Most consultants are on the road a lot. Some work for big firms with offices scattered far and wide, and others work from one place for clients in many different locations. If either of these descriptions fits you, the services offered by Internet voice-mail companies may come in handy.

The two companies I’ll be looking at, and Evoice, both provide free voice mail, but they don’t stop there. Both services provide the option to have your voice mail forwarded to your e-mail inbox, so you can retrieve all your messages from one place, and also offers e-mail and fax messaging—capabilities far beyond your standard traveling Hotmail account. Any or all of these services can be quite helpful to a traveling consultant, but there are drawbacks. In this article, we’ll talk about the pluses and minuses of using the services of these companies, and what they could mean to your business.

Establish a phone number just about anywhere
Before I get into the details of these services, I’ll point out that a handy use for them is to establish a local phone number in the town of your client—or prospective client. This is also useful if you’re relocating, and need a local number to hand out to prospective clients so you don’t miss calls in the transition.

In my own experience, I’ve found projects for which I knew I could do all or almost all of the work without having to visit the client’s site, but at times I’ve been ruled out before I could present myself to the client simply because my contact information displays a different area code. If you’ve had this experience, having a local phone number could buy you the time to convince the client that you can do the job, in or out of their town.

Evoice: Simple voice-message retrieval without long-distance charges
Evoice offers a simple, no-frills service that allows you to retrieve your voice mail via a local or toll-free number—a great alternative to racking up charges on your phone card. With Evoice’s regular service, you set up a voice-mail account that’s tied to your home phone number. With the virtual voice-mail service, Evoice assigns you a phone number in the area code of your choice. (Evoice has the edge on Onebox in offering phone numbers in many more area codes.)

Regardless of whether you use the regular or virtual service, Evoice provides several options for checking your messages:

  • Retrieve them via a local or 800 number. (However, you can’t reach the 800 number from a pay phone, which will diminish the usefulness of this option for many travelers.)
  • Check them at Evoice’s Web site.
  • Have them forwarded to your e-mail account as Real Audio attachments. Or, you can choose to have a notification forwarded to your e-mail or an alert sent to your pager when you have voice mail waiting. E-mail, phone, and fax via the Internet or by phone offers a lot more than just voice mail. Most notably, it blurs the lines between e-mail, phone, and fax messaging by providing several options for retrieving and managing all your messages. Voice and e-mail messages are almost interchangeable: You can retrieve either type of message by e-mail or over the phone.

When you sign up for a Onebox account, you get an e-mail address and a private phone number for checking voice mail and receiving faxes. This service is free, and Onebox’s FAQ pledges that it will remain free. However, you can pay extra for extensions to the basic services, which I’ll detail later.

Your inbox isn’t just for e-mail—your voice mail and faxes go there, too. The figure below shows how voice messages are identified by a speaker icon and e-mails are marked with an envelope. These features allow you to manage, store, and sort your voice and fax messages just like e-mail. Of course, you can also retrieve your voice messages by calling your phone number and entering your PIN.

Both voice and e-mail messages will show up in your Inbox.

This works both ways: Not only can you have your voice mail sent in your inbox, you can also retrieve your e-mail from your voice phone number by having it read to you. You can also send and forward e-mail from your voice phone. Or, you can use your PC to record a voice message and send it via e-mail.

However, you shouldn’t always count on being able to play voice messages from your inbox when traveling if you don’t take your own laptop. You can play voice messages in either Quicktime or WAV format, but you never know what the PC you find on the road is capable of doing.

From my perspective, Onebox’s most attractive feature is its versatility. It provides what I’d always liked about my Hotmail account—the ability to check my messages from anywhere with an Internet connection—plus a slew of other features. You can set a vacation auto-reply message, and you can choose to have any or all of your voice, e-mail, or fax messages forwarded to another account. The options also allow you to retrieve mail from a standard POP account and set filtering and blocking options.

Of course, the downside…
Naturally, these services aren’t perfect. Here are a few of the drawbacks:

  • You don’t get a direct phone number: With Onebox, your number is in the format of xxx-xxxx, plus a four-digit extension. It’s not only more numbers to dial, but fax callers have to dial your number, press their fax keypad’s Pause button twice, and then dial your extension before sending the fax. With Evoice, callers must call your local or toll-free access number, press 5, then enter your mailbox number to leave a message.
  • Callers to your Onebox phone number will hear a standard Onebox greeting before hearing your personalized outgoing message.
  • While Evoice is available across much of the United States, Onebox is more limited, although the company says they’re adding new area codes. Currently, Onebox numbers are available in select area codes in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington state, and Washington, D.C.
  • Like other free e-mail services, Onebox places a tagline plug for itself on your outgoing e-mails. While this is justifiable on their part, it still doesn’t create the most professional impression.
  • Last but certainly not least, as with most free services, you get what you pay for. I tested out the response times for e-mail support (there’s no voice number to be found on either Web site) and was not impressed by the timeliness or helpfulness of the response. In fact, Onebox never even responded to my e-mail.

You’ve got to pay to play
With Onebox, you can get around some of these drawbacks if you’re willing to pay. At the time I signed up, Onebox was offering a free two-month trial of Onebox.Extra, which provides a phone number without the extension and minus the system greeting, among other features. After the two months, the fee was $4.95 per month. Although this seems reasonable, it’s presented as a “low introductory” price, and there’s no hint as to what the regular price might someday become.

Meredith Little wears many hats as a freelance technical and travel writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, and photographer.

Do you use Internet voice mail? Has it helped you stay in touch with your colleagues and clients? Start a discussion below or send us a note.