Sometimes products and customers are just made for each other. Travel Onward, an online and over-the-phone boutique travel agency, and CallButler, the dirt-cheap VoIP software PBX from Telephony2, are a perfect example. They were in fact made about the same time, and expect to grow together.
Travel Onward is the brain child and latest venture of travel industry veteran Conrad Shillingburg, president of Book Now, LLC. Shillingburg rode the Internet travel retailing wave, launching direct, over-the-Net travel reselling sites such as Discount Hotel World, GottaGoTravel, and Shophotels.com.
But as much as consumers like getting their travel information from the Internet and buying some products online, Shillingburg realized that many, especially those looking for more off-the-beaten-track travel, needed and missed the kind of expert advice and care they got from travel consultants in bricks-and-mortar agencies in the pre-Internet era.
Travel Onward is his way of meeting that market need, without giving up the advantages of the Net. The company offers travel productscruises, tours, spa vacationsconsumer can't easily find and book on their own, gives them lots of information on the Web, then puts them on the phone with a travel consultant to get advice, make bookings and look after the little details.
Travel Onwards specializes in niche providers such as educational and theme-based cruise lines and specialty spas in out of the way places. American Cruise Line, which operates small luxury cruises along the eastern seaboard, is an example. Shillingburg refers to Travel Onward as "the new business model," to distinguish it from his mass-market, direct-sell ventures.
When he launched the company a year and a half ago with two work-from-home agents, the telecom system was primitive in the extreme. When customers called the 1-800 number shown at the Web site, Shillingburg took down their information, called the agent with the appropriate skills and knowledge to handle their enquiry and left a message telling him to call the customer back.
It was obvious this wouldn't be practical for long. For one thing, Travel Onward began to grow. It now has seven remote agents, and Shillingburg says he's poised to jump to 100 over the next several months. The site generates up to a 100 customer calls a week. (That's not enough to keep seven agents busy, but they're all freelancers who do other work from their offices.) "It's huge for me," Shillingburg says of the upsurge in business.
He looked at a number of micro-business phone system solutions, most of them virtual PBXs, but decided that CallButler, a piece of Windows software that runs on a server or workstation, was a no-brainer.
Aside from anything else, the price was right. "It's like it's free," Shillingburg says. "There's absolutely no cost to this thing." Well, he exaggerates. The software sells for $300, and at Travel Onward, it runs on a dedicated server. He says it will run on "any $700 server."
CallButler works with any SIP-base VoIP service. It can theoretically handle as many lines as the service provider can provide, using standard VoIP gateways. Travel Onward has two lines coming in to CallButler, including the toll-free number posted at the Web site, from its VoIP provider, Teliax.
The product offers most of the features found in enterprise PBXs costing tens of thousands of dollarsIVR, auto attendant, voice mail, etc.plus some others that are not always included in conventional business phone systems, such as database integration and scripting.
Telephony2 says CallButler will evolve into a telephony operating system, a platform to support its notion of the Intelligent Dialtonea computer-like voice interface with the telephone systemand running what the company refers to as Voiceware, application software for phone systems. The product can already offer some of this functionality today.
All the phone systems Shillingburg considered could do the basics of what he needed. They offered automated attendant and IVR (interactive voice response) features that would allow his customers to choose which type of Travel Onward vacation they wantedspa, cruise, etc.and then route them based on that input to an appropriate agent's home office number.
Few could do much more, though. And almost all had at least one featureor absence of a featurethat was a deal breaker for Shillingburg. Many, for example, could not pass caller ID information through to the remote agents.
"That was absolutely critical," Shillingburg explains. "The agent has to know how to answer the phone." When an agent sees the Travel Onward name pop up in caller IDbecause the call is being forwarded from CallButlershe knows to answer with the company name. The Telephony2 product was one of few that could pass through caller ID information on forwarded calls.
More importantly to Shillingburg, CallButler had enormous potential for adding new functionality and easily scaling up as his business grew. To this point, he has done little more than implement basic auto attendant and IVR functions with automatic routing of calls to remote agents' phones. But he has big plans for exploiting the product's other features.
"The flexibility of CallButler fits our growth potential perfectly," Shillingburg says.
He particularly likes CallButler's ability to integrate the phone system with databases running on the same or other networked servers in the organization. Shillingburg wants to customize his system so clients can call in to the main Travel Onward number from wherever they are, key in a user ID and get a read-out of their itinerary. The Telephony2 platform makes this possible, and he says he'll be implementing it "as soon as the busy summer [travel] season is over."
Shillingburg plans to market the over-the-phone itinerary feature as a value added service. "That was a [capability] we couldn't find anywhere else," he says. "It actually creates new sales opportunities for my agents. That's unique to find in phone software or a PBX[that] it actually creates sales opportunities."
He is also now considering setting up his direct-sell hotel sites to run through CallButler so he can offer an over-the-phone hotel booking optionsimilar to the way people book hotels on the Internet today, but using a voice interface. This too can be accomplished using CallButler's database integration and text-to-speech features, Shillingburg says.
The next step is to integrate call routing more tightly with the Web site. He is also exploring implementing click-to-talk features that can be integrated with CallButler. Customers would click a Talk button on a page related to a particular product or type of product, initiating a direct phone connection to the appropriate agent. The call would still go through CallButler but would save the customer having to navigate the auto attendant IVR menu.
None of the service bureau-based virtual PBX offerings could offer anything like this level of flexibility and customizability. They were dead simple to implement, but Shillingburg says CallButler was also easy to set up. "I did it myself," he says. "It's that simple."
He's also pleased with the responsiveness of Telephony2. He speculates the company is bending over backwards to accommodate early adopters like Travel Onward, but whatever the reason for it, he's pleased with the excellent service. "That's a big deal to me, to have the ability to call them and instantly get a response, or within an hour have them get back to me."
He also doesn't mind that CallButler is in some ways a work in progress. "I think of how fast I'm growing and where I'll be in two years and how I'm going to be using this technology," Shillingburg says. "I don't want a stable product. I want somebody I can grow with."
He's already pushing Telephony2 for new functionalitywhich the company is apparently saying it can deliverthat will let him route all his agents' outgoing calls to Travel Onward customers through CallButler so he can monitor activity, eliminate agents having to bill back phone calls and possibly save on toll fees by aggregating long distance calling.
"I can't wait to implement that," Shillingburg says.
Ah, ain't love grand!