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for offices

Computer telephony has advantages
for offices

Computers and telephones; phones and computers: vital tools for any business. You need both of them– and hooking them together can have many benefits.
This column is the second of a series about the marriage of computer and phone–computer telephony. Our focus this month is phone-system replacements for growing offices (up to 200 extensions).
First there was the phone. Soon, businesses wanted one central phone number for people to call and an attendant to answer and direct the calls properly. Switchboards brought centralized answering (answer, hold, transfer and “do not disturb”) and messaging within a company. Adding voice mail, automatic call distribution and other capabilities meant integrating computers with proprietary phone hardware. This is generally called computer telephone integration (CTI).
With the development of telephony “standards”–and increased exposure to the benefits of using PCs and Microsoft NT, Novell NetWare or Unix operating systems instead of proprietary phone hardware–computer telephony (CT) is exploding. One box does it all, offering distributed management and control, and offering quick access to computer data relating to a phone call. One way or the other, the symbiotic mixing of telephones and computers has a number of benefits, and the costs and expertise needed to install and maintain these systems drop while the benefits soar.
During this series, we are discussing three primary areas:
–Solutions for small office/home office environments. In our last column, we discussed taking a few phone lines and creating a virtual office.
–Solutions for growing offices. In this column, we talk about using computers to replace traditional key (no need to dial 9 to get out) and PBX (privately owned switched) systems with computer telephony systems that are easier to use; have more features; are easier and cheaper to upgrade and expand; and are not subject to the same obsolescence as proprietary systems.
–Reaching for the bleeding edge. The next column covers moving beyond the capabilities of standard phone systems to add data-base integration; combine voice, fax and e-mail in one place accessible from phone or computer; and even bypass the phone company through Internet delivery of calls.
The demise of traditional phone systems?
Computers, using standard operating systems and hardware, are being proclaimed as the death of proprietary phone systems–by some.
These solutions, sometimes called “unPBXs,” can be cheaper than systems from traditional vendors, easier to implement, more portable and more powerful. Friendly and familiar Windows-based programs make transferring calls, setting up call forwarding, and configuration tasks as simple as playing solitaire. It is easier to add features to these software-driven systems, as well as update and maintain them.
The companies that develop the software have more flexibility and better tools to respond to user requests. An unPBX has certain limits–you would not choose an unPBX to serve thousands in a major corporation–but you may use an unPBX in a major corporation to add more control at a departmental level.
Replacing the traditional office phone system
What do you think of when you think of a small-office phone system? The traditional small-office system has features such as: the ability to answer calls centrally (operator console); a night mode so others know the operator is not answering calls; ability to place calls on hold and then let others pick up the call; a way for multiple people to be on the same call simultaneously (conference call); and an intercom, or paging capability, to make announcements throughout a business.
Slightly more advanced capabilities would include: an automated attendant (“to speak to sales, press or say “one”’); voice mail; do-not-disturb mode; music or messages on hold; and caller ID.
Advanced capabilities, sometimes offered with traditional phone systems but more easily manageable with CT systems, include: caller-ID-driven data-base information that automatically appears on screen when calls come in; dial-by- name directories; different greetings or phone routings by day and time; easily changeable virtual extensions (sharing single line); call history reporting; and interface to a time and billing system.
Traditional vendors respond
Traditional phone vendors are working to make sure their products can be used with emerging telephony standards, and offer cautions about blindly embracing these new systems.
Panasonic Co. is a well-known provider of proprietary phone systems. In 1989, before computer telephony interfaces such as those from Novell Inc. or Microsoft Corp. became available, Panasonic had its own to let integrators link computer devices to Panasonic systems.
Larry White, product manager, and Ed Caliendo, marketing manager, offered advice about the benefits and direction of CTI and CT:
–CT benefits–“The largest benefit to companies using this new technology is time savings and improved customer support. The applications being sold are used to provide visibility to service areas of callers and previous contacts with them.
