Consolidate Those Phone Numbers!

ctpnCOMPARE YOUR PERSONAL AND BUSINESS LIVES. MOST people have one name, one Social Security number, and one home address. Now think of your business card: office, 800, fax, and cell phone numbers. You don’t suffer this kind of confusion in your everyday life. Why do you put your clients through torture to track you down?

Hoping to tame this number jungle, several long-distance phone companies are now offering lifetime, or 500 prefix, numbers. These follow-me phone services let clients dial a single number to rind you–no matter where you roam. Whether you’re in your office, at home, in a remote office, or in your car, calls get through to you. Say goodbye to clients dialing three or four numbers and not finding you.

Follow-me services save you time and (possibly) money by ensuring that your customers can easily and immediately reach you. If you are in a service business that depends on personal contact, you owe it to yourself and your business to investigate follow-me services. These new services, however, are not without their pitfalls, and alternative technologies may soon duplicate their capabilities.

There are any number of variations on follow-me service. But in general, your service provider assigns you a follow-me number and then you program the service (over the phone) to redirect incoming calls automatically to another number-including a remote office location, cellular phone, or whatever other number you choose. You can even forward your fax number to redirect incoming faxes to a hotel or neighborhood Kinko’s while on a business trip. Here’s what two of the major services provide.

Going Long AT&T was the first long-distance carrier to use 500 prefix numbers with its True Connection follow-me service. After AT&T assigns you a 500 number, you can use the service one of two ways. Your clients can dial 1-500 and your number in the same manner as a regular long-distance call. Unfortunately for your clients, they get billed for the long-distance charges.

If you want to pick up a client’s tab, they have to dial 0-500 and enter a PIN number that you provide. Voila, you’ve combined some of the best features of 800 calls and 500 calls. It’s not as convenient as dialing a single toll-free 800 number, but it does reroute calls to any second number you choose. AT&T does virtually all of the work. Yes, you have to tell the service which number to bump to, but with a variety of plans that can run as little as $1 per month, the service cost is a relatively modest one.

That’s the good news. The downside of this equation is the cost of the calls themselves. First, the service only works if you use AT&T as your long-distance carrier. If you prefer MCI, Sprint, or another carrier, don’t look to AT&T for follow-me service.

Second, AT&T charges the long-distance calls at a pretty high rate: 25 cents per minute during peak hours (namely, during prime business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and 15 cents per minute off-peak. Although instate calls vary by state, you can pay as much as 22 cents per minute peak and 13 cents off-peak. If a client dials your 500 number from next door because he doesn’t know where you are, you (or he, depending on your billing option) pay up to 22 cents a minute for the call. This is far more than either local or in-state longdistance calls under most billing plans.

To be fair, you do get the benefit of any discounts that AT&T offers for your total long-distance service. If your plan provides a 10 percent discount, for example, you also get a 10 percent savings on the total. monthly bill for your follow-me calls.

Still, AT&T’s basic service only lets you forward calls to a single number. If you want the system to track you down by dialing your office number first, then a cellular phone, and finally your pager, you’ll have to pay for AT&T’s premium plan, which will set you back $7 extra per month.

Friends Call, Friends Pay MCI also offers a variety of services as part of its Personal 500 Connections packages. The basic follow-me service from MCI only costs $1 per month, but it has a number of benefits over the AT&T plan with the same monthly cost.

First, MCI doesn’t require that you or the caller be a current MCI long-distance customer. You can continue using Sprint and just receive a bill from MCI for your follow-me service. Second, MCI’s basic plan includes the ability to program the service to automatically track you down at up to,three numbers.

Also, MCI is a bit less expensive: Its base rate is 24.5 cents per minute peak and 15 cents off-peak. If the caller is an MCI customer, however, he gets an automatic 25 percent discount, lowering the day rate to 18.25 cents. Unfortunately, in the MCI setup, the caller always pays–which could anger touchy clients.

Better Ways? Since each of the major follow-me services has its holes, maybe Sprint can improve on the formula after its 500 service gets OK’ed by the FCC. Because the service was not yet officially approved, Sprint couldn’t offer us any details about costs. They were, however, taking reservations for specific numbers as we went to press.

Many local Bell companies offer similar services, as do a number of cellular carders. Also, independent firms are looking to provide this service, and there should be a host of options available during 1996.

Looking ahead, newer versions of the telephony cards currently included on most retail PCs could provide follow-me technology at an affordable price. Priority Call Management already provides a very sophisticated (and, with prices starting at $50,000, very expensive) service that’s based on a Unix workstation, software, and switching equipment that routes calls for an entire company. Scaling back the technology to the PC level might make these capabilities affordable by early 1997.

For now, you need to weigh what you can and can’t get from a 500 number. With costs as low as $1 per month, a 500 number can increase your availability to clients. However, if you saddle your callers with long-distance charges on what they assume to be a local call, expect some disgruntled clients. Also consider how often you want someone to be able reach you on a moment’s notice.

A follow-me line has plenty of potential benefits, but neither of the existing services we examined has exactly the right combination of features at the moment. You’re unlikely to stop giving out your current phone number in favor of your follow-me number, but it’s a nice second point of contact when a client is in a hurry, or if an emergency arises. Plan on making it a useful addition to your arsenal–and adding another line to your business card.


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