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Second Quarter 1998

Internet Message Center

Mustang Software, Inc.
6200 Lake Ming Road
Bakersfield, CA 93306
Ph.: 805- 873-2500
Fax: 805- 873-2599
Web site: www.mustang.com 

Business Edition (supports ODBC to Access databases) Price: $1,500
Enterprise Edition (supports Microsoft SQL Server databases) Price: $5,000

Installation: 4.75
Documentation: 4.75
Features: 5
GUI: 5
Overall: A+

Imagine yourself as a customer. You just bought a new product that’s giving you problems. An e-mail address is given as the only means of contact. Having faith that this company is different and will respond, you detail the problem via e-mail and give everything from you account number to what’s the best time you can be contacted. It’s five days later and your product is still giving problems. You then recall that you sent an e-mail to the company and check to see if there was a response. There’s none. You’re forced to call the company during business hours. When you’re finally able to contact them, you get a representative who is more interest in defending his employees that solving your problem.

We’ve all been there before. Situations like this are bound to change anyone’s perception of the company. The recommendation to your friends will probably start off like, "If you have a lot of experience with this type of product, maybe. Otherwise…" Without a doubt, the way a company handles customer e-mail is critical to its success. On the other end, how does a supervisor control all aspects of e-mail transmission? How does a supervisor deal with a customer who claims to have been continually ignored, when in reality they are merely trying to exploit the company? Another troubling situation can be the employee who simply deletes e-mail because they do not want to deal with the workload.

Mustang’s Internet Message Center (IMC) does for e-mail what automatic call distributors (ACDs) do for phone calls. It is the liaison between your customer’s e-mail and the employees assigned to handle them. And it’s a nosy one at that! IMC’s goal is efficiency through accountability. Simply put, no e-mail message is transmitted without IMC knowing about it. Its routing and record-keeping functions are the key tools that supervisors and administrators can use to ensure that e-mail transmissions run smoothly.

Customers contact a company via e-mail. IMC periodically connects to the company’s e-mail server and polls for a specified number of messages. At the same time, IMC sends automatic responses, along with a tracking number, to each sender. This type of feedback immediately lets the customer know that their message was received and aids in finding it (via the tracking number) if an emergency arises. IMC then scans through the contents of the e-mail and determines which predefined pool to route the message to by interfacing with any ActiveX scripting language. A company can have predefined pools for any aspect of day-to-day business. For example, a pool could be set up for every department. Each pool is also assigned a priority level. Employees, who are assigned to these pools, use their interface to pull the next available message from the pool. If an employee, or agent, is assigned to more than one pool, IMC determines which message to send next based on a number of factors including the pool’s priority level and the age of the messages. Agents then answer each response and forward it back to IMC, which then forwards it back to the customer. Since all correspondence is stored in a database, supervisors can gain a full accounting of any situation and thus make better decisions regarding employee staffing and customers in general.

IMC also spares the webmaster from resorting to using hackneyed techniques to forward mail. This does a great job of totally eliminating "e-mail in limbo." Mustang’s software also saves e-mail from being routed to employees who are on vacation. Getting access to e-mail in this situation means that the employee’s personal e-mail would also be exposed.

Installation of the software was relatively easy. IMC did have a small problem locating the SQL server, but not for long. The error was probably ours and was most likely due to the password/user ID combo being incorrect. By far, the vast majority of our time was spent configuring the software.

Configuration was a lot smoother once we had a solid foundation of how IMC worked. After the software was installed, we created an account on the e-mail server. Multiple accounts (e-mail addresses) can be created with a pool assigned to each, or one account can have multiple pools. For example, pools for tech support, general questions, and opinions can be assigned to tech_support@tmcnet.com, general_questions@tmcnet.com, and opinions@tmcnet.com. The alternative is to create one mail account such as tech_support@tmcnet.com and assign each pool to the one account. Each pool is assigned a priority level and agents. The priority level is one of the factors used to determine the routing schemes IMC uses. We then defined the agents. The agents are simply the employees assigned to answer customer e-mail. IMC identifies an agent by first and last names, e-mail address, and password. The supervisor can determine whether or not the agent is active to take e-mail (maybe the employee to be created is on vacation) and whether or not the agent can run the monitor. The monitor, (Figure 3), allows real-time viewing of all e-mail correspondence. One can also specify whether or not customer replies are routed back to the same agent and the amount of time that should elapse before replies are routed to another agent. We decided to place IMC Service and Microsoft SQL Server on the same machine, although for real-world applications, Mustang recommends that the two be configured separately.