“You can easily understand how beneficial this is when you call a company, and even before they answer your call, they know who you are and what was last discussed with you. Also, applications have been developed for placing calls automatically for departments such as credit or collection departments. When the person answers the call, an internal agent or person is then connected, making them more productive.”
Will computers replace proprietary systems?–“No! Novell all but gave up in the telephony services, so Novell solutions are out. Unix hasn’t done anything related to telephony, which leaves Microsoft as the only other possibility. A real killer application has yet to emerge from a company with real marketing power like Microsoft.
“A telephone system has a much longer life expectancy compared to computer software or hardware. Computer operating systems change much quicker due to rapid advances in processors and related hardware. Hardware interface for telephones designed around a specific third-party operating system and platform would become obsolete within a few years. This would result in a phone system which is obsolete before it was paid for. Keep in mind that a telephone system is designed to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year without any downtime. Can any computer operating system provide that same level of performance?”
Capacity constraints and lack of support for digital lines also are brought up as problems with unPBXs.
An opposing view from a satisfied user
John Heveron Jr., a Rochester CPA, had to purchase a new phone system when moving his office. He chose to go with a computerized system–one where the chief components could easily be upgraded, be it hardware or software; one where the system would be portable; and one that gave the most value for the purchase.
Heveron feels like he got a deluxe system for far less than the price of a basic traditional system. He started a new business to promote the products: Computers Hear Inc.
Heveron & Heveron CPAs, P.C. is a small Rochester firm with forward- thinking management. Heveron, a partner, has been committed to automation, although he himself makes no claims to being a computer guru.
As he was evaluating his firm’s productivity in 1993, he determined that his staff was not being used efficiently, especially in the area of the dictation process. He made up his mind to evaluate speech-input products. Soon, he was creating documents, writing newsletters and training courses, and documenting phone calls and meetings far more efficiently than he ever imagined.
With that kind of background, the recent move of his office to South Ply-mouth Avenue brought the costs of phone systems with voice mail to his attention. With so many new telephone-oriented technologies coming out, Heveron did not want to be tied into a proprietary phone system that could not change with the times.
Despite warnings that PC-based PBXs would be unreliable and documentation pathetic, Heveron dove into a product from NetPhone. “Lucent Technologies (Inc.) said, “Don’t trust your business on something that may not work,”’ he said. “But we found NetPhone’s PBX card was as hardy a PBX card as anyone’s. Even if the computers go down, the PBX still works. The software interface makes it flexible. However, if the software fails, the card still works.”
The NetPhone product (out since April) brought phone support with voice mail for a fraction of the cost of traditional systems, and a much lower cost for adding an additional telephone. It takes advantage of caller ID to let you know who is calling; allows auto-attendant and receptionist-like features from any computer; visual voice mail; integration with ACT! and other tools; and many more features. The auto attendant can redirect calls to pagers, the receptionist or call forwarding.
“We are able to check out who is on the phone from anywhere in our facility without having to walk around our two- floor office,” said Michael Desmond, president of Computers Hear.
At less than $10,000 for six incoming lines and 18 phones, Heveron said the NetPhone solution is a fraction of a traditional system, but offers much greater features and growth possibilities. It is portable, so the investment is not lost if you move. It is network-based, so a large portion of the investment has been paid in most offices. A system like this can reduce staff costs and increase office efficiency.
Conclusion
If you are planning to replace your phone system, you should consider an unPBX–a computer-driven phone system. These offer advanced features at competitive prices, with many other benefits. Next month, we’ll go into bleeding- edge functionality that combines voice, fax, e-mail and more.
(Eric Cohen, a CPA, owns Cohen Computer Consulting, which helps growing businesses cope with and benefit from information technology. He is the author of the new book, “Accountant’s Guide to the Internet” (John Wiley & Sons Inc.). His home page is at www.computercpa.com.)

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