Today is the fifth annual Doing Business in Your Bathrobe Day—a concept that celebrates home businesses. According to 2003 U.S. Census Bureau figures, there are some 2.7 million businesses nationwide with between one and four employees. About 175,000 of those small businesses are in Texas. The Small Business Administration says it's difficult to come up with a figure on the number of businesses that are run out of homes, but estimate it could exceed 12 percent of businesses. Iain Clarke of Houston co-owns Intelligent Office, a company that assists people who work from home professionally.
"Well, what we do is we provide meeting space for you occasionally when you need to meet somebody in a professional setting. And the main part of what we do is provide a live professional trained person to answer your phone calls--screen them to you, announce them to you, update your clients--any services that a traditional receptionist would perform. We do those for you at a reduced cost, miles ahead of a traditional answering service. When you sign up for services with us, basically what happens, you come in here and you're going to go through an orientation where you're going to train us about your company—how you operate, what calls you like, which calls you don't want. And really, people that call in, unless you tell them, have no idea that this receptionist is not in the room next to you."
Clarke says the service is customized to the type of business.
"Well, we have some insurance agents that don't want any of their phone calls live because they just constantly get pulled away from their desk. You can't get anything done. We send them to a voice mail after we tell the client where their insurance agent is, and we turn around and send them an e-mail with a .wav file so that they can throughout the day check their messages, listen to their messages. We have quite a few attorney clients. They're very particular about what calls they get, so we kind of use our judgment here to screen out, okay, is this an emergency? Also when they're in court, there's only certain calls they'll take while they're in court, say from a judge or another attorney. Really, when you sign up we go through this whole process, orientation process, where you tell us which calls are immediate, which calls can wait—maybe solicitors, vendors. It's customized."
Clarke says it's not that difficult to keep track of which business they're representing when a client calls.
"Now, when you call in, your business pops up with six pages of information about your business--as much or as little as you want us to know about what you do. And you can update us on your daily schedule, which calls you want that day, maybe even leave us a few notes, you know: 'if Susan calls, confirm my appointment at two,' or 'if Ron calls, tell him his contract's ready, he can come by the office an pick it up.' And we have some clients that say 'I just want one person to answer my phones.' In that case, we can answer 85 percent of the calls with one person."
Clarke says the outsourced help—and a good Web site—can help home-based businesses appear more professional. By the way, Doing Business in Your Bathrobe Day started in February 2003 as a way to spotlight work-from-home moms who conduct business with their home computers, in an attempt to find a comfortable work/life balance.