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VoIP helps make a sale: in a time-sensitive sales environment, telephony solution provides a 'closing' advantage.

As one of the largest locally owned real estate agencies in the Pacific Northwest, with more than $1.6 billion in sales, Prudential Northwest Properties (PNP) of Portland, Ore., understands the balancing act agents must perform to deliver the prompt phone and in-person responsiveness customers demand. To maintain its leadership, the firm realized last year it needed to do even more to ensure its 750 sales agents and employees never missed an opportunity to make a sale.

Previously, each of PNP's 18 branch offices and headquarters facility in Oregon and southwest Washington had its own non-integrated private branch exchange (PBX) phone system. These legacy systems could not efficiently transfer calls between branches. They also lacked basic call-handling features, like voice mail and call forwarding, forcing the company to purchase standalone services at additional expense. To remove these barriers to prompt communication and to streamline customer service, PNP wanted to unite its offices into a single voice infrastructure.

In addition to providing its employees with corporate-class call-management features, the company wanted to launch an advanced unified messaging system. By using this system to integrate landline and cellular phone calls with fax, e-mail, voice mail, pagers, and wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) and laptops into a seamless network, the real estate company could guarantee a fast response to customers.

PNP learned that a voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) solution could save thousands of dollars in toIl charges between offices. IP telephony would allow the company to deploy unified messaging, as well as advanced, find-me/ follow-me capabilities. Furthermore, unlike traditional phone systems, an IP-based telephony solution could interface with the company's customer relationship management (CRM) database, giving employees near-instant access to customer data.

"Voice-over-IP technology was the key to dramatically improving our productivity and profitability," says Sean McRae, vice president and chief information officer of PNP. "By integrating every possible method of contact with all available customer data, we can guarantee that our agents connect to customers faster and more efficiently than their industry peers."


PNP wanted an IP solution that would integrate well with its existing data infrastructure, was simple to install and manage and, most importantly, was easily expanded to keep pace with rapid growth.

After reviewing IP telephony products from several vendors, PNP chose a voice-over-IP system from 3Com, based on 3Com's VCX V7000 IP telephony and SuperStack 3 NBX networked telephony solutions. Both of these systems support session initiation protocol (SIP), a carrier-class, open systems messaging standard that would streamline the company's migration from PBX phones and allow it to introduce advanced, media-independent, multi-user services.

Today, PNP's telephone system consists of a single VCX system in its new Clackamas, Ore., office and four NBX systems in its four largest offices. Powered by 16 3Com SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 switches, which provide highspeed connections to the corporate WAN and prioritize voice traffic, these solutions deliver unified messaging and advanced telephony features to the agency's 750 employees.

At the network core, a 128-port 3Com SuperStack Switch 7700R--with built-in security, quality of service (QoS) and bandwidth management--prioritizes voice traffic at Gigabit Ethernet speed, while linking critical network systems, such as servers and WAN routers. In Clackamas, a 3Com Router 5009 with advanced QoS, and congestion- and traffic-management capability distributes voice and data traffic to PNP's WAN.

The company plans to replace aging routers in other offices with additional 3Com routers as needed. The solution also relies on a 3Com SuperStack Firewall, which protects the company's entire data infrastructure from intruders, while allowing employees to access the phone system securely from their home computers through a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel.

"We're measuring ROI, not just in telecom costs saved but in customer satisfaction as a result of our improved ability to work faster and handle calls more efficiently," says McRae. "Our sales grew roughly 15% in 2003, and while it's hard to say exactly how much of that is attributable to the new communications technology, many of our high-sales agents insist their productivity has improved considerably since it was installed."

PNP worked with a 3Com network consultant and its longtime reseller, Verizon, to deploy its new voice solution. First, the implementation team preconfigured and installed the core and edge devices. Next, they configured and staged the VCX server and NBX chassis to ensure a rapid deployment.


Once the servers and switches were racked, PNP connected four T-1 lines and began to assign employees their new extensions and direct dial numbers. As a result, the company was able to replace the legacy telephone systems in each branch in a matter of hours. The VoIP systems are managed as part of the WAN.

"In the real-estate business, we can't be out of touch for even a moment, so we took a cautious approach to ensure a fast, error-free cutover," says McRae. "With everything preprogrammed, it was virtually plug-and-play, with minimal onsite configuration."

Setting up 450 3Com IP handsets and 300 additional phantom extensions with voice mail was simple, McRae offers--the primary challenge was user training. With each of 18 offices using a different legacy system, PNP's IT staff had to train employees at each branch individually--an investment of three to four days per branch.

In addition, the implementation team discovered, mid-deployment, that one large office was wired with Category 4 cable rather than the recommended Category 5 cable. With no room in the project budget to rewire the entire site, the firm was forced to use the existing infrastructure. While it is achieving satisfactory voice quality nonetheless, PNP now knows it needs to ensure every branch-office LAN has enough bandwidth to support voice traffic without packet loss.

Today, PNP's sales professionals and employees enjoy maximum mobility while remaining in contact with buyers, sellers, mortgage brokers and other agents. Unified messaging forwards calls to their mobile phones of homes, delivers faxes electronically to their PDAs and computers, alerts them to incoming messages via pager, and turns e-mail into voice mail with a text-to-speech function.

Moreover, with built-in, find-me/follow-me notification, incoming calls also generate alerts to employees' voice mailboxes and pagers. Automated attendants direct calls on evenings and weekends and route customers to specific offices and departments, while features such as call forwarding and hunt groups send calls to their proper destinations during business hours.


In the agency's home services department, which helps new homeowners find the goods and services they need to settle in, a CRM package called Clientele sends caller ID information to employees' computers. The employees can then look up the customer's information in the company's Microsoft Outlook sales database and determine the likely reason for the call.

In addition to boosting performance, the networked telephony system is saving PNP thousands of dollars in telephone fees and maintenance costs. Furthermore, because the IT staff can manage the phone system as part of the larger network infrastructure, the company is saving significant amounts on outsourced maintenance.

The VCX solution, which can scale to accommodate tens of thousands of users, will eventually support many of the branches now connected to smaller NBX systems, McRae says, as well as those the company opens in the future. This will enable PNP to create a single call center to manage all call traffic for its smaller offices over the WAN.

PNP uses its new 7700R core switch to manage two secure virtual LANs: one exclusively for private network traffic supporting core business applications ranging from VoIP to internal e-mail, and one for a DMZ supporting Web servers and publicly available applications. This will further protect the quality of voice transmissions while also blocking unauthorized access to customers' sensitive financial records.

"Making our agents highly available in so many ways leaves a lasting impression with customers," McRae says. "Through smart technology, Prudential Northwest Properties and our sales associates now deliver unparalleled levels of customer service at every touch point. With IP telephony, and universal messaging, in particular, we have new tools with which to plan creative, flexible ways to serve our customers."

For more information from 3Com:
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Title Annotation:Special focus: voice networks; Prudential Northwest Properties
Comment:VoIP helps make a sale: in a time-sensitive sales environment, telephony solution provides a 'closing' advantage.(Special focus: voice networks)(Prudential Northwest Properties)
Publication:Communications News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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