CXO

Consulting firm turns to VoIP to cut conference call costs

Last year, Hitachi Consulting was spending up to $17,000 a month on conference calls, so it began using VoIP to help cut costs. Nine months later, the company has virtually eliminated that cost, and its investment in VoIP has paid for itself.


With its dispersed workforce and a bevy of multisite projects, Hitachi Consulting is dependent on conference calling to ensure that its consultants and contractors are in step with their clients. Each month, the company logs about 150,000 minutes of conference call time among its 900 employees.

Until last September, the company, formerly Experio Solutions, paid about $17,000 in fees to an external service provider for conference calls. Eager to cut costs, the company began examining Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) solutions.

Here’s a look at some of the problems the firm was facing, the solution it was looking for, and how eDial, a Waltham, MA-based VoIP software vendor, worked for the company. (CNET is an eDial client.)

Dispersed workforce
Like any consulting firm, having associates on client sites is preferable to having consultants in the corporate office. With consultants spread out over several locations, conference calls—as is the case with many firms—had become the company’s preferred method for communicating ideas and project status, said Hitachi Consulting’s IT director Michael Shisko.

The company began looking at eDial after its name came up in a conversation Shisko was having with colleagues about VoIP software. Since eDial had recently implemented its solution, AudioPresenter 3.0, in a local business, Shisko decided to examine it for himself.

Besides the ease of use, Shisko said he was attracted by the software’s ability to share documents, such as a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation, over a Web browser. With the service provider, Hitachi was required to pay extra for such capabilities and had to reserve that part of the service.

Impressed with the functionality, he thought the conference call system could pay for itself in as few as five months. By cutting ties with the conference call provider, Hitachi would slash its per-minute rate from 15 cents to less than 7 cents. In another bit of good timing, Hitachi Consulting was also able to take advantage of a promotion with Sprint for free T1 lines, for which the company would be billed only for usage.

The transition
AudioPresenter, eDial’s solution, came loaded onto a single, dual-processor, rack-mounted server. Shisko estimated that the company spent about four hours plugging it into the network and connecting it to its IP PBX system until the T1s were installed. The company ended up saving even more time because it didn’t require any customization from eDial. And because the software works over a Web browser, there was also no need to install client software on employees’ PCs.

In case there were problems with AudioPresenter—and to help users transition to the new system—Hitachi Consulting kept its contract with the conference call vendor until the end of September. Because the eDial system was easy to use, training consisted of giving users an account number, a password, and a user guide, Shisko said.

In the second half of September, the company logged 30,000 minutes on the new conference calling system. The following month, with users comfortable with the new technology, the company saw usage of the system climb to 120,000 minutes.

How it's working
The solution allows each user to have multiple codes for various meetings or clients, allowing consultants to keep track of their billable hours. Using the Web interface, users can also put together conference calls on the fly. “I’ve done it from a cell phone,” Shisko said. “You can call in and dial someone and build a conference call right off your phone.”

As he had seen at the other eDial client’s business, Shisko said consultants are now able to upload documents into the conference call system, and then provide participants with a URL to link to the document during the call. Though it’s not in real time (a service offered by vendors such as WebEx), it has allowed Hitachi to present ideas to potential clients without having to worry whether the document shared is the most recent copy. It also keeps the company’s e-mail system from being mired with huge PowerPoint presentations.

More importantly, it helps protect the consultants' intellectual property: “You share something with a client, but you don’t have to leave something with a client,” Shisko said.

Although instant messaging isn’t currently available on AudioPresenter, an upcoming version will include IM, said eDial spokesman Jon Mechling. Shisko said that he anticipates his company will make use of IM capabilities.

While AudioPresenter has performed well, it hasn’t been without its glitches. In October, the hardware supporting the solution failed, putting it out of commission for a day. (Shisko said that Hitachi has considered getting a second box for fault tolerance.)

Billing and maintenance
Besides saving money, AudioPresenter has also been able to cut the time that Hitachi Consulting has to spend each month determining whether the consultant or the client is responsible for the time charged on a conference call. With the external service provider, Shisko used to receive a bill and have employees go through the call logs to see which ones could be billed to their clients.

With the current solution, IT pays the invoice, generates a report from AudioPresenter, and gives a spreadsheet to accounting for chargeback. In all, the process takes about 30 minutes. Including the billing work and adding new users to the system, Shisko estimates his department spends about an hour each month dealing with AudioPresenter.

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