Let your computer do the walking

Telephony is extending the reach – and profit – of small firms
by HEATHER STUR, SBT REPORTER
At United Cerebral Palsy of southeastern Wisconsin, one of the receptionists has limited speech ability, and only the mobility of her left arm. Yet she manages a nine-line telephone system for a staff of 35 people and handles an average of 200 phone calls per day.
Through the use of computer telephony software and an infrared laser beam attached to her glasses to serve as a mouse, the receptionist answers the telephone and transfers calls on her computer screen the way another receptionist would answer a switchboard. When a call comes in, she clicks on a pre-recorded message, listens to the caller, and transfers the call accordingly.
In the most basic of terms, computer telephony involves using your telephone and computer in conjunction, through a software program and an Internet connection, to perform a wide variety of office functions, many of which seem unrelated to typical telephone uses.
For example, if you’re a salesperson and you dial a client’s phone number, with telephony software all of that client’s data will appear on your computer screen when you dial the phone number, saving you from having to search your database for that information.
Or if you’re in the database and want to call a client, simply click on the client’s name and your telephone will dial the client’s telephone number.
You don’t have to change long-distance or local carriers, and with some programs you don’t even have to buy new phones.
Heartland Software Development, Inc., on Mayfair Road in Wauwatosa, uses computer telephony software which allows new telephone users to be added to the company director and voice-mail system within seconds, calls employees at up to four different telephone numbers to alert them to a voice-mail message and immediately puts them into the voice-mail system, lets users return a voice mail message without leaving the voice mail system and opens a customer database whenever a customer calls.
Developed by AltiGen Communications, Inc., for use on Windows NT systems and any telephone system, and targeted to small businesses of five to 120 employees, the AltiGen system is efficient and cost-effective, says Gary Edgar, president of Heartland.
“This does anything you can do with a normal phone system plus a lot more,” Edgar says. “You don’t need to buy special phones or install a new phone system to use it. If you’ve got the software, your Sports Illustrated Packers football phone will work just fine with it.”
With a traditional phone system, adding a new employee to the system might involve calling an electrician or the phone company to rewire the system and add another extension with voice mail, taking a few hours or perhaps even a day or two.
With an AltiGen system, you simply type the name of the new employee into the designated field, hit the return key and that extension and voice-mail box are automatically added to the company directory.
The AltiGen “Follow-Me-Roaming” feature allows employees to program up to four phone numbers at which they can be reached so when a call comes in to voice mail, the system calls those numbers, any of which can be out of the country, and immediately puts the employee into the voice-mail system when he answers the call.
With the system’s “Boomerang” function, employees can immediately return a call by pressing a button, and then return to voice mail at the spot where they left off. Additionally, the system causes a customer information window to appear on your computer screen whenever that customer calls.
The AltiGen system costs a one-time fee of $500 for the software and about $3,500 for the necessary hardware, says Todd Wenzel, vice president of operations at Heartland Software.
Ultimate! Communicator, the telephony software used by United Cerebral Palsy, also is designed for Windows NT systems, but unlike the AltiGen system it must be used with Toshiba phones. Ultimate! Communicator allows users to run traffic reports to determine the peak times for incoming and outgoing calls and make sure employees are being utilized efficiently, and to record conversations, dial a client’s phone number from the computer screen, and have a client database appear on the computer screen when a client calls.
“The Communicator can be customized to meet the needs of your business and absolutely improves office efficiency,” says Tom Sodemann, vice president and general manager of Phones Plus Telephone Systems in New Berlin. “For instance, by running traffic reports on calls you can determine at what times of the day employees have downtime and can be given other duties.”
And for all the call-tracking, speed-dialing, and client-identifying functions Ultimate! Communicator performs, it can also be customized to perform some quite unique tasks. For example, Sodemann suggests that the Communicator can pair your phone and computer systems to act as an office alarm team. The program can be set up so that if, after a certain time (usually at night after business hours), someone logs on to or somehow uses a computer in the office, the phone immediately dials the office manager’s or building security’s phone number and states a message that someone is in the office.
It can perform other “timed events,” such as blocking the ability to make long-distance calls from office phones after a certain hour. Also, beginning this month, a local restaurant will use the Ultimate! Communicator to start a preferred customer club. Once the system is in place, when a club member calls the restaurant, a computer at the hostess station will identify the caller and immediately print the customer’s “biography,” which will list such things as the customer’s birthday, anniversary, favorite place to sit, favorite entree, favorite wine and the last time the customer visited the restaurant. That way, special arrangements can be made for the customer quickly and easily.
“This is an excellent example of how the Communicator not only improves efficiency, but also enhances customer service,” Sodemann says.
Ultimate! Communicator costs $500 per phone (as long as you have a Toshiba phone system), and Sodemann notes that not every phone in an office needs the software. Only the work stations which will utilize its functions need to have the program installed.
Despite the impressive features of telephony software, the natural concern may be one of, “What happens to my phone system if the software malfunctions or my computer system goes down?” Heartland runs the AltiGen system on a separate computer, and Sodemann assures that your phones will continue to operate like normal phones if your computers crash; you just won’t be able to dial from your computer or have the computer-driven functions available.
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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