Sophisticated telephone-answering systems, through which callers can buy stocks or get train schedules by merely pressing a number on a keypad, have until now been the province of voice-mail systems that run hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the technology is now so miniaturized in both size and price that it can be embraced by small businesses and sole proprietors as well.

Easily installed in an ordinary desktop computer, budget-end interactive answering systems cost hardly more than household answering machines. Yet they not only possess superior voice fidelity, but in many functions are as versatile as any switchboard. For a few hundred dollars plus a microcomputer, you can have voice mailboxes just like the big-ticket versions. What would a modest enterprise do with so clever a contrivance? Here are a few illustrations:

1. Establish two-way dialogues with customers or vendors, using discrete codes that access exclusive material.

2. Deliver spoken information at a specified time. Say you leave for Europe on a 7 a.m. flight and need to reach someone who won't be available until you're over Greenland. Solution: First record the message. Then at a designated minute the system will dial on its own, wait for a pickup, ask for your party (in case someone else answers or there's a switchboard), establish a connection to the right person with the right password, then speak on your behalf.

3. Advise traveling salespeople about out-of-stock situations. No longer does a rep about to close a deal need to get his warehouse clerk for assurance of delivery; the rep can listen directly to the warehouse's own inventory reports.

4. Divide responses into branches to help the caller reach the desired area of information. A retailer, for instance, could pitch daily specials on one branch and new products on another, then debrief resultant phone orders at leisure.

5. Place one in an office-at-home adjunct. Then adapt the tactic described in (2) above, setting the system to call your office at a designated time -- say, during a boring meeting from which you'd like to be excused.

The setup is simple. The hardware consists of a plug-in board that fits inside a computer (which needn't be exclusively devoted to running the system). The telephone is attached via a standard phone-jack, and the software self-installs. It's best to have a capacious hard disk, since five minutes of talk requires a megabyte of storage.

-- Robert A. Mamis

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