As I mentioned in my last post, there are many services available to the small business or sole trader which can make them more efficient and present a professional view to the outside world.

Now it does depend a lot on what kind of business you are running, but most businesses still require a telephone. In fact if you have any sort of a website then by law you are required to have contact details on it. This includes a contact telephone number and there are moves afoot to ban all contact numbers other than geographical (01, 02, 03) numbers.

Many small companies, myself included, have made use of 0870 and then 0844 numbers hosted by external services in order to pay for extras like emailed mp3′s of their voice-mail messages. This may not be an option in the future. As a small start-up having an 0800 number looks great until you spend an hour on the phone with someone who called you from a mobile and you have to pay maybe 40p per minute for the call. Better be a big contract!

So if you don’t want a diverted service which goes through to your regular land line or mobile, but you do want a local telephone number, are there any options which won’t require a visit to your friendly bank manager? Well yes as it happens there is. Assuming you don’t want to donate your hard earned cash to BT or some other provider and get a whole new line put in, you need to make use of whatever you already have.

Most likely what you already have is a telephone line and broadband running though it. If you want to keep any distance between your home life and your business, giving out your home telephone number is  not an option. Particularly if you have clients or customers who don’t understand that you don’t spend 24/7 waiting for a call from them and being paying customers does not give them the right to phone you at any time of the day or night.

So telephone is out, that just leaves broadband. And that means VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol. A broadband phone. Aha, you will say, I’ve used Skype and it’s not always so hot. True, but a dedicated VOIP service with a hardware telephone is a different level of quality so don’t dismiss the idea out of hand. In fact for a small company, particularly one without it’s own premises, VOIP ticks a great many boxes.

So now some of the advantages of VOIP start to emerge. If you have a VOIP telephone which plugs into broadband, then you can take it with you and still be able to function the same as normal if say you are meeting a client in a rented conference room. All you need is the phone and a broadband connection.

If there is more than one person in the business, you can have a virtual switchboard with as many departments as you want and those departments can be anywhere. They don’t even have to be on the same continent as each other as long as they have a broadband connection. More likely they will be sited in a number of different homes which people are working out of, but the caller just gets a message welcoming them to the company and asking which department they would like to talk to. They have no idea how large or small you are, it’s therefore down to you to impress your prospects which is exactly what it should be.

And the best thing about it? You only pay for what you want, if you want one number and one voice-mail then you pay for one number and one voice-mail. When you want more extensions and voice-mails, you just add them on. The obvious advantage of this is you don’t have to invest in a digital telephone system which can only be used on one site and even if you do end up with a business premises you can still use the same VOIP setup.

One last thing, even if you have an established business but wish to move into a new geographical area or will shortly be relocating and need to establish a presence, no problem. Just add a number local to the area you want to target and point it at your VOIP phone because you can have more than one number per account. Maybe you want to open a virtual office in another country? Buy a suitable number for that country. Pretty simple huh?

There are a number of VOIP service providers, one I have had experience of is Voipfone based here in the UK. Their prices and facilities are pretty reasonable as far as I am concerned and they have a thirty day free trial. They also allow you to set business hours and offer a facility to email you a recording of any voice-mail left for you out of hours or if after a set time you haven’t answered.