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November 1998

TelAthena System 4 Release 3
TelAthena Systems LLC

96 Morton St., New York, NY 10014
Ph: 888-777-7565; Fax: 212-206-1963
Web site: www.telathena.com

Price: about $1,500 per port. Call for more details.

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RATINGS (0-5):
Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 4.5
GUI: 4
Features: 5
Overall: A

Considering that the lifecycle of datacom products seems to be growing shorter by the month, the long life of TelAthena is quite remarkable. First released in 1983, the software and its parent company went through many changes until a 1997 re-release. TelAthena was originally designated as "Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing" software. Today, while retaining much of its character-based atmosphere and extensive customization features, TelAthena is embracing the Windows operating system and is beginning to explore the power of the Web. The application has gained widespread use in inbound and outbound versions of marketing, research and help desk call centers. We tested a beta edition of system 4, release 3.

TelAthena sent us software and a company engineer to configure it. Installation is a complex six-step process, but it is always done by a TelAthena representative. First, the host programs are installed on the server PC, which can be running the Windows NT operating system or any of several flavors of UNIX (SCO,HP/UX, Solaris, DEC). Next, the interface programs are compiled on the host. The next step is to connect agent PCs: if they will run on dumb terminals, they are connected using RS-232 cables or TCP/IP over Ethernet; if they will run in Windows, the TelAthena client program is installed on a PC. Again, clients connect to the server via TCP/IP. Administrators then face the configuration steps, setting parameters like the number of users, default area code and interfaces (for example, predictive dialers). Finally, a customer's own script or a default script is used to run verification tests.

Because our edition was still in beta, our documentation was from release 2 and thus slightly outdated. Overall, however, we were impressed with some areas and disappointed with others. The sheer bulk of the documentation is imposing: we received a 2-inch-thick three-ring binder, a second 1-inch binder (both packed full) and a third marketing and general information binder. The largest manual is nicely divided into 29 sections; the second binder has four sections including release notes. These sections cover nearly everything, but they would benefit from the addition of a master index. All documentation is written in a nontechnical style and many screen captures are included. The simple writing style is found in the online help as well, where it ceases to be just online help and actually has a personality: throughout our testing, mistyped commands and information notices resulted in messages with attitude. Responding to mistakes on our part, TelAthena said things like "not a verb," "junk mail for sure," "not at this post office," "rolls, but isn't round," and our favorite, "Opening files and initializing things; patience…." Still shocked by the software's blunt sarcasm, we encountered a screen that displays itself when agents are on break - it simply reads "gone on break" (as in "gone fishin'"). When we came to a complicated menu, TelAthena told us that "choice 2 is highly recommended." When agents log in to begin the day, they're told to "be courteous." Sometimes it's funny, but it can also be quite curt. Despite the refreshing approach to an otherwise cryptic and boring part of all software, we wonder how well these messages will be received internationally or when an agent is having a bad day and doesn't want to be insulted by a machine.

Features & Operational Testing
Like many call center products, TelAthena's best feature is finding unique ways to collect and deal with large amounts of disjointed information. TelAthena is especially good at the first part: system administrators will find it simple to add, remove or edit the questions and explanations presented to end users. (The whole truth is that the process really is simple, but it can also be tedious. Using and compiling a script for agents, like many other commands in the legacy TelAthena architecture, means carefully choosing numeric options from cryptic menus. Prepare your hunting and pecking fingers.)

The second part of the data collection issue is the TUI versus the GUI. Despite the stripped-down Windows interface developed for CSRs - which anyone who has used even Windows 3.x will agree stinks - TelAthena's developers now make a module for browser-based interviewing. Not unlike simple Web forms, users point to the given site, complete a form and click a submission button. (Remember that the Web interface can also be implemented for remote agents working from home, if you don't want interviewees to have direct access to the survey.) On the server side, data obtained from the Web is coded in the same fashion as CSR-obtained data. With creative flow-chart development and well-worded questions and answers, the Web can be an interviewing tool as valuable as a live agent.

Another noteworthy feature is the ability to convert TelAthena into a Web-callback ACD product. Instead of using a traditional "click here to connect" button, a particular script/menu choice can send a callback request to an ACD. This kind of implementation can be explicit to the end user, or it can be transparent: imagine as a user selects a complicated choice from a menu on a Web site, and five minutes later, the user gets a seemingly coincidental phone call from an agent representing that site! ("Hello, Mr. Jones? You just surfed our site; may I be of further assistance?") It may sound very Big-Brother-like, but it can be very effective and, unlike the TelAthena error messages, it would seem very impressive to end users. Other features of TelAthena include:

  • Complex work scheduler module,
  • Advanced queues and group queues,
  • Labels and form letters,
  • Interface for predictive dialers,
  • Boolean operators for in-call calculations,
  • Quotas, and
  • Numerous maintenance/reporting options.

Room For Improvement
TelAthena users can safely assume that TelAthena developers don't like Windows - there is even an article on the TelAthena Web site proclaiming that, contrary to popular belief, Windows is not always the best approach. Sometimes this is true. Windows often slows things down, has a large learning curve, requires ridiculous amounts of processing power and presents too many bells and whistles and not enough content. But there is a large part of the population that adores Windows, and for these people the TelAthena forced-Windows look and feel is just not enough. Yes, it does run under the Windows platform, but the environment is more similar to low-resolution graphics systems of the mid-1980s than the Windows 95 interface. It's time for a major Windows overhaul on TelAthena, and we are confident that TelAthena's developers can meet this task if they so choose. We also hope to see a major push toward an IVR interface and toward remote agents accessing TelAthena servers over the Web, and we're told that database improvements are underway for full SQL compliance. Finally, although we like the comprehensiveness of the documentation, we'd like to see more training materials for agents and system administrators, as well as error messages without attitude.

TelAthena, through its many editions, has been one of the largest players in its space for a long time. In our opinion, it is significantly lacking in its Windows editions, but its overall power and upcoming improvements make the package better than previous versions. We found TelAthena as fast as ever; its learning curve is low for system administrators; it's extremely scalable; and it's cost-effective. We recommend this system for any medium to large call center in need of a powerful solution.



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