The Unified State of Messaging

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 01, 2001
by Katie Fitzgerald

For randy eastwood, a busy Seattle-area real-estate agent, keeping tabs on incoming phone calls and faxes is crucial to closing deals. Like many agents, Eastwood has an office phone, a cell phone, a fax line, and a home-office line. Unlike most of the competition, he's no longer chasing messages in four different locations.

Eastwood spends at least 50 percent of his time on the road. Two years ago, he began using a unified-messaging system called AccessLine, which centralizes incoming calls to all of his communications devices, into a single telephone number. Eastwood can then choose to have the system deliver his calls to whichever device he selects. He can even have his calls sent to another agency office.

"I work in Redmond, [Wash.], but I'm officially based in Mercer Island," Eastwood says. "Before pulling everything into one number, I would get faxes and other important information about deals at both locations all day." He no longer needs to pick up information at the main office or ask colleagues to resend his faxes elsewhere. Instead, his system automatically sends the fax to the nearest office.

Eastwood says unified messaging saves him anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour a day, time that was previously spent juggling several different devices and messaging systems.

A Smoother Daily Grind
"Road warriors" like Eastwood may find that a good unified-messaging system can provide an ideal, affordable solution to the connection conundrum. It allows businesspeople more accessibility to clients and customers while on the road. At the same time, users can customize incoming communication traffic to suit their availability and their daily schedules.

Most systems can be programmed to alert users to specific callers or urgent messages only, so important meetings can continue undisturbed. Users can then prioritize their time and delay tasks until they can be tackled effectively.

Systems such as AccessLine and LinxConnect can also transform e-mail text messages into speech. AccessLine integrates with Outlook and Lotus Notes contact-management software programs, which further simplifies the process of rerouting and prioritizing calls and messages. AccessLine and several other providers can tie three separate cell phone lines together into a single phone number, even if the phones are from three different wireless providers.

In Touch, or Outta Touch
Business users who don't need the extras of a fully configured unified-messaging system can choose a simpler and cheaper system, such as eVoice.

Todd Meikle, a marketing manager at Reason, Inc., a 40-person Aurora, Colo.-based wireless device management company, uses eVoice to control phone traffic when he's in meetings. "One of my co-workers wants to be reached at all times on one number, but I don't like to be disturbed during key times of the day," Meikle says. "So I use eVoice to route calls to a single voice-mail system, letting me get those messages at my convenience later that day or from my home office."

Meikle says he saves several hours each week thanks to unified messaging. "I'm not getting calls and messages at the wrong time and place," he says. "I can head off routine calls and react only to urgent situations."

The Portable Office
Unified messaging can be invaluable for businesspeople who frequently travel outside their local area. Most business travelers find themselves checking their office messages, home messages, and e-mail, in addition to the messages on their cell phone. Ben Minsk, director of sales at Acme Packet, a technology start-up based in Woburn, Mass., relies on LinxConnect when he is on the road. The service, which he has used for five years, allows him to receive phone calls, e-mails, and faxes anywhere via a telephone or computer link. He can then redirect phone calls and faxes and attach a voice message or fax to an e-mail message.

Whether he's in or out of the office, Minsk works the phones all day, talking to everyone from vendors to sales prospects. "I have to be reachable most of the time, and I need to be able to route calls according to whatever is urgent on a particular day," Minsk says. "LinxConnect lets me screen callers by asking them to say their name before I pick up a call. Knowing what kind of call is coming in gives me all kinds of options. I can put one person on hold, versus losing a high-priority call."

LinxConnect routes e-mail messages and faxes directly to Minsk at his hotel or at the offices he's visiting that day. "The beauty of the system is that callers don't have to be inconvenienced if I'm not around, and I don't get additional stress by trying to check messages all day when I'm on the road," he says. "I can constantly change the system to suit where I am. It's like a portable office."

What Hassles?
Certainly, businesspeople should be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that their clients and customers can contact them easily and without hassle. Most unified-messaging systems won't scare anyone away with complex instructions or menus, but it doesn't hurt to keep your customers' experience in mind when shopping for a service.

Some systems, including LinxConnect, require new users to adopt one of its telephone numbers, often toll-free, which might be inconvenient for established businesses. But with local telephone company offerings, users in some areas, can keep their own numbers.

When Eastwood signed up with AccessLine he was assigned a new phone number. But having his own personal number came in handy when he switched from one real-estate company to another one year ago. In fact, it eased his transition. "From now on I have one number that follows me wherever I go, and people don't have to run around trying to find me at four different phone numbers," Eastwood says. "It saves me time, and it saves my clients a lot of hassles."

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