Small businesses will soon be able to appear like big corporations with a little help from new technology,
Efficient communications are the lifeblood of any successful business. And technology now allows any small firm, or even a "home" office, to have a communications system to rival that of a large multinational corporation - for the price of a PC.

Integrated voice, fax and data modems are now at the heart of many home computers. These devices, sold either as an add-on box or, more neatly, as a card that sits inside the machine, allow the PC (or Mac) to answer the phone, send and receive faxes, log on to the Internet and exchange files with other computer users. They have replaced the clunky and expensive stand-alone boxes that were the only real way to integrate computer and conventional messages as recently as two years ago.

One of the first computers designed with communications at its heart was the Presario, Compaq's all-in-one home machine. Although it was hampered by a slow modem, it worked well and the idea spread quickly to other manufacturers.

Small offices and home workers who wanted to use their fax modems on a single phone line faced a serious problem: how could the PC tell if a call was a fax, or voice? Adding an answering machine, or as manufacturers prefer to call it, voicemail, to the card, solved this at a stroke. The computer can answer all the calls.

The voice modem is now so popular it has spread to business computers, too. Hewlett-Packard's latest range of computers for small businesses, the Vectra, includes one; Apple is working on a much improved version of its Geoport communications adaptor for its high-end PowerMacintosh computers. Users of older PCs have plenty of options, too. Modem manufacturers are adding voice-compatible modems to their ranges every month. Good ones include the Optima 288 Business Modem from Hayes, US Robotics' Sportster Vi, and the Message Desk 34 from Pace. The Message Desk, for example, allows users to dial in and collect their faxes or phone messages when they are away, or even set up a system so that callers can have information faxed to them from the host PC.

The small business gains from simplicity: plug the computer into a phone line, and let it handle all your calls. Simplicity does have drawbacks, however. Using one computer, on one line, for voicemail, fax, Net surfing and even as a speakerphone, means clogged lines. The outside world hears a busy tone instead of a sophisticated, automated response. Callers have no way of knowing whether the engaged signal represents a business coping with unanticipated success, or one that has decided to unplug it all and head for the safety of the pub.

Solutions that can deal with several incoming calls are rarer, not least because equipment that connects to more than one line faces strict controls. Buying a computer for each incoming line quickly becomes expensive, which is why most large offices still rely on a switchboard.

The simplest is Call Waiting, which bleeps on the line when someone is trying to get through. This is not suitable for modems or faxes, however. Slightly more expensive is FeatureLine, also a BT service. This is a business line with all the extras - such as call diversion - thrown in for a pounds 49 a quarterly line rental. Set up properly, FeatureLine works like an office phone system, with free internal calls. Calls can be sent to another line automatically if a phone is busy or unanswered. The simplest way to use FeatureLine is to set up the first line for voice calls, with an ordinary phone, and divert the rest to the PC. Another benefit is that it is easy to add lines to the system as your office expands.

What if you're not at the office? Technology can still help. Mobile phones, for example, are great if you need to be reached on the road, but clients might not welcome the hassle or expense of redialling.

Call diversion services let you set up a home or office phone so it routes all calls to a mobile, wherever it happens to be. You, as the subscriber, pay for the diverted part of the call, but anyone ringing need never know you're away.

A more advanced system is the personal number, based on mobile phone technology and offered by several firms. This is one number, typically with an 0770 code, which can be programmed to divert to whatever numbers you specify. However, callers pay a higher than normal charges, and the system is only as good as the users who remember to update their list of numbers.

For the really personal touch nothing beats the welcoming voice of a trained telephonist. Message pagers offer a "personal answering service" where a human being answers the phone in your name, or your company name. He or she then types a message which is broadcast to the pager's screen.

Neater still is Cellnet's Personal Assistant. For pounds 30 a month, all incoming calls, voice and fax, can be redirected. Voice calls are answered by real person. Cellnet PA can answer several calls at once, but it is up to the user to call the system back for messages. These calls cost 18p per minute peak.

Orange Assistant, from the eponymous mobile phone company, is less powerful but possibly more convenient. Orange users can have the service answer their calls and send a text message to the screen on their phones; this costs pounds 20 a month and there are no other charges. The service works as easily for callers who ring the mobile directly as for calls diverted from an office line.

The advantage of these systems is that are unobtrusive. Your business can give an appearance of efficiency, but all that disturbs your peace is a discreet bleep on the phone to say a message has arrived.

Pace: 0990 561001; US Robotics: 0800 225252; Hayes: 01252 775577; Apple: 0800 127753; Hewlett-Packard: 0990 474747; BT: 0800 800800; Orange: 0800 801080; Cellnet: 0800 214000.