Answering machine, schmanswering machine. The popular device is now a relic of the 1980s. And an answering service? That's an artifact from the days of black-and-white movies.
At least that's what Symantec Corp., a maker of communications software, claims in its press kit.
But don't sneer at these pre-PC means of communications. The answering machine offers incredible advantages through its simplicity: Hook it up to a phone line, turn it on and push a couple of buttons to record your outgoing message, and hit another button to retrieve messages. It almost never crashes, and it's cheap to replace.
Likewise, no one has trouble figuring out how to leave a message with an answering service, in which human operators handle the calls.
But if you'd like your clients to press "1" for customer service, several pieces of software can handle the task.
I took a look at two such products: TalkWorks Pro and Communicate Pro.
My experience was not always pleasant.
Imagine a polite-sounding computerized voice greeting your customers with this not-so-courteous welcome: "That is not a valid choice. That is not a valid choice. That is not a valid choice. Thank you for calling. Goodbye."
That's what happened to me when I used Communicate Pro because I forgot to convert a file to a format my modem could transmit.
But both software applications offer some helpful features. I set them up at home, and they were able to contact me at work by beeper when messages arrived. Communicate Pro called me at work, reading me a new incoming voice-mail message after I entered a password.
A useful feature in both packages is fax-on-demand service, which allows customers to call your office to receive documents via fax: "Press 1 for our product list. Press 2 for our orderr form."
Businesses can charge the cost of the fax-on-demand call to customers by having them call your computer using the telephone handset on their fax machine. The software will then ask callers which documents they want and send the faxes during the same call.
Using both packages, businesses can set one outgoing message during business hours and another that is played to callers during off-hours. Communicate Pro allows users to tailor outgoing messages to particular callers based on their phone numbers, if caller ID service is set up on the phone line.
And the latest version will automatically bring up the caller's information in your computerized address book in ACT or Outlook.
Both products provide a telephone-like screen that offers the illusion of simplicity. And they provide wizards to lead you through the process of creating mailboxes.
But the setup of both packages tested my technical knowledge. At first, my outgoing messages slightly surpassed the decibel of a whisper, though the software is supposed to tailor the volume to your PC. A little tinkering fixed the problem.
I had trouble recording outgoing messages in TalkWorks Pro; I had trouble playing them back in Communicate Pro.
My system became unstable using both systems, forcing me to reboot. That's partly because constantly running a PC can destabilize Windows. You should regularly reboot, whether using this software or not.
I had to call technical support for both setups, but both companies answered promptly. Don't be bashful about calling for support for software you're setting up. You might have to pay for the long-distance call, but the support is usually free.
If you buy either of these packages, you can be sure you'll soon be receiving the free tech support. Just don't try making the call through your PC.