Vendors Talk of Tomorrow

We thought it would be appropriate to consult with some of the individuals and companies most closely identified with the TAS industry. Our request was simple. Tell us in your own words: “Where do you think the telephone answering service industry will be in five years, and what is the particular focus of your company?” Here are the results:

Wayne Scaggs, Alston Tascom: There are four factors to explore that will determine the positioning of the TAS/Call Center industry over the next five years. They are information, clients, technology and the workforce. Information is what we sell, clients drive the industry, the technology services the client and the work force services the technology.

Information: The information that we collect is, and will continue to be, the hottest commodity ever. The very core of our industry is to collect information, process and add value to the raw data, and sell it to our clients. That is the purpose of our industry. We have a good seventy years head start on any other organized method of collecting, processing and distributing information. Accurately collecting, processing and distributing information will be a requirement as long as there are humans. Our challenge is to continue to change with the requests of the market. We must provide easier methods of collecting information, more effective processing of the information and utilize multiple simultaneous distribution channels. Remember that collected information is our product. Traditionally we have collected this product via the telephone, but it will no longer be the sole source of the product. In addition to the information your business collects, clients will provide other information in the form of a database, email, Internet access and telephone that you will add value to. Are you preparing to increase your share of that market?

Clients: The life cycle for client service is no longer “get a customer and keep them for twenty years.” When you calculate the revenue for that traditional customer, you get $24,500 to $36,000 for the life of the customer. The change in your business should include the customer with a product life cycle of two or three seasonal months and a setup charge of $5,000 to $10,000 with seasonal revenues between $30,000 and $50,000. We have a set of rules that govern how we do business and it is keeping us thinking inside the box of rules we created. Break the rules, think outside the box, and anticipate what the customer will want and give them more than they ask for (with the appropriate charge). The client of the 21st century will be extremely computer literate. The client’s use of the Internet and access to the Internet will be as commonplace as today’s TV. Ordering on the Internet will exceed the traditional ways we order today for some products. Our 21st century client will purchase products and services via their TV-Computer-Phone-Camera device with the same ease that we currently buy candy from a vending machine. Today, clicking on a Web page button to talk is considered “high tech,” but it won’t be long before the client will expect to see and talk with whom they are spending their money. The client will be very knowledgeable and have at hand all the comparable data to make the purchase. The clients of the future are being trained that they can have what they want when they want it. The client will dictate what they want, how they want it and question your competency if you can’t give them what they want.

Technology: As an industry, we will undergo both technical and workplace changes. In addition to predictable change, there will also be discontinuous change, which is unpredictable. What we have accomplished to date will not sustain us into the 21st century. We were able to run the systems of the 1980s for a good twenty years, but the current and future speed of technological change will not allow us to repeat that history. The life cycle of technology is getting shorter and shorter. Products that we now consider to be “high tech” will be the norm, such as fiber optics networks, voice over IP, video conferencing, and the palm computer (that receives your email, keeps your appointments, alerts you, answers your telephone, and entertains you with favorite TV shows or the latest movie). Thin client, distributed call centers, remote offices, and sharing of resources will be part of the next step to every day business activity.

Work force: How will you find your work force? The equipment must allow you to employ a work force of normal competent people. Technology dictates that your equipment will permit an average person with moderate computer skill to become proficient on your system in at least half the training time now needed. There will be telecommuting, not only from their homes, but also from vehicles. Technology can insure the accuracy of the information. You will need people that will instruct the equipment how to perform the daily tasks.

Summary: More important than any of the thought provoking issues addressed in this “look into the future” discussion, is your desire to change. How flexible is your business? Will there be consolidation in your continued growth planning? The changes we face in the future are no more dramatic than the obstacles we conquered in the past. Do you remember the uncertainty around DID, voice mail and the cell phone? Well, we are still here, still adapting to the needs of an ever-demanding client base.

Alston Tascom will provide an open system that gives the Tascom system owner control of their equipment. The system’s core foundation of Microsoft SQL has made the following possibilities. Unify your business with Microsoft Office 2000. Full and complete Web features to include site navigation, chat, Web accounts, voice over IP, hosting websites and taking orders. The Tascom Digital Communication Server’s IVR features become additions to your staff.

