Techniques: Shop Talk

Companies without voice mail may never get the message

The written word is Better Communications' stock-in-trade. But last year, when customers started complaining that their spoken words were getting short shrift, founder and president Deborah Dumaine knew it was time to get voice mail.

Every year Better Communications, based in Lexington, Mass., runs more than 300 business-writing workshops for Fortune 1000 customers. The 14-person company teaches corporate employees the art of crafting proposals, customer letters, and even E-mail messages that are so effective that recipients can't help reading and acting upon them.

As happens in many businesses, customers who found their account managers unavailable when they called would typically ask the receptionist for voice mail. "Sometimes they were told, 'I am voice mail," says Dumaine. The customers weren't amused--nor did they consider those pink While You Were Out slips a satisfactory substitute. "They wanted to communicate action steps: to explain a situation, ask for a proposal, set a date," Dumaine explains. "A name on a piece of paper didn't allow for the back-and-forth you need to move such decisions ahead."

Virtually all digital phone systems sold today support voice mail, either as an integrated feature or as an add-on, but Better Communications' 14-year-old system didn't. That meant Dumaine had to buy new phone and voice-mail systems simultaneously. And since voice mail was driving the purchase, she decided to let its features dictate her choice of both systems. She tapped Robert Wright, a consultant who at the time was acting as Better Communications' controller, to spearhead the search.

Before calling a single dealer, Wright polled the company's employees for their voice-mail wish lists. Three features popped up repeatedly: a system for broadcasting messages to multiple recipients, a directory of employees' last names, and a way for callers to ditch the system in favor of a human being. Employees also wanted a "back door" so that personal callers and traveling staff could tap in without bothering the front desk.

Requirements in hand, Wright called four local dealers whose names he found in the yellow pages. All four asked how many mailboxes the company would need and how often those boxes would be used. Based on the controller's responses, all four recommended four-port models. (A port is a single connection between phone and voice-mail systems.)

Wright thought that number sounded low, given that the company would need 16 mailboxes. But the sales reps explained that most businesses require far fewer ports than boxes since only a few callers leave and retrieve messages at one time. OK, said Wright, but the system would have to be expandable so that the company could add more ports if it needed them.

Once Wright had settled on size, it was time to compare products. Fortunately, the controller's requirements appeared on all the dealers' recommended systems: Key Voice Technologies' Small Office, Nortel Networks Norstar StarTalk Flash, Telekol's Integrax, and Telrad Telecommunications' Imagen. But there were differences, too. Telekol's product, for example, was designed around unified messaging, a sophisticated technology that allows users to retrieve E-mail, voice mail, and fax messages from a single location. Unified messaging would be overkill for Better Communications, so Telekol fell out of the running.

With three products remaining, Wright solicited quotes. The initial quotes--covering equipment, installation, and training--ranged from $12,000 to $15,000, with voice mail generally accounting for 40% of the cost. Service response times--about four hours--were also similar. Without significant price differentials to guide him, Wright chose to simplify things by eliminating the product about which he knew least: in this case, Telrad's.

Wright then took a good, long look at the Key Voice and Nortel systems, and he began to notice subtle differences. Most notably, Key Voice's product ran on a PC, while Nortel's used a card added to the phone system. Better Communications lacked the space for an additional PC, and Wright--who would be performing supervisory tasks such as adding new users--wanted to handle those duties by phone, not computer.

The Nortel product also won on usability. "Instead of listening to voice prompts and punching buttons, I could just read a menu of options," which appear on a screen on the phone, Wright says. Everything was so intuitive that he was confident new employees could learn the system without a manual.

At this point, Nortel was looking really good, but Wright still wanted references. So he called six people--three who had purchased the Nortel system and three who had gone with Key Voice--and asked about their experiences. Aside from a trivial incident or two, he heard nothing to dissuade him from either product.

Wright's enthusiasm for the Nortel system didn't extend to the price, however. So the dealer, Williams Communications Solutions, in Waltham, Mass., tried again and came back with a quote of $13,500--10% lower than its first one. After calculating that buying outright was cheaper than leasing, Dumaine wrote a check for the entire amount. "Our last phone system lasted 14 years," she says, undeterred by the prospect of obsolescence. "I never regretted an investment in technology or upgrading to better systems."

The day before the new system went live, a Williams representative visited Better Communications to train staff and assign mailboxes. The actual switchover began after office hours, and by night's end the dealer's installation team had assembled and programmed the new phones and transferred the whole office to the Nortel system. With the exception of a couple of wall-mounted units that were too loose, all went smoothly, Wright says. Still, Dumaine took the precaution of giving out cell-phone numbers to customers in case they couldn't get through.

Once the system was in place, Williams offered Dumaine the option--popular with many businesses--of using an automated attendant to answer calls. But Dumaine decided that a visitor's first contact with the company should remain a human one. "We have very high-powered clients," she says. "We needed to be sure that a person could say hello on our end so that it wasn't all robotic."

In the months that Better Communications has been using voice mail, productivity is up--especially among the sales team. Now clients leave detailed messages about possible workshop dates, for instance, and account managers call back to say that everything is arranged. Voice mail, in other words, is helping Better Communications live up to its name.

