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March 2000

Connex 80/20 PCD

Xantel Corporation
3710 East University Drive, Suite 4
Phoenix, Arizona 85034
Ph: 480-446-4000; Fx: 480-446-4010
Web site: www.xantel.com

Price: Starts at $2,500 per seat

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Installation: 5
Documentation: 4
Features: 5
GUIs: 4.75
Overall: A

When a fraction of your customers account for most of your business, you want to give those customers VIP treatment. For small companies, it�s easy to note those callers and treat them accordingly. But for larger organizations � for example, companies that have huge call centers and hundreds of customer contacts daily � there are not many ways to prioritize the really important calls.

Xantel Corporation�s Connex 80/20 PCD is designed to solve this problem. �PCD� stands for precision call distribution (as opposed to mere �automatic� call distribution). Connex makes intensive use of rules, follow-me features and advanced call handling and logging, all for enriching the calling experience of the VIP (and for saving you money.) The system runs on Windows NT and features a 32-bit client application, T1 or PRI connectivity, and network residence between your pro-vider�s central office and your PBX. While the important calls are pulled into the Connex system, the others are passed through to your standard ACD or PBX, and on to agents. You can use Xantel�s own built-in voice mail system or a third-party voice mail system, determined on a per-user basis. There�s also an instant messenger feature.

Connex resides on a dedicated industrial PC with Windows NT 4.0 Server. This machine also needs SQL 6.5, updated service packs and minimum specifications of 128 MB RAM and a Pentium 200 processor. However, we suggest considering the real-world needs of SQL and enterprise applications � you�re much better off with 256 MB RAM and a PII 450 or a similarly modern setup. Also, the chassis must be able to accept several full-length PCI and ISA cards, but any good industrial PC should be able to do this. You�ll also need at least 4 GB of available disk space and several free IRQs. Fortunately, the actual IRQs do not have to be consecutive, and we�re told that the ISA version is being phased out in favor of an all-PCI version.

Configuring everything involves installing TCP/IP, the Streams Environment Protocol and Windows Messaging. Installing the DSP board(s) and the Netaccess T1/PRI board(s) is the major physical step. The boards link through an MVIP cable. Installing the actual Connex software includes verifying items on a software-based install checklist, verifying BIOS settings (to confirm remote administration capabilities), selecting directories and installing the Netaccess drivers. The next step is installing a copper bypass unit, SQL and the Connex E-mail connector software, followed by installing the client software and the licensing codes. (Note that the copper bypass unit has room for two T1 spans and one system alarm, so if your installation has additional T1 spans, you use multiple bypass units and daisy chain the alarm�s cabling into the first unit.) The final step here is running the hardware configuration wizard.

All of those steps are just the first half of the installation, the second being the integration of Connex into your network and telecommunications system. Steps here include configuring the copper bypass unit(s) between a CSU/DSU and the PBX/Xantel server, configuring the music-on-hold source, routing incoming T1 lines to the Connex server and passing them to your PBX, testing the whole system and training end users.

For a product like the Connex 80/20 PCD, solid documentation is vital. What�s provided is very good, with some exceptions. The main documents are a technical reference book, an administrator�s training guide, an end-user manual, and an end-user quick-start reference brochure. The two administrative books are extremely detailed, featuring logical chapter divisions, excellent technical and plain English explanations and plenty of screen captures. However, we have some concerns: the first is that the screen shots� print quality is very poor (and in some cases, impossible to read). The second (which a Xantel engineer told us will be fixed, hopefully before you read this!) is a particularly flagrant error regarding the pre-install checklist: all components are selected by default, so you uncheck an item to prevent its installation. The actual on-screen language makes this quite clear, stating that �if you wish to remove certain procedures, just uncheck its check box,� but in the manual, it states that �items that are checked will not be completed.� Obviously, the manual should read �items that are NOT checked�� We assume that most people will realize this error and figure it out themselves, but it could cause a lot of confusion.

Meanwhile, the end-user book and reference brochure are quite good. Almost everything an end user will have to learn is explained step-by-step, with all commands shown in boldface. The quick-start brochure is nearly perfect. One flaw is that the online help files, while comprehensive, are not context-sensitive. Also, many parts of the help files we saw seemed outdated, but this was because the system we tested was still in its beta version.

