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Voice-mail firm's latest product helps clients collect overdue debts

December 1, 2008
A growing number of companies strapped for cash and struggling to pay their bills on time is presenting an unusual opportunity for one local IT firm.

Angel investor Robert Compton helped launch Vontoo Inc. in 2005. The company helps marketers send audio messages to thousands of phones in a particular demographic and track whether those messages are heard.

Much like Exact Target, the fast-growing Indianapolisbased e-mail marketing firm Compton chairs, Vontoo delivers messages only to people who want them.

Entertainers and sports teams, for instance, use the service to alert fans about ticket information or promotions. But the unstable economy has provided Vontoo a niche executives didn't foresee v using voice messages to help clients collect debt.

Companies in a financial crunch are more likely to delay payments for as long as possible. Small suppliers owed money are particularly vulnerable in recessionary times because they typically don't have the manpower to chase down their accounts receivables.

Vontoo is aggressively marketing the application that has become its fastest-growing product. About a dozen companies currently are using it, Compton said.

He declined to divulge Vontoo's annual revenue but expects it will grow fourfold from last year, due in part to the increasing demand for the new-found niche.

"It lit up in September, because banks stopped lending," he said. "And now it's really accelerating."

Companies pursuing arrears normally send an invoice and follow up within 30 days, and again a month later if the amount remains outstanding. A few phone calls might be placed before a collection agency is retained. Collection agencies are often effective, but they take a big chunk of the collection — typically about 40 percent.

With Vontoo, an unpaid invoice prompts an automated call a month after its mailing. The message received is a "friendly reminder" that the account is overdue. The recipient is given the option of sending a check or pressing "1" to be connected to the client's accounts receivables department.

Ignored calls can prompt follow-up messages from department supervisors, controllers and ultimately CEOs, depending upon the severity of the overdue bill. The messages are not threatening but personal and meant to convey empathy, Compton said.

Companies on the receiving end might hear the following: "We haven't heard from you; this is really concerning," or, "We can work out a payment plan, but we need to talk."

Compton said the messages are proving more successful than the traditional method of pursuing collections.

"You can send that out in a letter," he said, "but I can tell you, those dunning letters don't even get read."

Vontoo charges 10 cents a call, far cheaper than costs associated with mailers, Compton said. While that might not seem like much for Vontoo, the costs can add up when some clients routinely make thousands of calls.

Take for instance Tampa-based Buddy's Home Furnishings, a chain of 65 rent-to-own outlets in Florida, Georgia, Kansas and Arkansas. The company didn't return calls from IBJ, but an executive told Speech Technology magazine earlier this year that the economy has hit customers hard and increased the amount of payments past due.

Buddy's structures most of the rental contracts for its furniture, appliances and electronics around weekly payments. So account managers at each Buddy's franchise began their week every Monday morning with a stack of 600 to 700 people to contact. The result was a glut of time lost for employees with an already long list of customer support responsibilities.

Buddy's signed up for an account and sent Vontoo an Excel spreadsheet listing the addresses and phone numbers of all the Buddy's outlets, which Vontoo loaded into its system. The result is that Vontoo has helped cut the load of thousands of calls by nearly one third.

Locally, Ivy Tech Community College discovered Vontoo in June and uses the messaging system for all sorts of announcements, including reminding students tuition is due.

The messages aren't a response to late payments but simply a "heads up" for students who haven't made plans to pay their bills, said Matt Diuro, assistant director of Ivy Tech's regional resource center.

"We used a prior company, and Vontoo's software was a lot more appealing," he said. "Plus, it's local; that's always good."

Vontoo's growth prompted it a few months ago to hire Milestone Advisors, a local provider of financial management and strategic planning services, to provide CFO duties.

Milestone Managing Director Tom Gabbert is so impressed with Vontoo's debt-collection system that he's recommending the service to its clients. A few are in the beginning stages of adopting it now, he said.

"It is somewhat unorthodox and unusual," Gabbert said, "but I like it."

Vontoo's leadership hopes other executives will feel the same. Compton co-founded the company with Dustin Sapp, a Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology grad who serves as president. They brought on Kim Graham Lee as CEO in July.
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