Client: Atlanta Computer Currents Magazine
An important monthly feature I wrote for ACC was the Dogwood Valley Profile, a one-page interview and company profile featuring a rising star in the Atlanta high-tech community. These profiles served as excellent promotional material for the subject companies.
In public relations, an article like this one is known as a “model press release.” It is written in hopes of intriguing an editor enough to either assign staff to write an article, or in the best case, actually run much of the press release as written.
ITI Makes Voice Mail Intelligent and Useful
Do you hate voice mail? Would you rather do business elsewhere than try to navigate your way through a call-routing system? Do you find that messages you both leave and receive don’t say much more than “Call me back?”
Then you haven’t experienced Innovative Technology Inc.’s products. And believe me, they need to be experienced–features and technical specs don’t convey the unique atmosphere of a phone call into an ITI voice communications system.
“We come up against what we call ‘The Objection,'” says John Alderman, president of ITI. “People don’t like talking to a machine. ‘The Answer’ is offering a choice for callers. People are empowered by choices, and that makes technology comfortable. Our role is to empower people.”
ITI began as a non-producing corporate shell in 1982, but when Alderman joined as president in 1984 they began true product development. By Comdex ’85 they had a two-port version of the hardware to show, with a four-port model following right on its heels. These components were intended for OEM use in new computer systems, but it soon became obvious that it would be tough to make the technical transition.
That’s when ITI started developing turnkey applications for the hardware. By August, 1986, Voice Perfect Receptionist was released, capable of supporting 10 users. “Consider that we’ve been working on multi-user, multitasking systems in DOS since 1986 and you get a sense of the technical requirements,” says Alderman.
Voice Perfect Receptionist Plus is the company’s flagship product, and to call it “just a voice mail system” would be like calling Windows “just a DOS shell.” Both callers and receivers are offered an extraordinary range of options that facilitate judicious use of over-the-phone business transactions.
“Statistics from AT&T show that only one in seven business calls gets through,” says Gary Hylton, vice president of Sales Operations. Leaving messages and returning calls are inherent in doing business, but with a good system of communications, Hylton says, “you can improve your telephone image as well as productivity.”
Receptionist Plus provides flexibility far beyond the typical choice of leaving a message or ringing back to the switchboard operator. Owners can have up to 10 messages in their queue so that they can leave a meaningful prompt for callers. Callers can also be given options for being transferred to another employee, but if that secondary destination doesn’t answer, the system switches back to the original extension’s voice mailbox.
“Think of voice mail as the secretary that you keep informed of your whereabouts,” Hylton advises. The common “I’m either on the other line or away from my desk” message doesn’t convey confidence, but it is necessary due to the limitations of most automation products. Receptionist Plus can detect if you’re on the phone and will give an appropriate message; it also provides a Do Not Disturb function, call forwarding, and call screening, which will let the owner listen to the message he is being left and allow pick-up in midstream.
“The thing I love about it is I can get past all the chit-chat. Think about all the time you waste with it,” Alderman says. His conversations are concise. Hylton concurs, and cites research that shows that salespeople using ITI’s systems are 20 percent more productive. “Sales managers can see the benefits,” says Hylton, with a smile.
“We are the most flexible product in the business, although it’s not necessarily apparent at first,” says Alderman. Most installations are reconfigured within the first 30 days of use, Hylton says, because the customers install Receptionist Plus with the attitude they have developed from using other voice mail products. Their expectations change after they discover how much the ITI products can do.
“There is a real education process for our users,” Alderman continues. “We see the telephone as an audio terminal system.” Functions that e-mail users are accustomed to on their PCs are like new technologies when you put them into a telephone environment. But once a user has annotated a message and forwarded it to a coworker, that user will be hooked–the flexibility of ITI’s product and its ability to streamline daily business make the learning curve less daunting since the user has a strong desire to use the equipment.
Interestingly, it is executives–the very people who will benefit most from Receptionist Plus–who are the most difficult to convince of the virtues of the product. Hylton says that because the system does require some training and customization, executives become impatient quickly and want to revert to the “old way” of hand-written while-you-were-out notes. “They give me three minutes to train them,” says Hylton, “and I just say ‘no.’ I can’t show them enough about the system in three minutes to make it useful to them.” But if he can get the person to take half an hour or so, Hylton can infect them with the bug: the advantages are dramatically apparent once the user gets the feel of the advanced features like call forwarding.
One of the most important technical features of ITI’s products is that they use a full-fidelity bandwidth; most voice-technology companies use compression schemes to save space and processing time, but ITI is committed to producing the highest quality sound possible. After all, what good is voice mail if it doesn’t sound like the person’s voice? In fact, ITI’s is the only product capable of serving TDD equipment for the deaf: “The [TDD] machine doesn’t know we’re not a live line,” says Alderman. Without full-fidelity bandwidth, TDD translators can’t distinguish the words.
What are the two keys to ITI’s success? In Alderman’s words, “I’m both president and chief technologist,” which enables him to manage effectively without a large cadre of executives, not only keeping costs down but maintaining high importance for research and development. R&D costs are also efficiently managed since ITI produces both hardware and software: “We’re vertically integrated, and that leads to better pricing for the customer,” Alderman says.
The future? “We’re moving to develop for Windows, Windows for Workstations, and Windows NT, but that’s largely irrelevant,” Alderman says. The system administrator is the only one who really sees the computer-based interface anyway. For Receptionist Plus users, the important thing is what is heard. We will certainly be hearing more from ITI.