House Calls
The way to sell houses, the prevailing wisdom goes, is to bombard potential customers with phone calls and set up a site on the Web. Well, the prevailing wisdom is a lotta hooey. "Consumers are tired of pressured sales calls," says Peggy Primm, a real estate agent in Des Moines. "And the reality is that many people don't use the Internet, don't have E-mail, and don't want to talk to a computer about a home."

So with the help of a systems integrator, Primm created Voice Box, a Windows NT-based set of voice-mail and fax-back services that lets her distribute information to potential home buyers by phone when they request it. Primm assigns a unique phone number to each of her properties and displays it on a sticker underneath her agent number on the "For Sale" sign. If someone drives past a lemon-yellow colonial that strikes his fancy, he can simply punch the number into his cell phone and hear all the details--including price--which Primm records once a week. "They want the good ol' human touch," says Primm. "So I give them my voice, and I'm available 24 hours a day."

Primm's $15,000 investment in the technology behind Voice Box--an IBM Netfinity 3000 server loaded with Callware Technologies software and Lucent Technologies digital sound cards--is already paying off. In the quarter beginning October 1998, when she first began displaying Voice Box phone numbers on her properties, Primm took home $20,000 in commissions--as much as she made in the entire previous year. Primm says she's been able to sell more houses because she spends less time answering basic questions and more time helping customers actually buy. "By the time people call me on my cell phone, the questions they ask indicate they already know about the house," she says.

And with two 4GB hard drives on which to store messages, Primm leases space on the system to others through her marketing company, Fair Trade. For $25 a month, insurance and mortgage brokers can link specific information to each of Primm's properties ("press 2 for mortgage information," etc.) and make insurance and loan applications available for fax on demand. Primm even rents Voice Box to competing agents, and she wants to expand into other markets. "Every time I see a car with a 'For Sale by Owner' sign, I think, 'That guy needs a box!" she says.

For the real estate industry, in which agents often display their phone numbers to lock in customers and commissions, Voice Box is a novel and welcome convenience. "The point of having signs on the lawn is to get buyers to call the listing agent," Primm explains. "I believe clients have the right to be represented by any agent they want." She credits her broker affiliate, RE/MAX, with being open to Voice Box and the changing customer relationship it represents. "They let me spend my time meeting people's needs instead of hassling them," she says. --Andrew Raskin

LAN Lubbers
Small companies give up many things in the name of sticking to core competencies. Control over their own networks isn't one of them.

Small-Business Network-Management Strategies
Currently outsource 9%
Plan to outsource 5%
Plan to keep in-house 86%

Source: Business Research Group (BRG)

The Face That Launched a Thousand Apps
Jon-Erik Prichard has so many passwords--for network files, E-mail accounts, and the like--that he constantly forgets what opens what. So when the CEO of Aqcess Technologies, a two-year-old manufacturer of clipboard-sized PCs in Costa Mesa, Calif., built a company extranet, he wanted to secure it without adding yet another "open sesame." At an Internet trade show he found his answer: access software that responds to faces instead of words.

TrueFace, from Miros Inc., of Wellesley, Mass., employs a video camera connected to a PC to record the mugs of people authorized to use certain machines or applications. Subsequently, every time a user logs on, the software matches the shape and size of his or her facial features with the stored image before granting access. Not only does TrueFace reduce password clutter, but it also improves security. "It's hard to hack a face," says Prichard.

The product--sans video camera--costs $59.95 to $199 per user, depending on the number of seats. All 35 Aqcess employees have it on their desktops; Prichard has also recorded the faces of 30 of the company's customers and suppliers so that they can access the extranet remotely. In addition, Prichard is installing TrueFace in his company's own product: a portable, stylus-based personal-computing tablet called Qbe.

TrueFace is just one of a host of new security systems that rely on biometrics--the technique of identifying people using body measurements. Bio-metric technologies include face and voice recognition; thermal imaging (which records heat patterns generated by blood vessels); and the scanning of fingers, hands, retinas, irises, and even the vein structure underneath a person's skin.

Until recently biometric systems have chiefly protected buildings and other high-security areas. But they may soon become the preferred security mechanism for many business systems, according to Phillip Green, senior technologist of the Advanced User Interface Lab of the AMS Center for Ad-vanced Technologies, in Fairfax, Va. Password security systems rely on human memory, "which isn't 100%," says Green. Biometric systems are "significantly safer" because "they eliminate the holes that are inherent in human beings." --Alessandra Bianchi

Arresting Warranties
For a company selling scientific-research equipment, Instrutech was anything but scientific when it came to processing product warranties. A secretary's desk at the $5-million company was piled high with 3-by-5-inch customer-reply cards, many filled out in an illegible scrawl. Meanwhile, scores of Instrutech's customers weren't sending in cards at all. "The response was disappointing," says Leon Kanopka, production manager for the 10-person company, based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Kanopka thought the company's Web site might provide the solution. So in 1997 he created a " warranty registration" section, with fields for the customer's name and address, the product's serial number and date of purchase, and so on. Since the site isn't linked to the company's back-office systems, Kanopka rigged it to automatically E-mail him registrant data, which he exports to a database without rekeying. He promoted the service to customers by including notes with all products shipped.

Today Instrutech is registering customers from as far away as Japan. The service also enables it to stay in touch: on-line registrants who provide E-mail addresses receive updates about new products and promotions.

Kanopka says the site has increased warranty registration by 25% to 30%. Customers can still mail or fax in a one-page registration form, but Kanopka wishes they wouldn't. "The site makes their lives easier," he says. --Shane McLaughlin

On the Hook
Congratulations, you've finally immunized your computer systems against the millennium bug. Too bad your call center is about to get trampled to death.

