For market research agencies, the telephone is a crucial instrument in conducting business, and the potential benefits of adopting voice over IP (VoIP) systems were scrutinised early on.
For the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB), a UK division of the Millward Brown Group, installing a multimedia converged IP system became viable last year when it moved to a new building.
Where previously the market research company had identified shortfalls, the features of integrated telephony have now matured to the point where, for Millward Brown, it is feasible to begin rolling the technology out to the business.
"Functions like night-time attendant were not yet there and there was a limit on the number of calls that could be stacked up for a particular extension. The operator consoles were also a bit primitive," said Michael Lord, systems director of Millward Brown.
So the group's strategy was to migrate to IP telephony those businesses that were moving to new premises or whose telecoms kit was obsolete.
At BMRB's new offices, the upgrade brought other economies of scale. "There was the opportunity to cable throughout with Cat 6," said Lord. "IP phones could plug directly into Ethernet and connect into the desktop, thus rationalising one outlet down to two. That alone yielded cost savings of at least 30% on cabling."
For the IP telephony upgrade in London, BMRB used a team of five IT and telecoms staff, and hired network integrator Logicalis as consultant.
To date, Millward Brown has rolled out IP telephony networks to offices in London, Chicago, Austin (Texas), and Sydney. But it is still waiting to fully exploit the integration between voice and data applications that VoIP promises.
In market research - unlike most call centres, which offer telephone support to inbound callers - most calls are outbound. For the moment, BMRB therefore continues to rely on its analogue PABX telephony system and proprietary call-dialling software.
Millward Brown uses SPSS for predictive dialling, a system that allocates calls from a prepared list to available operators in a team. It also delivers a script to the operator's screen by integrating the PABX with the relevant application on the data network. At present, a predictive dialling server is needed for each location.
Bespoke software suppliers to the market research sector have been slow to support VoIP, said Lord, who looks forward to the day when these speciality suppliers do, so the company can reap the huge dividends of running outbound voice calls from the same, integrated IP network. "Once this happens, we can centrally allocate calls to researchers spread around the country and even the world," he said.
Also, projects could be outsourced at short notice to third-party providers in India in an offshore model, for example. "The potential for cost savings on resources is huge," he added.
However, while there is a big, as yet unrealised, advantage in using VoIP, the business is already enjoying some benefits of closer integration between voice and data applications. Unified messaging has been a success and gives staff the option to check all incoming messages, whether e-mail, voice or fax, from one inbox. The option to dial into voicemail and hear e-mails from a synthesised voice is another winner for sales staff on the road.
A few employees are also experimenting with voice video integration at the desktop. The IP handsets are video enabled and users can choose whether to accept a video call. "Our software developers need to be in touch with colleagues and communication is easier if you can see each other," said Lord.
The trial involves all departments, including sales and marketing. Video voice integration has had particularly good feedback from staff working at home and from managers. "It helps from a management perspective if you can see your remote staff," said Lord.
Since the initial roll-out last April, the company has also installed wireless IP phones - chiefly to make the open plan office workable. People who receive confidential calls can roam to find a private place to talk, and it makes hot-desking even more flexible.
The most arduous and technically taxing piece of the installation was mapping the global Active Directory profiles onto the Cisco Unity server that delivers the unified messaging. Cisco provides a script to modify the Active Directory schema to include the Unity server.
Nominating which customer attribute fields within the Active Directory could be used for populating with Unity data called for serious discussions with colleagues. A shortage of fields for this purpose had arisen because of the recent aggregation of different flavours of Active Directory into a single structure.
For training purposes, the IT team had to get up to speed on system administration functions. Logicalis provided training on the basic moves, adds and changes so staff could configure new extensions and change user profiles. In turn, departmental administrators were briefed and were then able to offer training to end-users.
The move to the new building gave end-users time to train on the system before it went live. Once the system was live, users merely had to accustom themselves to logging onto the telephony element.
According to Lord, from a system security point of view, the advantage of users logging into telephony is that it provides a way of authenticating calls from a particular handset.
It is still early days, but Millward Brown expects to get a return on investment two years from installation - and installation at each site remains dependent on need.
"With any PABX, whether it is analogue, digital or IP telephony, they are expensive and you have to exploit the investment completely," said Lord. "You don't just rip them out and replace them because new technology arrives."