"The days of the 'Little Old Lady' who sat there with 20 telephones, those days are gone," laments Ed Smith Sr. "My grandmother was an 'LOL,' my mother was an 'LOL,' and I guess I'd be a long ways toward being an 'LOM.' "

Styles of the answering-service business have changed since 1923, when Smith's grandmother, Margaret Redmond Smith, founded Hello Inc., of which he is now president and owner. Smith's grandmother answered phones for 50 doctors she persuaded to sign up for her service at $2.50 a month each.

Today there are more than 100 answering services listed in the D.C. Yellow Pages, and "LOLs" have yielded to the gadgetry, wizardry and abracadabra of the '80s: computers, display screens with detailed information on all customer accounts, digital bellboys and other hocus-pocus.

Instead of the "LOL," there are teams of people, male and female, now known in the industry as "telephone secretaries," working with up-to-the-minute technology.

Answering services offer the gamut, from daily wake-up calls to the ability to track you down in Timbuktu. Ever wonder if there really is anyone at the other end of the elevator phone line? Where does your burglar alarm ring? Those calls often feed into a service.

Legions of small business owners, one-person offices, real-estate agents, artists, trade associations, government personnel, salespeople, doctors and lawyers rely on these services. When Richard Nixon was vice president, Answering Inc. picked up his messages, says that firm's vice president, Richard McNamara.

Some services are now so sophisticated that incoming calls activate a video-display screen when they reach the telephone secretary. If all goes right, the screen tells the operator how the phone should be answered--by company name, by a person's name or by the phone number itself.

Contingency information, if requested, also appears on the screen. ("If Mr. Smith calls, tell him the time of the meeting has been changed." "If Ms. Jones calls, tell her the order has been shipped.") When you call in for your messages, the video screen will display them for the telephone secretary, who will read them to you--after you have identified yourself by name or prearranged code.

The simplest service provides a phone number for you to give out to business associates, customers and friends. The service will relay all messages when you check in.

In the next level of service, you can have an extension of your own phone, business or residential, linked up via your local telephone company to the answering-service offices. Furnish the service with information on when you want them to answer--say, after the third ring--or after you've called to tell them you'll be gone for the day.

Then there is "call forwarding," provided in certain phone exchanges by the local phone company. Where the service is available, you can dial several digits and automatically transfer calls directly to your service, or to any other number.

The main advantage, according to Ed Smith, whose service offers only call forwarding, is that "the telephone secretary doesn't have the option of counting the rings, trying to guess whether the client is in the office. The call rings right to us; we know that we're supposed to answer it."

Another option is the silent beeper. Called the "vibrating model," it informs only you--instead of announcing to the public at large--that you're needed. The ultimate variety can be combined with a video-display area of your own on the beeper, which can show up to 10 digits of phone numbers for return calls, from Poughkeepsie to Paris.

Or, notes Stephen Flickinger, branch manager for Telephone Answering Service Co. (TASCO), you can modify the code number that will appear on the display to suit your needs. "One particular client may have a coding scheme where we send the digit one, meaning it's a sales inquiry, to his firm and give him a telephone number to return the call. There are coding schemes for medical clinics as well, designating an emergency or patient to call."

TASCO soon is to offer an alphanumeric display that will give the name, along with the number, of the caller.

While the services are all eager to give you freedom of choice, they can't give you freedom of voice.

"In the past, we advertised different kinds of voices--European, Latin or English," says Flickinger, "but they have been perceived as discriminatory and we no longer have the requests."

"We're an equal opportunity employer," says McNamara, "and we can't offer somebody that sounds like Mae West or Lauren Bacall."

"It's too difficult to maintain it," adds Smith. "You'd have to schedule around sexy voices and English voices and 'oops, we're short, it's Sunday and we don't have our sexy voice working.' "

It's also a little tricky to request that the same person answer your phone. George Riser, manager of Communicators Unlimited Ltd., which has about 150 clients and two switchboards, says you're likely to get one of two employes on their basic, 9-to-5 business-hour service.

At some companies with the conventional switchboard service, you may get the same person during business hours. For call forwarding, which is automated, you'll draw the next telephone secretary available on a rotation basis.

Although answering services are, naturally enough, eager for new clients, they've been known to turn some down.

"I had this gal call up one day who told me that she was not an average hooker, she was a $200-a-night girl," recalls Ed Smith. "She wanted some very good answering service and she wanted to know whether we were high class or not . . . I just told her that I didn't think we were in her league."

Despite sales pitches, promises and high tech in the answering-service business, some potential clients see selecting a competent service as choosing the lesser of several evils.

Says dentist Edwin Zimmet, "There's inconsistency with all of them; you have some people who work for them who are really great and do a good job and are conscientious, and some of them are real flakes."

Personnel turnover, the services admit, is high. While many will point out an "LOL" or employe who has been around for a long time, he or she is the exception.

"I'm striving to get people who will stay for a while," says Joan Kennedy at Detente. "It's sort of a stopping-over kind of job for some. But sometimes I get people waiting for their career to pan out, waiting for their big job to come through, and they end up staying for a number of years."

"We've got some telephone secretaries who have been with us for as long as 30 years," says Flickinger. "More typically, however, it's a high turnover industry and 18 months is the average stay. Typically, it's a part-time college student or in some cases, summer employment for high-school students." (Starting salaries for many services hover around the $3.35-an-hour minimum wage.)

Although answering machines have in some cases cut into the answering-service business, they don't have the flavor of a personalized service, proponents claim. This "personal touch," however, can backfire. McNamara recalls the time he had to reassure a young man's fiance'e that the woman answering the phone was responding from a location a good distance away from her intended's apartment.

Answering-service proponents also stress that machines cannot handle emergencies and people are still apt to hang up on them.

And can a machine, asks Louise Lynch of Courtesy, make a decision like this one? A 7-year-old got off his bus at the wrong stop and used his last 15 cents to call home. Instead of Mom, he got a telephone secretary. When the secretary got the call, she immediately told a partner to call the police while she kept the child on the line for almost an hour until the police arrived.

The "LOL" herself probably couldn't have handled it any better.