Problem: Communicating with customers more efficiently

Solution: Electronically linking a phone system and a computer network

Payoff: Improved customer service

Automation should improve customer service. At least that's what Andras Hites, president of a dental restoration laboratory in Dublin, Calif., thought. So Hites wasn't happy when he realized that despite a large investment in technology, his company was still wasting customers' valuable time. For example, dentists would often return calls to the laboratory without knowing the name of the lab technician who had originally tried to reach them. The receptionist would then launch what could be a lengthy search to find the right technician and get the answers the dentists needed.

Over the years, Micro Dental Laboratories Inc., an $8.7-million company, had invested heavily in technology. As far back as 1979, the company spent $24,000 on eight Tandy computers and database software to keep track of its 300 customers. Hites was sure computers could help to save customers' time, too -- if he could find a way to link his computers to the phones.

Hites began by installing a Novell network. He also bought state-of-the-art Comdial phones. The only missing piece was the software that would link the phone system to the computer network. Hites chose Sixth Sense with SoftPhone, by AnswerSoft Inc. (Plano, TX; 214-612-5100), at a cost of about $35,000.

Today, when a lab technician has to contact a customer, he or she turns to the computer, not the phone. The technician calls up the customer's file and then clicks the "dial" command. If the customer isn't in, the technician notes the attempt in an electronic phone log that's stored in the customer's file. When the call is returned, before the phone is even answered, the phone log flashes on the screen. Customer-service representatives not only get a heads up on who's calling, they often even know why. And now when customers call, no matter what the circumstances, it rarely takes more than a few seconds to get them the information they need. "It was harder to find answers for customers when we were a 10-person company than it is now, when we're a 185-person company," says Hites.

The software can also schedule calls. Some dentists, for example, need weekly updates on the progress of lab work. Once a technician enters the day and time a call should be made, the software not only flashes a reminder message at the scheduled time but also gives the technician an option to make the call.

And the system allows voice and fax functions to be used simultaneously. Hites is in the process of scanning product information into the computer so that in the future, when a dentist calls with a question about the strength of a bonding material, for example, the customer-service rep will only have to touch a few keys to fax off the answer. "We want to become a source of information for dentists," says Hites.

Soon, when a dentist calls with a question about, say, a two-month-old invoice, the customer-service rep will be able to call up the invoice on a computer monitor and fax a copy of it off to the customer in a matter of seconds. Another benefit: the software allows Hites to monitor phone usage, to determine how many times a customer has been called and how many times a customer has called the lab.

But employees beware. Hites can also see when personal calls are adding up. "If someone says to me that he doesn't have enough time to finish his work," says Hites, "but I can see that he's spending a lot of time on personal calls, I just might have some suggestions for wiser time management."

-- Joshua Macht