Small Business

Getting Connected


Feeling disconnected from customers? Maybe you need to bring your phone system into the Internet Age.

Older systems can actually cost you business: Misdirected voice-mail messages don't get forwarded; after-hours calls go unanswered; and Web-site inquiries that should be zapped to telemarketers languish for days.

The answer for you and your phones? New low-cost "call centers" that funnel e-mails, Web inquiries, and phone calls through a single PC, blending the power of the Internet with the muscle of a corporate telephone system.

PLAIN WRAPPER, BIG SURPRISE. At first blush, these call centers seem rather mundane; they consist of a standard PC, digital phones with small screens, and software. But the ability of call centers -- known as Internet Protocol Private Branch Exchange systems, or IP-PBXs --to automatically route inquiries means that fewer customers get lost in the shuffle. IP-PBXs can also do clever things like redirect calls to home-office workers without getting the phone company or your IT staff involved.

Mind you, call centers are not omniscient. Their most dazzling feature -- a pop-up computer screen window that reveals the name and sales history of each incoming call or e-mail -- works only if data were previously entered into the system. Even then, the software must be compatible with whatever contact-management application you have installed.

Also, call centers aren't cheap. A 25-person company can easily pay $15,000 to $50,000. Still, that's within reach of many businesses that, until recently, saw call centers available only for $100,000 or more.

MAJOR UPGRADE. Park Productions Ltd., an ad agency in Orion (Mich.), spent $15,000 to equip its 25-person office with a new IP-PBX system from AltiGen Communications Inc., replacing a system bought in 1991. Vice-President Ralph Liebner's favorite feature: reports detailing the amount of time employees spent with given customers. He uses them to bill clients.

Tee's Plus of Groton, Conn., a $13 million-a-year T-shirt printer, also decided the time was right. It spent $19,000 in October for a new IP-PBX from 3Com Corp., replacing a 12-year-old phone system that didn't even have voice mail. "We used to lose business because messages weren't passed along," says Thomas V. Craig, director of marketing for Tee's Plus.

Among the benefits of the new call center: no new wiring. All 69 employees plug their IP phones right into the company's local area network. True, $19,000 isn't chump change, but what's the cost of a disconnected customer? By Kevin Ferguson


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