Yesterday, Google announced that it will now allow anyone to sign up for a free phone number and free voicemail using its previously invitation-only Google Voice service. All over the Internet, bloggers have been hailing this development as a wonderful cost-saving tool for a small business, even though many of the capabilities of Google Voice have been available to small businesses for quite some time through other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) providers, such as Skype and Sipgate. In fact, Skype and Sipgate offer one service that Google Voice does not: the ability to send and receive a fax.
However, Google Voice has upped the ante, so to speak, by offering some new services. These services will make it even easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses that do not yet have a home, simply by combining a self storage unit (to hold inventory and records) with a laptop computer and cell phone. Small business owners are using VoIP services to make their businesses appear larger and more established than they actually are, to convey a professional appearance (even when the business owner may be working at home in casual attire), and to appear more local than they actually are, sometimes targeting local residents by setting up a special phone number that is located within that area code. In some cases, business owners add to the appearance of being local by opening a self storage unit at a facility that also includes a small post office where businesses can receive mail.
Although the new VoIP phone services are being hailed as a boon for small businesses, they are also extremely useful for other groups of people who rely on self storage: people who move frequently as part of their jobs (such as insurance adjusters), college students, and members of the military who may especially appreciate the ability to make low cost international calls.
Tools for Small Businesses
Most VoIP services offer the following features:
- They are free or mostly free (there may be a charge for international calls, depending on whether you call from computer to computer or from phone to phone).
- They offer one phone number that can be used for life (or the life of your small or medium business).
- They offer free voicemail.
- They allow you to forward your calls, temporarily or permanently, to other phones.
- They allow you to set up groups of contacts.
- They allow you to record customized greetings for particular callers or groups of callers.
- They allow you to conference several calls together without requiring callers to have a PIN.
- They allow you to place a call on hold.
- They allow you to transfer a call to another party.
- They allow you to keep an archive of all your calls, and label the individual calls in the archive in order to organize them.
- They allow you to block unwanted calls.
- They allow you to set up email notifications for missed calls, receive mp3 files of your voicemails in your email inbox, and have voicemail message alerts sent by text message to your cell phone.
Sipgate and Skype offer several features that Google Voice does not yet have:
- They allow you to place calls directly from your computer — you do not have to use a phone.
- They allow you to send and receive faxes.
Google Voice, on the other hand, does have some features that Sipgate and Skype do not offer:
- Google Voice allows you to listen in on calls that you have sent to voicemail, so that you can choose to change your mind and answer the call if it sounds urgent.
- If you use a Gmail account, your phone history archives are integrated with your Gmail email archives, and you can play your voicemail messages from within a Gmail notification that gets sent to your email.
- Google Voice will transcribe every call (though the transcriptions can be crystal clear or completely incomprehensible depending on the caller) and send a transcription to your email and as a text message to your cell phone.
- Google Voice allows you to embed a Google Voice gadget on your website, allowing people who find you in a web search to call you directly.