Following Protocall [University of Texas magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
University of Texas alumni magazine
KEEP AN EYE ON PROTOCALL Communications, the brainchild of UT grad Ellen Pestorius Kleinknecht and her husband, Scott. You may never meet them in person, but you will probably give them a call. An 800-call, that is.
In 1986, Ellen Pestorius was a University of Texas graduate getting ready to start her first job. She had landed a spot as a marketing representative at the Fortune 500 defense electronics company Computing Devices International in Washington, D.C.
After a year, though, she yearned for more schooling. Although her days in the business school at UT taught her well, she felt she needed an MBA to really soar in the business world. So, she convinced her company to pay for graduate school, and she signed up for the night program at The George Washington University. Lightening struck.
As Ellen was searching for a topic to research in her technical entrepreneur class, she came across more than information for a class project.
“I started to investigate a new technology called Interactive Voice Response (IVR), a technology that allows people to use their telephone key pads to make choices like they would on a computer,” says Ellen. “After doing a little research, I realized that a company using this technology would be a great business.”
Most people know about IVR technology because they use it every day. Call large companies around the country and a computerized voice will direct you to type in your account number to access your bank balance, or to type in your social security number to get stock information, or to type in zero to talk to an operator.
“The applications are unlimited,” says Ellen. “It is more than voice mail. And, using IVR is cheaper than employing a staff of operators, and in most cases it is more efficient.”
Logging on to the technological frontier
Today, Ellen and her husband Scott Kleinknecht own Protocall Communications, they have two kids (Timmy, 2 and Katie, 6 months), 65 employees and in 1996 grossed $1.5 million. By 1998, they project to gross upward of $4 million.
Protocall provides three basic services to its clients: it creates and maintains web sites on the Internet, employs live operators who take inbound calls 24-hours a day, and it offers a handful of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) services.
“We have grown about 60 percent in the last two years alone,” says Ellen, now 32. “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.”
UT is what got me going in the direction of business,” she says. “I never would have gotten an MBA at GW or started this business without the background I had at UT.”
Ellen, who spent seven years working her way to the position of lobbyist at Computing Devices International, now works full-time at Protocall. After finishing her MBA in 1992, she spent evenings and weekends perfecting the technology with Scott—who was spending most of his time writing several software programs and improving the company’s telephony and IVR systems.
Today, inside their Beltsville, MD office you’ll find about 25 operators answering the 10,000 calls ringing in to dozens of 800-numbers. If you called Allen for Senate, Jose Cuervo tequila, or Michelin, you’ve actually called Protocall.
“A lot of people think they are dialing direct to a company when they call an 800-number,” says Ellen. “Actually, companies hire us to take the calls. It frees them up to produce and market their products or services. And because this is our area of expertise, they are assured that their customers will be treated as professionally as if one of their employees were taking the order.”
But the key to Protocall’s success, Ellen says, is finding computer scientists who can be creative with the technology. “This business is never boring. We are always finding more applications for the IVR,” she says.
Some of the IVR services include:
• Jobs Now Hotline—gives employers a telephone screening technique to use when hiring;
• Survey Link—allows companies to take surveys over the telephone that can be tabulated instantly;
• True Locator—offers companies the ability to identify where a caller is located so it can give information on the nearest franchise or store;
• Fax on Demand—enables callers to order specific documents which
are then faxed instantly; and
• I- Transcription from Voice Response—gives clients conducting promotions the ability to have computers collect data, compile and transcribe it, then send the database to the company.
Never too far from home
A Texas native, Ellen is one in a long line of Pestoriuses to attend UT. Of her six family members, five hold UT degrees—starting with her father who has a Ph.D. in Acoustical Physics. He is also the current director of UT’s Applied Research Laboratory.
Her mother has a Masters in Fine Arts, is a docent at UT’s Huntington Art Gallery and teaches at ACC. Her older brother has an MA in History, and her baby brother Patrick has a degree in Geology.
“UT is what got me going in the direction of business,” she says. “I never would have gotten an MBA at GW or started this business without the background I had at UT. I fondly remember my days of being a student in Austin where I was surrounded by a spirit that was free, loose and encouraging. It really fostered my creativity and taught me that I could do whatever I set my mind to. I am where I am today because of the confidence 1 gained at UT.”