Talk Like An Angel

By Kevin Savetz | Posted April 18, 2003
The telephone is an absolute necessity for most every business. For a small- or medium-sized business, managing the phones — voicemail, forwarding calls, and so on — can be an expensive and time-consuming chore. A service called Angel.com can transform your company's relationship with the telephone, and change customers' perception of the business for the better.

Angel.com is a service for creating customized telephone applications without adding any hardware. It offers a variety of voicemail functions with interactive voice response (IVR) — that is, it understands speech, not just Touch Tones. You can use Angel.com to set up a virtual receptionist, answering service, or telephone information service such as an investor hotline.

It can make a small company seem to callers like a bigger company — or at least make you and your employees easier to reach.

Angel.com provides each business a toll-free phone number. The caller is greeted by the system with a computer voice or a message that you record. Instead of pressing one for the sales department, the caller can simply say the word "Sales." The service isn't limited to recognizing a set of canned phrases: once you tell it that you have an employee named Zaphod Beeblebrox, the caller can say that name. Angel will forward the call to his phone — if he's not in, it will take a message.

When the caller leaves a message, Mr. Beeblebrox can be notified by e-mail or page. He can listen to his voicemail on the phone or from any computer with a Web browser. (The service can't receive faxes, although the company says this functionality is planned.)

The folks at Angel.com call the options and information that you hear when you dial an Angel phone number a "voice site." And voice sites are surprisingly easy to set up with Angel.com's Web interface.

Pricing is based on the amount of time callers spend on the phone with the toll-free number. The basic service costs $9.95 per month for 50 minutes of phone time. A "professional" plan includes 1,000 minutes (about 16 1/2 hours) for $119.95. Additional time with either plan is 15 cents per minute. A company can set up more than one voice site — each with its own phone number — which share a common pool of minutes.

Touched By An Angel
After trying various call centers for nine months, "which invariably would foul things up — not having our names correct, mistranscribing phone numbers," Jamie Koelker found Angel.com. Koelker is president of Edge Media, an international supplier of media services to educational textbook publishers. The company has been in business for 16 years and has 8 employees.

"My interest was to do two things: to ensure our clients got ahold of us quickly, 24/7; and to cut costs to be more competitive," he said. His company spends $300 a month for 2,500 minutes of Angel.com service, which has replaced a $25,000/year receptionist. "Call my office and say my name, if I'm not there you can leave a message. A text message goes to my cell phone. Pretty much I never miss getting back to someone within minutes," he said.

"I ask customers what they think of it. People are fascinated with speech recognition — it's much more personal than 'press one, press two,'" he said.

Angel.com offers a free trial, which lasts for 30 days or 50 minutes of use, whichever comes first. The trial account is rather captivating: it gives you a choice of toll-free phone numbers, which is instantly activated. Then you can use the Web-based wizard to create your voice site: there are dozens of templates to choose from, including company voicemail and customer support. The process takes just a few minutes, providing almost instant gratification.

Angel provides three options for the audio output used in menus, canned announcements, and so on. The quickest method to implement is text-to-speech technology in which a computer voice speaks any text you can type. For a more human touch, you can phone in to record messages in your own voice. For the highest quality sound, you can upload audio files from your PC. For extra polish, Angel offers references to voice talent.

But Koelker went a different direction. "We recorded all of the options with the woman who was our receptionist for years," — the person Angel.com replaced. "We wanted to soften that blow for people who knew our former receptionist," he said.

Koelker's only problem has been with Angel's voice recognition for callers with accents. "We deal with some people in France who apparently don't speak well enough so Angel.com can recognize them. We're training the French to speak more clearly," he said.

Angel In The Outfield
When companies need to go beyond the functions provided by Angel's voice site builder, the service can be interfaced with any Web site. Mymd.com, a 15-employee company that facilitates communication between patients and physicians, uses this feature to provide telephone access to its Web-based physician database. When a client enters his or her ZIP code, Angel sends that information to the mymd.com Web site and uses text-to-speech to recite the response from the Web site. "We don't have to worry about the IVR side, only about the Web response," Mike Chalkley, Chief Executive Office of mymd.com, said. Building a custom application to allow Angel to query the database took about two hours, he said.

"We work with a lot of Fortune 100 companies. A lot of people have said Angel is the most professional system they've ever seen."

Kevin Savetz has been a freelance technology writer for a decade. Savetz's knowledge of small business technology has been published by The Washington Post, Computer Shopper, and The Rotarian. He is also the author of FAQ: How can I send a fax from the Internet?

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