The problem is that as the Big Double-O looms larger, consumers of all kinds of products and services are getting nervous. Nervous consumers are naturally going to phone their vendors' call centers, and 61% of those vendors don't have a clue about how to handle the increased volume, according to a study from Quintus Corp., a Fremont, Calif., company that provides consulting and software for call centers.

Call centers will be hit by the same technology problems as everyone else and--adding injury to injury--will also suffer from capacity overload, warns Quintus CEO Alan Anderson. "Once you get near 100% capacity, a call center starts to bust," he says. "Hold times typically double. The consumer has to wait, rather than being routed to the next available agent. That's when customer satisfaction typically goes down. If you're not prepared for the uptick, you're in trouble."

Anderson reports that the call center of one client--a credit-card issuer--experienced a 30% increase in calls when it mailed out cards with a '00 expiration date, owing to customers' concerns about whether the cards would work. "They had to staff up quickly and make technical modifications to the system," he says.

Not all assessments of the situation are equally dire. The millennium bug "was a big issue about a year ago," says David DuCoin, copresident of Compass TeleServices, a telemarketing company in Woodbury, N.J. "A lot of the companies I know have already dealt with it." Still, DuCoin agrees that the industry isn't great at handling wild swings in volume, and that the turn of the century might produce such a swing. "I'm sure it'll be like last October, when everybody was booking up call-center time for the political campaigns," he says. "We'll run out of space and then, like after the election, it will suddenly get real quiet." --Mike Hofman

AprÈs Le Deluge
Is your call center ready for the millennial hordes? Quintus Corp.'s Alan Anderson suggests that you ask yourself these questions:

1. How many calls does each agent handle daily? How many calls can all agents handle together? "If you receive an additional 20 calls, what do you do?" asks Anderson. "What would happen if a 21st call came in? How long would that person wait?"

2. Does your routing system have a backup? "You should have some redundancy in your call center," Anderson says. "Why not have another line or two open, in case of emergency?"

3. What happens when customers are on hold? What do they hear? How long must they wait?

4. Are call responses automated ("For your account balance, press 2...")? Is there a self-service option--for example, can customers get the information they need from a company's Web site?

5. Can you hire more technical and customer-service people on short notice?

Things We Love
Nadine Bostic knows that connectivity can sometimes be a curse. At least twice a week the owner of $75,000 Anel Nail & Cosmetics Salon, in Beltsville, Md., travels as far as Boston and Miami to peddle her line of natural makeup. Until recently Bostic's pager alerted her to new voice-mail messages back at the office, which she retrieved using a cell phone. As a result, she was racking up huge cellular bills. "When you're trying to grow, it's hard to justify spending so much money that's not going back into your business," Bostic says.

Then a friend persuaded her to try Pocketalk, a portable answering machine that allows users to retrieve voice messages without a phone. Before leaving town Bostic sets her office phone to forward all messages to the portable unit. Pocketalk's built-in pager beeps whenever a message comes in; Bostic then pushes a button and listens to it through an embedded speaker.

The pager costs $49.95 and stores up to three minutes of messages. (If there are more, the pager flashes and Bostic deletes a few.) The service usually costs $19.95 or less and is available in 13 cities; if Bostic goes outside the service area, messages are stored on the vendor's network and sent to her once she is back in range.

Bostic started really using Pocketalk in January and is thrilled about the savings. "My cell-phone bill was $82," she says. "Last month it was $470." --S.M.

Film at
Scott E. Luellen had a project so sophisticated only a child could do it.

Luellen's company, a $50-million information-technology and systems-integration business called the Carpe Diem Group, needed a new Web site, and the CEO wanted it to be cutting edge. "Our old site was antiquated, simplistic," Luellen says. "We needed something that motivated people to act."

After receiving several bids, Luellen awarded the job to the only vendor that promised an affordable way to do streaming video, one of the more bandwidth-intensive effects on the Web. The winner? Kids Online, a nonprofit group in which technology-literate suburban kids teach computer skills to their inner-city counterparts. Donations to the group were getting harder to come by, and founders Phil and Sharon Cruver decided to compensate by hiring out some of its talent to local businesses.

For $2,000 Luellen secured the labor of two teenagers, who redesigned the site from scratch. As the coup de grÂce, the Cruvers' 16-year-old son, Wesley, and 15-year-old Chris Marshall took a digital video that Sharon Cruver had filmed of Luellen extolling his company's merits, added a musical introduction, and installed it on the Kids Online server. Now anyone who clicks on the link for Luellen's speech on the Carpe Diem site is transported to the Kids Online site for the movie.

The Cruvers' crew has since created videos for other small businesses in the Washington, D.C., area (like Carpe Diem, the group is based in Falls Church, Va.), including a chiropractor who demonstrates stretching techniques and a personal trainer who leads exercises on-line. In each case, site visitors must download the Real Video player from Real Networks before viewing.

While video remains a relative rarity on-line (see chart, below), Phil Cruver predicts it will become ubiquitous. "Give it a year," he says. "Static Web sites and HTML will go the way of black-and-white TV." --S.M.

Web Sites with a Cherry on Top
To date, most small-company Web sites have been plain-vanilla affairs. But one study predicts that they're about to get much fancier.

Small-Company Web Sites with Advanced Features*
1998 2000 2002
Database integration .53 1.49 2.63
Search capability 79 1.84 2.67
Streaming audio/video .35 .98 1.91

*in millions
Source: Access Media International