Larry Lord knew that the millennium bug threatened his firm's computers. But he wasn't prepared for the news that its voice-mail system was vulnerable as well.

The voice-mail system at Lord, Aeck, & Sargent, a $7.3-million architectural-design firm in Atlanta, was salvageable with a software patch from the manufacturer, Lord discovered. But was it worth salvaging? Of late, the system had been playing some nasty tricks, such as cutting off messages in midsentence. Worse, the firm's dealer had only two technicians who were familiar with the 10-year-old product, so support was hard to come by. "We would call, and it might take them two days to get back, which is a lifetime for a voice-mail problem," says Lord, a principal and cofounder of the firm.

Lord and his partners decided to replace the system instead of patching it, so in midsummer 1997 they asked information-systems manager Doug Glasgow and chief financial officer Mike Stevenson to investigate the options. Their first stop was the company's current dealer, who showed them Stratagy, a $10,000 product from Toshiba. That price sounded right for a firm with 45 employees, but Stratagy would work only with Toshiba phone systems. Lord wasn't planning to buy a new phone system, and he didn't want to tie his hands. He also figured that if the company was going to make a major technology investment, it might as well upgrade its services. With Stratagy, "it seemed as if we were spending quite a bit of money with no noticeable improvement over our current situation," he says. The Toshiba product was nixed.

Lord and his colleagues wanted more, but they weren't sure what that "more" was. (It certainly included Y2K compliance, but that's a given on systems sold today.) Then the dealer introduced them to unified messaging, which allows employees to manage messages in a variety of media from a single computer screen. Users get such information as the date a message was received; its format (voice, E-mail, or fax) and length; and the sender's name and phone number. Users who have a feature that offers text-to-speech capabilities can click on the messages and listen to them over a sound card and speaker or a regular telephone handset.

Lord and his colleagues liked the fact that the product--Repartee with the Telanophy component from Active Voice--was nonproprietary. But the price seemed high: an estimated $35,000 to $40,000. "At first we thought the estimate was really expensive," says Glasgow. "By the end we thought it was cheap."

As Glasgow and Stevenson continued their research, it became clear that a unified-messaging system would have to run on a PC connected to the company's network. And that meant dealing with compatibility issues. The company's network was built on a Windows NT server, a Microsoft Exchange mail server, and Microsoft Outlook E-mail client. The Active Voice system would work with that setup, but it was based on OS/2, an operating system for IBM PC-compatible computers. A Windows NT version was scheduled for release at the end of the year, but Glasgow didn't want to wait.

So he and Stevenson hit the Internet and computer trade magazines in search of alternatives. Impressed by the Web site for industry veteran AVT Corp., they invited a pitch. The company's CallXpress satisfied two of the architectural firm's criteria: it was based on open architecture, and it ran on Windows NT. The interface, however, was less than ideal. Because the product was not fully integrated with Outlook, it required one window to view E-mail and another for fax and voice messages. The dealer assured them that Outlook integration was just around the corner. Still, it was a corner the researchers couldn't comfortably see around.

Dissatisfied, the two turned to Lucent Technologies, which recommended its Octel Unified Messenger. It was a good suggestion. Unified Messenger is an NT-based open system designed to work with Outlook, so separate windows ceased to be a problem. It was also easy to administer. One drawback: employees calling in from outside phones couldn't forward incoming faxes to another fax machine, something CallXpress users could do. But that feature, as well as the ability to send E-mail as faxes, was in the works, the Lucent salesperson assured them.

Pricewise, neither system was out of the ballpark. After Stevenson did some fancy negotiating, the AVT dealer came back with a quote of $32,907; the Lucent dealer wanted $51,650 for a comparable system. Both quotes included software, servers, and all the hardware needed for installation. (The nearly $20,000 discrepancy between the two quotes reflected differences in hardware configuration and software licenses.)

With the choice narrowed to two, Glasgow started calling the dealers every day and questioning them relentlessly. "We were like their worst nightmare," he says. "Both companies were sick of us by the time we made a decision." The researchers finally settled on Lucent's Unified Messenger, figuring that it was better to risk poor fax-telephone integration than suffer with a kludgey user interface. But Glasgow stipulated that the company receive fax-forwarding capability gratis when that feature turned up.

Deployment wasn't flawless. At one point the installers discovered that some components had been overlooked when the quote was prepared. Fortunately, Stevenson had been firm about pricing in the contract. "Otherwise, we would have been nickeled-and-dimed after we signed and not been able to do anything about it," he says.

Unified Messenger has been in place since May, and Lord estimates that the system is saving employees about 15 minutes per day--that's $73,000 in increased productivity for the first year. The one disadvantage: now that the system has become the Rome that all roads lead to, Lord says, it's not unusual for him to find more than 100 messages in his in box. "Right now my unified-messaging board looks just like my desk," he says.

Mie-Yun Lee is the editorial director and founder of BuyersZone, an Internet-buying service that features expert purchasing advice and tools for small and midsize businesses. You can conduct your own search for a voice-mail system.