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Unified messaging: Using telephone systems more effectively

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The information in this article is current as of December 7, 2001.

A new type of integrated telephone and data system has the potential of changing the way that organizations work. It's often called 'unified messaging' or 'unified communications'. You'll be hearing more about unified messaging over the next few years as the services evolve, but some of the functions will be relevant for many nonprofits right now.

Unified messaging refers to various services that combine streams of communication so that you can control how and where to direct messages and, in some cases, phone calls. For example, J2 (www.j2.com) and Protus allow you to set up a fax number that sends all faxes to email addresses of your choice. Sprint Canada and Bellzinc.ca offer a service that pulls all your voice messages, faxes and emails into one place. You can then pick them up on a web site, or with your email program, or over the phone lines. Many of these services can read out your email messages using a text-to-speech machine voice.

Other services allow you to create 'follow-me' phone numbers that you can direct to various phones, including your mobile, office or home lines, based on weekly schedules. Bell Canada's Just One is an example.

All of these services enable people to set up automated communication rules, customized to the way that they work, to manage their increasing channels of messages and phone calls. Right now, many of us have work phone numbers, home office numbers, mobile numbers, and two or three different email addresses, as well as a fax number or two. We have to check all of them frequently, and people who want to communicate with us need to know all, or at least many, of our numbers.

People working out of home offices often want to be available to coworkers and clients without giving out personal phone numbers, or without being called in the middle of the night by business colleagues trying to leave a message. Organizations are looking for a way to facilitate communication with remote staff (like outreach/community development workers or fundraisers) without paying for unnecessary phone lines. If someone works in a head office only one day a week, why would they need a dedicated phone line? And how do you track them down when they are out of the office?

As organizations increasingly use virtual teams to cut down on office expenses and travel time, phone systems must be re-designed.

As usual in this volatile environment, new services are being created, merged, closed and changed at an astonishing rate. To make things more complicated, unified messaging services are usually sold by distributors such as Bell Canada but developed by other companies. Both Bell Canada and Sprint have been experimenting with various third-party technologies, and some of their services have disappeared after a few months or years depending on customer response. (Wildfire was a promising unified messaging service that was dropped by Bell a couple of years ago).

However, there's no question that unified messaging is coming in fast. I'm going to describe two services that are particularly relevant to nonprofits.

Accessline and Primal Technologies offer similar services for small organizations. Accessline is available only in the United States right now but may be licensed by a Canadian company in the coming years, while Primal Connect is offered by Toronto-based Unite Communications (their web site, www.unite.ca, will be up in January 2002). Unite is a new division of Voice~Link, which has been offering voice mail services for about 15 years, and has also been a sponsor of Toronto's Metro Voice Mail for the Homeless program since 1995. Unite is in the process of testing the technology (it's now being used by about 300 people) and plan to market the service early in 2002. I talked to the President of Unite, Brian Presement, for information on their offering.

Here is how Unite's small business service works:

  • Your organization rents a local phone number from Unite in the Toronto area. (Unite hopes to open in Vancouver next year). For about $60/month CDN you get a main number and five extensions, plus five individual fax numbers. You can buy as many extensions as you want.
  • Each extension comes with a full direct phone line and voice messaging, as well as the capacity to forward the extension to any phone number. You could forward your extension and direct line to your mobile or home number and be fully accessible to clients from your organization's general office number. Clients would not need to know where staff are located. Or you could allow several workers to share one phone line in an office, and they would each get their own private voice mail. You could also enable workers who travel to several branch offices to have phone numbers that 'follow them'.
  • Each extension can also come with a separate direct fax number, which converts incoming faxes to a digital format and saves them on a web site. You can pick up faxes on the web or direct them to a fax machine of your choice.
  • You can pick up your voice messages either on the Web or by any telephone.
  • There are lots of other options and features that can be added to your core service, and additional functions are being added in the next few months. According to the Primal Technology site, this may include teleconferencing. The initial setup, which includes customized programming and some onsite training for your organization, costs $125.

This service is an incredible boon for organizations that work with remote workers, and who can't afford to set up centralized phone systems.

The primary risk of depending on phone systems from services like Accessline and Unite is that you may lose your phone number if the businesses go under. There are a couple of ways around this problem. One is to use a number that you do own and point it to the local number. If the phone business goes bankrupt, you can point the phone number to another service. You may be able to use your current main number and call forward it to the Unite or Accessline number. The other approach is to choose a stable company and take the risk that it will remain solvent, or at least will give at least a few weeks' notice before stopping the service so that you have time to switch to another provider. In that case, it's like moving offices ð it's annoying and disruptive, but not disastrous. Once the major phone companies like Bell Canada begin offering these services, you can be fairly certain that your phone number will be protected. But companies like Voice~Link that have been in business for 15 years might be a reasonable bet. RealWorld Systems is trying out the service for our own operation.

There are bound to be glitches with any new service, including the various unified messaging products that will be on the market in the next little while. Over the next year or two, though, small nonprofits should look carefully at these services to see whether they make sense for the needs of their staff and community members.

Gillian Kerr, Ph.D., C.Psych. - President, RealWorld Systems

gkerr at realworldsystems.net

Read my weblog at http://blog.realworldsystems.net

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