Centralize Communications with Unified Messaging

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineUnified messaging was designed to solve a problem: message overload. For most of us, we not only receive too many messages, but these messages are in too many different places: our voice mail at work, the answering machine at home, various fax machines, our cell phone’s voice mail, and at least one, if not more, email addresses. Once we corral each of these messages from their disparate sources, we then need to process them and respond. The frustrating reality is that all to often we need to reply in a different medium or channel than which the message arrived. No wonder these communication tools often end up causing frustration. Enter unified messaging. The vision of unified messaging is that a user can interact with all voice, email, fax, and image communication from a integrated communications interface. This appliance is usually a computer, but can also be a standard telephone.

Unified messaging will not reduce the number of messages, but does promise to centralize them, allowing for the same quantity of messages to be received, reviewed, and responded to in less time.

The trend towards unified messaging is both compelling and striking. In 1999, there were $135 million in sales of unified messaging services. By 2006, this number is projected and predicted to reach $18.1 billion. This is a 45% annual compounded growth rate! With such a promise for its future, what then is unified messaging in practical terms? Unfortunately, the answer is less than clear.

If you were to ask one hundred industry participants what unified messaging is, you would get scores of different answers. In fact, unified messaging must often be viewed in the context and standpoint of those who are discussing it. Alston Tascom’s Bill Cortus sums up it, saying that, “unified messaging is a broadly applied term.” He adds that, “unified messaging should also be defined from the user’s perspective.” When a prospect inquires if Tascom has unified messaging, Bill asks what unified messaging means to them. Based on their definition, he can then respond.

Jim Becker from Amtelco defines unified messaging as the ability to “take a message in any form and deliver it in any form or combination of forms that are convenient to the client.” According to Telescan’s Patty Anderson, unified messaging is “a central service which assures delivery of messages originating from a variety of sources and formats such as email, fax, voice or paging to the recipient.” Chris Semotok, is more definitive, stating that, “unified messaging is the process of taking voice mail, faxes, and email messages and storing them in one location from which the end user can retrieve, using the most convenient technology – telephone, Web browser, or email.”

“Unified messaging,” states Mike Dutton of CadCom Telesystems, “is being able to access voice, fax, and email messages at the same time on a single platform. Message retrieval may be accomplished with many different avenues and protocols that result in all messages being available from one location.” However, the “one location” phrase is difficult to pin down.

One option is to have the user go to a specific website (Web portal) to access messages. The service provider assigns each user a voice/fax number and then has the user’s current email address available for email retrieval. Voice messages can be accessed by phone or Web; faxes can be sent to fax machines or viewed at the Web location; email messages are viewable on from the Web and some systems will even read email over the phone.

A second option is to have fax and voice messages accessed from the user’s desktop with Microsoft Exchange/Inbox or Outlook. This requires the user to have constant Internet access. In this format the email is handled by regular Outlook protocols, but the fax and voice messages are maintained on the voice mail server. The voice messages can be played from Outlook with player controls like that of a tape player. This allows for visual and audio access to voice mail and fax messages, but still keeps the email and voice/fax messages on separate servers.

The last option is to have the voice and fax messages sent to the users’ email address. Voice messages are sent as compressed .wav files and faxes as .tif files.

Keys Considerations for Service Providers: The International Engineering Consortium provides advice to service providers who wish to offer unified messaging. The primary item they stress is availability. Availability is manifested in two ways. The first is that unified messaging must be provisioned for a large potential market, not just one central office, or a handful of select cities, but available to all. Those already in the teleservices business are likely to have the infrastructure in place to meet this aspect of availability. (This avoids the disappointment of responding to an ad only to be told, “sorry, the service is not available in your area.”) The complementary aspect of availability is that the platform must be robust and reliable. Once the public subscribes to unified messaging services, they will expect one hundred percent uptime, total and complete reliability, 24 x 7.

The second critical element is scalability. Some products only work, or only work well, on a small scale. To be able to sustain a possible forty-five percent annual growth rate, today’s unified messaging platform will need to be expanded to keep pace with demand. Few things are more frustrating than to have rapid growth stymied by a system that is maxed out or becomes unstable under traffic. Therefore, be sure to select a system that can be expanded (“scaled up”) when needed. The unpleasant alternative will be to buy a second system. This results in an inefficient use of technology resources, a negation of possible economies of scale, and a decrease in profitability.

The third item is the user interface. It must be simple and intuitive. The easier the system is to learn, so the quicker sales can be made and less amount of time needed to spend training new subscribers. This will help to retain subscribers, as new users will quickly learn and master the system’s operation.

