Designing the Telecommunications Center of the Future: Part I

Reported by Christine Michaels

A panel discussion by Frank D’Ascenzo of Axon Communications, Barb Willis of Comverse/Startel, Jack Baldwin of CadCom, and Donna West of Focus Telecommunications. This discussion was presented at the OPXPO in Dallas, TX Oct 9 -12, 1996.

How can a telephone answering service position themselves so that it can move into the future and take advantage of the opportunities available?

How do we position our business to take advantage of this? Where is the road going to lead us and how are we going to get there? These were some of the questions posed to this panel at the OPXPO last October in Dallas, TX. Barb Willis of Comverse/Startel began the discussion:

Barb Willis: Sometimes the best way to begin to answer these questions is to look at your business’ history, assets and liabilities, build on the assets and reduce the liabilities. Then ask “Why are we successful in the answering service business?”

The answering service business has changed dramatically; technology has changed the business. One weakness in the industry has been in the area of sales and marketing. Years ago, an answering service could put an ad in the yellow pages and wait for customers to call. Today, that is not the case anymore. So, let’s start to analyze today’s business and build a road to the future.

The first step toward making your business move into the future is by attending seminars, workshops and conventions. It is important to attend these as new information is presented and ideas are generated to improve your business as well as networking with other business owners. It is important to take all ideas back to the office and implement them. Then decide the priority of the ideas and implement the most import one first.

Looking back into the history of telephone answering one of the greatest assets have been the operators. Out of all services and technology out there, the one piece that answering services have are the operators who can extract information from a caller and deliver the information to the customer. Your answering service is only as good as your worst operator.

Today in our society of instantaneous information, message delivery has rapidly improved via overnight delivery, fax, voice mail etc. A telephone answering service has operator services and a core base to build on all services available. How do you keep the core customers? Ask “What is it that you do that keeps your customers? “That is what an owner has to look at and analyze then build on. Let’s put together a plan:

  1. Look at what your operators do well.
  2. Ask why your customers stay with you.
  3. Analyze the community you’re in and determine where you can find more business.
  4. Look at your existing customer base and analyze your customers.

Your customers are your best resource for the next application that you want to offer in your community. There are possibly additional services you could provide to your existing customer base if you understood the needs of your customer and how they want to be successful in their business.

It all comes back to operator services. The answering service industry is not going away. The business is changing and each business must prepare for the upcoming changes and needs to take advantage of the presented opportunities. Thus, it is imperative that we look at how to market our services, the need for direct salespeople, the need to talk to customers face-to-face and to determine where and how to spend your money for the best return.

Frank D’Ascenzo: There are two general directions to take when defining the answering service of the future. You can approach the definition from the kinds of possible services a future answering service might provide, or you can approach it from a technical point of view. While these approaches may seem totally different, their end result will be the same.

The kinds of service your future answering service will, in large measure, depend upon the technology you select. The most important decision you can make now for your business is selection of the best basic technological architecture. Choose wisely at the outset, and you’ll be better able to integrate new services, as they emerge, and new features, as they are available, which will, in turn, make your business different, better, and more profitable.

One of the more significant technological changes of the decade has been the acceptance of open architecture systems. We see it in the widespread implementation of local and wide area networks, in the rapid acceptance and growth of the Internet, in the transition to the open control of telephone switches, and in the emergence of computer-telephone integration. The result of these trends has created a new technological paradigm. That is, a shift from the past world of a single manufacturer, proprietary system solutions requiring special hardware, to a new world of multi supplier, open system solutions that use readily available, off-the-shelf hardware like personal computers and telephone switches. This technological shift has affected system design in virtually every modern business application, and now includes the future answering service.

The movement to open architecture systems is especially significant to you, because it means that the days of one-stop system solution shopping is essentially over. Let me explain what I mean. There are so many changes occurring in the communications industry, so many new technologies and services emerging, that it is virtually impossible for any single manufacturer to keep pace with these changes. In fact, from your point-of-view, it’s not even desirable to place your system selection eggs all in one basket, as it were.

Rather than select a single manufacturer to supply your business, you will be better served by contracting for your system through a you the professional systems integrator. Why? Because doing so will allow you the widest freedom to select the best available hardware and software products. For example: A messaging application from Axon Communications; an order entry application from another software supplier; an email integration solution from another; and multi-media compatibility from another. This level of selection freedom is available only in an open architecture world.

For these reasons, the era of the single source manufacturer has become an anachronism. If you wish to build a future-oriented answering service, one positioned to take advantage of emerging new services, then it must be built around a future-oriented, open architecture system.

At Axon Communications we faced the issue of open architecture system design about three years ago when looking into the prospect of starting new product development. Like most answering service system suppliers, we were accustomed to supplying proprietary system solutions. So, when we thought about starting new product development, we first approached the task from that direction. We soon recognized the shortcomings of a closed system approach, stepped back, re-evaluated the product definition, and redefined it from an open architecture direction.

Our decision to depart from a proprietary system architecture was an important one. Doing so meant under taking a significant restructuring of our company. It meant changing our proprietary hardware-oriented mentality to that of an open architecture, software solution provider. It meant designing a software product open enough to allow for the ready integration of new industry services. It meant marketing our products through a distribution network rather than through direct sales personnel. And, it meant altering our relationship with our future product users because they would no longer be totally dependent upon us for the purchase and support of their answering service system. In essence, we were planning to cut the apron strings of single manufacturer dependence. A critical decision for our business future, but a decision we believed would be most beneficial for our future answering service customers.

Changing to an open architecture software approach resulted in the development of our recently released Axon IMAGE Suite, a complete Message Service Call Center software solution. The IMAGE Suite installs on a network, integrates with a Comdial switch, and causes the completed system to function as a world class, message service call center system. We’ve been told that the IMAGE Suite will set new standards for the future answering service, and for other live-answer, inbound call center applications.

In summary, the advantages of an open architecture system are paramount. You have the advantage of using readily available hardware (personal computers and telephone switches) which help control your costs. You can purchase your hardware from companies close to your location, which also means that support is near at hand. You’re free to select the best network-aware software applications to run on your network, and add them anytime. You don’t have to wait for someone to “re-invent” them. You’re able to increase the size of your system easier and less expensively because you’re using standard hardware. You can upgrade your system’s performance by migrating to newer and faster technology as it becomes available, and do so at your own pace. So when planning for your future, consider open architecture and remember the future is now!

[From Connection Magazine, March 1997]

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