1993 Nov 01
Telemarketing on a PC
David M. Raab
DM News
November, 1993

So you wanna be a big-time telemarketer? The price of admission has traditionally been a mini-computer-based predictive dialing system at the cost $7,000 to $15,000 per user. A predictive dialer hooks up to your phone switch, where it keeps track of things like which operators are on the phone, how long each call lasts, and how many calls are answered by a live human, and then dials new phone calls so an operator becomes available just at the moment that a call is being answered by a prospect or customer. The idea is to keep operators talking continuously, instead of having them wait while the phone is dialed and then listen to non-productive busy signals, answering machines and disconnected numbers.

Predictive dialers can more than double a telemarketer’s productivity, which makes them well worth the investment for high-volume operations. But, still, many smaller firms simply don’t have the money to buy one. These firms have several attractive PC-based alternatives.

These systems do more than just dial the phone. A serious telemarketer must define campaigns, develop scripts, schedule calls, monitor operator productivity, capture responses and analyze the results. Each of these functions must be performed efficiently and flexibly.

Take scripting. A simple system might assign different text blocks to different function keys, so the user has a limited set of responses to look at. But telemarketers often want a more powerful “branching” approach, where the system automatically presents the next question based on the response just entered. In a really sophisticated system, branching is based on logical rules that can reference not only the last answer, but any data stored in the system. (For example, to ask males different questions than females, the system would need to check a gender code stored somewhere in the customer record.) A good system also lets the response to a question trigger specific events (send a piece of literature, schedule a follow-up call, place an order, etc.) without additional action by the operator.

There are similar degrees of sophistication for the other functions. Here are three PC-based systems that all offer exceptional power for a very reasonable price.

TeleStat (The MarTel Group, 800-234-3515) was originally introduced in 1987 and is now used by over 200 companies, mostly agencies and service bureaus. The base system costs $595 for a single user, with volume discounts that lower the cost to $250 for a 10-user system, $110 for 40 users, and even less for larger installations. The company also offers what it calls a “PreEmptive Dialer”, which will automatically dial the phone via a modem (that is, without being hooked to the company switchboard), screen for incomplete calls (busies, no answers, etc.), and take appropriate action (reschedule, delete, etc.) without operator intervention. This feature costs $1,495 per station, and is not subject to volume discounts.

In addition to the PreEmptive Dialer, TeleStat offers very impressive scripting capabilities. Scripts are built in a menu-driven process that allows text to be placed anywhere on the screen and can incorporate data from anywhere in the customer file. Branching rules are entered on a fixed table with slots to define exceptions and enter prebuilt “subactions” (schedule a callback, change data in a field, print a mailing label, hot key into another system, etc.) Using a table is easier than the approach of many other systems, which typically require the user to write logical statements (essentially, small computer programs) that define the alternative branches.

In general, TeleStat’s menu-driven interface is very easy to use. The system is written in Clipper, C and Assembly, using the Clipper database engine. Users can add any number of fields to the basic customer file, and define screens that allow access to those fields. Calls for each campaign are stored in a separate file, which can reach about 100,000 records before performance begins to suffer. (This limit will be raised in future releases, where the system will incorporate more advanced indexing technology.) Results from calls are stored in another file, where they can be accessed for reporting via third-party products that read dBASE-format files, such as R&R Report Writer.

Nearly everything about TeleStat is campaign-oriented. This is especially appropriate in agency operations, where each customer usually is its own campaign. For example, to help with billing, TeleStat can track time spent by campaign on building scripts, running reports and building databases, as well as making actual calls.

But the campaign-based approach has some drawbacks as well. While the system provides excellent on-line performance reports–e.g., number of calls, completions, sales, etc.–these cannot be summarized across campaigns to get a full evaluation of, say, how a given operator has performed over the past month. List selections also cannot simultaneously draw on data such as survey responses if they were gathered in different campaigns. There are ways around these limits, though, such as putting survey results in a user-defined field on the main customer record, or using an external report writer.

TeleStat offers most of the power that a large telemarketing operation would require. This includes the ability to assign different operators to different calling queues, to assign individual callbacks to specific operators, to schedule callbacks by time and date, and to automatically reschedule incomplete calls at intervals based on the campaign and the reason for incompletion.

Very sophisticated users may find some features missing, though. For example, TeleStat is not aware of time zones when scheduling callbacks. Nor does the system enable a supervisor to call up a particular operator’s current screen for training or quality control purposes (although third-party utilities allow this to be done). And users who want to add files to the basic hierarchy of customer, campaign and survey response must buy the source code for $27,500 and make the changes themselves.

Still, TeleStat is a very impressive system for the price. Users with special needs can buy several add-in modules, all priced at $199 for a single-user version and $399 for a network license. Of these, the most intriguing is OrderStat, which allows simple order entry, including pricing with volume discounts, sales tax, shipping calculations, and perpetual inventory. These files are separate for each campaign, which could be a problem where inventory is concerned. Nor does OrderStat provide warehouse management, customer billing or accounting. But it still adds a good amount of power in an area where telemarketing systems are traditionally lacking.

Other modules include ApptStat, which allows telemarketers to set appointments for field agents without overbooking their time, and MagicStat, which automatically transfers data into the popular TeleMagic contact management system.

