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Like many suburbanites, Kelly Walls used to dread his commute, a 40-minute nightmare that lay between his home and the sprawling city of Atlanta. But all that has changed thanks to the help of a unified messaging product that lets him access faxes, voice mail, and e-mail messages from his cell phone, thereby transforming dead time into some of the most productive time in his day. "Now, instead of coming into work and spending the first 30 minutes answering e-mail and voice mail, I've already taken care of that work in the car. It's turned my commute into productive time so I'm not just sitting in traffic," he says.
"Companies have limited dollars to spend, and in the last few years, the focus has been on e-commerce and the Web," explains Blair Pleasant, an analyst with the Pelorus Group and author of the report, "Unified Messaging CPE: Moving to Unified Communications." "To say workers can save an hour a day by accessing messages in one place may not be a compelling enough argument to jump unified messaging to the top of the wish list. It's not a must-have, but really more of a nice-to-have tool."
On the roadAt Royal Specialty Underwriting, however, the Lucent Unified Messenger system is quickly becoming a must-have for its increasingly mobile workforce. In use since 1997, Unified Messenger is available to all 200 Royal Specialty users, many of whom are insurance underwriters who travel and need to be in constant communication with brokers to provide quote information to bind a policy. "Our underwriters need to provide information quickly, even though they're not sitting at their desks. This helps us service our brokers quickly," Walls says. With the software, underwriters can have their e-mail read to them over the telephone and respond to e-mails with voice mail using Lucent's text-to-speech recognition software, which reads e-mail over the phone, letting users issue commands to respond to messages and create new ones. Selling the company on the system was easy because Royal Specialty had no prior investment in a voice mail system. Since the company chairman did not like voice mail, Walls and his crew sold him on the benefits of a centralized inbox for all communications. They got funding--approximately $60,000--for the technology with little to no pushback, says Walls. "We were at an advantage because we didn't have a voice-mail system," Walls says. "When you have a lot of money invested in separate voice, fax, and e-mail systems, it's a lot of money to throw away for the benefit of an integrated inbox. Companies can continue to survive with three separate systems." Another benefit of Unified Messenger was its ability to tap into the administrative and directory services of Microsoft Exchange, which Royal Specialty already used for e-mail. The software, which costs around $300 per user to implement, has been a sound investment, although Walls says coming up with a specific return on investment is difficult. He estimates that busy underwriters are able to save about 30 minutes a day during commuting time alone. And, since the software uses a browser interface that looks like Exchange, Royal Specialty users required no additional training. Essentially, users dial one number on a phone and go through the standard security measures to access all messages, whether voice mail or e-mail. Then Lucent's text-to-speech recognition software takes over, which allows them to issue commands to answer messages and generate new ones.
Goodbye mistaken identityAfter an evaluation of systems in 1998, Sentinel installed AVT's CallXpress voice mail system, which offers unified messaging. In fact, the unified-messaging capabilities were the main reason Sentinel selected the product, says Rashkovich, who declined to name the other products the company investigated. Now 180 employees in the corporate headquarters are up and running on the software with minimal training effort. "AVT provides a single interface, so as far as the user is concerned, they see only one inbox and get all messages in one spot," Rashkovich explains. "That makes it extremely easy to use, saving time and money." In addition to improving real estate agents' productivity, CallXpress has improved the response time of Sentinel's IT support help desk. "Our group supports people from all properties and we receive all kinds of communications from the field. To be able to go into one inbox to retrieve all the voice mails, e-mails, and faxes lets us respond much quicker than if we had to look in different places," Rashkovich says. The system, which cost around $50,000 in software licenses and another $15,000 in hardware upgrades, already has paid for itself, Rashkovich says, although he admits the numbers are hard to quantify. In the data center alone, he says the help desk staff is able to save an hour a week.
| Unified messaging CPE products: the players |
(1999 market share based on revenue)
Source: The Pelorus Group
Sentinel did not encounter any integration hurdles since it wasn't trying to synchronize CallXpress with any legacy systems, says Rashkovich. There are minor issues, however, associated with the text-to-speech recognition technology that translates e-mail messages over the phone so they can be heard. "We can listen to e-mail although it's not always easy to recognize because the mechanical voice that transcribes the message sometimes gets confused over the more complex words," says Rashkovich. However, text-to-speech recognition technology is improving and will continue to evolve with each new iteration of the software, analysts say.
Another benefit to considerFairmont General Hospital, which has been using Active Voice's voice products and Unity unified messaging tool for about a year, ranks the ability to prioritize responses in all forms of communication as one of the technology's primary benefits, says Fred Sartoris, telecommunications specialist for the Fairmont, W. Va., hospital. One of Unity's standard features gives Fairmont users a list of messages and a brief descriptor, allowing them to respond in order of importance instead of in the order they were received. The hospital encountered few bumps installing the software, since the unified messaging installation was part of a larger program to replace a legacy phone system. Even though the unified messaging capability is only available to one-fourth of the hospital's 200 employees--primarily administrators, department heads, and people who travel--Sartoris says he would not even entertain buying a voice-mail system today that doesn't incorporate the technology. It's the same sentiment at Royal Specialty, although there, all employees are making use of unified messaging. And while there are still complaints about the onerous Atlanta commute, drive time is no longer downtime--unless, of course, employees choose to check out and enjoy the traffic. // Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer living in Newbury, Mass. She can be reached at email@example.com.
What's to come: the three phases of unified messagingIntroductory phase, (1998-1999):
- Unified messaging services are rolled out in advanced markets. Early adopters include business travelers, small businesses, and Soho subscribers, as well as heavy Internet consumers.
- Potential market is limited because e-mail is not yet critical to many small business subscribers and most consumers. Spotty availability of services, limited marketing, and difficulties with interoperation and migration are other inhibitors.
- Interoperation problems prevent services from providing effective enterprisewide systems for medium and large customers.
- First generation of personal assistant and call-stimulation applications are rolled out independently of unified messaging, mainly on mobile networks.
- Unified messaging increasingly seen as a necessity among power users in all business and consumer segments, allowing adoption to grow rapidly.
- Improved techniques and more widespread deployment of interoperation standards reduce interoperation and migration barriers. The first effective enterprisewide services become available, providing an alternative to customer premise systems for medium and large corporations.
- Its role in differentiating service providers spawns enhanced services with integrated personal assistants and productivity applications.
- Services are again enhanced to become true Advanced Personal Communications Services based on unified messaging interface.
- Growth in the mass market is rapid, with many individuals in industrialized nations having their own unified inbox.
- Enterprisewide services attract corporate marketplace, which increases investment in unified messaging products.