Nowadays, communications plays a larger role than ever in strengthening customer service, as well as bottom-line results, yet not every accountant has the right system to meet their needs.

In fact, many small firms and independent CPAs still depend on standard telephones with basic functionality that limits them to inbound/outbound calling. If mobility is required, wireless options are available, but may offer limited range. Voice mail may be restricted to an answering machine or a service with monthly subscription fees.

An ideal solution would be to provide all the desired functionality in one system. Here's the good news: "Key" systems do just that. Often known as PBXs, key systems offer the features and dependability - plus a few tricks - that make them a perfect fit for an environment that demands that you be reachable anywhere, anytime. They are less expensive than you might expect, typically running about $2,500 for a small set-up, with the average installation costing about $5,000, including all the phone sets, plus voice messaging and other features.

A primer

A key system is a telephone communications switch designed mainly for small businesses or small office/home office applications to allow users to access multiple lines through buttons on the telephone set.

Switch capacity is defined in terms of "lines" and "extensions." The former refers to the central office lines coming into the site location, while extensions are the actual phones connected to the switch. Key systems are typically identified in this fashion; a "3 x 8" switch, for example, can support three lines and eight extensions in a basic configuration.

As large companies know from experience, key systems are not only extremely reliable, they're packed with features and functionality. Best of all, key systems can leverage much of the existing wiring and telephone infrastructure within your office or home.

To better appreciate how a key system can maximize your business results, let's take an accountant who runs a thriving business out of a home office. With a spouse and two kids who aggressively compete for phone time, our CPA needs three separate lines (each in different rooms), and as many desktop computers. Furthermore, he has selected a central office-based voice mail service, and has a fax machine for business purposes.

Sounds good, but in reality, it's a very difficult system to manage. Let's say the fax machine is being used. That effectively ties up the business line, and an important incoming customer call could easily be missed. Sure, the call may be captured by the voice mail service, but there are no guarantees that our CPA will receive an alert that a message is waiting. If, on the other hand, an outgoing call needs to be made, our professional has to trek from one kid's room to another (or shout down the hall) in search of an available line.

So how is a key system superior?

Here's one way. Our accountant has a dedicated telephone line for business. That means a "live" person cannot answer an incoming call if that line is in use (remember the fax machine?). Since each of the accountant's three lines are individual and separate, there is no way a call can be picked up by a line not in use, nor is there any way to determine if a free line exists without shuttling or shouting from room to room.

The key system radically changes that. Each phone line (as well as any extensions) is connected to a central switch. With an appropriate phone set, the accountant can actually see the incoming call on one of the lines and answer it by pressing the corresponding button.

Let's turn to the voice mail. As we saw, the CPA's dedicated business line can easily be commandeered by a fax machine, resulting in the offloading of all incoming calls to the central office-based voice mail system. Unfortunately, though, this service provides no acknowledgment or alert that a call is incoming, nor is there any visual notification that a message has been received.

With a key system (together with integrated voice mail), the accountant can receive a visual indication of an incoming call, and if a line is available, the call can be answered even while the fax machine is in use. If all lines are occupied, a visual alert that a message is waiting will appear on the phone set.

Integrated voice mail

One of the vital features that a key system can offer is a flexible voice mail solution. In addition to tracking you down to get messages, a good voice mail solution greets callers with a personalized recording and lets them leave a message in a personal or business voice mailbox.

If the accountant wants all incoming calls to be answered by a live person, a tailored voice mail solution gives callers the ability to transfer out of a voice mailbox to another extension.

Some voice mail systems will even dial an extension when a new message is waiting in a mailbox. Whereas the "message waiting notification" described earlier passively alerts the user, an out-calling feature proactively dials one or multiple phone numbers to provide instant message notification.

Key systems are also equipped to go beyond the simple call. Let's say you need a line to reach a client immediately. The intercom feature permits you to search room by room until you've identified which family member is parked on the phone. But that's not all - by connecting a key system door phone, the intercom lets you identify who's at the front door without actually opening it!

Forwarding and conferences

Accountants spend a good deal of time at clients' sites, often making it difficult to stay in touch - because while you are away, calls continue to filter into your office.

When no one is minding the store, the key system can trigger simultaneous rings on a cell phone or any other designated external number, and even have the system take a message if the call still goes answered.

Conferencing is another versatile key system feature that fits well with the communication needs of accountants. It allows them to share information simultaneously with clients, associates and consultants in different locations via multiple telephone lines.

Clearly, the flexibility and capabilities of a key system make it a sound choice today for accounting professionals. And because prices for commercial-grade systems are within reach of even the smallest enterprise, it's not surprising that more and more professionals are taking advantage of them.

Richard J. DeFabritus is a product manager at Avaya for the Partner line of enterprise communications solutions. Reach him at

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