The Connex feature set is very impressive. Connex is for call handling; it�s not a PC-PBX or a unified messaging application. It works well in the call center, but it�s not exclusively �call center software� � after all, anyone who uses a telephone or e-mail, or who in any way deals with customers, is their own personal �call center� of sorts, making the PCD useful for any department. If you are a reseller or if you�re considering buying a Xantel system, it�s important that you understand these differences. Access to the system�s administrative functions comes from two sources: the server interface and the administration tab of the client. The actual server runs as separate NT services. The server interface is unimpressive in appearance, but it is very useful. Its 11 tabs control every aspect of the Connex operations. These tabs include Main, Clients, Call, Devices, About, Call Endpoints, Message, Diagnostics, DSP Version, Line Monitor and Database.

  • The �main� tab controls general server options. Here, four main buttons include start, stop, busy out and deny log-ins. Other options are ignore hardware configuration, in-copper bypass, use CD as music source, automatically refresh display (rates from 1 to 99 seconds) and enable watchdog timer. This screen also shows eight key numbers: active clients, active calls, idle worker threads, peak worker threads, maximum worker threads, peak database threads, maximum database threads and peak concurrent calls. You�ll also find the date and time the system was last started.
  • The �clients� screen shows the status of every logged-in agent, plus the user ID, extension, status, number of calls, references and IP address. Options here include view references and disconnect client.
  • �Calls� is a similar view, showing each call�s ID, the caller�s name and number, the �callee� name and number, the number of parties, the call direction, the pass-through status and references. Reset statistics and view references are also options here, plus a display of the active calls, calls per hour, peak concurrent calls and total calls.
  • Next is the �devices� menu. Twelve options are here, including board name, board ID, port ID, device ID, disabled, out of service, device type, off hook, state, trunk group, references and board type.
  • The �about� tab, in our opinion, is frivolous here � it contains only the usual data about the version and build number, etc.
  • �Call endpoints� shows each call�s ID, type, device used and reference data.
  • �Message� is where administrators can send quick, no-frills messages to anyone who is a registered Connex user. Messages can be sent by the client ID number, or they can be broadcast to everyone or only to logged-in clients. Messages are limited to one line of text.
  • �Diagnostics� has more system information. In this tab, you can choose to �dump� the system�s IP address or the SyncObj locks, and choose options for activating the server log window, the server log window�s visibility and the record DID digits.
  • �DSP version� provides data on what its name implies, including the board and daughter board item numbers, the assembly numbers, revisions numbers, manufacturing numbers and serial numbers, plus an option to reload the DSP default settings.
  • The �line monitor� tab shows the individual channel status of each CO and PBX line, including their timeslots, on a per-board basis.
  • The �database� tab includes options for collecting database statistics, resetting statistics, dumping statistics on resets, the number of times to gather statistics before resetting and a reset button. Also shown here are the server and client statistics for requests, pool blocks, average concurrent blocks, maximum concurrent blocks, average connections, average milliseconds for a connection and maximum milliseconds for a connection.
  • More administrative functions are contained within the administrator�s version of the end-user Connex application (which is otherwise identical to the regular end-user�s version). These commands are divided into three sections. They include accounts (add, remove, log-off, configure); system setup (rules, service tiers, recorded greetings, call resolutions, directories, directory import/export); and system configuration/miscellaneous (configuration, maintenance, hardware configuration, diagnostics, licensing, applications). The last option (applications) is particularly useful � it�s where you can configure the auto-attendant and prompts, remote user options and call screening rules. Alternatively, you can import/ export these files in .XAP (Xantel application file) fashion.

Fortunately, the client application (which Xantel calls the �PowerCSR�) is much easier to use and learn. Within the Connex client application, there are too many individual features and menu options for us to discuss here, but we will, of course, examine the highlights. Client controls are divided into several segments � there�s the pull-down menu, with sections labeled File, Calls, Messages, Tools, Workgroups and Help. Beneath this menu are 14 icons. Elsewhere in the GUI are the available/unavailable toggle button, the message indicator, speed-dial/workgroup users, and a secondary toolbar with access to the directory, redial, voice mail and dialpad functions.

All of these menus surround the traditional �screen pop� data area. (Another useful feature is the message-waiting indicator, which resides on the Windows system tray.)

