By Beth Stackpole
August 1, 2000
"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.