Alston Tascom has two new concepts for t he upcoming year: 1) Don’t make your customer conform to your system, make your system conform to your customer; 2) Don’t turn away customers because your Tascom is equipped to service your Web customer. Alston Tascom will manage the site for you and your customer, store the data in our SQL database and export the files to you for your customer. Sharing and combining resources will give Tascom systems an extra advantage for the year 2000 and beyond.

Allen Kalik, Professional Teledata: In the next five years, we at Professional Teledata see the TAS industry gravitating to services of greater customization and complexity. While there will always be a core of traditional TAS, we see customer care, order entry, and customized transaction processing dominating most TAS call centers. Flexible integration of technologies of voice, Internet, and text will certainly be key in addressing the need. Our focus for the next Year continues to be on our Windows version of PI-2000 and our Windows TBS billing system, both products which address Internet functionality and the ever-increasing client need for customization.

Charles Szeto, Szeto Technologies: I think the TAS industry is going to be increasingly competitive in the next few years, partly because of the high cost of our human labor force, and partly because of the fast moving pace of our communication technologies. PCS cellular, voice mail, fax mail and Internet services, etc., are creating a lot of freedom and mobility in our personal communication choices. The wide acceptance of these new technologies dilutes many of the demands for secretarial telephone answering.

On the other hand, many of our customers are experiencing great success by integrating their TAS, voice mail, order entry and paging services into a common call center operation. Slow growth in their TAS business is compensated by the strong demands and big opportunities in the other services where they can utilize their labor resources in a more effective and efficient manner.

As a result, there is a high demand for smart telephone switching equipment that combines TAS, voice/fax mail, order entry and call center services into one entity and acts as front-end equipment to all these services. Szeto Technologies already has this equipment in service, which not only directs calls based on the nature of the services, but also allows calls to be passed back and forth between these services for resource sharing and labor back-ups. We will be focusing in the upcoming year to expand our telephone switch capabilities and will be continually developing equipment to satisfy these demands.

Jim Becker, Amtelco: Can you imagine a TAS service with no wire connections, the operators are subcontracted and work at home or their own office, and all billing is done electronically on a per transaction basis over the net? Clients are all over the world and the breadth of services range from providing instant upgrade services for cable subscribers to turning on the stove at 7:30 p.m. for a client returning late from the office.

A bit far fetched, maybe, but you will be amazed at the changes and tremendous opportunity that will be available to the TAS industry in the next five years. Technology changes particularly in the Internet, central office and wireless areas will have a profound affect on the industry. The Internet is already providing new marketing opportunities and easier access to information, and customers are demanding more services via this media. In fact, it is estimated that in three years over $300 billion in commerce will be conducted on the Internet. With easy world wide access, your clients will be serviced anywhere in the world on the Internet.

Manipulating services from the central office based on time of day or volume is being deployed via new access points in the central office. The wireless industry is expanding at a rapid pace and will provide clear, voice and data channels at very competitive rates, giving TAS services an option for connection to the network and remote operators.

And the enormous power of the computer will give TAS operators quick, easy access and control of information anywhere in the world; may it be other data bases, Internet sites, directories or utilities in the home or office. Although there is always a push for automation, the real fact is that people will still want to talk to a real person who is helpful, knowledgeable and efficient.

At Amtelco, we are already working on many of these ideas and look forward to the demands of the market. In the next year, we will expand on giving clients more Internet access and the tools to help quickly develop custom Internet sites for clients. There will also be voice over the Internet, so you can take calls via an Internet connection. We will provide better control of the network with distributed switching and provide fast easy access to other databases and client websites. Add to this speech recognition and text-to-speech and speech-to-text, and you will have unified messaging where a client can pick up their messages on any media they want, on the Internet, via a telephone, fax or voicemail, no matter how the message was originally entered by the operator. At Amtelco we will be ready for the challenge by providing the technology tools necessary to meet customer expectations and help you by providing the formula for a profitable bottom line.

Frank D’Ascenzo, Axon Communications: Never before have the ingredients for virtually constant, instant, and universal personal communications been so near, and so economically promising. The reason is WAP, or Wireless Application Protocol, a communications standard that will form the bridge between hand-held communications devices like two-way pagers, hand-held PCs, smart telephones, and the Internet. Within five years, almost anyone will be able to afford a wireless, hand-held communications device capable of two-way voice and data connection to virtually anyone else, worldwide.

