THE WORLD OF paging/voicemail services can be a confusing, so it is important to understand the "ins and outs" to avoid potential difficulties.
Paging services (beepers) are important tools used to maintain two-way contact with your customers. These service companies seem to recognize that the Washington/Baltimore business communities are essentially one. If you have a pager in either town it will beep you in either city. Unfortunately, all of them require that only one city be your home base. If your office is in Baltimore and you are in Washington for the day, you will hear the beep in D.C., but you must call long distance to get your messages from your Baltimore home base.
GEOGRAPHY: There are local paging/voicemail companies as well as national ones. When you need a paging service to stretch outside of the Washington/Baltimore region, there is an extra charge. The extended-distance service may be established on a permanent basis or for a week or two. Such firms as Metromedia, Metrocall and Bell Atlantic can establish temporary services for you in other states for a small fee of about $10 or less per month per territory. Your customers will have a local number in their city (not Baltimore), which they can call to beep you while visiting their region.
In our region the paging range stretches from Northern Virginia to the Pennsylvania line and from slightly east of the Bay Bridge to the Hagerstown area. Some of the larger firms are in the process of extending past Hagerstown to the west while Metromedia, a Southwestern Bell company, can already "reach the beach" through the use of subcontractors. To get the beach service is an added charge. One firm, Statewide Paging, should be called "Almost Statewide Paging" because its territory is also limited to the central region.
HARDWARE PRICES: There are some very basic differences among the competing paging companies in prices and the associated services. To purchase a pager can run from $70 to $230 or more. Some are the size of a pen and quite expensive, while many of the standard pagers are relatively cheap.
All of the companies offer a lease or lease/purchase option for the pager itself. The lease payment is usually $10 to $14 per month for 12 months. At the end there will usually be a small final payment. If you do not care to own the pager, the lease can drop to $5.
If you buy a pager, keep in mind that it may need repair work every couple of years. With a lease you can simply trade it in. If the pager operates on rechargeable batteries, the recharger can cost as much as the beeper and the batteries will need to be replaced every 24 months. These rechargeable batteries cost around $8 each, and it is best to have a backup battery, just in case.
VOICEMAIL: Most of the paging services offer voicemail services integrated with your beeper. Voicemail has become an acceptable business tool even in large law firms and banks. It saves secretarial time. "Live" messages with lots of information can be taped and left by your customer. There is no chance for a secretary to misinterpret the customer's message or to forget to give it to you. Many of the paging services have the system designed so that you will receive a beep when a message is in your "voice mailbox."
Each message is called a message unit and you buy a set number of units. Most firms offer 10- or 20-unit packages. This means that your account can hold up to 10 or 20 messages at any one time. If your system is full, the caller will be asked to try again later. The calls will be held for a limited time in the system, generally three to five days. When someone calls your office and leaves a message, your beeper will sound and the digital display will indicate that your office phone has a voicemail message. Note that people can also page you through the regular beeper system, since the beeper and the voicemail operate from two different telephone numbers, both of which have been assigned to you.
SERVICE PRICES: The price for the basic pager services is about $10 per month. Some firms will have no limit to the number of pages you can receive per month; others will have a ceiling to the number of calls permitted with the flat monthly fee. Most of the firms offer voicemail services for 20 messages at 1 minute each. More than 200 to 500 calls per month will result in an additional 15 cents per call. Shop carefully for this voicemail service because each company is slightly different.
Deposits to start the pager/voicemail service equal two months of services, if your firm does not have a solid credit history. If you have established credit, this will be waived. If you own your own beeper, talk to the service company under consideration because it may be possible to convert to their system.
CAUTION: Some firms do not have a backup to their beeper/voicemail system. If there is a power failure or if the service company's computer fails, all of your messages are lost, as is your personalized greeting on the voicemail that identifies your company to the caller. Metromedia has a backup system, however Metrocall does not.
Patrick Rossello, president of the Business Consulting Group in Towson, is a member of a number of local advisory boards. Send questions or suggested topics to him c/o Money at Work, The Evening Sun 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.