Two methods to manage e-mail madness

With more offices and homes getting on the Internet, a rapidly increasing share of the country's business—commercial and governmental—is carried out electronically. The ensuing flood of e-mail messages and World Wide Web forms can create a tidal wave at the receiving end. Two products stepping up to help manage the flood are Aditi Corp.'s Talisma and Mustang Software Inc.'s Internet Messaging Center, 2.4 Enterprise Edition.

Like so much else on the Internet lately, the recently established product category of electronic service, or e-service, is driven in part by the opportunity to boost sales. Of at least equal importance, however, are customer-support needs, including the client and vendor support that government agencies need.

E-service can automate the assigning of messages to agents or pools, where the messages can be held or forwarded to specific users, as well as provide easy threading of messages to keep those on the same or similar cases together. E-service also offers effective filing and searching as well as readily viewable contact histories. And it can make the process far easier to manage by providing views of agents' statistics on workloads and case resolutions.

Added up, this becomes a way to stay on top of the deluge. With a well-designed system, e-mail coming into your organization's mail aliases is routed automatically to the agents that you want to receive it—via a loadbalancing algorithm, say, or possibly based on keywords in the message contents—and acknowledgment of receipt and a case ID number are sent back to the correspondent. Your agent then can search the e-service program's database for similar cases or for prior correspondence from the same party. When a user replies to a message, a copy is stored safely on your server and becomes part of the case history.

Both packages reviewed here can do this sort of thing in one way or another. However, they are aimed at distinct markets. Aditi's Talisma targets small- to medium-size agencies and businesses, or departments within larger agencies, receiving 15 to 1,000 messages a day. The program, which includes its own e-mail client, is very flexible, and it can accept responses from Web forms in addition to e-mail messages. It is limited to 10 concurrent users, however, and it lacks other enterprise-level features and bulletproofing, which is any measure that can keep the system from losing data or from crashing.

Mustang Software, which edged out Talisma in scoring on our test plan, aims Internet Message Center specifically at the enterprise level, intending to capture all of a large organization's pooled e-mail routing and responses. IMC Agent, the client application, works alongside users' e-mail programs and can connect to the server over the Internet, even by dial-up. Your agents will use this client to notify the server of their availability and be notified by it when the next message has been routed to their usual e-mail client. You won't be able to use it with Web forms, but what it can do with e-mail is more customizable than Talisma. And because IMC now hooks into Microsoft Corp.'s SQL Server, you can load it up with as many concurrent users as you like.

Aditi's Talisma

Aditi promotes Talisma as a total e-service solution for smaller organizations. The product not only can manage usual e-mail traffic but also incorporates data received from Web forms via e-mail. Sample Hypertext Markup Language forms using Active Server Page scripts are provided as templates for your Web forms. It's also easy to add phone call records to case histories.

Installing and setting up Talisma was smooth for each of three modules: the server, client and Web viewer. When we tried to set up and manage a server-only installation on a second machine, though, we ran into an impenetrable error message: "Unable to start service due to logon failure." A call to technical support established that this was because of an incompatibility with ODBC 4.0, which had been installed with SQL Server 7.0. The only workarounds are to revert to an earlier version of ODBC, which may impair SQL Server, or not to install on the same machine.

The client interface is a window divided like Microsoft Outlook's with a list of messages in a top pane. By default, all unassigned messages in the shared inbox are shown. Subject headers and a set of icons showing the status of the case in several variables—including resolution, reply, consulting and priority—also are shown. A pane below this shows the contents of the highlighted message, while a navigation tree appears down the left side.

Clicking a button changes the entire set to show only those messages assigned to the logged-in user, with a preview pane displaying the case history of the highlighted item. Double-clicking an item pops up a larger case history pane, with customer information and a list of assignable categories in other panes.

Two other views offer similar interfaces for searches of the filing cabinet or the customer list, with results drawn from either the case database or a separate customer-information database. The search capabilities are remarkably strong yet simple to use, including filters, date ranges, character strings, field-based searches, assigned categories and message assignees. Multiple search criteria can be combined, and you can save search arguments for reuse.

Administrators can set policies for auto-assigning of new cases to agents by two rules: round-robin or balanced load distribution based on open cases. Alternatively, all cases addressed to a given alias can be set for manual assignment. Other automation features include an auto-response option for all messages sent to a given alias and automatic categorization of cases based on the identity of the user responding. Like Talisma's search capabilities, these features are relatively simple to use and are effective, at least for smaller shops. For larger organizations, however, these features will be no match for the script-based routing and other automations available in Internet Message Center.

Talisma users can respond to messages in a variety of ways. In addition to simply writing a reply, we could create a reusable "canned" response, send the case to a consulting specialist or forward to another party with or without replying ourselves. We also could categorize the case for later reference as well as merge it into another case or split it into separate cases.

One aspect of Talisma's system might be of special interest to small, isolated or mobile organizations. Because the system is essentially a replacement e-mail client, you can run it just like your regular e-mail application, even if that means running it over a dial-up Internet connection. Talisma's server will download your incoming messages and upload the outgoing ones upon connection.

