VM, 24/7 On The QT

Naturally, the early adopters of this hot (or should we say cool) new technology tend to be big companies with big bucks to blow on the latest telecom software. But some small and midsize firms are also jumping on the UM bandwagon to solve internal and external communications problems and get a quantum leap on their competition.

Without going into all the geekspeak, UM basically refers to the ability to access all your messages–voice mall, e-mail, and faxes–in one place, from either a phone or a PC.

According to Ken Myer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Active Voice, one of the leading providers of this new technology, there’s no time like the present. “People are inundated with messages, with e-mails, voice mails, and faxes. It’s wonderful we can communicate in a variety of ways. But we’re using different devices and different systems–some automated, some manual–to retrieve these messages. People want to get all the kinds of messages that come to them wherever they are and with whatever device they have in front of them. Unified messaging delivers that capability.”

Alan Perkins, senior manager for Nortel Networks Small Business Solutions Portfolio Market Group, believes that UM enhances productivity: “Unified messaging is a message management tool that allows users to take control of the messages they receive.

ltVincent J. Deschamps, vice president and general manager of UM for Lucent Technologies, says their studies show UM appeals to four user groups. The first is executives, who love the ability to “sync up” their messages, especially when traveling.

The second group includes mobile professionals such as salespeople, support staff, and project teams. “They particularly like having the same directory for e-mail and voice mail,” reports Deschamps. “With separately administered systems, the only people on your voice-mail system are those who have mailboxes, versus anyone you might have an e-mail address for.”

Deschamps says telecommuters, the third group, are also addicted to UM. “In services businesses, they’re keeping every type of e-communication with people, and now they can save voice-mall attachments in a personal folder on their PC as part of the record.”

The fourth group Lucent identified is call center and customer support personnel. “Many of these people utilize applications like Microsoft Exchange,” says Deschamps. “So managing voice, fax, and e-mail in the same inbox and on the same server is invaluable. They have a complete historical record in one place.”

Donna Dilley, product marketing manager for the Corporate Networks Group at NEC America, says UM is catching on with retailers and warehouse personnel who can manage communications via mobile phone while moving around their facilities. Dilley is personally big on the ability to forward a voice mail with only a point and click.

Companies that use UM are true believers. “Even when we are without computer access, we are still only a few touch-tones away from our verbal, electronic, and paper-based messages,” states Steven Oliveri, director of information services at Morgenthaler Ventures. “The ability to communicate quicker and easier, regardless of location or method, gives us our competitive edge.”

Like any new technology, UM can be a bit pricey, but Myer says its benefits are quantifiable. “The biggest impact is on responsiveness to your customers. If the only time your sales people can respond to an e-mail is when they get to the office, they’re not being responsive. I can set up our Unity system so my pager goes off whenever I get an urgent e-mail.”

Deschamps cites a study by the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto marketing and consulting firm, on the total cost of ownership of Lucent Unified Messenger products that work with Microsoft Exchange. “They found it reduced operating expenses by 70 percent and saved users, on average, an hour a day.” Why the drop in costs? “You’re supporting one platform instead of two,” explains Deschamps. “They interviewed companies with 50 employees on up and found the savings were scalable across the board.”

One fly in the UM ointment is the love bug problem. Some firms recently discovered that as your e-mail goes, so goes your voice mall. But Deschamps argues that that depends on the software. “At Lucent, we have a bullet-proof product. Even if someone takes their e-mail system down, our product stays up and answers the phone, and when the mail system comes back up, [it] transfers the messages over.”

Myer admits although viruses are a consideration, the advantages of UM outweigh the disadvantages. “Risks are inherent in any new technology. Most people make decisions for what will happen 90 percent of the time, not one percent.” What’s more, he notes, during a snowstorm this winter that closed a client’s plant, employees were able to access all their messages and stay in touch with customers via mobile phones.

At present, most UM software operates on top of Microsoft Exchange. So if you already use that, you may be in UM business.

The really big UM bugaboo is compatibility with your current phone system, a problem that can be averted, for the most part, if your system supplier has a strategic alliance with one of the UM providers. “If you order the product from an Active Voice strategic partner, the telephone integration is extremely strong because they own all aspects of how that voice mail talks to the switch,” says Myer.

Perkins echoes this sentiment. “Nortel’s system is proprietary, so if someone has a Norstar phone system and wants to add this feature, it’s very cost-effective and easy to do, with no need to replace hardware .”

Pike Goss, director of marketing for Key Voice, stresses his company’s commitment to service: “We provide tight integration to the customer’s phone system, deliver more technology for [the customer’s] investment, and provide speed and accessibility to technical support during opportune moments to demonstrate customer care.

Lucent sells UM through their messaging integrators, who are also Microsoft Solution partners. “We’re finding [that] smaller businesses are doing their own support as well,” Deschamps adds. “We offer a one-week training class where customers who have MS, MCSE, or MCP certification can become self-certified.”

Active Voice’s UM products are also sold direct. “We have developed an expertise in telephone integration,” Myer insists. “We offer the capability to attach our systems to over 100 telephone switches.”

Dilley cautions that buying multiple vendor products that don’t work together can be a major pitfall. “Step back and ask, ‘Do I want unified messaging? What systems have it?’ Our NEAXMail platform works with single key systems all the way up to 60,000 ports.”

Most of the big UM players initially launched a product for big corporations, but now have versions suited for small to midsize companies. Myer believes one of UM’s biggest selling features is its readiness for IP convergence, coming right around the bandwidth bend. “Unity was created with convergence in mind, but if you don’t want to install an IP telephone switch today, that’s fine. We’re ready when you connect.”

Chris Walsh, president of Telephone System Learning Seminars, remains bearish on UM. “The issue today is functionality and format. Each of the UM systems does it differently, which causes a lot of problems.”

Walsh says the best new voice-mail feature is “simplification.” Instead of the system asking you to state your name or asking for an individual word or subject, it says it for you, then asks you to say yes or no. Walsh also advocates “dial 0 simplification” software that initiates a different operator for each individual in the company.

Telecom industry analysts are cautious about the UM hype. Blair Pleasant, director of communications analysis for the Pelorus Group, asserts, “The UM market has not taken off as predicted. However, the benefits of UM are so compelling, it’s only reasonable to assume that UM will be the norm in the next few years.”

Frank Stinson, senior product manager with Phillips Infotech, predicts a gradual slowdown in the rate of growth in the phone system industry, due partly to Y2K, which caused many businesses to upgrade equipment.

The silicon lining in this investment, however, may be an ability to deploy UM and beat your competitors to the punch. A recent survey by Accountemps revealed that 73 percent of CFOs think by 2006, e-mail will be the most commonly used method of communicating, with phone contact plummeting to 10 percent.

Lest you think UM is cyberpie-in-the-sky, one final high-tech reality check: People in Scandinavia are walking around wearing mini cell-phones on their heads. Just call it another example of life imitating technology. The 24/7 voice-messaging machine has arrived-and it is us.

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