to the service.

Messages can be picked up directly by phone, faxed to your office or e-mailed.

Leading edge telephone message services now offer sophisticated remote-receptionist services which include setting your appointments or taking orders for you. They guarantee to answer on the second ring.

When you use a top-notch telephone messages service, your callers will be hard-pressed to know they're not talking to your own staff receptionist!

Putting It All Together!

Here's what a truly complete and cost-effective home office telecommunications package should consist of:

  • Get a feature-packed phone and have at least Touch-Tone, call Waiting, Ident-A-Call and Call-Forwarding on your line(s).
  • Use a telephone message service to answer your phone when you're out because a live voice makes your business seem "bigger" that it really is.
  • Answering machines should not be used because of their inferior voice quality and potential to break down.
  • Get a pager from your telephone messages service and subscribe to its program which notifies you instantly when you've received a message.
  • Get a cellular phone but use it only to make or return calls so you can control the amount of airtime you use.
  • Get your own fax machine and use one of the 3 Ident-A-Call numbers just for faxing; it's the least expensive way

For additional information, check out the Canpage Services section.

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