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From mixed messages to one simple e-mail

A typical day for many workers in small businesses involves a round of tedious but essential actions, repeated over and over and over: Check for e-mail on computer and read messages. Check voicemail on phone and retrieve messages. Go to fax machine and check for incoming faxes.

But Rob Stauffert, a partner in Toronto-based Autobahn Media, a photographic, graphic arts and web design firm, has to do only one thing to keep on top of valuable messages: Check his e-mail.

Like a growing number of people in small business, Mr. Stauffert uses something called converged messaging. Voicemails and faxes are automatically forwarded as attachments to e-mails and show up in his e-mail box along with regular text messages.

To listen to a voicemail, he simply double clicks on the attachment in the message and it plays through his computer’s speakers. If it’s a fax, he double-clicks on the attachment and a graphics file displays on his computer screen.

“It’s a great time saver,” Mr. Stauffert says. “I always hated having to dial in for voicemail.”

He also likes the fact that he can more easily skip unimportant messages. With traditional voicemail, for example, messages are presented in the order received and you have to listen to at least the beginning of each one to find out what it’s about. By getting his voicemail in his e-mail, he can see the person’s phone number and sometimes name in the subject line and tell at a glance which messages he really needs to open.

When Mr. Stauffert is out of the office, which is often, he receives e-mails, including voicemail, on his Palm Treo smart phone. With some converged messaging services, you can call in on a regular phone and a computer will read e-mails over the phone.

Converged or unified messaging (UM) has been available for several years but only relatively recently has it begun to gain converts in small business. Info-Tech Research Group, a consulting firm in London, Ont., estimates that in 2000 there were barely a million users of unified messaging worldwide, most of them in large enterprises. By early 2005, that number had jumped to 40 million.

Info-Tech senior research analyst Carmi Levy says UM may be particularly valuable for small businesses. Besides the benefits Mr. Stauffert mentions, converged messaging also helps ensure calls aren’t missed and eliminates delays.

“What it does is increase the agility of your communications with buyers and vendors,” Mr. Levy says. “It’s easier for them to get hold of you, and you them. And better communication will translate into more business. How often does a small business lose out on a potential sale because they don’t get back to a buyer fast enough?”

Info-Tech says unified messaging can also reduce hardware costs, increase security and provide better support for mobile staff.

The rise of converged messaging coincides with the transition from traditional voice technology to VoIP—voice over Internet protocol. UM becomes really easy to do only when all the different kinds of messages are passing over the same IP data network, both in the office over the local area network and outside over a wide-area network.

Autobahn Media uses the Small Business Virtual Phone System service from GotVMail Communications LLC, a U.S. company. Besides the UM elements (some of which are optional extras), the service also provides a toll-free number for your company (or optionally, a local number) and an auto attendant that plays a greeting and lets callers route themselves to one of up to 99 different extensions or mailboxes. When a caller keys in an extension, GotVMail transfers the call to any telephone number the user designates, whether it’s a home, office or mobile phone.

Pricing is complex but includes $9.95 (U.S.) a month for basic service, $17 to $192 a month for a package of incoming call minutes (250 to 4,000), plus 4.8 to 7.4 cents for each additional minute, and $10 a month for Web and e-mail delivery of voicemail messages.

Bell Canada offers both consumer and small business services with voicemail (though not faxes) delivered to an e-mail address. The small business service, for $59.95 a month, includes a voicemail box, a secondary number, call forwarding, 300 minutes of North American calling, and a find-me-follow-me feature—when someone calls you, Bell will try you at multiple numbers before going to voicemail.

Mr. Levy advises that if a small business is entrusting all its messaging to an outside service bureau, it should be very sure there is adequate security, including encryption of stored messages.

When any small business implements a new IP-based phone system, converged messaging is an option that should be seriously considered, Mr. Levy says. However, because the computer storing the messages will now be on your premises, you need in-house information technology expertise, or you need to hire a consultant who can be on call to manage and maintain the system, he points out.

All the major telephone system vendors, including Nortel Networks, Cisco Systems Inc. and Alcatel-Lucent, offer small business solutions that include, or can include, converged messaging.

The cost can run “well into five or six figures” for a complete new VoIP system with unified messaging, Mr. Levy says, or the “low five figures” for UM alone if you already have a VoIP system in place.