These hard times mean it's a good time to take a fresh look at so-called virtual assistants. We're not talking living, breathing admins who handle administrative chores from afar via the Web and a cell phone. Rather, the automated systems that combine call routing, personalized messaging, conversational agents and now business telephony to make your work time more about work and less about making your office feel and sound like an actual place of business. Digital virtual assistants have not been a happy layer of the gadget-o-sphere, particularly for the small enterprise. Yes, there has been much dabbling with the technology that seeks to soften the line between what is human and what is not in digital communications. Most major telephony vendors like Alcatel-Lucent ( ALU), Nortel Networks ( NT) and Juniper Networks ( JNPR) -- and to a certain extent, players like Nokia ( NOK), Motorola ( MOT) and even Cisco ( CSCO) -- have flooded the market with automated attendants, call-routing software and other riffs on synthetic/human interfaces. And, yes, some of these products are standard issue for larger enterprises. But they are brutally expensive. And the jury is still out as to whether automating the relationship with customers helps or hurts service-oriented small-biz bottom lines. Enter San Francisco-based Toktumi, ($14.95 per month per line) the latest entrant in these automated assistant wars. The company is the brainchild of Peter Sisson, 45, who founded and later sold a white-label version of Skype to Microsoft ( MSFT). Toktumi recently announced a respectable sales deal with Dell ( DELL) and spiffy new features to upgrade a service the company already has with Staples ( SPLS).