Customers hungry for information get it faster via fax-on-demand

By Anne Feltus - Houston Business Journal

Houston, Texas - August 12-18, 1994  - Imagine running an advertisement that promotes a product so well that prospective customers are clamoring for further details. They answer its offer for sales literature. Then they wait - and wait - for the information to arrive. Weeks, if not months, go by before they receive the material. By then, they've lost interest, bought something else or forgotten why they wanted the product in the first place.

"We live in a world where people want information right now," says Vic Cherubini, president of the E.P.I.C. Software Group, Inc. That's one reason his company is one of several in the city that offer a service called "fax-on-demand." With this interactive system, consumers or customers can call a telephone number, order the information and watch it start rolling off their fax machines even before they hand up the phone.

It's a benefit for people who need information on the spot. And, it's a boon for businesses that want to cut their fulfillment costs and want prospective clients to make buying decisions before the impact of their advertising message wears off.

There are a wide range of applications for fax-on-demand. However, publications were among the first to climb on the fax-on-demand bandwagon because it's a value-added service they can offer their advertisers.

Traditionally, participating vendors run code numbers in their ads. Readers who want to order information circle the number on an enclosed response card - or ":bingo card" - and send to the publication, which accumulates all the requests and forwards them to the advertisers. However, this is a costly, time consuming exercise. As vendors fulfill the requests, their materials production, processing, packaging and postage expenses can add up quickly and consume considerable time as well.

Fax-on-demand eliminates all these steps. To request information by fax, readers refer to a telephone number and code number in the ad. When they dial the phone number, they reach an electronic voice message that prompts them to key in the code number and their fax number on a touch phone. If they're call from a fax machine, they simply dial in the code number and hang up the handset.

The computer system on the other end of the line searches for the information in its data base and transmits it via fax. Within seconds, the material is in the reader's hands.

For users who prefer some human interaction, some companies provide this option: During business hours, callers can press a designated key and the call will be transferred to a customer service representative.

To tap into fax-on-demand technology, the vendor typically contracts with the service bureau, which as a computer with a fax board, voice card, software to keep track of the documents on the hard drive and enough phone lines to handle all the incoming calls. For a monthly fee, the service bureau will store all the sales materials or other data in its computer and set it up to answer information requests. The cost for the service depends on such factors as the number of documents in storage, the resolution required for tax transmissions and the amount of use.

"We can also set up a system in someone's office and train its employees on how to use it," Cherubini says. "They take care of adding new documents and doing the voice scripts and prompts to get into the system.

The cost starts at about $8,000 - $20,000 is the middle range, Cherubini reports. And that doesn't include the computer.

"We can go with an older 286 computer or a 386 if you're running Windows, so this is a good opportunity for companies that have older equipment to put it to good use", he explains, "We'll upgrade the computer with a hard drive that's big enough to handle all the documents and the system's capability requirements."

Typically, the cost of the system is borne by the advertiser. Some companies, though, require callers to use a 900 number so they can recoup some or all their cost. Others employ one-line systems; the calls must come in and the information goes back out on the user's fax phone line, so the caller bears any long-distance charges.

Ralph Hayes, president of a fax-on-demand supplier, Data Voice Technology, cites interactive voice response as another option. It's similar but different from fax-on-demand, he says, "You call the phone number, but before you can request information you're asked for a credit card number. If it's sophisticated enough, the system will check to make sure it's a good card."

Fax-on-demand isn't new; in fact, Cherubini reports the technology has been available commercially for about three years. "Almost all he Fortune 500 companies have it," adds Jim Wiesehart, president of Celebration Computer Systems, a fax-on-demand supplier. "So do the major software developers, who use it to sell computers and provide technical support."

But according to Hayes, "it's not well-known among other companies. It's almost where voice mail was about 10 years ago," he explains. "If you ask small to medium-sized businesses about fax-on-demand, most wouldn't have any idea what it is. It also has very specific applications: It requires large applications and large users. The average business probably doesn't have an application for it that's worth pursuing."

For bigger companies, though, fax-on-demand has some appealing features. One, of course, is that it saves money; another is that it minimizes response time. "Often when people have a problem, which is why businesspeople buy things, they need it solved sooner rather than later. "the quicker they get the information, better, " says Don Francis, marketing communications director for Oil & Gas Journal, which began offering fax-on-demand to its advertisers early this year.

It also helps companies control their advertising costs. "Sometimes, companies can't fully express the technical nature of their product in, say, a quarter-page ad, but can't afford a bigger one," Cherubini says. "So, they can use the ad to call attention to their product and then provide additional information via fax-on-demand."

From the caller's perspective, the system is easy to operate, Wisehart adds. "Everyone from teen-agers to senior citizens know how to operate a fax machine. You don't need a manual to figure out how to do it."

Some other benefits? Fax-on-demand can be answered - - unattended - - around the clock. Furthermore, information on the computer's hard drive can be updated easily; unlike printed material, there's no danger that material will become obsolete.

Cherubini adds this note; "Sometimes people won't request information using a bingo card because they know once they know once they get into a company's data base, they'll get inundated with mailings and calls from salespeople. Fax-on-demand allows them to request information anonymously."

While that's a benefit to the caller, it's not good news to the publication or advertisers who want to gather information about callers so they can get a better picture of their prospective customer base. To overcome that obstacle, the Oil & Gas Journal offers a voice mail system that asks callers to leave their name, address and other information. "Another option, is to include a sheet asking for more information as the last page on the fax documents," Francis adds.

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