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Better phone services for small businesses

“Let me transfer you to that number” is a phrase large companies take for granted and one that has long frustrated small businesses with distributed workers. But with new services using voice over IP, small companies can now transfer callers to extensions just like the big guys, even if that “extension” is in a home office six states away.

Leveraging the Web-based administration and quick configuration changes of broadband phone services, small companies can now emulate big-company telecom features for tiny-company prices. Consider San Felipe Development and Mortgage Madness, customers of GotVMail Communications, which started offering advanced telephony services in 2003.

Brian Crumrine, vice president and co-founder of San Felipe Development, runs a Mexico-based real estate development company from his home office in southern California. Most employees work out of two offices in Baja, California, and Mexico, which really means out at development sites. Everyone uses cell phones.

“People call our toll-free number, hear an automated listing of people and extensions, and choose what they want,” Crumrine says. The system connects them to that person’s cell phone whether the employee is in California or Mexico. GotVMail treats employee cell phones like extensions on the company telephone network.

Forty-eight of the company’s 50 employees are on their cell phones in a typical day. Luckily for Crumrine, Cingular interfaces with a Mexican cell phone provider so San Felipe employees use one phone in both countries.

Crumrine chose GotVMail because it supported the features he wanted, including call forwarding and the ability to forward voice mail to e-mail systems as sound files (usually in WAV format), a favorite feature of many Internet telephone service users.

After testing, Crumrine signed up with GotVMail and pays $87 per month for 30 managed lines. There were no upfront fees, no equipment to purchase and it is all managed via a Web administration utility.

Mortgage Madness is a bit more typical distributed small business. Based in Kelly McGovern’s home office in Massachusetts, the company handles contract mortgage paperwork processing for lenders all over the country and has four other employees who work from their homes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“Customers never know we’re not all in the same office,” McGovern says. Before she signed up with GotVMail, however, that was harder to hide. With no way to transfer calls to another employee, McGovern had to take a message and forward that message manually. Now callers choose the person they wish to speak to during the automated attendant’s message.

While other phone systems would have required upfront costs of $8,000 to $10,000 and a server and software, McGovern chose GotVMail and says she pays less than $40 per month for 20 extensions.

McGovern’s favorite feature is the ability to reroute calls to different phone numbers through the Web utility: “If I’m going to be away for a few hours, I send all my calls to my cell phone.”

Her company has enough extensions to assign numbers to some of the financial institutions they work for, making it easy for them and customers calling in to reach financial officers directly. If a customer asks questions McGovern can’t legally answer, such as those about loan rates, McGovern transfers them easily.

Welcome to the world of telephone service as software. Flexibility, instant configuration and the ability to avoid any hardware costs in favor of a hosted service provide small companies with a phone service only big companies could afford in the past. Thanks to GotVMail and competitors VirtualPBX, Packet 8, ConnectMe and Pandora Networks, the telecom playing field no longer tilts away from small companies and now looks just about level.