Helping Businesses Stay Alert

Alert-and-response systems making headway.

If Joe Desmond has his way, newspaper headlines this summer will read that cellular telephones helped save California from an energy catastrophe.

Desmond is president and CEO of Infotility Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif., startup thats trying to give businesses, government offices and consumers more control over their power consumption.

Infotility uses a hosted alert-and-response service from Par3 Communications Inc. to notify California businesses, government offices and consumers when the states power grid is close to full capacity. In addition, business and government customers that integrate their power-control systems with Infotilitys platform can reduce their power consumption at the press of a button.

"It triggers a control signal that signals their on-site equipment to reduce usage," Desmond said.

While messaging technologies are nothing new, the increasingly two-way nature of those technologies—sending out an alert and being able to respond to it—is gaining acceptance in industries such as utilities and airlines.

Desmond said that, statewide, 10,000 facilities—both business and government—have signed up for Infotilitys service, which went online May 4. However, he added that most plan to reduce consumption on their own, rather than cede control of their systems to Infotility.

The company will soon extend the service to consumers.

"Were trying to help California avoid rolling blackouts," Desmond said. Operating on a contract awarded by the California Energy Commission in February, Infotility is charged with reducing consumption by 12 megawatts whenever an alert goes out. Messages are sent via phone, pager, e-mail or fax, using voice or text messaging.

If everything works according to plan—the service wasnt able to stave off a rolling blackout last week—Californians will see not only fewer rolling blackouts but also lower energy prices, Desmond said.

"A 10 percent reduction in demand leads to a 50 percent reduction in the price of electricity," he said.

Airlines are also finding use for alert-and-response technology. This month, Northwest Airlines Corp. also began deploying Seattle-based Par3s customer participation management service.

The airline sends alerts on flight delays and cancellations to customers well before they get to the check-in counter and allows them to rebook flights at the touch of a button.

Through automated voice messaging or e-mail, Northwest can reach virtually all its customers before they get to the airport, said Steve Brown, managing director of customer experience technology for the airline, based in Eagan, Minn.

"The message tells them whats happening with their flight, but the response part of it adds a new dimension," Brown said. "They can see what flight theyve been rebooked on and can confirm it or, if theyre not happy with it, they can take care of it there, before they get to the counter at the airport."

The result is not only fewer lines and less frustration for customers but also cost savings for Northwest. The airline doesnt have to turn its call centers into outbound dialing centers every time bad weather forces a rash of delays and cancellations, Brown said. Northwest pays about $12,000 a month for Par3s service and expects to save about $500,000 a year, he said.

"Literally from Day 1, the feedback has been good," Brown said. "Customers say its nice to be called ahead of time, and the message sounds nice. And our agents can stay on the phone and sell the product rather than have to call customers."

OAG Mobile, a company that sends flight status information to business travelers via Web-enabled phones or Palm OS devices, recently selected EnvoyXpress, a platform from EnvoyWorldWide Inc. of Billerica, Mass., to add voice messaging to its text and e-mail messaging services.

The Oak Brook, Ill., company plans to extend the alerting technology to allow for responses as well, probably by late in the year, according to Kathrine McCormick, business development manager for wireless travel solutions at OAG Mobile.

"We definitely see a more proactive use of the technology," McCormick said. "Instead of just telling people that their flights been canceled, well say, Here are three other options."

McCormick said OAG Mobiles service will allow business travelers to switch airlines when problems arise, more easily than the airlines own services would.

The power of a two-way alert-and-response system is attracting attention from the marketing world as well.

EnvoyWorldWide last week signed a partnership with Revenio Inc., a Burlington, Mass., company that specializes in "dialog marketing," to co-develop a product that will bring the two companies technologies together.

Revenios Dialog tool uses scripts in e-mail messages that are designed to elicit responses from customers, either by linking them to a Web site or giving them a call-back number.

The EnvoyWorldWide partnership extends that technology to text, text-to-speech and recorded voice messaging across any channel. The combined offering is available now but requires customization, company officials said.