Phone Answering Service Pays Back in Time

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Small retail- or service-based businesses often spend time--or money--fielding mundane phone calls. Where is the store? How do I get there? When does it close? Are there any current promotions? If this sounds familiar, you might already have callers reach an answering machine that rattles off these details. But customers might waste time waiting for the end of the message for the information they want.

FonGenie, a simple, automated phone answering service fixes these problems and even arms businesses with details about calls. Customers hear messages that you can easily change, quickly navigating menus to get information they need. Your phone will ring only if they want more assistance.

FonGenie is currently in a preview phase, and while I found a few rough edges when I poked around, small businesses could already find it worthwhile. You'll sign up for free, secure a new phone number for incoming calls, and enter the phone number for your store location.

Further settings configure your store hours and what should happen if someone calls when you're closed. For example, a specific greeting could say when you'll open again and then send the call to voicemail, never ringing your actual phone.

The prompt system uses two fairly good text-to-speech voices, making it easy to reprogram greetings through the website. You just type in new messages. The voices occasionally sound robotic, and you can't record new prompts manually. (FonGenie is considering an option for you to upload your own recordings, but that would defeat some of the service's nimbleness.) But I didn't mind listening to quick menus with these voices. Listen to these samples.

FonGenie representatives are especially excited about using voice prompts to advertise specials, claiming that businesses have already seen improved sales with this option. Analytical tools could help you determine if sales change and otherwise improve your services, since FonGenie stores data on each call.

For example, you could track how often people call for the store hours just after closing and determine if you should hold the business open later at night. This data gets neatly graphed in the FonGenie site, but the company plans to add export options, too.

FonGenie is currently free but will be entering a paid period. A company representative said that the shift should begin this week, although you'll still get a 60-day trial. Monthly plans will cost about $30 for a certain number of incoming calls, to be determined. Unlimited plans will cost about $150-250 each month depending on the size of the business.

If your company wastes time fielding simple calls, give FonGenie a closer look. Even after it shifts to a monthly fee, you might make more back in the long term.

Zack Stern is building a new business from San Francisco, where he frequently contributes to PC World.

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