Microsoft Response Point Eases Small Business Pain Point

Comenity, a Seattle-area custom audio-video installer, may or may not have built the money-is-no-object home theater in Microsoft chairman Bill Gates’ gazillion-dollar mansion. Comenity president Mark McCracken isn’t telling. “We’re not supposed to talk about that stuff,” McCracken said coyly.

But how else do you explain that Comenity now uses Microsoft’s Response Point IP (Internet protocol) phone system, even though the firm sells and installs Panasonic small business phone systems and was using one of them until a year ago? We’d like to think Bill himself sold McCracken on Response Point. (But we don’t actually know this for a fact.)

What McCracken said is that his company, which employs 18 people, specializes in high-end residential installations, including jobs for “some fairly well-known folks.” (Hint, hint.) Comenity typically designs and builds customers’ audio-video systems in the Seattle area but has done installations all over the western U.S., and has a branch office in Hawaii.

McCracken also said he was looking for a phone system that better suited his company’s needs, which led him to Microsoft’s Response Point.

Key Benefits
The Response Point software, with hardware from Syspine, has helped give McCracken’s small firm a big-business look and feel, he said and has also made it much easier to use and manage the office phone system.

“It may sound a little kooky, but the biggest thing is that it lends us some credibility because it gives people the impression we’re a big company with resources. We look like a company that’s going to be around tomorrow. When you call most of our competitors, you get someone’s cell phone.”

Comenity could have had all or most of the same features with a Panasonic system and paid cost for the equipment because it’s a dealer, but even with cost pricing on the Panasonic gear, the Microsoft solution was cheaper, McCracken said. Total all-in cost: about $5,000 – $2,500 for the base station and five phones, plus about $160 for each additional phone.

He also loves that Response Point is integrated with other Microsoft products, such as Outlook, that he and his computer-centric employees use. They can now manage the entire phone experience from the Windows desktop using Response Point client software.

They can set find-me-follow-me options, telling the system which phones they want to ring at which times of the day or week when calls come in for them. They can tell the system to put some callers – based on their caller ID – directly through to their extension, bypassing the automated attendant. They can speak the name of an Outlook contact to initiate a call. And when a call comes in, the Response Point client pops up a small window in the corner of their screen showing the caller ID information.

The Shopping List
McCracken started looking for a new phone system 18 months ago. Comenity’s Panasonic small business PBX (private branch exchange) wasn’t advanced enough to offer a voice-activated auto attendant – the kind that lets callers speak the name of the person or department they’re trying to reach rather than entering an extension number. That was something McCracken wanted.

“We didn’t have the resources – or we didn’t want to spend the resources – to [have a live operator] answer the phone all the time,” he explained. “But we wanted to get customers routed internally without forcing them to enter an extension number.”

The other thing McCracken wanted was unified messaging – in particular the capability to have voice mail messages delivered as e-mail attachments. Being a very technology-oriented company, employees tend to make more intensive use of tools such as Microsoft Outlook than do many small businesses. “That was a real key thing for me,” he said, “to be able to get my voice mail as e-mail without having to dial in.”

The third and “lesser” reason Comenity went looking for a new phone system is that it wanted to simplify the business of moving, adding and making changes to its phones. Switching to an IP-based system that uses the company’s existing local area network instead of a separate telephone wiring system allowed them to do just that.

With traditional phone systems, each phone connects by cable directly to a wiring closet where the system attaches to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). In this “hub-and-spoke” configuration, if you want to move, add or change the location of a phone, it usually means moving wires – often inside walls – and then making complex changes in the wiring closet. 

Most small businesses have to pay someone to come in and make the changes. Comenity has trained technicians McCracken could have assigned to this work, but he tended not to because it would mean pulling them off billable work for customers. It was the old story of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot.

“Rather than move phones, we’d move people – or get a really long cord. For us, it wasn’t so much a cost trade-off as a convenience thing,” McCracken said of the new ease that IP telephony brings to managing a phone system.

With an IP system, it’s almost never necessary to move wires. Adding a new employee is as simple as plugging an IP phone into an existing Ethernet jack. The phone has a unique hardware identifier, and the network automatically assigns it a unique address. Then it’s just a question of using administrative software to assign an extension number to that address. The system automatically matches extensions to network addresses and routes incoming calls accordingly.

The Microsoft Difference
Response Point offers all the features McCracken was looking for, but it is by no means the only small business phone system on the market that does. The major manufacturers, including Avaya, Cisco and Nortel, all have IP-based products with similar features. In fact, Microsoft is a newcomer, and some would say, an interloper that likes to present features and benefits as unique to its own products when in fact they’ve long been available in others. 

Microsoft does have a different software-centric approach, though. The solution Comenity purchased includes the Response Point software from Microsoft, which runs on any Windows computer or small business server, plus the hardware system from Syspine. It’s this software-centric approach that provides the PC and Windows integration that McCracken finds so appealing.

The real reason he decided on the Microsoft product, or at least one of the reasons, he said, is that he wanted to install the system himself. The other solutions “required fairly intense VAR [value added reseller] involvement.” Response Point was the only one he could buy on its own without having to also pay for installation services.

The installation, which he initially completed using beta products over a year ago, was “fairly straightforward. I can’t remember any huge issues we encountered,” McCracken said.

Installation 411
The set up was a question of plugging incoming phone lines into the Syspine base station – either VoIP or POTS (plain old telephone service) lines. In Comenity’s case, it was POTS lines. The Syspine base station can handle up to eight lines, of which Comenity used four. The base station plugs into the IP network at the router. And Comenity’s 15 phone sets plug into existing Ethernet jacks.

The rest is done in software – assigning extension numbers and voice mail boxes to network addresses. There were some small glitches typical of any beta installation, but all were addressed in the final versions of the products, McCracken said.

There were also a few features he didn’t like in the beta software. While the voice-activated call routing was a key want-to-have, he admits it “polarizes” callers – some hate it. The beta version would only accept voice input. He asked that callers be allowed to enter an extension number if they knew it. Microsoft made that change.

The beta version also kept asking the caller to repeat the desired name or department when it couldn’t understand the person. McCracken asked that the system automatically route calls to a live operator or a general mailbox after fewer failed attempts at using voice activation. Microsoft made that change as well. 

McCracken admits he never did a formal return on investment analysis of Response Point, but he also doesn’t have a burning need to do so. He knows the system is cheaper, easier to use and easier to manage than conventional small business phone systems. And that’s enough.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell
has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print
and online publications since the 1980s.

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