Other considerations include integration or interfacing with your existing system and telephony network, additional features and benefits, and having basic voice mail features. In today’s age of technology some people are technically inclined and some are not. By having a unified messaging platform that does plain voice mail, you are best able to offer basic services to this later group, while having the features that attract the technically sophisticated ones.

Benefits for Service Providers: There are three benefits that unified messaging offers to service providers. The first is a new source of revenue. If your business focuses on having people serve your client base (labor-centric), then unified messaging is a viable diversification strategy. Conversely, if your business focus is technology (automation-centric), then unified messaging is one more tool in your arsenal of services.

The second benefit of unified messaging is that it provides a means to grow your subscriber base. Although your existing customers will be your first, and best, source of sales, you will also attract new consumers. Once you have sold them on unified messaging, you have begun a business relationship and are in a good position to sell them other services in the future.

The third advantage is often overlooked. Quite simply, it is the positive impact that unified messaging will have on your own operation. Your company may be the best candidate to use and benefit from unifying various messaging services.

Vendor Information: The following is a summary of information provided by vendors of unified messaging systems. In some cases these are stand-alone platforms, while in other cases their offering is part of a larger, more inclusive system, such as a messaging or order-taking platform.

Alston Tascom: Tascom views unified messaging as encompassing both a software and hardware solution. From a software perspective, all communications media should be intelligently routed to the correct user in the appropriate priority order. The user should simply be able to log in to one system and process messages.

From a hardware perspective, unified messaging also relates to how the various communications devices connect to one another. There are three scenarios by which communications devices can be connected:

  • Interfaced: Different components from different manufacturers that use both software (Computer Telephony Integration – CTI) and cables to link a system together. In this instance, hardware ports must be expanded to allow for more traffic between specific devices and multiple vendors are required for training, installation, and technical support
  • Integrated: Different components but from the same vendor, using software (CTI) and cables to link a system together. Hardware ports must be expanded to allow for more traffic between specific devices, but the need to contact multiple vendors is eliminated.
  • Unified: One server, one vendor, and an all-in-one solution. Here, every inbound call has full access to all communications modes, no “hardware” ports needed for internal connections, and there is a single vendor for training, installation, and technical support. Alston Tascom offers the Tascom SQL Digital Unified DigitalComCenter that provides true unified messaging and a complete set of call center applications in a single or multi-processing chassis.

For more information about Alston Tascom or unified messaging call 866-282-7266 or visit their website at www.alstontascom.com 

Amtelco: With an Amtelco Infinity system, a message can be taken in any form and delivered in almost any way that is convenient for the client. Infinity’s unified messaging system can accept a variety of messages including text, voice mail, and voice scripting. It can also perform automatic email response as well as allow text messages to be entered over the Internet via the Web desktop. Once the messages are in the Infinity system, there is a wide array of access and dispatch options. Typical unified messaging access options such as email and email wave files are part of Infinity’s offering. Other options include alpha dispatch, digital paging, voice mail delivery, access via wireless PDAs and WAP-enabled cell phones, cascading messaging, follow me, orbit alert, and agent message delivery. When the UltraComm fax server is integrated to Infinity, more output options are added. These include fax, fax broadcast, fax store and forward, email, agent initiated faxes, text-to-speech, and email retrieval. This vast array of features and options transcends the typical ways in which unified messaging is defined. In doing so, this sets a vision for the breadth and depth of what unified messaging can become.

For more information about Amtelco, the Infinity platform, or unified messaging, contact Amtelco at 800-356-9148 or visit them at callcenter.amtelco.com  

CadCom: CadCom’s unified messaging system is called VM III. It is a full featured, voice messaging system which has been developed for multiple industries, such as executive suites, telephone answering services, and anyone needing a single solution for voice mail, fax, and email, such as a virtual office. VM III also provides auto attendant, voice mail, fax capabilities (fax on demand, fax store and forward, and fax mail), unified messaging with email options, and a comprehensive feature set for call processing and message handling. Some features include greetings for call screening that can be changed by day and time and four language choices for the systems prompts. With VM III’s message control options, you can stop, fast-forward, rewind, and undelete messages at the touch of a button; you can also change the volume of the call. VM III can support from four up to ninety-six ports in a single chassis, an unlimited number of mail boxes, and up to 1500 simultaneous connections across the LAN and Internet.

For more information about, call 800-422-3266 or visit www.onvisource.com.

Telescan also provides unified messaging systems; contact Telescan directly at 800-770-7662.

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2002]

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