Nov 11 2008

VoIP Goes Mobile

By extending VoIP, SMBs boost customer service and cut costs.


Photo: Todd Winters
Chris Nowak says mobile VoIP improved customer service at produce company Anthony Marano.

When Voice over Internet Protocol first came on the scene, it was viewed as a way to cut telecom costs by bypassing traditional long-distance carriers.

Now, smart business executives are leveraging VoIP even further — linking employees’ cell phones to their Wi-Fi LANs and IP VPNs to eliminate phone tag, provide a single “follow-me-anywhere” number inside and outside the office, and achieve additional telecom cost savings.

Chicago-based fresh-produce supplier Anthony Marano is one such company that has successfully extended VoIP.

As a result, the company’s account reps stay in constant contact with their highly demanding customers in the food service industry — whether at their desks, on the road or while eyeballing the latest strawberry shipment inside one of the company’s giant refrigeration units.

Chris Nowak, the company’s CTO, recently deployed a robust in-building telecom environment using an Avaya Definity IP PBX, Meru Networks Wi-Fi access points, Proxim antennas, Nokia cell phones with the Session Initiation Protocol for interactive communications, and a network controller from Agito Networks.

The Nokia phones use Wi-Fi connectivity in the company’s 400,000-square-foot facility to connect to the Avaya PBX, which in turn connects either to the outside world or to other employees in the building. The Proxim antennas extend this Wi-Fi connectivity to hard-to-reach areas of the facility, such as the refrigeration units and loading docks.

The Agito controller offers additional call-routing intelligence by tracking whether a user is on the company’s premises or out on the T-Mobile cellular network. If an employee is in the building, calls to that employee are routed over the Wi-Fi network to the employee’s cell phone. If, on the other hand, the Agito controller does not detect the employee in the building, incoming calls for that employee get pushed out onto the T-Mobile network.

This seamless roaming in and out of buildings delivers a wide range of benefits for Nowak’s users, including:

Minimal phone tag. Because account representatives have their phones with them at all times, they can pick up calls right away — whether they’re at their desks, in the warehouse or on the road.

One number everywhere. A customer never has to try reaching an account rep separately on both a landline and a cell phone because reps have a single number that follows them everywhere.

Increased productivity. With all their phone numbers on one device, employees don’t waste time retrieving voice mail, which means they have more time to take care of their customers.

These benefits are particularly critical for Anthony Marano because the company deals in highly perishable merchandise that often has to be delivered within hours of an order.

“We have to continually let our customers know what we have, find out what they need, and get it on a truck to them fast,” Nowak explains. “You can do that a lot better if they can always reach you with the same number no matter where you are.”

Nowak says the improved customer service that Anthony Marano can provide as a result of its VoIP voice mobility has contributed to continued sales growth. At the same time, because the new phone system also boosts rep productivity, the company can support this increased sales volume without having to add staff.

Worldwide Mobility

Ken Oliver, director of IT at Forensic Risk Alliance in Providence, R.I., a forensic accounting and litigation support consultancy, also uses VoIP for mobile communications. Rather than having to address the kind of in-building/out-of-building roaming challenges faced by Nowak, Oliver’s system supports Forensic Risk’s employees as they travel around the country and around the world.

What is the most important benefit you expect from a Voice over Internet Protocol system?

42% Reduce costs
32% Ability to use one number everywhere
13% Ability to have all numbers on one phone
8% Don't know
5% Minimal phone tag

Source: CDW Poll of 577 BizTech readers

Forensic Risk’s onsite voice infrastructure is made up of ShoreTel switches and phones, which employees use when they’re in the office. When they’re on the go, employees carry BlackBerry Curves. These devices are equipped with BlackBerry’s Mobile Call Manager software, which works through the BlackBerry network with the ShoreTel switches.

So when employees are out of the office, their calls can be automatically forwarded to their BlackBerry Curves. Employees can also transfer calls to co-workers just as they would from their desks — even if the person they’re transferring the call to is out of the office as well.

Oliver also equipped Forensic Risk employees with softphones on their notebooks. With these softphones, employees can make and receive phone calls anywhere in the world over the Internet using a secure VPN connection that links them to a ShoreTel switch at their home office. As with their BlackBerry Curves, employees can make and receive these calls just as if they were back at their desks. This eliminates high-priced international calling, which enhances the benefit of a single follow-me-anywhere phone number.

“With ShoreTel’s software, we can create rules for forwarding calls, putting callers into voice mail or providing them with prompts that give them multiple options,” says Oliver. “This makes the location of our people transparent to customers, while at the same time eliminating substantial international long-distance charges.”

Chris Silva, an analyst at Forrester Research, says many cell phones are coming out with Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) features that let them tap into Wi-Fi hot spots. This lets companies cut their employees’ cell phone bills, while potentially delivering the kind of remote voice-and-data access that Forensic Risk’s employees enjoy on their softphones.

Valuable VPNs

All Occasion Transportation, also based in Providence, deployed a similar VPN approach to remote voice services using an IP PBX and VPN-enabled phones from Avaya. Employees can take the phones with them when they’re managing events at hotels or other sites. As long as there is wireless Internet access available at the site, they can use those phones as if they were at their desks. They can also use the Avaya phones to work from home.

“The ability to have your people work transparently from home is great, especially if you want to grow your business without having to invest in more office space,” says AOT President Eric Weiner.

CEO Takeaway
Keep these points in mind while deploying mobile VoIP:
• Cell phone users move around a lot more than notebook users, so make sure you have excellent coverage across your entire facility if you want to use Wi-Fi to support voice.
• As you add Wi-Fi access points — and as you mix voice with data on your Wi-Fi network — diligent management becomes more critical. Because it can be overly time-consuming to perform these management tasks separately for each access point, be sure you have effective centralized Wi-Fi management in place.
• The high-end phones required to implement more sophisticated mobility solutions are more expensive. They also tend to have more software and more business-critical content, such as customer contact information and passwords. It's a good idea to automate the backup of phone content, as well as to have the ability to disable the phone or wipe content off of its memory remotely.