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Giving a voice to the Internet

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If you wanted to buy a machine part or supplies needed to manufacture products, would you go into your distributor's office, write a note inquiring whether the item is in stock, leave it on the desk and come back a little later to read a written answer? Lipstream Networks Inc. doesn't think so.

In an effort to sell its voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services to b-to-b marketers, Lipstream says chat, telephone call-back and Web automatic form responses are no better types of communication than leaving notes on a business partner's desk.

The idea behind VoIP is to use a computer microphone and an Internet connection to make the same calls you'd make with a telephone. Lipstream maintains that a call-through option is vital on every corporate sales site.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based Internet start-up has begun linking with established customer relationship management applications and an array of other b-to-b business services to make its voice solution an attractive part of the marketing mix.

Recently, it has signed agreements with eShare Technologies, Hipbone Inc., click2send.com, E-assist.net and Quintus Corp. to integrate voice information with Web, e-mail and traditional marketing techniques and expand services, said Matt Jones, Lipstream president-CEO.

"We're not developing a cool product just to be cool, but a cool product for real business," he said.

Direct marketing focus

Lipstream's partnerships are aimed at direct marketers. For example, its deal with Hipbone will allow marketers to provide services that enable call center representatives to receive a Web customer service call and the Web page the caller is viewing at the same time.

In a direct marketing scenario, this could be used as a follow-on to a direct mail campaign, which points the prospect to a specific Web address. When the prospect clicks on the call button, the call center operator knows the offer being responded to and how to proceed toward closing a sale.

The advantage of VoIP systems is that it doesn't cost much to send and receive messages if both parties are using a Web connection to make the call. The disadvantage is that the calls have been known to sound like someone is talking to you through a tin can and a string.

"The size of the b-to-b opportunity for voice over IP in the short term will be on par with the quality of the network and the quality of the sound," said Robert Mirani, research director-customer relationship management strategies for The Yankee Group.

Slow to catch on

While numerous business-to-consumer marketers have signed up for Lipstream's services, b-to-b marketers have been slower to come aboard. Because b-to-b relationships are so valuable, many marketers are reluctant to rely on a technology that they believe is as-yet unproven for communications, Jones said.

"We back up our service with contractual agreements guaranteeing quality," Jones said. "If the traditional network is at 99.99% uptime, we're not there yet. But we're at 99-point-something percent."

Lipstream generally charges a minimum of $500 to $1,000 a month for its services, which covers the first 10 customer service, sales or marketing representatives using the system, he said.

American Express and Compaq Computer Corp. are the first major b-to-b marketers to tap Lipstream. Amex is using the service to connect with corporate customers checking the status of their accounts online. Compaq has deployed a customer service system for its customers in Asia.

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