It's nice to pretend that anyone who calls your office will get equal attention. In reality, most businesses have important customers who require a special touch. That's why Wasatch Advisors, a small investment- management firm in Salt Lake City, spent more than $15,000 last year on a jazzy enhancement for its local-area network. Wasatch added a computer server that analyzes and displays information about every incoming phone call on any of the company's desktop PCs.
Here's what it means for Todd Draney, a 32-year-old sales manager at Wasatch: When a call comes in on his phone line, a small window on his computer screen pops open. It shows the caller's phone number, identity, and a menu of choices. If Draney is tied up with a important call, he clicks on the screen to trigger a voice message that asks the caller to hold or try again. With another click, Draney can transfer the call to a colleague without interrupting his own conversation. "If there's money waiting on the other end of the line, you need some way to set priorities," he says.
In droves, small-business managers with heavy phone habits, like Draney, are discovering setups such as the one Wasatch bought from Active Voice Corp. in Seattle. The latest call-processing systems go way beyond conventional voice mail. At the high end, Active Voice and others offer a bundle of technologies known as "computer telephony integration" (CTI). These programs merge your office phone system with your computer network. The result: Anyone sitting at a PC on the network can view information on the screen about recorded voice-mail messages waiting in a mailbox. Users can also monitor incoming phone calls, faxes, and E-mail on the same PC screen, save them, or reroute them using simple Windows 95 prompts.
Some of these features have been around since the 1980s. But they've been too expensive for most small businesses. Now, a company with 50 to 100 employees can have all the bells and whistles for less than $20,000. An even cheaper alternative: You can "outsource" some of the desired features from phone companies and small telephony start-ups without splurging on hardware.
HOT SPOT. Either way, the time is right for small businesses to think about CTI. In a recent survey by market researcher IDC/Link in New York City, 33.6% of small businesses polled said they wanted "point-and-click" access to fax, phone, and E-mail on a computer screen. "This technology is going to be hot in the small-business arena," says IDC/Link analyst Robert Straus.
A key advantage of these systems is you use your eyes instead of your ears. For example, CallXpress3, a program from Applied Voice Technology (AVT) in Kirkland, Wash., displays the length and origin of each voice-mail message, as well as incoming faxes and E-mail. The software can't actually translate whole voice-mail messages into text--that technology is still two years off. But AVT is offering the next best thing.
Colleagues on a network running CallXpress3 can attach text labels to each voice message they leave for their co-workers. At a glance, the recipient can get a quick preview of all the messages in the mailbox and decide which one to deal with first.
Another AVT product, Desktop Call Manager, lets users query callers who are on hold with automated question-and-answer routines. If a first-time caller can't be identified by your Caller ID service, for example, this software will politely request the caller's identity. You'll hear the caller say his or her name over your PC speakers.
Such features appealed to Micronics Computer Inc. in Fremont, Calif. The midsize manufacturer of computer motherboards runs CallXpress3 on a PC server that cost the company only $3,500. The AVT operating software adds several thousand dollars to the total--but Micronics Information Services Director Mark Rowell says it's worth it. Without setting up a separate phone line and modem, he can receive private fax messages directly to his PC over the network. "I can view the fax on the screen, attach a voice message to it, and forward it to my boss," he says.
Such tricks save precious time. "On a busy day," notes Wasatch's Draney, "we are at least 10% more efficient." More important, prized customers get better treatment. Improved message management, says IDC's Straus, "gives small businesses a way to expand their storefront so they can compete better with large corporations."
Road warriors reap big benefits from CTI systems that handle remote calls. If you're a traveling salesperson, you can call any time of day to get voice, fax, and E-mail messages from a "universal in-box." By punching numbers in response to simple prompts, you can instruct the system to describe each of the messages, hear voice mail, and even read your E-mail over the phone.
The synthetic voice may sound like Dan Ackroyd's Beldar the Conehead--with a Russian accent. But it's intelligible, and some systems, such as the one from Malibu Communications in Malibu, Calif., will even read your faxes. Also, you can direct the system to route E-mail and faxes to a nearby fax machine to get a hard copy. And with voice messages, you can usually instruct the system to call the person back and conference you in with several colleagues.
STAY LEAN. If you run a small business and don't need the ability to view all kinds of messages in one window on your PC screen, you may not need to buy full-featured hardware. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are advised to identify just two or three essential functions or services. If your staff travels a lot, you might want to invest in notebook computers with some telephony features. Compaq Computer equips some of its latest notebooks with microphones, speakers, and special modems, so you can talk to customers or colleagues over phone lines or cellular channels and exchange faxes or E-mail at the same time. Plug one of these notebooks into the phone at your hotel, and it will receive voice messages and faxes while you're out to dinner.
Dataquest Inc. analyst Christopher Thompson in San Jose also urges small-business operators to improve their "work processes" before splurging on automation. If your most important customers receive curt form letters the instant they're late on payments--rather than gentle reminders--then something is probably wrong. Likewise, think about how well you treat your customers before you embed the wrong messages in CTI. "If a business process is broken, automating it won't fix it," Thompson says.
For advice on what services are available in your area, consult with the people who installed your phone system. They can put you in touch with local systems integrators, value-added resellers (VAR) that bundle equipment with special services, or nearby CTI distributors. That's essential since many well-established CTI companies--such as AVT, Active Voice, Aurora Systems, AnswerSoft, and CallWare, to name just a few--don't want to handle installation and maintenance directly.
Installing equipment yourself may seem like a good way to save money. But if your CTI system crashes the next time you upgrade your network software, maintenance charges will quickly erase your savings. A good systems integrator will help with maintenance and also steer you away from a system that exceeds your needs and your technical skills. Interview more than one candidate and insist on customer references.
Having come this far, you may decide that you don't actually need to own any equipment. Fortunately, there are many other choices. Premiere Technologies Inc. in Atlanta and JFAX Communications Inc. in New York both offer universal in-box services for a per-use fee and/or a monthly charge.
SHORTCUT. An account with Premiere lets you use a credit-cardlike "WorldLink" card. It connects you to Premiere's network in Atlanta, which becomes your virtual office, managing your faxes, voice mail, and E-mail. Using WorldLink like a phone card, you can retrieve, process, and reroute any kind of message--just as if you had a call-processing server installed on your own network. The charge: 25 cents per minute for most calls.
When WorldLink user Donald Gasgarth was in France last September, he managed all his international communications on WorldLink--and saved himself a lot of money. The 33-year-old stockbroker with Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. in Delray Beach, Fla., had Premiere set up transatlantic conference calls, thus paying cheaper U.S. charges. "When I want the system to call me back at the hotel, I can even instruct it to address the concierge in French," says Gasgarth, who also trades Premiere stock.
Phone companies have been slow to tackle universal in-boxes. But Nynex Corp. is collaborating with Philips Electronics to provide home offices with enhanced Caller ID services. Using a Philips phone with a small liquid-crystal display, you can talk to one person, view incoming calls on a second line, and conference them together.
Is it better to outsource or to purchase? Unfortunately, no answer applies to all businesses. The bigger your operation--and the more widespread it is geographically--the more attractive it becomes to own your own equipment. But there is no clear cutoff in terms of the number of staff you employ or yearly revenues. The only rule, says Dataquest's Thompson: "Focus on your business needs," and don't get distracted by all the choices. Somewhere in the fast-converging worlds of computers and telephones, the right solution is waiting for you.