For users who need telephone integration beyond the PreEmptive Dialer, the system can be linked directly to a telephone switch on a custom basis. The MarTel Group is also evaluating optional interfaces to third-party preemptive dialing systems.

TeleStat runs on a standard PC networks, with a practical limit of 50 to 100 users per server. The MarTel Group provides toll-free technical support from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time, and, for an additional fee, offers remote support including a monthly diagnostic checkup by modem.

Telescript (Digisoft Computers Inc., 212-289-0991) started out in 1989 as a market research system, although half of its 100-plus installations today are telemarketing agencies and the rest are mostly in-house telemarketing operations. The system is written in C and uses the C-tree indexing system, although one of its particular strengths is the ability to read and write files stored in dBASE, Paradox and R:base formats.

In fact, Telescript is extremely flexible when it comes to database management. The base system has only a single customer file, with call results stored in one large text field per customer record. However, there is no limit to the number of additional files a user can access. To do this, the user simply draws a new screen and points the fields in that screen to the new file. This is done with Telescript’s standard script writer, so there are no separate procedures to learn.

The system offers the full range of scripting capabilities, including the ability to write logical statements that define branching conditions, to execute external processes such as sending a letter, and to update external files. Calls can be rescheduled with rules that depend on the resolution code (busy, no answer, etc.), and the system is aware of both time zones and work days. Although call responses are stored in a large text file, the script can be told to also put them into a separate database, where they can then be searched and analyzed efficiently.

Telescript’s user interface is extremely attractive, particularly in management functions such as determining the current status of a particular operator or checking performance statistics. For these types of activities, the system offers a “drill down” approach that starts, for example, with a list of operators and then lets the user select a single operator and see more detailed statistics. Performance reporting shows all campaigns combined, and is quite powerful. For example, it lets the user define any set of call result codes in a particular script, and then map these to standard categories (busy, no answer, etc.) for summary reports. TeleStat, by contrast, requires use of standard categories for results to appear in the standard reports.

Telescript offers most call management features, such as queues by campaign and by individual, and allows the system administrator to assign campaigns by individuals, workstations or both (that is, only allow a certain person to use a certain computer for a certain campaign). It gives supervisors the ability to see the screen of a particular operator, although not to simultaneously listen to the phone conversation (which requires integration with the phone switch).

Telescript offers a “Super-Dialing” module that is comparable to TeleScript’s PreEmptive Dialer. With it, the system will automatically dial a call, “listen” for different types of answers, and record the outcome and reschedule calls where a human does not pick up. Phone switch integration is also available on a custom basis.

The system runs on a standard PC LAN, with typical installations in the 40 to 80 user range. To improve network performance, most processing is done on the local workstation, with results transfered back when a call is complete. A particularly nice feature is that, if the server goes down, the system will store results on the local workstation so no information is lost. The company plans to add Microsoft Windows, SQL and client/server support by mid-1994.

The base price of Telescript is $595 for a single user and $700 per network user. Super-Dialing adds $200 per station, and the interfaces for Paradox, dBASE or FoxPro each cost $100 per station. The R:Base interface costs $50 per station, and a calendar function costs $50 per station.

Digisoft provides phone support from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time for $100 per station per year, and also offers plans for extended support hours.

TeleScope (Davis Software Engineering, 800-373-2668) is the only one of these packages to offer true predictive dialing. The dialer (Davis’s own) is priced at a rock-bottom $750 per user, although this is in addition to $2,000 per user for the base system. Although expensive by PC standards, TeleScope is still much cheaper than mini-computer systems–with a competitive level of functionality.

The system was introduced in 1992, and has eight existing installations with three more underway. It is written in Clipper and C and uses the Btrieve database engine.

There are three basic files in TeleScope: a customer file, purchase history file, and a call file for phone contacts and other marketing events. Call records are coded by type, so they can be easily sorted; however, survey responses within a call record are stored in a free text format. Users also get a data dictionary tool that allows them to add new fields or files, and a menu-driven form-builder that lets them add screens to view and maintain the new data.

TeleScope scripts are written with a menu-based tool that achieves virtually unlimited flexibility by enabling the user to embed “code blocks” of logical statements and commands into a table structure. It maps call resolution codes to standard categories for reporting, can trigger actions based on specific responses, and offers full rescheduling capabilities including different scheduling rules for different resolution codes and sensitivity to time zones and work days.

The system offers extensive on-line performance reporting, in a very convenient drill-down format. Like several other functions in the system, this reporting is usually handled by a separate computer processor in order to improve performance. This is a very sophisticated approach, which allows TeleScope installations to exceed 150 users on a single network. It also means the system uses more expensive server hardware than a standard PC LAN: TeleScope server hardware runs from $40,000 to $100,000, with six to twenty total processors.

As suggested by the presence of a predictive dialer, TeleScope provides very powerful telephone support. It allows supervisors to view agent screens, even offering a 50-line mode that shows both the actual agent screen and that same agent’s current performance statistics (updated as you watch). With the proper telephone switch interface, TeleScope will allow the supervisor to listen to the current phone call as well, and even let an agent transfer a call and its accompanying screen to another agent or supervisor.

Davis has built numerous modules, including interactive voice recognition, a dealer locator, order entry, inventory/ warehouse management, and customer billing. These are available at extra cost and can be integrated with the system. The company will not sell source code, however.

Telephone support for the TeleScope is provided from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, with additional services available at negotiated rates.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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