Although documentation is not easy with a product such as this, Mustang did a respectable job. Although a little on the lean side, instructions on installation are enough to help you get the job done. On the down side, Mustang does not include Troubleshooting or Frequently Asked Questions sections. This, unfortunately, forced us to depend on customer service a great deal more than we would have liked to. Most of the problems we encountered had quick fixes. In the future, Mustang should make sure to include sections such as these.

IMC has five distinct components, which are:

  • IMC Service.
  • IMC Agent.
  • IMC Monitor.
  • IMC Reports.
  • IMC Setup.

IMC Service
IMC Service is the "brains" of the operation. The enterprise edition works in conjunction with any SMTP/POP3 e-mail server and Microsoft SQL Server. Again, it’s nice that the different components do not have to reside on the same machine. For example, one machine can be dedicated to SQL Server, another to incoming responses, and still a third to outgoing responses. This can dramatically increase the performance of the overall system. This is actually a necessity for e-mail servers that handle large volumes of mail.

IMC Agent
IMC Agent is a simple program that allows employees to log on to the various pools and send or receive e-mail.

IMC Monitor
IMC Monitor does just that. It is a real time interface that allows authorized individuals to view detailed information concerning all e-mail correspondence.

IMC Reports
IMC Reports works in conjunction with Microsoft SQL Server and your Web browser to create and display detailed reports. As Figure 4 illustrates, IMC provides an interface where users can specify numerous features for the reports they create. Administrators have control over a number of variables including what type of reports to create, the days the report should cover, and whether or not the report should be appended to an existing report. One can also specify whether or not IMC should place the resulting report in a file and/or run the web browser for viewing purposes.

IMC Setup
IMC Setup is the main interface for configuring the software and is where we spent the majority of our time. It allows supervisors to do anything from creating pools to determining which e-mail server to poll from. As Figure 6 shows, scripts can be added to a pool, so that IMC can route e-mail based on its contents. This is a critical timesaving feature in the case where one mail account has more than one pool assigned to it. For example, the system administrator of company XYZ may want to set up a mail account as [email protected] The administrator then realizes that there should probably be a general questions section for each department in the company. As stated previously, the administrator could then create a separate pool for each department and associate each one with [email protected] IMC can then route the message to the correct pool by using any ActiveX scripting language to parse the subject header or e-mail contents and match it with the pool’s predefined keywords.

There are numerous tweaking features available with IMC through the setup program. Supervisors have the flexibility of determining just how many messages IMC takes with each poll of the e-mail server as well as the frequency of the polls. This feature ensures that pools are not empty (while e-mail is waiting in the server) nor that IMC is bogged down with the task of constantly polling the e-mail server. Again, features, such as incoming and outgoing faxes, can be installed on separate machines to further improve performance. One can also use IMC Setup to delete databases after a pre-defined number of days. Through IMC Setup, one can also set the priority level of the pools and the threshold levels. These are two of the factors that IMC uses to determine which e-mail message to send next.

Overall, configuration was a time-consuming process, through no fault of Mustang. The complexity is due to the fact that IMC has anticipated just about every e-mail scenario and pro vides a solution for it. Routing e-mail may seem easy in concept, but there are a number of bases that have to be covered. Users will be delighted about the number of features available.