Within this five-year time period, the “traditional” TAS Industry role of providing live-answer message services will decline with the increased use and availability of low-cost wireless communications revolution into their existing businesses. They must be prepared to look for and recognize opportunities for providing new services that will arise over the next five years. However, be warned, these new opportunities will undoubtedly require some “outside the box” thinking.

Our near-term company focus can be summed up in three words: support, improvement, and innovation. First, we are dedicated to providing existing and new Axon System users with the best technical service support possible to keep their systems operating and their revenues flowing. Next, we are working to make hardware and software improvements available that will increase the value of their systems, and help generate added revenues. Finally, we are investigating innovative ways to incorporate some of this newly emerging technology into any existing TAS environment, without re-inventing the wheel.

Helmut Koch, Exacom, Inc: The TAS industry is a mature industry. Technology and fads have come and gone, but one constant remains, certain people and businesses will always want their phones answered by people rather than machines. There has been and will continue to be a natural migration of answering services moving into the call center markets as well as offering enhanced services via the Internet. Exacom will continue to strive for excellence in offering CTI solutions such as the Hindsight-Net Digital Call Recorder to those businesses offering more than basic live answering to their clients. In anticipation of the telecommunication needs for the next century we are releasing our latest product Evolution. It is an integrated enhanced telecommunications server that functions as a PBX, and unified messaging server for email, voice mail, and fax mail.

Gray Hunter, Americom: We at Americom believe that the TAS industry is alive and well, and will stay that way far into the 21st century. Be it a call center, message center, or answering service; whatever name they goby, a valuable service is provided to their customer. The time and money saved by TAS customers are factors that prove how important the TAS industry really is. TAS is one of the most “cost effective” tools a business can use.

Americom’s focus for the coming year, is to advance our product technology and stay “price conscious” for our customers.

Jerry Nerdin, IVM Systems, Inc: Five years from today might as well be light years with the way technology is going! It will be a year of unprecedented connectivity. The Internet will be the overwhelming driving force behind all communications technology. Everything relative to communications will have a heartbeat in the Internet, or whatever name will have evolved for it by then.

Television and t he Internet will become synonymous. They will both be instruments of marketing, trade, entertainment and custom defined news broadcasts for each subscriber. Portable devices that allow us to communicate via the Internet as a hub, will be free of long distance phone fees and the price of such technology will be similar to the cost of a basic pager today. Speech recognition will make these devices virtually hands free and nearly invisible, similar to the little communicators on the Star Trek shirts. Signals from such devices will be coded so that commercial information received from a subscriber will automatically be identified by the recipient with complete order fulfillment information and financial data to automatically conclude any desired business transaction on the fly. By that time we will be a cashless society with a central database compiled on every consumer.

The one thing that will still be crucial to planning for service bureaus, will be the continuing need for people to have a buffer service to handle messaging and to act on our behalf when we don’t want to be disturbed and to function as an automated personal assistant to screen our calls. People will never want to have unfettered connectivity without having control over to whom and when they wish to communicate. Today we call that voice mail. By then, that service will range from a very basic personal message control point for voice messages that don’t need direct personal contact, to extremely sophisticated and integrated service packages that combine email, fax, voice and data. All information will be able to be accessed, transmitted, retrieved, updated, merged and used via personal voice commands from any convenient communications device.

The service bureau of five years from now will be principally automated with considerable emphasis on customer service and technical support. The operator of the future will be a luxury and will be very skilled in computer related services. They will work in support of larger in situational teams and will likely manage the technology concerns of such larger work groups, rather than individual small businesses. The cost of skilled personnel will just be too high to provide any equivalent support that can match the growing capabilities of such far reaching and economical technology.

To that end, IVM Systems will continue to develop the most comprehensive voice messaging system on the market, specifically designed for service bureaus. It will include all the latest in technological innovation to match new opportunities. Never has there been so much opportunity for the service bureau and over the next five years, it will get even better. IVM’s Phone Messenger system will have Internet connectivity and unified messaging in the first quarter of 2000 and we plan to make training for new applications and sales training to capitalize on the new opportunity, a major part of our system enhancement program.

