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Protocall Answers a Need [The Journal Newspapers]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Journal Newspapers
Thursday, December 5, 1996

EVERYONE IS TALKING AT ONCE at Protocall Communications in Bethesda, MD. That’s because 24 hours a day, 25 operators are answering the 10,000 calls ringing in to dozens of 800-numbers.

A call to a political campaign, or Jose Cuervo tequila, or Michelin, is actually a call to Protocall.

“A lot of people think they are dialing direct to a company, when they call an 800-number,” said Ellen Kleinknecht, who founded Protocall in 1990 with her husband, Scott. “Actually, companies hire us to take the calls. It frees them up to produce and market their products or services.”

In addition to a bank of operators that take inbound calls, Protocall also creates and maintains web sites on the Internet, and offers a handful of Interactive Voice Response services based on a technology called “telephony“—the science of electrical sound transmission that allows people to use telephone key pads to make choices, similar to the way a computer works.

Many people use IVR technology everyday when they call most any company and a computerized voice answers with instructions to use the phone’s key pad to type in an extension, last name, account number, or type in a fax number to request information.

“The applications are unlimited,” says Kleinknecht, 32, who was a marketing representative and lobbyist for the Fortune 500 defense electronics company Computing Devices International before starting up Protocall. “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. We are always finding more applications for IVR.”

Some of those technologies include the Jobs Now Hotline, which gives employers a telephone screening technique to use when hiring, and Survey Link, which allows companies to conduct surveys over the telephone that can be tabulated instantly.

Kleinknecht discovered the possibilities of telephony and IVR while getting her master’s in business administration at George Washington University. She was looking for. A topic to do for an entrepreneurial technology class, when Scott (then her boyfriend) suggested she research telephony. He became interested in the subject a year earlier after purchasing a telephone answering service and looking for ways to grow the business.

After several months of research, the couple realized they had discovered the wave of the future—one they knew would change the nature of communications, and could energize their fledgling company.

They showed their business plan to a Baltimore investor, who immediately put up $300,000. The Kleinknechts hired two employees and began incorporating the technology. Business began to roll in.

Today, they head a 65-person operation, have dozens of large corporate customers, and will gross about $1.5 million this year. Projections for 1998 are upward of $4 million.

“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 seven years have been spent learning how to do what we do. Now we are able to take this technology and run with it.”

One of Protocall’s biggest clients is Shopping Alternatives, a national supermarket delivery company based in Bethesda, MD, Founded by Kevin Sheehan in 1994, it operates in 12 cities (none in the Washington area). Before he delivered the first bunch of bananas, he asked Protocall to help work out the logistics.

Now, customers look through a grocery catalog, make a shopping list, then telephone in their orders to an operator at Protocall. Operators type the order into the computer and, via proprietary software, the order is faxed to the grocer nearest the caller. The order is filled, rung up and bagged at the store. Then
the groceries are delivered to the customer’s door.

“Protocall uses the most advanced telecommunications technology, and continues to stay on top of the latest developments,” Sheehan said. “For our business to be successful, we need someone who does a lot more than just take information from a caller. They give us that something extra: great service. And they are cost-effective.”

Another of Protocall’s IVR services is Fax Broadcasting. Large trade associations that send documents to thousands of members, but don’t want to stuff thousands of envelopes, or pay for postage, opt for it.

Again, using proprietary software written by Protocall engineers, a technician takes the document to be sent, along with a complete list of members’ fax numbers, and sends it simultaneously to every member. No envelopes to lick, no stamps to buy.

“We still can’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 one of the major phone companies, but it was really complicated. Now, all we do is give Protocall our members’ names and we’re done.”
Kirsch also uses Protocall’s in-bound message service to collect subscription orders for its magazine, Landscape Architecture. Since he started working with Protocall, Kirsch says the magazine’s circulation is up by 400 percent.

“Twice a year, we mail 300,000 pieces of direct marketing mail out to our members to renew their subscriptions,” he says. “Our poor circulation manager would get 200 orders a day on his answering machine and who knows how man people just hung up? Protocall has saved us a lot of money—and really, 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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