The file and calls menus are typical of a CTI application, with features such as auto-log-in, answer, hold, transfer, etc. But there are more unique features here, too, such as group hold, call recording, conferencing, service tier selection, convert call to handset and PersonalAgent. �PersonalAgent� is a feature for information-based call routing, so administrators can link callers to particular agents or workgroups.

The messages menu links agents to e-mail, Connex notes and voice mail (whether it�s Xantel�s own voice mail server or a third-party server). �Tools� is an equally useful menu choice, with links for manipulating, importing and exporting directories; setting rules, service tiers, greetings and speed dial entries; and configuring passwords and user interface options and preferences.

�Workgroups� is a powerful menu option which gives agents some control over which agent groups they join, how log-ins and wrap-ups are done, etc. Workgroups can be based on skills, locations, caller specifications, etc. � technically, their scope is limited only by the administrator�s creativity.

The remainder of the end-user interface consists of the various toolbars and icons discussed above. We like the availability of a toggle button, which is a holdover from the last version of this application. Users can configure six custom �away� messages or use one of the preconfigured messages. We still think that this program would be a great candidate for a speech-recognition �command-and-control� application. However, even if that wish never comes true, we�re still quite pleased with the organization and usability of this interface.

Operational Testing
To test the PCD, we simulated several workgroups, consisting of local and mobile agents. We also devised several fictional callers and divided them into multiple service tiers. For example, we assigned PINs to some callers (useful for anyone who may frequently call from different telephones), we experimented with rules creation and we tested how the system handles simultaneous inbound calls to the one agent. We found that the GUI is easier to learn than we had expected � it looks complicated, but we picked up on it quickly. Unfortunately, the TUI had the opposite result: what we expected to be a simple interface turned out to be unintuitive. As a result, we�d like to see a feature to give administrators more control over how the TUI operates. Even though it�s not easy to use, mobile users do have access to the same feature set as local users.

Some excellent features are available while calls are in progress. Because of the PCD�s high level of caller customization, callers can receive tailored on-hold messages or be assigned to specific agents (see the PersonalAgent discussion in the features section of this review). Agents can sort a customer�s previous calls by date, name, service tier, message type, etc., and the actual call handling is controlled by ANI, DNIS and PIN data. We also tested the follow-me features, for which we admit to having an affinity. (This is a noticeable improvement from our previous, June 1998 review as the speed with which rules took effect while callers waited on hold, but obviously, part of this is because of the faster server we used.)

As pleasant to use as the client is, the administration tools were equally pleasing. From the administration menu (of the administrative version of the client application), there are features such as service tiers, directory maintenance, scheduled system maintenance and diagnostics. We particularly like how, from the diagnostics menu/system status tab, administrators can send Connex notes directly to end users, as well as deny new calls or log- ins, restart the server PC or Connex software and choose to show all clients or just the clients who are on calls. The call log and monitor workgroups functions are impressive, too, as each allows for precise troubleshooting and agent performance analysis. Meanwhile, the actual server window (accessed by double-clicking the Xantel icon on the server�s system tray) offers numerous utilities of its own, divided into the 11 sections explained in the features portion of this review. Combined, the various ways of controlling end-user options and server functions are relatively easy to learn, at least compared to the end-users� interface, which is proportionally more complicated.

Room For Improvement
We have some issues with the client interface, regarding its limited ability to resize, and its confusing organization. From a power-user perspective, it�s great, but from an agent perspective, it can be overwhelming. The online help files in our version were still in beta. Although they were unusable in some cases, we have to assume they�ll be fixed in time for production (along with the installation manual error discussed in the documentation section of this review). We�d like to see the addition of some sort of training workbook or animated teaching file for the end users, and we feel that a smaller-scale, analog version of the PCD would also be a nice addition. Why should only the big companies get all of this functionality?

Overall, we are impressed with this version of Xantel�s PCD. We feel it is improved from the previous version, especially in the feature set and installation process. It is a good solution for its backward-compatibility, in the sense that it can work with existing PBXs and voice mail servers, while still providing modern CTI functions for the call center or for an entire enterprise. Last time we reviewed this product, we praised it with our Editors� Choice award. Now, it has earned the 2000 model.

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