John Morgan, Morgan Comtec, Inc: I believe there is developing a kind of “backlash” against the onslaught of technology. We often spend more time frustrated with computers and the complexities of running the equipment than serving our clients. I think we’ll see a return to “simple to use equipment” and to an increase in human dialog. Automation will have its place but will be used with more discretion. Just because technology makes something possible doesn’t necessarily make it wise. For me the challenge for the future of the industry is to find the proper balance between human and technological services.

George Meyer, Telescan, LLC: The past decade has seen new technologies emerge along with corporate down sizing and out sourcing. Consequently, the TAS industry has broadened its range of services as its client base also diversified. The first years of the new millennium promise to continue this only at an accelerated rate. The worldwide telephony network will continue its conversion to digital signaling as CLECs continue to emerge, creating an aggressively competitive marketplace. In conjunction, this universal connectivity will continue to merge with the power of the PC to create integrated CTI solutions. Open software and hardware architecture will overshadow proprietary systems, and the Internet will encourage across platform, across application interaction, the Web becoming the channel for both voice and data. As a vendor, our charge, which we have accepted with excitement and creativity, is to offer comprehensive Web-enabled solutions which enable the TAS business to interact with the worldwide digital network with software-based tools to meet the diverse needs in the marketplace.

Socrates Karageorge, Startel: One only needs to look at the success of Amazon.com to figure where the future business growth is coming from. The answer of course is the Internet! Although there are a number of different opportunities within the Internet, we believe that for now, E-commerce is by far the easiest and the TAS most profitable service for the TAS industry.

E-commerce is defined as conducting business between traders over the Internet. It can be classified as business to business, business to consumer, and consumer to consumer. The sector with the greatest potential for TAS bureaus is the business to consumer. There are millions of such transactions taking place daily. Consumers have so far shown a tremendous appetite for E-commerce, and all projections for the future indicate an accelerated rate of growth.

E-commerce traditionally involves a consumer who is using a computer with a Web-browser to log on to a website and fill out a simple electronic form to place an order for goods or services. Payment is typically made using a credit card. So where is the opportunity for you from such Web-based transactions?

  • Some consumers are afraid to type their credit card information over the Internet.
  • Some consumers may have questions during their “session” and want to speak with a real person.
  • Consumers who want to place an order may not have access to a computer at that moment. They could be at work, driving, or even at a ball game, or they may be reading a catalog and want to call the 800# listed.

The exciting (and obvious) solution is to equip the operators to handle all these types of transactions. A consumer simply clicks on a “Talk with a Live Operator” button on their screen or calls a toll free number. In either case the consumer is connected to a live operator (yours!) who is then automatically connected to the site of interest to the consumer. The operators simply provide information or take an order by typing directly into the merchant’s Web server. What a benefit to the merchant! All the orders are consolidated into one central location.

It’s that easy and that simple. Operator training is like learning to browse and type an order using your home computer. It’s also very profitable and requires no additional work on your part . Because operators type the orders directly into the customer’s server the operator doesn’t need to do any post processing (such as scrub, fax, or email); however, the TAS will have to prepare and mail the invoice based on time billing and then deposit the check!

The biggest problem a TAS will most likely encounter (and a nice one at that) will be the ability to handle traffic volume. Some answers include using remote operators, or networking with other TAS owners. Again, since all the information and order forms are on the merchant’s Web server the TAS does not have to update each other’s order forms as required with traditional order entry systems.

The technology required to take advantage of many of these opportunities is now available and ready to be delivered by Startel. And the total monthly cost is about equal to one operator’s salary. The future never looked more promising. Enjoy it!

Jack Baldwin, CadCom Telesystems: We see companies wanting to pro vide Quality Live Answering and fold in additional revenue generating services such as order entry and Internet applications. With an increased desire for off the shelf hardware, we see a desire toward less proprietary software. Digital voice recorder and voice mail use is increasing across the TAS and call center markets. Our focus is enhancing our Line Master and Switch Master systems for quality live answering and order processing utilizing T-1, ISDN, Caller ID and Internet applications. Increased distribution of Voice Master III (direct T-1, unified messaging) and DigiVoice Recorders for training, order verification and quality control.

“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”- Lou Holtz

[From Connection Magazine – January 2000]

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