Overall, Talisma's interface strikes us as very easy to use by administrators and users, and the product will help organizations capitalize on knowledge sharing. The trade-off, however, is that the program's customization features are not as sophisticated as those in Internet Message Center. This applies to the application's data forms as well as its automation features. For instance, you won't be able to add more than two fields to the 10 already present in the customer database, and there are no data validation or lookup controls. Moreover, the limitation of 10 concurrent users puts a low ceiling on the program's scalability.

Mustang's Internet Message Center, 2.4 Enterprise Edition

Where Talisma is designed to be easy, Internet Message Center seems determined to be tough. We mean that as a compliment—mostly. But we did run into appreciably more frustration in initially setting up IMC than seemed reasonable.

What you get for the trouble of installing and configuring IMC, though, is a robust, scalable, customizable e-mail service solution. Rather than replacing your current e-mail system, IMC works alongside it to provide routing that is more sophisticated than Talisma's. The server side is beefier and requires stronger administration tools, which, fortunately, are there in the IMC Setup module. The interfaces for virtually all of IMC's settings are gathered in this tabbed window, including Agents, Pools, Scripts and Filters among seven other tabs. This part of the setup is easier than we had expected, with good online—but not context-sensitive—help.

And once we had the system set up, using it was a snap. We opened IMC Agent, which automatically connected us with the server database, and opened the Outlook Express e-mail client that came with Windows NT. (Any POP3-compatible client will work.) Then, returning to IMC Agent, we clicked on the Get Next button to start the flow.

Furthermore, with your usual e-mail client still in place and IMC's client using TCP/IP to communicate with the server, remote access via dial-up Internet connection is as easy as using the office local-area network. Mustang says your IMC server should have a full-time Internet connection, though.

IMC's message resolution offers a range of options similar to those in Talisma, though not quite as readily accessible. We could respond by e-mail, of course, using Outlook Express. When we did this, IMC added a tracking code related to the code assigned to the incoming message, and it stored a copy of our reply for later reference. Or we could look up the message's case history before deciding on a response, which might then be to reply using the library of boilerplate text provided to address common issues, to "resolve" the case by some other means than e-mail or to forward the message to a pool or a specific agent.

There's no provision for capturing data from Web forms or for attaching comments or phone records to case histories. Because IMC users only see messages assigned to them, they have no overall view of the message pool.

In fact, the principal weakness of the program may be the lack of a readily available overview for users, rendering the system much less effectual as a knowledge base. There are no controls available to normal users to search the database for message, reply or customer information across cases. (Users can search the template library for responses, though.)

Users with rights to the IMC Monitor or the report generator can track cases by code number or e-mail address, and an administrator can easily give or take away Monitor rights for any agent. This goes some of the distance toward providing a wider view of the entire message pool but stops well short of Talisma's broad perspective.

IMC's real-time monitoring and reporting tools also top Talisma's. Though not graphical, IMC's table displays break statistics down into more categories and can be sliced and sorted in a variety of ways. For instance, you can monitor your agents' productivity in real time in greater detail. The 14 built-in reports also are in table format, generated on the fly in HTML and viewed in your system's Web browser. Custom reports can be created in any SQL-compatible or ODBC reporting utility.

A $7,500 optional module named IMC Architect provides tools for integrating IMC Agent functionality directly into enterprise application software as a Component Object Module. Another $7,500 package, IMC Agent Add-In for Outlook, adds similar functions to Microsoft's Outlook client, eliminating the need for task switching or learning an entirely new interface. Both options are site licensed.

Overall, Internet Message Center provides a better package for administrators wanting accountability, consistency and efficiencies of scale in their e-mail response.

The markets are distinct, and the choices seem clear: If your organization needs to scale upward from 10 concurrent users, you'll want to check out IMC. If not, you'll probably be happier with Talisma. In either case, you'll have a solid product, although the grass might look greener in spots on the other side of the fence. IMC's management tools are stronger, but you won't be able to grow a knowledge base on it as readily as you can with Talisma.

-- Marshall is a free-lance writer who has been reviewing computer software for the past 10 years.

***

Products Tested

Aditi Corp.Talisma 1.0Available direct from Aditi.Score: 7.40

Mustang Software Inc.Internet Message Center, 2.4 Enterprise EditionAvailable on the open market.Score: 7.75

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E-Mail Service Managers

* Pricing and Availability: Prices range from $2,995 per seat to $10,000 for the server and two seats (plus $250 per additional seat) on the open market. The pricing curves for these products cross at just under 3.5 seats and diverge sharply from there. But beware: Mustang Software's Internet Message Center, 2.4 Enterprise Edition, also requires Microsoft Corp.'s SQL Server 6.5 or 7.0, while Aditi's Talisma includes a less-powerful Microsoft database engine in the package.

*What's Selling: Automated routing of e-mail from group aliases to agents and pools, with tracking of case histories and easy or automatic response features.

* Where to Find Bargains: On the open market.

* What to Specify: Make sure the package you buy can grow with your company and has the automated routing features you need. If you're looking to develop a shared knowledge base, ensure that the e-service architecture facilitates such sharing across cases or else be prepared to integrate another product to handle that part of the job.

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