Blazers Take a Shot at VOIP

NBA team tests technology as a key piece of its CRM initiative.

In the National Basketball Association, every successful team has what is known as a "go-to guy." Thats the player who, when the game is tight and the clock is ticking down, can be counted on to score and send the fans home happy.

With their season tipping off next week, the Portland Trail Blazers are lucky enough to have not only several go-to guys on the court but also one running the teams IT department. That is Vice President and CIO Chris Dill, who is drawing up a play to keep customers happy—and increase revenue—by deploying VOIP (voice over IP) as part of an ongoing customer service initiative.

Just three months into a $140,000 pilot test of a VOIP system, Dill figures hes already avoided the need for a separate integrated messaging system, and hes saving $13,000 a month on other services.

And, more important, hes on the verge of scoring big points with the companys customers by allowing Trail Blazers customer service representatives to speak directly to customers over the Web via chat and to tailor audio marketing messages and other services to customers based on their buying history.

Dills move to put VOIP into play now, at a time when many enterprises are cutting costs and staying away from unproven technologies, makes Dill unusual, experts say.

Analysts recommend that companies consider VOIP deployments only when they require a new voice infrastructure as a result of the addition of new offices and call centers or when a PBX needs to be replaced. They also recommend that IT managers keep a close eye on quality of service, an issue that continues to dog VOIP deployments.

Last year, Dill, in Portland, Ore., began to take a serious look at VOIP to enhance a CRM (customer relationship management) initiative launched in 1998. The plan called for a converged voice and data network and new customer contact applications such as e-mail routing; Web chat; and blended dialing, which allows call center agents to handle inbound and outbound calls at the same time. These applications would be tied to the Trail Blazers existing CRM Enterprise Suite from Onyx Software Corp.

The strategy encompasses the eight companies Dill oversees technology for, including Trail Blazers Inc.; Oregon Arena Corp.; television and radio stations; and a WNBA team, the Portland Fire. All eight companies are owned by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen.

In July, Dill purchased 25 licenses for CIC (Customer Interaction Center), a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol)-enhanced VOIP software platform from Interactive Intelligence Inc., in Indianapolis.

Last month, Dill and his network managers tied the CIC solution to the 61C PBX from Nortel Networks Corp., which is used by 400 employees at the Trail Blazers and associated companies. Currently, three members of Dills 14-person IT staff are testing the system.

Next month, after the NBA season begins, Dill said he expects to begin expanding his testbed into the companys call center, where service representatives are expected to use the VOIP-enabled applications by next year.

The Trail Blazers VOIP strategy centers on improving the service that customers receive when they communicate with agents at call centers through phones, e-mail or instant messages. The flexibility of unified messaging means that Dill can eventually connect an instant messaging session to an Automatic Call Distributor Group, allowing customer service representatives to speak to customers over the Web to answer questions or walk customers through the teams Web site.

By using caller ID and pulling information from the CRM system, the Trail Blazers will also be able to target marketing campaigns to specific customers based on their purchase or Web use histories.

If all goes well, Dill said he may also install IP phones in guest box suites at the Rose Garden arena, in Portland. Customers could use the phones for self-service food, beverage and ticket orders.

Dill will keep his Nortel PBX, however, and his three Primary Rate Interface trunks used for incoming, outgoing and long-distance phone calls.

Dill avoided spending $70,000 on a separate, all-in-one Cisco Systems Inc. solution he had been considering. Choosing a SIP-based solution also allowed Dill to avoid purchasing associated servers and peripheral equipment. In addition, Dill said he also expects to save $13,000 a month by discontinuing the outsourcing of an Interactive Voice Response system and bringing it in-house.

Still, those savings are nothing, Dill said, when compared with the customer experience and service hell one day be able to provide ticket purchasers.

"[Return on investment] is very elusive, and the real ROI comes in added productivity, better call control and handling," Dill said. "The real differentiator between companies these days is the customer service."

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be contacted at