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October 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 10
Cover Story

Cloud Telephony: Voice Applications Made Easy

By: Erik Linask (News - Alert)

When considering the abundance of communications solutions available today – a figure that is only climbing on a daily basis – it can be hard to imagine having to choose between the various alternatives available to enhance business processes, lower operating and capital expenses, and ultimately allow businesses to provide the highest quality services to their customers.

There are on-premises and hosted solutions; there are appliance-based and software alternatives, there are low-end products with basic features and high-end offerings with every feature imaginable. But, perhaps the one factor that outweighs all others today is simplicity. Businesses are undeniably looking for communications capabilities that are easy to install, easy to manage, and easy to use.

It stands to reason, then, that the simplest solutions should meet with some of the highest success rates. Look at Skokie, Illinois-based Ifbyphone (News - Alert), for example, which currently boasts more than 14,000 subscribers and is growing at a rate of more than 15 percent each month, according to CEO Irv Shapiro.

“Ifbyphone is a very simple business that makes a complex set of technologies accessible to businesses of any type,” says Shapiro. “We automate phone calls and the handling of phone calls – that’s all we do.”

“If you want to do something with an inbound phone call, and you’re not a Fortune 500 company with your own PBX (News - Alert) and telecom department, we do that,” he adds. “If you want to do something with an outbound call, we do that. If you want to do something with an API or if you want to integrate with a process, we do that.”

Small and mid-sized businesses often lack the in-house expertise and the budgets to do much more than basic call control features – effectively not much more than what was available with traditional telephony systems. Through its cloud-based managed service, which requires no up-front capital investment, Ifbyphone enables these businesses to cost effectively automate inbound call flows, running them through IVR systems and processing or distributing them appropriately. Inbound calls can be automatically triggered by Ifbyphone’s API from any Web property as well.


Shapiro sees Ifbyphone as the Salesforce.com of telephony. Salesforce started out selling to very small businesses at a time when most people did not have a real understanding of the Web model, and wondered why it wasn’t providing bandwidth, believing that’s where the greater opportunity lay. Salesforce, to its credit, paid little heed and followed its belief that the application would deliver the greatest value in the long term.

“We do the same thing for automated telephone applications. We don’t sell transport; You can’t buy dial tone from us. We are completely agnostic about where you get your phone service,” said Shapiro. “But, we provide you applications that work with any telephone.”

For the customer, this is a completely managed service. There is no equipment to purchase or install, no complex software to figure out, just a monthly subscription they pay via credit card, and a customer provisioning portal that allows set-up of any of Ifbyphone’s basic capabilities, including setting up a virtual call center, for which no programming skills are required.

Naturally, more advanced users can take it a step further to create more complex scenarios – much like the Salesforce model to which Shapiro is keen on referring – including integration with back-end systems through the use of Ifbyphone’s Web services API. But even then, claims Shapiro, customers don’t need a programming or telephony experts, but can rely on the expertise of the same Web developers who build their Web sites.

The simplicity of the cloud-based product is exemplified by a point-and-click self-service Web interface that is used to develop any of the capabilities users require, from customer satisfaction surveys to delivery confirmation IVR applications to call routing applications and more.

“What we do is make an IVR application look like a Web form,” explains Shapiro. “If you know how to build an application that has a form in it, you basically replace that form with an IVR application, where the data is now coming from a telephone.”

Unlike many other application development platforms, it is not graphical in nature, mainly because Ifbyphone has designed its service specifically for SMBs who don’t have programming experts who might prefer dragging and dropping elements on the screen. Rather, its interface consists of procedures that nearly anyone can work with. For instance, an IVR application is easily created by filling out a series of prompts and responses, where the prompts can come from recorded audio, uploaded files, or text-to-speech. It’s a very simple “ask this question” and “get this type of response” scenario.

