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Following Protocall [GW Magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
GW Magazine
Spring 1997

IN 1987, ELLEN PESTORIUS WAS a business school graduate student at GW looking for a research topic in her course in technology and entrepreneurship. She was dating a stockbroker named Scott Kleinknecht, who had started dabbling in the telephone answering business thinking it would be a good investment that someone else could run.

But the business was taking more time than he’d expected to gain traction. He soon realized that if he wanted to continue to be his own boss he’d have to quit his job and focus on the communications business.

Before he’d be willing to do that, he needed more research. So he suggested to Ellen that for her class project she could help him investigate what was then a new technology called interactive voice response, which allows people to use their telephone keypads to make choices. (You know the drill: “If you’d like to speak to technical support, press 2.”)

Ellen liked the idea and she and three other group members began studying the technology. The research proved to be much more than a class project. By the time Ellen had completed the research, she and Scott knew interactive voice response and similar advances in phone technology were going to be hot, and just might be the key to their future.

“When a group of people with their own independent ideas gets together and are forced to come up with a venture concept with a time fuse running, they can do it,” says Professor Richard Donnelly, director of GW’s Management of Science, Technology and Innovation Program, and the man who taught Ellen’s course in technology and entrepreneurship.

“So many people look at entrepreneurial ventures and say they could never do that. But the truth is that the most successful concepts are the simplest. They just require you to think creatively and apply good management principles to flesh them out.”

Donnelly was right. The day after Ellen made her presentation to the business class, Scott took a modified version of her paper to a Baltimore businessman who put up $300,000 on the spot. The money was enough for Ellen and Scott to start National Phone Link in 1990. They married the same year.

The New Frontier

Six years, two kids (Timmy, 2, and Katie, 3 months) and 65 employees later, the Kleinknecht have grossed about $1.5 million. Projections for 1998 are upward of $4
million. They have also expanded their company to offer more services, and have renamed it Protocall Communications.

“We have grown about 60 percent in the last two years alone,” says Scott, 41. “The technology has changed so much, and we have learned so much in just the last few months, that I really feel like we are just starting out. The last six years have been spent learning how to do what we do. Now we are able to take this technology and really run with it.”

Protocall provides three basic services to its clients: it creates and maintains web sites on the Internet, employs live operators who take incoming calls 24 hours a day, and offers a handful of interactive voice response (IVR) options.

Most people know about IVR technology because they use it every day. Call a large American company and chances are good that a computerized voice will answer and tell you to enter your account number to access your bank balance, or enter your Social Security number to get stock information, or press zero to talk to an operator.

“The applications are unlimited,” says Ellen, 32. “It is more than voicemail. And using IVR is cheaper than employing a staff of operators, and in most cases it is more efficient.”

Ellen now works full time at Protocall. After finishing her MBA in 1992, she kept her day job at the Fortune 500 defense electronics company Computing Devices International, where she was a marketing representative for seven years and then worked as a lobbyist. Evenings and weekends, though, were spent perfecting the technology with Scott-who was spending most of his time writing software and improving the company’s telephone and IVR systems.

Today, inside their Beltsville, Md., office, a small computer room houses the company’s four T- I lines which help its team of live operators handle about 10,000 calls per day. In the center of the office are the cubicles where up to 25 operators, who sit with headsets and computers, take orders around the clock. The rest of the staff consists of computer science engineers and support personnel.

“The key to our success is to find computer scientists who can be creative with the technology,” Ellen says. “We are always finding more applications for the IVR.”

Services include:

• Jobs Now Hotline, which give employers a telephone screening technique to use when hiring;
• Survey Link, which allows companies to take surveys over the telephone that can be tabulated instantly;
• True Locator, which offers companies the ability to identify where a caller is located so they can give information on the nearest franchise or store;
• Fax on Demand, which allows callers to order specific documents that are then faxed instantly;
• Transcription from Voice Response, which gives clients conducting promotions the ability to have computers collect data, compile and transcribe it, then send it to the client.

Expanding the client base

The introduction of Internet services has brought about a dozen new clients on board, such as Herb Gordon Auto and the Student Athlete Link, both of which pay Protocall to set up and maintain their World Wide Web pages.

The man who keeps check on those web pages is another graduate, Jay Wang, 37, MS ’92. As director of Protocall’s engineering department, Wang says there is nothing Protocall can’t do when it comes to computers.

“We are really doing exciting work here,” says Wang, who helped write the complex software that is the core of the application for one of Protocall’s biggest clients, Shopping Alternatives. A national supermarket delivery company based in Bethesda, Md., Kevin Sheehan founded it in 1994.

The company currently has operations in 12 cities. But before it delivered its first bunch of bananas, Shopping Alternatives hired Protocall to help work out the logistics.

“We chose to work with Protocall because they are one of the most innovative companies we’ve ever dealt with,” says Sheehan. “They use the most advanced telecommunications technology—and continue to stay on top of the latest developments. For our business to be successful, we need someone who does lot more than just take information from a caller. They give us that something extra-great service-and they are cost effective.”

The service works like this: Customers look through a grocery catalog, make a shopping list, then phone in their orders to an operator at Protocall. (Customers can also fax their orders or send them via their personal computers.) Once a grocery list is received at Protocall headquarters, it is automatically faxed—using software written by programmers—to the grocery store nearest to the caller. The order is filled, bagged and rung up at the store. Then, a driver delivers the order to the customer’s kitchen table.

Another Protocall service is fax broadcasting. It is popular with large trade associations that want to send a document to 10,000 members, but don’t want to stuff 10,000 envelopes and pay for postage. Using a software package written by Protocall, a technician takes the document to be sent, along with all the members’ fax numbers, and out it goes to every member in short order.

“We couldn’t believe how easy it is,” says Pete Kirsch, deputy executive director of the American Association of Landscape Architects, which has been using the service for two years. “We used to work with MCI, bur it was really complicated. Now, all we do is give them our members’ names and fax numbers and we’re done.”

Kirsch also uses Protocall’s incoming message service to collect subscription orders for its magazine, Landscape Architecture. Since he started working with Protocall, Kirsch says subscriptions and renewals for the magazine are up 400 percent.

“We mail 300,000 pieces of direct marketing for subscriptions twice a year,” says Kirsch. “Before we hired Protocall, our poor circulation manager would get 200 orders a day-and who knows how many hang-ups,” says Kirsch. “Now that we use their inbound calling, we get maybe 900 new subscriptions. No one hangs up, because his or her calls are answered on the first ring. Protocall has saved us a lot of money, and what that really means is that they have made us a lot of money.”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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