Next generation networks Part Two: converged communications solutions for business

In part one this technical article focused on how to build a cost-effective converged communications network.

Part two will focus on automated attendants, interactive voice response and Web-enabled multimedia content.

Automated attendant

“”Welcome to the XYZ Corp.

Your success is our business. If you know your party’s extension and are using a touch tone phone, you can dial the extension now . . . “”

The automated attendant (AA) was originally designed to take the place of a switchboard operator who directs calls to the correct extensions. But an automated attendant can handle many more calls than its live operator and it never gets tired, never makes a mistake, and can work 24 hour a day, seven days a week without a break.

Of course, today’s automated attendants do far more than answer and transfer calls. They can understand speech and are usually connected to a voice mail system, allowing callers to leave messages if the person they are trying to reach is not available

Interactive voice response

“”Welcome to the XYZ Corp., where information is easy to access. For information about your current account balance, please press or say . . . “”

Today’s customers are impatient. They want access to the information they need — now. Interactive voice response (IVR) satisfies this demand for information by allowing you to provide telephone access to information in your company’s database 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Callers interact with the system through a touch tone keypad or a voice prompt using speech recognition technology.

An IVR system can also supply your business with data about orders placed, the kind of information callers requested and the menu items used most often. It can also deliver information over the phone, in faxes or through e-mail about anything, from a customer’s checking account balance to the time the latest blockbuster film is playing at the local movie theatre. It delivers the information at about one-tenth of the cost of a live operator, according to a study by Goldman Sachs.

Predictive dialing

Telemarketing applications use predictive dialers to make human operators more efficient by making calls for them. A predictive dialer automatically places a call and when it is answered, transfers the call to the operator.

The key is to have your operators be on the line only with live customers. By doing that, operators can make more contacts and can eliminate an environment where a significant amount of time is wasted dialing outbound numbers and listening to either busy signals or answering machines. Companies that have implemented predictive dialing systems report that they are able to nearly double the number of live outbound contacts they can complete within a given time frame.

Web-enabled multimedia contact centre

When a call centre is Web-enabled, customers can send email, participate in videoconferences, talk live over the Internet, be guided through Web page content, and chat online. If they need more information about one of your products before making a purchase, they can click a push-to-talk button on your company’s Web site to activate a phone call — possibly over the Internet — and talk to a live agent who can answer questions and close the sale. A push-to-talk option can bring the Web to life and capture customers during the critical moments of a purchase decision.

Jointly viewing a multimedia catalog with sales representative is a much more powerful sales experience than referring to copies of the same paper-based catalog. A multimedia catalog can contain features such as videos of a product being used, animations showing product design advantages, and demos of setup procedures.

Multimedia contact centers can receive queries via phone, fax, e-mail or the Internet, allowing customers to contact you in the way they prefer. Since it is more convenient to reach your organization, customers are more likely to do business with you — instead of your competition. Your salespeople will be able to close more new business and generate substantial repeat business.


Fax technology transmits a printed copy of information from one location to another over telephone lines. Today, many variations on this basic technology are available to improve customer contact. Fax-on-demand (FOD) lets your customers call to request information that is then sent to their fax machines. Fax broadcast systems let you automatically fax a single message to some or all of your customers simultaneously without requiring you to dial each number individually. A fax server sends and receives all of your fax transmissions, storing them on disk and distributing them on demand, while LANFax lets your employees send and receive faxes from their desktops over your LAN or WAN.

One of the newest fax technologies is Fax over IP (FOIP), which uses the Internet to allow you to send faxes, but eliminates all long distance charges.

Switching and call completion

What is a PBX?

A private branch exchange (PBX) replaces the switchboard operator and brings telephone switching capabilities within your control. With a PBX, you don’t need to lease a telephone line for each telephone set in your business.

PBXs have evolved dramatically and are now used to provide a wide range of telephony services, from basic voice switching to business-wide multimedia communications using TCP/IP.

