2002 February 9

February 9, 2002


Author: K. OANH HA, Mercury News

Edition: Morning Final
Section: Business
Page: 1C

At an age when her high school classmates were busy gabbing on the telephone, Lisa Hong was no different. Her gabbing, however, turned a profit and launched a business. Eight years later, she runs a six-figure business with nearly 100 clients.

Hong, 25, presides as chief executive of Enterprise Telecommunications in Cupertino, a home-based answering service. The company's strategy is to give callers the impression they've called the front office of a ''big company.'' In truth, most clients are small businesses with a few employees. One-third are one-person operations in which the owner is often away from the ringing telephone.

Despite our high-tech age of e-mail, pagers and voicemails, nothing matches that personal touch, business owners say. While many small-business owners define success as unending expansion, Hong's strategy is the opposite: keep it small and personal.

Hong, a second-generation Korean-American who works out religiously andbelly-dances, still clings to immigrant values. Hong's business is the family business. Two younger siblings work as operators while her parents, both veteran small-business owners, handle the company's financial aspects. Business profits are considered part of the household income.

Hong stumbled upon her first client when she was just 15. While working as an assistant in a real estate office, an independent broker asked Hong if she would be his secretary while he was in the field. They put a phone line in her room, and she answered his forwarded phone calls after school. Now her business answers about 1,200 phone calls a day on behalf of 92 clients -- everyone from plumbers to caterers to international real estate companies.

Working from home

Enterprise's offices are in a three-room addition in the family home. The rooms are being remodeled, and twin beds have been temporarily moved in next to glass-topped office tables. Operators, all part-timers who attend De Anza College, work in their own closed-door offices so callers won't hear other operators.

On a recent afternoon, Hong sits in the main room, behind a glass desk surrounded by a half-dozen orchids and a blueberry iMac computer. The phone rings six times within two minutes. As the calls come in, the specially rigged telephone displays the name of the business that's being called.

''Parsley Sage Rosemary Thyme,'' Hong answers, her voice professional and sing-songy. ''Yes, let me check.''

She puts the caller for the catering company on hold as she answers another, ''Amazing Controls.'' The company, which builds customized high-tech homes, is in the Netherlands. Hong and her operators serve as the local office.

In a flurry of strokes over the keyboard and telephone dialpad, messages are typed, an order for vitamins taken and several callers transferred to clients' cell phones or personal lines.

Hong, who instructs operators to ''speak with a smile'' to project enthusiasm, charges each business $150 to $300 a month. For small-business owners such as therapist John Fishbein, the fee is much cheaper than paying $1,200 a month for a full-time receptionist.

Gone are the days of Lily Tomlin operators and ''one ringy dingy, two ringy dingy.'' Most answering services don't just take messages but offer an array of services, says Daniel L'Heureux, executive director of the Western States Telemessaging Association in Plymouth, Minn. He estimates there are about 5,000 answering service companies in the country. Most employ about a dozen operators and log revenue of $3 million or less.

Like other answering services, Enterprise takes messages and gets them to clients via page, e-mail, fax and phone. Hong and her operators also schedule appointments, take sales orders and screen calls.

Though competition is stiff within the industry (customers often jump around), Hong's strategy to differentiate her business is to keep it small. While other answering services employ a dozen or more operators, Hong's cadre of five part-time operators allows her to keep the service ''personable,'' she says. She plans to close off the business to new customers after her client list reaches 150.

Despite the downturn, she has only lost six clients within the last year. Some were victims of the dot-com implosion, and others wanted full-time receptionists for their growing businesses.

'Right in the office'

Fishbein, a family therapist, unhappily rotated through several answering services before finding Enterprise through an ad in the Yellow Pages -- its only advertisement. Enterprise operators serve as the therapist's front office and also make appointments, which are then sent to him by fax.

''I didn't want somebody who would sound rote, detached, a computer voice reading a screen,'' says Fishbein, who practices in San Jose. ''My patients have the feeling like Lisa's right in the office. Sometimes patients come to my office and ask, 'Where's Lisa?' ''

Being a young entrepreneur has its setbacks. Until three years ago when she hired help, Hong answered the phone mostly by herself. Because it's a 24-houranswering service, there are the occasional 3 a.m. phone calls that drag her out of bed. She often answers phones in the evenings and weekends, too. And her dating life?

''I don't really date,'' Hong says. ''I'm waiting for something more serious.''

Though Hong may sound young, she doesn't act her age. She likes to use weighty business words such as ''dynamic'' and ''committed.'' She's enthusiastic, even a little chirpy, and could easily pass herself off as a capable assistant to a big-time executive. ''Control'' is a favorite word for a woman who races her own BMW cars at 120 mph. She likes to race against the clock on tracks throughout the state.

''It's a situation where it can be uncontrollable,'' Hong says. ''But I can make it run the way I want to. I like having that control.''

Being disciplined and committed to the job were hard lessons.

''I see my friends having fun and partying. I want to do that, too,'' Hong says. ''But I can't. You can't just not answer the phone if you don't feel like it. People's businesses are depending on me.''

Hong envisions opening satellite offices in other locales, such as Southern California, and retiring within 10 years. Then, she'll go back to school, get a business degree and perhaps start another business. For now, she says, running the business teaches her invaluable skills a classroom might not.

When she talks about her life and the business, the two are interchangeable. Says Hong: ''It's made me the person I am.''


Copyright (c) 2002 San Jose Mercury News 

Record Number: 0202110027