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You've Got Voice Mail

When Chris Hackett’s computer systems consulting firm, Chackett Consulting of Roswell Ga., started to take off three years ago, Hackett realized he needed a more business-like way of answering the phone.

In the past, he’d always just given out his personal cell phone number, and maybe his home number to selected clients. If he wasn’t at one phone, they’d try the other.

“But now we were in a position where we’d landed a couple of pretty big customers,” he explains. “I felt I really needed a more professional mechanism for clients to get in touch with us - particularly when the image we were trying to project was one of a professional, well-run company, one they could feel comfortable doing business with.”

It’s a challenge many small businesses face. Hackett looked at a few options for meeting it.

Buying an office phone system (at least $15,000) and hiring a secretary ($25,000 to $30,000 a year) were out of the question. His firm is too small - only four full-time employees and under $500,000 a year in billings.

Plus, Hackett himself is rarely in the office - he’s usually out and about, visiting clients and suppliers. Chackett in fact is more a virtual company, with employees and a stable of associates working out of client or home offices around Atlanta.

Hackett briefly considered a service that provided shared office and meeting space and a live receptionist to answer incoming calls. “But that was a little more expensive than I wanted it to be,” he says.

Then he heard about GotVMail.

GotVMail Communications, a four-year-old Boston-based start-up offers an innovative toll-free phone service designed especially for small businesses. For as little as $10 a month, subscribers get a 1-800 number, answered by a voice mail/auto attendant system that can route calls to any number as well as take messages.

“The price was certainly right,” Hackett says. He rarely pays more than $30 a month for the service. GotVMail charges 7.4 cents a minute (or as low as 4.8 cents if the customer prepays) for incoming calls on the toll-free number, plus 4.4 cents or less a minute for transferring calls to another number.

The auto attendant system functions exactly like the systems big corporations use, which is the whole point of GotVMail - to make small companies look like big companies.

“The service lends a tremendous amount of credibility to my business,” Hackett says. “That was 100-percent the reason I got it.”

Chackett’s GotVMail number offers callers a range of options - to speak to Chris, press one, to talk to technical support, press two, and so on. Hackett and his employees and associates can use the toll-free number themselves to call the GotVMail system and program it with personalized greetings and call processing routines - if the caller asks for Chris, first try this cell phone number; if it doesn’t answer, try this home number.

That’s the other great thing about the service, Hackett says - it follows him around and finds him wherever he is. “It frees me up from having to stay in one spot - because basically, I don’t have a phone that rings at my desk.”

This is a fairly typical requirement of GotVMail’s customers, says the company’s president and CEO Siamak Taghaddos. Taghaddos founded the company on a shoestring but has since landed $1.5 million in venture capital funding.

“It’s mostly people with a small business with one to five employees who are not in a centralized location, may even be in different states. Then we also get home businesses that want to appear as if they’re larger. So, small businesses, home offices and professionals who are always on the road.”

Hackett fit the profile perfectly. And apparently there are lots of other small businesses with the same needs. GotVMail has about 2,000 customers now and is taking on new customers at a rate of about 300 to 350 a month. Since he recently reduced his rates, Taghaddos figures his growth rate will only increase.

“It should go to about 1,000 [a month],” he predicts. “There are 40 million small businesses in the U.S. and every one of them can use this service.”

The service offers more than just a toll-free line and voice mail/auto attendant features. The GotVMail system also plays music on hold, can route calls to a live operator, and will automatically phone subscribers and play voice mail messages to them, or page them to let them know messages are waiting.

Hackett uses a fairly basic, unadorned version of the service, but subscribers who buy the $20-a-month package can set up a dial-by-name database, establish “virtual marketing extensions” that play prerecorded marketing messages - and receive faxes and have them forwarded to a fax machine. Ten-dollar-a-month subscribers pay $5 extra a month each for these features.

For an additional $10 a month, GotVMail will automatically convert voice messages to computer audio files and send them to you via e-mail as attachments. This is becoming a very popular feature, Taghaddos says.

GotVMail is not alone in the emerging market for small business phone services. It faces competition from at least three other providers. They include WorkEasy, Angel.com and AccessLine Communications.

Taghaddos says he developed his system after the others were already in the market - so he learned from their successes, and from their mistakes and weaknesses. Today, he’s taking customers away from better-established players, he says.

GotVMail’s server-based phone systems are co-located at a New York City “telecom hotel” with multiple incoming T-1 circuits and connections to major long distance carriers. Each T-1 is equivalent to 24 conventional phone “channels,” but since GotVMail uses high-quality voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, they provide capacity for many more simultaneous calls.

“We can handle 50,000 subscribers with what we’ve got now,” Taghaddos says. “And we can upgrade on a week’s notice to add capacity for 10,000 more [at a time]. We use the same quality of phone lines as AT&T and Verizon. In fact, we invested probably more than we should have to make sure we could give customers a high-quality service.”

Any small business with a few employees or associates could benefit from a service like GotVMail. If they also put up a professional-looking Web site and spend a bit on branding - logo, stationery, brochures, etc. - even the tiniest outfit can look like a very credible organization.

Just ask Chris Hackett.