Since we were only testing functionality, we installed IMC Service and Microsoft SQL Server on the same machine. The operating system was Windows NT 4.0. Two of our engineers were set up as agents and we persuaded colleagues to e-mail IMC via tech-support@tmcnet.com. To our surprise, IMC was not receiving any of the e-mail messages. The error was ours and was due to the fact that the address for the e-mail server was entered incorrectly. After the change was made, IMC was able to connect to the server and poll for messages. At this point an automatic response was sent to the sender along with a tracking number. We were able to tailor the responses with general response templates. It was interesting to note that the tracking number was a combination of the three initials used to define the pool the message was routed to, the year, date, and message number.

On the agent’s side, the IMC Agent Display Box shows the pools that the agent is connected to, the total number of messages in each pool, the number already designated for the agent, and the oldest message. We toggled IMC to deliver the next message using the Get Next button and waited a few moments as it was delivered to Microsoft Outlook. It’s nice that the agent doesn’t have to learn a new e-mail interface and can deal with messages in the usual manner. IMC sends the message to the agent by changing the To: portion to the agent’s email address and the From: part of the email to a generic reply address of IMC. In our example, the reply address was changed to techsupport_reply@tmcnet.com. This caused problems because we wanted to keep both incoming and outgoing addresses the same. The problem was that IMC was not receiving the responses. IMC’s technical support department informed us that keeping the names the same was not possible. The reply e-mail address can be anything as long as it’s not the same as the incoming address. This required us to create another account on our e-mail server for the new reply address, which wasn’t a problem. Sure enough, IMC was able to accept agent’s responses and forward them to the original sender. It’s worth noting that IMC assigned any replies from the customer back to the agent who dealt with the original message.

We were especially impressed with the records that IMC logged. When the software is installed, it creates a database where detailed records are stored among various tables. We were then able to create an extensive number of records using IMC Reports. The software keeps a record of every conceivable variable including number of messages taken, messages answered, messages open, average response time, time online, time ready, time responding, and time idle. Employees beware! We were also able to configure IMC to keep a record of the actual e-mail messages, including all responses. This gives supervisors more than enough information to determine how to staff departments and handle customer’s questions and complaints. As stated previously, we were able to view the reports using our Web browser (Internet Explorer 4.0) which we thought was a nice touch. Since the information is so extensive, it would have been hard to fit everything on one page. Key data is in hypertext format. Clicking on it brought up additional information just as would happen if one were surfing the Internet.

IMC can route e-mail messages to pools based on scripting, so we decided to put that to the test. We assigned two pools to techsupport@tmcnet.com, General Questions and Tech Support. IMC gave us the option of using the Script Wizard or creating scripts ourselves. Using the Script Wizard, one has the option of using a keyword search or a more specific message search. We assigned keywords to the two pools and found the routing capabilities worked, as one would expect. Whenever an e-mail message contained the words "technical," "tech," or "support," the message was routed to the technical support pool. However, when the message contained the words "general," "question," or "questions," it was routed to the general support pool. Whenever IMC did not find a keyword or was confused, it routed the message to the default pool for the mail account (technical support).

We did have problems running IMC Service as a service under Windows NT 4.0. The problem seemed to be due to the fact that when IMC Service is run as a service it can not get through firewalls to log on to the e-mail server. We stopped the service and ran the application by double clicking on it and had no problems. Mustang is aware of the problem and is actively seeking a solution.

The complaints we had with Mustang’s Internet Message Center were few. The biggest knock we had against it pertained to the documentation. As stated before, it would be very helpful if Troubleshooting and Frequently Asked Questions sections were added. It would probably take a Herculean effort but it would also be nice if configuration was easier. The funny thing is everything makes perfectly good sense once it’s configured! Again, Mustang needs to correct the one bug that we found, so that IMC can run as a service and get around firewalls

IMC is a definite "must have" software package. It has functionality to monitor and record just about every conceivable variable with regard to e-mail correspondence. We were especially impressed with its utilization of a Web browser to view records. Overall, software such as this is sure to become the standard very quickly, and as such we are proud to award our Editors’ Choice honors to Mustang Software's Internet Message Center.

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