PBX integration

The signals sent between PBX and individual handsets contain additional call information that can be used to add valuable functionality, identify callers, and collect call statistics. In the past, developers needed a great deal of patience and skill to put together a solution for you that used this information. They connected a server containing sophisticated computer telephony boards to the PBX, and then did a lot of painstaking work to deliver the new services by integrating proprietary software, which used unique application-programming interfaces (APIs).

Today advancements in open system PBX integration technology have made it much easier to create applications that use PBX facilities to enhance business communications functions and save significant resources while still making use of legacy equipment. This type of integration also provides a gradual and easy transition to converged communications technology.

Server-based PBX

PBX integration technology is widely used today, because it allows businesses to enhance their existing telephone systems without replacing them. However, server-based switching systems, which are sometimes referred to as server-based or software-based PBXs, are gaining popularity as interim steps to more sophisticated Internet-based switching technologies and the next-generation network.

Server-based PBXs employ computer telephony system technology, such as station and trunk circuit boards, to connect handsets directly to the public telephone network. Unlike traditional PBX systems, open software provides the intelligence for the switching function and uses an industry-standard operating system, such as Microsoft Windows 2000, to integrate converged communications building blocks far more easily and efficiently than is possible with a traditional PBX or an integrated PBX technology.

An IP PBX is a server-based PBX that provides PBX functionality over a company’s LAN or WAN. An IP PBX generally includes Ethernet connections for TCP/IP, servers running an industry-standard operating system, call management software, and voice gateways based on H.323, SIP, or MGCP standards for connecting a packet-based private network to the circuit-switched public telephone network.

Advantages of server-based PBX

Server-based PBXs provide many advantages. Phones are easy to move and change. By using active directory and dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) services, which are already available on most businesses’ LANs, the cost of moves, adds and changes can be virtually eliminated. In a report on a recently implemented server-based PBX, Sigma Software estimated that its new system, which took only a few hours to install, saves $80,000 annually, even though the base system increased from 32 to 264 phone lines.

Server-based PBXs increase the possibilities for future enhancement and interoperability through the use of open, standards-based hardware and software, thus providing a more flexible environment for deploying converged communications solutions and transitioning to next generation network technology.


Conferencing is the ability to connect multiple parties to the same phone call, allowing them to “”attend”” the same virtual meeting. Although a simple conferencing device, such as a speaker phone, can be used for a small group, switching-based conference calls facilitated by a conference bridge are more convenient and reliable. A conference bridge allows attendees in different physical locations to call into a central number and then transfer to a party line for their meeting. When such events are IP-enabled, participants can “”meet”” over their PCs using an Internet connection.

Unified messaging: integrated access to e-mail, voice mail and fax

Most businesses today have e-mail, voice mail, and fax capabilities. Business professionals typically receive 169 such messages a day according to a Pitney-Bowes study — on several completely different systems. They must check their computers for e-mail messages, dial their voice mail system for voice messages, and visit the fax machine or mailroom to send or retrieve fax messages. With so many messages arriving in so many different ways, effective communications is becoming increasingly challenging and complex.

Unified messaging stores e-mail, voice mail and fax systems in a single area, and then allows users to access all their messages anytime, anywhere, via a common interface. Users can view all their messages on one screen and sort them in any order they choose by clicking on icons. Or e-mail messages can be converted into voice messages by using text-to-speech technology, making them accessible over the phone.

When unified messaging is in place, end users work more effectively and are able respond to customers much more quickly.

Systems administrators can manage the messaging environment very easily, but the business itself is the biggest winner.

Phone expenses are lower, productivity is higher and sales leads and customer service issues are handled far more efficiently. In-house staff are happy to work with so much more simplicity and convenience, while customers are pleased with significantly faster response times.

A recent study by the Applied Voice Technology Corporation (AVT) revealed impressive results. By using a single unified messaging interface, in-office staff managed all their e-mail, voice, and fax messages in less than half the time it took with traditional manual methods. Remote users cut their average access time from about 17 minutes to a little over five minutes. The unified messaging system studied by AVT paid for itself in just 68 business days.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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