Every Monday morning John Faulkner mass-mails voice messages just by hitting keys on his phone pad. The president and owner of Colorado Clarklift, based in Denver, dictates one message to each of the company's offices in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas, outlining his schedule for the week. Then he pushes another key and recites a price-change advisory to all 21 members of his sales force. A third key sends a pep talk to a specific company division. Any recipient can reply simply by punching the A (for answer) key -- handy when you're in a car doing 65 miles an hour.

Faulkner has wrapped up his calls by 9 a.m. That's quite a change from last year, when he'd dedicate the morning to individual long-distance calls across the seven western states his $25-million materials-handling-equipment distributorship covers.

So has he subscribed to voice mail? No, voice messaging.

Voice messaging takes voice mail's benefits (such as bulk messaging) beyond the office to almost any phone destination you select, without voice mail's big drawback: the need for dedicated hardware. Instead, the messaging provider's own file server controls an independent high-speed digitized telephone network. "Not only was there no capital expenditure," Faulkner says, "but if I don't like it, I can walk away from it tomorrow."

Mailbox holders like Faulkner and his staff use a local number to gain access to the system through an ordinary touch-tone phone. The provider's computer instantly recognizes who's calling and which pool of seven-digit-number mailboxes (there are no area codes) that caller connects to. When the link is established, the caller can dial around the network as in a typical customer-premise-equipment (CPE) voice-mail system -- except that with messaging, the other mailboxes can be scattered across the continent, and users can play phone tag all day without incurring long-distance charges. Messaging through the service Faulkner selected -- Cleveland-based Voice-Tel, which claims to be the world's largest independent voice-messaging provider -- costs 35¢ for three minutes, city to city, no matter what the distance is. (Local messaging is free.) Faulkner pays 20% less than he'd pay with CPE, and he saves the cost of beepers, which his people no longer require.

Recently, Voice-Tel expanded its network to Australia, which subscribers now can dial for about the cost of a U.S. city-to-city call. But that's not what appealed most to VIP Discount Auto Center, a car-parts retailer based in Lewiston, Maine, when it subscribed, last year. Voice messaging enabled vice-president Mike Sweeney to design an order-fulfilling function for hard-to-find parts that by the end of this year will be producing new business for VIP at the rate of $2.5 million annually.

Voice-Tel connects VIP central with its 30 stores in Maine and New Hampshire. When a customer orders a replacement handle for a 1955 Chevy, the order is entered by voice into the purchasing agent's mailbox, where it takes its place behind other oral orders being listened to and dispatched in sequence. And if a customer phones in a query, it's bucked to VIP employees with the appended voice notation "Can anyone help out with this?"

The proficiency the system engendered has inspired Sweeney to connect VIP to its third-party vendors. "The business was always there," he says, "but we weren't able to tap it before voice messaging because we had no efficient way of getting items we didn't stock. There are hundreds of thousands of parts involved, and the last thing we wanted to say to a customer was, 'You'll have to go somewhere else for that part." Now all VIP clerks need say is "Please hold."

At about $18 a month per mailbox for a small business, voice-messaging costs are competitive with those of voice mail. For more information, call Voice-Tel Enterprises at 800-247-4237. Providers with similar services include Tigon (214-733-2700) and VoiceCom (404-993-3393).

* * *