JM Lexus in Margate, Fla., expects a virtual switchboard operator to save the dealership about $40,000 a year in salaries and benefits and improve customer service.
The dealership has installed a personal computer-based, voice-recognition software program that greets callers and routes calls to employees or departments.
JM Lexus, one of the country's largest Lexus stores, would have needed to hire two additional operators to handle calls. The dealership has only one operator, though it sells 400 new and 125 used units a month and has 222 employees. After hours, an auto attendant program - which is less sophisticated than a virtual operator - was fielding calls.
1,600 CALLS A DAY
'We only have one human operator, and we receive over 1,600 calls a day,' said Bill Dowd, information systems director for JM Lexus.
The store rents the virtual operator equipment from Registry Magic, the Boca Raton, Fla., distributor of the program, for $700 a month. The rent includes support and maintenance.
Several other companies sell virtual operator software, but JM Lexus chose Registry Magic because its software was more economical, Dowd said.
The Registry Magic software was developed by Voice Control Systems Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. It is the same voice-activated voice mail and dialing technology used by long-distance and local phone companies such as AT&T and Bell Atlantic, said Paul Seguin, account manager for Voice Control Systems.
Registry Magic, however, has packaged the technology into a program for small businesses.
It has taken some time for callers to get used to the virtual operator. Three months ago when the system was installed, 50 percent of callers would ask for human operators to handle their calls. Now, however, at least 75 percent use the virtual operator to route the calls.
The virtual operator gives callers the option of dealing with a human operator by saying the word 'operator.'
Employees like using the system internally because they do not have to remember phone extensions.
JM Lexus already had an auto attendant and a voice mail system.
'The auto attendant would transfer callers to a department - and that's it,' Dowd said. 'The virtual operator can transfer callers to individuals.'
The auto attendant system could be programmed to transfer calls to individuals, but callers would have to listen to a long directory of names and extensions. 'It's not as easy to use,' Dowd said.
The virtual operator replaces the auto attendant. To use a virtual operator system, the dealership types in the greetings, employee names and dealership departments on a personal computer loaded with the software. The virtual operator software recognizes the names stored in the computer's memory.
When a call comes in, the virtual operator asks for an individual's name or department. It asks a caller to repeat a name it does not recognize. If the virtual operator fails to recognize a name on the second try, it routes the call to a live operator.
Although he initially had his doubts, Dowd said the voice recognition system is accurate.
'The virtual operator makes mistakes, but no more mistakes than a human operator would,' he said.
Any voice - including the dealer's - can be used as a virtual operator. Right now, the JM Lexus operator has a female voice pre-recorded by Registry Magic. But the store would like to hire the announcer who narrates the national Lexus commercials to tape its virtual operator messages.
The basic virtual operator program answers four calls at once. The system can be expanded to field up to 12 calls at the same time, said Neal Bernstein, co-founder and vice president of business development for Registry Magic.
No caller is placed on hold for more than 10 seconds, he said.
To locate other vendors of the Voice Control Systems technology, contact the company's Web site at www.voicecontrol.com or call Paul Seguin at (617) 494-0100.