Again, as with any quality product, users can create more complex call flow scenarios. By using the advanced features, response options can be weighted to drive call flow branching, through the use of multiple choice responses, for instance. And, for those more advanced users, a flow chart view is available to look at a visual display of the flows.

“You can start very simply, and move up to fairly sophisticated scenarios,” says Shapiro.

That said, Ifbyphone is not designed to build an airline call center application; it is specifically engineered to meet the needs of the SMB market, providing the capabilities of a more complex enterprise solution, but with the ease of use and price point to meet the needs of smaller businesses, from $25-50 per month, depending on particular needs and service package (Basic, Advanced, or Complete). There are no per seat or other hidden costs. The only cost above the monthly fee is calling costs, which ranges from .035 to .06 per minute.

Consider a small multi-site retail business with about $10 million in annual revenues, renting 20 seats in an outsourced call center. Those 20 seats likely cost $20-30 per hour depending on the location of the center, but it’s likely that, say, 15 percent of the time, callers merely want to check the status of an order, find the closest store location or get directions to or store hours for that closest store. These are all calls that can be automated using Ifbyphone and, according to Shapiro, will cost $2-3 per hour. That’s a 10:1 reduction in costs for 15 percent of the company’s calls, which creates a rather compelling argument for automating those calls with Ifbyphone.

As for its growing customer base, despite many of the applications Ifbyphone enables often being thought of as call center-type services, Shapiro says Ifbyphone’s largest customer segment is marketing and advertising firms. But, if you consider the kinds of applications that can be created with the service, it’s easy to understand that almost any business can benefit from it – after all, every business that uses phones for either inbound or outbound phone calls is a call center of sorts.

Take, for example, one customer that markets a wide range of firms on Internet sites. People go to an Internet site and are interested in more information about one of the firms. They enter their contact information and receive an automated outbound call, thanking them for visiting the site and providing some basic information, with an option to speak to a live agent at that time. By incorporating that screening capability, the company has dramatically increased the efficiency of its lead process and ends up closing more sales.

On the outbound side, consider an advertising firm that runs late night ads on local cable channels. The ads can be places fairly inexpensively in many small markets today, and can be produced equally cost effectively using many desktop production applications. What they couldn’t do is inexpensively integrate telephony.

If the firm is running ads on ten different channels on a Wednesday night and wants to test which is performing best, it can set up 10 unique inbound phone numbers, and can even set up two different styles of IVR experiences that provide pre-screening similar to the previous example, so as not to tie up costly agents with people who have a low probability of becoming customers. One the ads have run and calls start coming in, the information from those calls is collected in real time, and the next morning, the marketing firm can review the data to determine which scenario and which channels produced the best results, and make the appropriate changes for the following evening.

“It’s about making telephony as interactive as the Web is to the advertising and marketing world,” according to Shapiro. “So, again, we have done for telephony applications what Salesforce did for the idea of hosted applications. We created a platform that makes it very easy for end users – people that aren’t telco guys, people that have never heard of PSTN, of VoIP, or VoiceXML (News - Alert), or CCXML, or ASR, but want to be able to do for their businesses some of the things large enterprises do with telephones.”

Regardless of the specific application – to see how easily many of them can be set up, visit Ifbyphone’s YouTube (News - Alert) channel (www.youtube.com/user/ifbyphone) – Shapiro believes he has found a real business need they are able to address to allow businesses to be more efficient and more cost effective, while enabling staff to focus on the jobs only they can do, leveraging technology for the rest.

Circling back to the Salesforce.com analogy, he notes that more businesses use telephones than CRM, suggesting that Ifbyphone’s opportunity in many ways might dwarf the opportunity that Salesforce created for itself.

“They haven’t done all that badly,” says Shapiro with a smile. “It’s very clear that, in this economy, if you sell something that saves people money, you are going to sell a lot of it. In all three ways – where we automate inbound calls, outbound calls, or API-based calls, and we integrate IVR components – we very often are helping generate more sales or are saving our customers money. So, it’s a very good time to be in this business.” IT

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