Call Here, Ring There

FRAMINGHAM (08/10/2000) - Tom O'Keefe's attorney called to say hello only to reach a very sleepy client in the middle of the night, several time zones away.

O'Keefe, president and chairman of Tulley's Coffee Co., was snoozing in his hotel room in Singapore, but that didn't stop his cell phone from bleating. The call, made to a phone number in Seattle, where O'Keefe lives and Tulley's is based, was seamlessly routed from the U.S. to the cell phone on O'Keefe's nightstand.

O'Keefe and more than 100 of his key employees get the service through AccessLine Communications Corp. in Bellevue, Wash., which, along with firms like MessageClick Inc. in New York, represents an emerging breed of advanced voice communications outsourcers.

These voice service providers are a far cry from consumer-oriented unified messaging Web sites that consolidate faxes and voice mail, such as in San Mateo, Calif., says Megan Gurley, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

It's easy to see why companies might be interested in farming out their voice services. A traditional corporate private branch exchange (PBX) costs about $1,000 per employee to buy and install, says Brian Strachman, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. Even one of the newer server-based systems costs about $500 per seat, he says. In comparison, it generally costs between $8 and $20 per person to use a voice service provider, say early customers.

These figures, coupled with Cahners In-Stat's prediction in a recent report that large enterprises will become conglomerations of regional branch offices, may position voice outsourcing as a viable alternative to buying and building such systems in-house.

Ricochet Messaging

Although the new voice communications outsourcers offer voice mail and fax services through a single number and can be accessed via the Web like their consumer services brethren, they provide a lot more business-level functionality than consumer services vendors do, Gurley says. The big difference, say Gurley and customers like O'Keefe, is that a voice communications outsourcer that targets businesses gives individual users the ability to customize voice communications over the Web or through touch-tone phones, based on their work and travel patterns.

For instance, an employee who spends Monday and Tuesday at company headquarters, visits clients on Wednesday and Thursday and then works from home on Friday could program a single outsourced phone number to ricochet calls to his office, cell phone or home. From any phone, the worker could then screen and accept calls, access a single voice-mail account and check e-mail and faxes.

A system that connects employees moving hither and thither was just what Andy Pada Jr. says he was looking for when he found MessageClick two months ago. "We have [mortgage] closings happening every hour," says Pada, vice president of 1st 2nd Mortgage Company of N.J. Inc. in Cresskill, N.J. Clients, real estate brokers and attorneys need to communicate with one another in real time, he says.

When there's a last-minute question before or at a closing, voice mail simply doesn't work, Pada explains. Each of 30 customer agents at Pada's mortgage firm has a phone number assigned by MessageClick. The numbers are toll free. Users can instruct MessageClick on routing incoming calls.

Another MessageClick service that Pada says he likes is text-to-voice conversion. This system automatically converts e-mail messages to voice files, allowing Pada to listen to a computer-synthesized voice read e-mail text over the phone. Although the voice sounds too much like a computer, Pada says, he's satisfied that the software agent doing the virtual reading correctly pronounces 90% to 95% of the words. The agent spells out words and acronyms it can't pronounce, he says.

The cost of using an outsourcer varies according to the number of employees who use the communications services, combined with the level of services they use.

For example, O'Keefe says he pays $16 per month for each of the 110 employees who have AccessLine numbers. Meanwhile, Pada pays about $8 per month per user for the 30 employees who use MessageClick services.

These costs can mount, especially at large companies like PeopleSoft Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif., where Engineering Vice President Neil Hennessy says he pays $10 per month for each of the 400 salespeople who now use AccessLine. Hennessy says his costs may rise because he may add 1,600 more users in the future.

Nonetheless, O'Keefe says he's convinced that outsourced voice communications offer a viable alternative, both in cost and functionality, to PBX systems that require maintenance and upgrades and that may need to be replaced to keep up with the needs of the business.

Pada says voice messaging functionality, such as having a mortgage loan specialist on duty 24 hours a day, is invaluable. "In today's market, everyone has the same interest rate," he says. "What [voice outsourcing] does is make us a better service company."

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