Skype As Your Office Phone System?

After trying Skype at home for a few months, Eric Taylor decided it was good enough to use at work&#151and would solve a couple of pressing problems there.
Taylor manages an independent branch of Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp., a residential mortgage brokerage firm, in Warrenton, Virginia.

“I was looking for a way to reduce expenses related to land line phones and also to improve telephone functions,” he explains. “Mainly I wanted to make it possible for employees to take calls [to the office system] wherever they are because many of them work at least part of the time at home.”

The office had about six lines from Verizon. Taylor ripped out five of them&#151for a savings of about $200 a month. He left the main Verizon number in place and installed CallButler a software PBX from Works Out Software, Inc. that provides small businesses with a complete phone system, using Skype, for about $30.

Call Butler is the brainchild of ex-Microsofter Jim Heising, Works Out Software’s president and CEO. Heising formed the company two-and-a-half years ago after selling off an earlier start-up, Giant Software (anti-spyware tools) to Microsoft. Not quite ready to retire and intrigued by the possibilities of VoIP, he started the new company, initially to develop a VoIP software development kit (SDK) using Microsoft’s .Net framework.

After the VoIP .Net SDK launched, Heising looked around for a new project and decided to create a complete solution around the technology the firm had developed. Works Out Software launched the CallButler line, which includes versions for Skype and SIP -based VoIP services, in September 2006.

The Goal
The idea was to create an inexpensive phone system that would help small businesses be more efficient and also project size and professionalism. It would include auto attendant and IVR (interactive voice response) features, voice-mail and basic call handling. The more full-featured SIP version, CallButler Unlimited Edition, sells for $249.95 while the Skype version, CallButler Pro, costs $29.95. Thirty-day trial versions of both are available for download at the Web site. A stripped-down free version for Skype that provides basic functions is also available.

“Our biggest differentiator&#151the thing really driving the project from the start&#151is ease of use,” says Mike Tomazic, vice president of business development, and another ex-Microsofter. “Jim said he wanted it to be so easy that his grandfather could set it up. That has been the philosophy from day one.”

How does it work? First of all, customers need a SkypeIn number&#151a “direct-inward-dialing” number provided by Skype for about $40 a year that allows callers to reach a Skype customer’s computer via the PSTN. When customers dial Taylor’s Verizon number, the call automatically forwards to his SkypeIn number. From there, CallButler takes over.

Callers hear an auto attendant greeting (the product lets you record your own or use text-to-speech) letting them choose a voice-menu option, dial an extension number or dial by name. When they make a selection, CallButler forwards the call &#151 over the Internet &#151 to an employee’s Skype name. The Skype customer can be anywhere, including at home or in an airport lounge, which is exactly the functionality Taylor wanted.

Tomazic says almost any small business can benefit. “But we really see the ideal customer being a small decentralized company. Certainly people who travel frequently and that make a lot of long distance calls, especially internationally, will benefit.” The Skype version appears to be getting the most traction.

“We do have a number of companies now that are starting to look at Skype as their primary, if not their exclusive, phone system,” Tomazic says. American companies, though, are well behind small businesses in other parts of the world, he adds. “We’re seeing a very high [Skype] adoption rate in countries like Singapore, Brazil and China. Businesses in those countries are adopting Skype as a standard way of communicating within and outside their companies. Their Skype name is a natural part of what people put on their business cards now.”

North American businesses, he says, need “a kick in the pants to be more innovative in how they use technology.” Maybe, but relatively few are as adventurous as Taylor, and perhaps with good reason.

Imperfect Call-Handling
While he sticks by the decision to rely on Skype, Taylor admits it isn’t always as good as a regular phone. “You do occasionally get a [static] sound on Skype calls,” Taylor says. “But I can deal with static here and there for the savings and the improvements in functionality we get with Skype [and CallButler].”

As for CallButler itself, it was easy enough to set up, Taylor says, but the experience hasn’t been 100 percent positive. The product has “a bug or two,”
Taylor says, though he maintains that it’s still “very good.”

One problem he’s noted is that callers hear six or seven seconds of silence after they dial an extension. Works Out Software says this is a problem that originates with Skype and it has hopes it will be rectified. Taylor has partially solved it by warning callers in his greeting that they will experience a slight delay.

Another problem, perhaps more serious for most businesses, is that if you receive a Skype call through CallButler, you can’t transfer it manually to another employee, as you could with most conventional phone systems. Since most of Taylor’s firm’s calling is outbound, this rarely comes up, he says. If it does, his employees just tell the caller that a colleague will call them right back.

It was Tomazic, however, who pointed out a more fundamental problem&#151at least with current versions of the product: CallButler cannot handle simultaneous calls, other than to send second and subsequent calls automatically to voice mail. This, again, is a limitation of Skype, he says, but Works Out has solved it.

The solution involves launching multiple instances of the Skype client for the same account&#151the one associated with the SkypeIn number. “We’ve actually had to do some fairly creative things to make that work,” he says. The new feature will appear in first quarter 2007.

It’s also not possible to smoothly integrate Skype with a SIP-based VoIP service using CallButler. A company couldn’t have one greeting that allowed callers to route themselves either to a VoIP line or a Skype user, although they could have parallel Skype and SIP CallButler systems and transfer calls using additional SkypeIn numbers. That too is being rectified, Tomazic says. “Ultimately we’ll have one environment for both SIP and Skype.” He doesn’t say when, though.

Dialing for Databases
While CallButler may be limited in terms of call handling, it does offer some very sophisticated features, including a scripting system that lets you create hooks into back-end database systems and make Web Services calls.
What’s the real-world application? You could key in an order number, for example, and the system would pull shipping data from the back-end system, or even a FedEx or UPS Web site, and read it over the phone using the integrated text-to-speech engine. You would need a “moderate amount of skills” to do the advanced scripting required, Tomazic says.

It’s still early days for CallButler. The company has “somewhere around 100” paying customers. In surveys of customers using the free trial versions, 70 percent say they are likely or very likely to purchase the product, he says.

As for the quality of Skype calling being up to business standards (otherwise why bother with something like CallButler?), Tomazic maintains that, while there is some “flakiness” in Skype, it’s “as good as or better than you get on a cell phone” and “the quality is continually improving.” Some people would argue with both statements. Still, using Skype and CallButler as a small business phone system is at the very least an interesting proposition.

Adapted from voipplanet.com.

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