By having a voice-mail system answer incoming calls at his company, Bhasker Agarwal had hoped to avoid hiring a receptionist. But Agarwal quickly discovered that some callers really don't like voice mail. He soon hired a switchboard operator to supplement the automated system at Information Systems and Services, in Silver Spring, Md., his $5.5-million Inc. 500 company. Now callers to Information Systems and Services first encounter a recorded message, but they have the option to press zero to speak to the receptionist.

Because they don't want to annoy customers, many small companies are reluctant to have a recording be callers' initial contact with the company phone system. A recent informal survey of the 1994 Inc. 500 companies found that 83.6% of those fast-growing privately held small companies had receptionists answer the phones at their main numbers. However, 15.6% relied on voice-mail systems, and 0.8% had answering machines in place. Here's how some Inc. 500 companies use "automated attendants" at the main switchboard:

1994 sales

Sounds True
Mail-order seller of spiritual audiotapes
Tami Simon
Boulder, Colo.
$4 million
Number of Menu Options Given (besides entering an extension): Three -- press "0" for operator, "#" for employee directory, "2" to place an order or receive a catalog. # WHY SHE BOUGHT IT: Simon purchased voice mail for her company last September, after she realized that the time her telephone operators spent taking messages for other employees interfered with taking customer orders. When customers dial Sounds True's 800 number they still get a live operator, but those who call the company's corporate number get the automated attendant. Simon likes the $7,000 voice-mail system, which the company bought from its telephone vendor. But with no one to screen calls, she finds picking up her phone "a little bit like roulette" because she doesn't know who's calling. # UNUSUAL FEATURES: Callers hear Sounds True tapes while they're on hold.

WinterBrook Beverage
Beverage marketer and distributor
Ray Smith
Group, Bellevue, Wash.
$36 million
Number of Menu Options Given (besides entering an extension): Four -- press "0" for operator, "2" for company address and fax number, "3" for employee directory, "1" for all other options. # WHY HE BOUGHT IT: Price. WinterBrook Beverage was subletting space from another company, and that tenant decided to move. Rather than uprooting its phones, the relocating company offered to sell them to WinterBrook very cheaply; Smith estimates the company paid about $1,000. The automated-attendant feature has since saved personnel costs for WinterBrook. One disadvantage, says Smith, is that because the system is old, it lacks speed and adequate message-storage space.

First Commonwealth
Dental health-maintenance organization
Chris Multhauf
$22 million
Number of Menu Options Given (besides entering an extension): Four -- press "4" for member services, "5" for provider relations, "6" for broker relations, "7" if you're calling from an employer group. # WHY HE BOUGHT IT: First Commonwealth receives from 2,500 to 5,000 calls a day. Multhauf says it would be "cruel and unusual punishment" to make a receptionist handle them all. "People don't want to talk to an operator," he says. "They want to talk to someone who can help them." First Commonwealth has already outgrown its three-and-a-half-year-old voice-mail system, which cost "in excess of $50,000." The projected total price tag for a state-of-the-art new system: $250,000 or more. # UNUSUAL FEATURES: The company gets regular reports that detail statistics such as the number of incoming calls and the amount of time customers are kept on hold.

Mail-order seller of reading accessories
Steven Leveen
Delray Beach, Fla.
$42 million
Number of Menu Options Given (besides entering an extension): Two -- press "555" for employee directory, "0" for operator. # WHY HE BOUGHT IT: Leveen wanted voice mail to save time. However, he hastens to point out, customers call another number and speak to real human beings. "We don't subject customers to voice mail -- only our suppliers and ourselves." Levenger has had the system, which Leveen estimates cost about $30,000, for about two years. # UNUSUAL FEATURES: Leveen's voice mail helps him screen calls. A computerized voice asks for each caller's name -- information Leveen hears before he picks up.

Published on: Jun 1, 1995