Call for Change

With 60 CTI projects under his belt, Michael Leblanc is shaking up Connecticut's telecom market.

Michael Leblanc is cashing in on convergence, one customer at a time.

Leblancs integration firm, dubbed Leblanc Communications, has overseen roughly 60 CTI (computer-telephony integration) installations in Connecticut and surrounding areas. His business strategy encompasses a rather simple three-step process: Leblanc works closely with vendors like 3Com, sells repeatable CTI solutions that generate a fast return on investment, and remains close to his established customer base to offer additional CTI services.

So far, the strategy is serving Leblanc well. In two recent cases, Leblancs firm has deployed CTI solutions for Barnes Aerospace and The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. As this story went to press, Leblanc was negotiating another CTI deal with a major IT consulting and research firm in Stamford, Conn.

The bulk of Leblancs projects involve 3Coms NBX 100 Communication System, a CTI solution that is critical to 3Coms turnaround efforts (see related story).

The NBX is an IP-based PBX that works with Ethernet phones to route voice traffic over private data networks or the Internet. The solution can sharply reduce a companys long-distance telephone bills and typically pays for itself in about 18 months, estimates Leblanc.

Skeptical? Take a look inside Barnes Aerospace, which deployed the NBX in its Windsor, Conn., and Derby, England, offices.

Leblanc was serving as a WAN consultant to Barnes when he heard that the company needed a phone system in one of its remote offices. "We showed them they could save money by putting CTI in multiple offices," says Leblanc.

In a typical business deal, Leblanc reaches out to a department manager who oversees IT systems or voice systems. In this particular case, the point-person at Barnes Aerospace was senior IT specialist Jim Richardson.

Leblanc recommended the NBX to Richardson, and then offered to demonstrate the system to Barnes Aerospaces management.

The NBX supports up to 200 devices per location, toll-bypass applications, voicemail, universal inbox software, call-detail reporting and third-party software extensions. The NBX costs about $40,000 (list price) for a system supporting 24 T1 lines and 80 multiline business phones.

In order to sell the NBX, Leblanc puts the system in customers hands. "Well typically put IP-based phones on 10 desks for a customer to use and abuse for 30 days," says Leblanc. "Well even put an IP phone on the chairmans desk during the testing phase. This really helps us to get buy-in" from potential customers top brass.

During the testing phase, Leblanc creates a redundant "dial plan" that includes the new CTI system and the legacy telecom infrastructure. This provides a fall-back option for nervous customers, who want to make sure that their existing phone systems remain available—just in case the IP systems go down.

Once the customer gives Leblanc a green light for a production deployment, it takes about one month to install the NBX in a large office, he says.

Super Savings Plan

Richardson confirms that the NBX has saved Barnes Aerospace money since "day one," but he declines to discuss specific financial details.

One company insider estimates the cost savings at about $12,000 per month, or nearly $150,000 per year. Another source says that Richardson received a major bonus—likely in the neighborhood of $10,000—because he was the point person on a very cost-effective IT deployment.

In addition to cutting long-distance costs, the NBX system also eliminates outsourcing fees that Barnes Aerospace used to pay for phone-related adds, moves and changes. Much like laptops and PCs that have Ethernet connections, IP-based phones can be moved from office to office without reconfiguring the back-end system.

"You can unplug the phone, pick it up, walk across the hall and plug it in there," says Leblanc. "The plug-and-play aspects to this are pretty sweet."

Next Moves

Barnes Aerospace continues to find new uses for the NBX. The company recently deployed the product in its call center to better serve its customers. The NBX uses caller ID to display customer records on agents computer screens. The call-center system will soon serve Barnes purchasing staff in Windsor, Conn., as well.

The NBX also provides Barnes employees with a unified inbox for voicemail and e-mail. Employees can "point and click" on phone numbers in Microsoft Outlook to dial their phones.

Sources say Barnes Aerospace and its parent, Barnes Group Inc., may deploy the NBX system worldwide, but the company halted further installations because of the economic slowdown and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The attacks had a particularly strong impact on the aerospace and transportation sectors," says one integrator who has done work with Barnes, Boeing and General Electric. "I dont think anyone should be surprised by Barnes decision to curtail IT spending at a time when their core markets face so many question marks."

Questions Linger

Although Leblanc is a firm believer in CTI solutions, the market has plenty of skeptics. Schools in California, New York and Texas have scrapped CTI pilot projects because the test networks were far less reliable than traditional telecommunications systems.

Some integrators, including Expanets of Amityville, N.Y., push CTI for backbone use but rarely deploy Voice-over-IP links to the desktop. The reason: Many customers dont want to pay for IP-based phones. Moreover, many customers are still waiting for networking giant Cisco Systems to ship a reliable, cost-effective CTI system.

"Weve looked at Cisco, Avaya and Nortel but none of them has been shipping in mass quantities," says Leblanc. "3Com is in their fifth major release. The NBX is economical, reliable and manageable—today."

Equally Bullish

Analysts are also impressed with the NBX. "We expect 3Com to be a major player in this market because the NBX is a high-quality, well-developed product for solutions providers," says Joe Gagan, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston. The Yankee Group expects IP-based PBXs to outsell traditional PBXs by 2005.

Still, despite his personal success, Leblanc is quick to caution readers that CTI solutions dont sell themselves. "The bigger the customer, the longer it takes to get them to embrace voice over IP," he says.

With roughly 60 CTI deployments to his credit, Leblanc should know.