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Basics and Benefits of Voice Mail and Unified Messaging

Voice mail and unified messaging are automated telephone technologies used by businesses large and small to increase productivity and efficiency while providing 24-hour responsiveness to callers. Also called "virtual office systems," "virtual assistant" and "virtual PBX," they don't require you to buy any software or hardware. You're simply renting a monthly service, and the service provider automatically routes your calls to a number that's exclusively assigned to you.

All calls to this number arrive at your physical phone. Depending on the features you choose and how you tailor them, most voicemail/unified messaging services make it possible for your callers press keys for more information by voice and/or fax, and to leave voice mail messages, and to be forwarded live to the person they're calling. There's a range of different voice mail and unified messaging services available, all with different features and calling plans. They charge a monthly fee for the basic service, plus long distance by the minute for all usage. Most include a toll free number, and some also offer local (non-toll) numbers in selected cities. Pricing varies depending on the features you choose.

You can get everything from a toll free number and/or one voice mail box to a unified messaging aka a virtual PBX with the works. If all you need is a toll free number, shop your local Yellow Pages and the Internet for companies specializing in toll free numbers only. Or if all you need is one or two voice mail boxes for taking messages (and you'd rather not use an answering machine), begin with your local telephone company and then compare their prices to other such services.

But now let's talk "unified messaging, virtual office, virtual assistant and virtual PBX," all of which generally mean the same thing: a single phone number that does it all for your callers, automates your communications and consolidates all your messaging, 24/7. The starting point in determining the nature and scope of your service requirement is to know how many voice mail boxes you need. You figure this according to how many different products and/or options you want to present to your callers via outgoing audio recordings that you place in the system. You also look at this based on how many associates, if any, are using the system with you.

For example, you'll need more than voice mail box if you need an automated way to deliver various kinds of messages/announcements to your callers, say, about different products or different options. This allows your callers to press designated keys to hear what they're looking for and to leave messages relevant to that topic. You'd also need more than one voice mail box if anyone else works with you in your business. This allows callers to leave messages and make contact with the staff member you've assigned to that voice mail box extension. If you want to take your calls live, you need "Follow-me-live" aka call forwarding. Ideally, the service you choose should have unlimited call forwarding where it can ring as many different phone numbers as you want until it finds you.

(Many services will only forward to one additional number so keep an eye out for this.) Another thing you'd most likely want to avoid is the service that limits the length of your voice mail messages, in, out or both. Be sure you don't mind having your callers cut off at the ankles before subscribing to limited-length messaging services. So far we've only scraped the surface of unified messaging services.

Among the many other features and functions of the best services are caller ID, call screening, paging, fax on demand, email voice and fax delivery, voice blasting, name/address capture, lead distribution, music on hold, automated order taking, automated interviewing and more. The service you choose should be just that robust, versatile, scalable and flexible without costing an arm and a leg. The best example is a user-centric service that has years of consistent uptime, lots of features, simplicity of use, and never a busy signal.

The idea being to support your need to deliver the highest form of responsiveness to your callers that automation can provide while gaining greater productivity and efficiency for your business.

Copyright MBPCO 2006 and beyond. Elizabeth Miller is a professional freelance copywriter and a general partner in Miller Bridges Partners. For more information about business voicemail, virtual PBX and unified messaging visit click here

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