The telecommunications area is changing so quickly it is outrunning the capacity of the small business community to stay knowledgeable. As I talk with business owners, I get a sense of some confusion due to the wide variety of options. That's why I have been writing a lot about telephony services here recently. But I also wanted to offer up my own experiences using one phone service and how it solved one of our problems. The problem we faced may be one you are facing if you run a virtual business, and it's this: How do you establish a single phone presence and voicemail system for people who work in different locations, sometimes in different states? And do it easily and inexpensively? Before I describe our experience, let me offer a short history lesson. Twenty or 25 years ago (I know -- we're talking ancient history to some of you), most things telephone related had the name "AT&T" or "Bell" in them. The big companies ruled. In fact at one point in the United States, it was one great big company (AT&T), until the U.S. government forced it to break up into smaller pieces due to anti-monopoly rules. Today, when it comes to telephony choices, it's a different story. We still have AT&T, but it's a different AT&T these days. I use AT&T for my mobile phone service, for instance -- something not available back then. AT&T has reinvented itself. However, some of the most exciting telephony innovation today is being driven by the many newer entrants and smaller providers -- and not by the major telecommunications companies. Instead of there just being one choice like we had in the past -- a landline phone system -- now we have a variety of solutions. One of those categories of solutions is something that I think of as a virtual phone system. Virtual phone systems are a little tricky to describe -- but the benefits they provide make them must-haves. Call them "virtual switchboards," or "voice mail on steroids," or "follow-me communications." These are software-based services that add a ton of features and benefits to your existing landline or cell phone service. You simply sign up for an account online and using a Web-based control panel, you can expand the features of your existing phone system. You can actually change your voicemail settings and add on other services such as an automated attendant, without going through your phone company (really!). These services are affordable and easy to implement. Most are designed specifically for the needs of smaller businesses. We use one such service, GotVMail, for the radio show. We get guest inquiries and other calls on the toll free number assigned to us through GotVMail. Staci, our Program Manager for the Small Business Trends Radio show, also uses the GotVMail service to make outbound long distance calls. That way I don't have to worry about reimbursing her business-related phone expenses -- it's all consolidated through GotVMail. Having GotVMail makes it easier for Staci and me to communicate, too, as we are located 150 miles apart. (Yes, we really do operate a virtual business.) In the past, if people wanted information they might call me and leave a message on my voice mail. If the message were really something for Staci to handle, it posed a dilemma. You see, Staci is on a completely different underlying phone company, being geographically distant in another state. So I would have to either type out an email message with the information -- or call Staci and convey it verbally. I had no way of forwarding the message. Not very efficient. Today, our two completely separate phone lines are "integrated" under the umbrella of one voice mail system and one inbound number. There is one standard greeting that a caller gets. It was professionally recorded through GotVMail. And it was not hard to put in place -- we implemented the service via the Web from our desks, and did not need to invest in equipment. Nor did we have to switch our underlying landline or wireless phone services. Both Staci and I can make changes to the auto attendant, configure voicemail boxes, and so on very easily via the Web. I also can get voice mails sent to my email box -- something I find very convenient when I am at my computer. I've even been known to send myself voicemails while on the road, knowing that whatever I wanted to remind myself of will be waiting in my inbox. We've been using GotVMail for well over a year now and it suits our needs extremely well. This article in eWeek, explains a little more about these virtual switchboard and voicemail services: Another Option: Virtual PBXes. PS -- If you are curious,\u00a0go over to the Small Business Trends Radio show website and scroll to the bottom of the page. You'll see the number there.