There’s life in the old dog yet – Who is sending millions of faxes these days?

Print data streams

With larger organizations the majority of fax traffic is no longer handled by individual fax machines but by fax server solutions providing tight application integration and allowing a high degree of automated fax processing. A typical example is the usage of computer based fax in conjunction with printing systems. Traditionally these systems physically printed thousands of letters, invoices and other types of documents, which were enveloped and sent by mail – a laborious, cost and time intensive process. A fax server using printer emulation technology can electronically grab these printouts, extract address information such as a fax number from the print data stream, convert the original message into the required TIFF fax format and send the information to the recipient in a fraction of the time required for mail delivery and for a fraction of the associated cost. In addition the successful receipt of the documentation can be verified and recorded automatically.

Individual business messages

After people became used to sending text messages and desktop documents as email it became somewhat cumbersome to print documents for fax recipients, collect the paper from a printer, fill out a fax form, dial and feed the paper into a fax machine. Soon computer based email to fax functionality became a popular remedy allowing fax messages to be sent transparently from the user via an email client. Advanced solutions automatically selected appropriate cover pages depending on the ID or department of the sender and could feed data into these forms from the email address book entries of the sender and the recipient such as “To” and “From” lines. In addition the sender could be immediately notified about the transmission results and react to failed transmission attempts.

Also for incoming fax messages email became a popular delivery medium. Today all enterprise fax solutions can determine a specific recipient for an incoming fax depending on criteria such as a dialed number or number extension and deliver the received facsimile automatically as an attachment to the mail basket of the recipient.

So today email to fax and fax to email is a widely used tool within a great many organizations. In the INTERCOPE customer study mentioned above the email interface is one of the most popular integration modules and is used by about one third of all users covered by the study. The fax volumes processed through email integration have decreased over the last few years mainly because more messages which were initially sent to fax numbers are now transmitted directly to email addresses. However, the vast majority of all users still see fax functionality integrated into their email system as an indispensible component of their business communications requirements due to the following factors:

  •  Customers request the delivery of specific information as faxes instead of email
  • The delivery of critical documents may require fax delivery due to corporate standards and regulations
  • Letter style documents with cover pages are required while attachments to emails are not acceptable.
  • Fax transmission is real-time and difficult to tamper with

Enterprise Resource Planning

A third relevant source (and destination) for fax messages employed in business processes are Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems such as SAP. SAP had quite early identified the necessity of integrating external communication channels into the business processes handled by SAP applications and developed a state of the art interface for such systems based on remote procedure calls (RPC) called SAP Connect. This interface is widely used in the fax server industry and enables individual SAP users as well as automated processes within SAP to easily send and receive fax messages as well as to trace the transmission status for outgoing messages.

Some 15% of all INTERCOPE customers recently reviewed are using the SAP fax integration functions. However the contribution to the overall fax volumes is significantly higher as the SAP installations typically process high message volumes from automated business processes. The following two examples illustrate the significance of fax processing for different areas of Enterprise Resource Management:

  • A large hypermarket chain sends information by fax from SAP including orders for suppliers, pricing information, special offers and broadcast messages to the markets. These messages add up to more than half a million each month and volumes are continuously rising. Fax is a preferred medium of delivery for most of the recipients and attempts to use delivery by email have been given up after receiving very bad feedback from external suppliers as well as from the hypermarkets owned by the company.
  • The financial service arm of a large car manufacturer built a Customer Relationship Management application based on SAP CRM, SAP Netweaver and other SAP components which provide customer advisers with all the data required to work efficiently on customer requests and enquiries at one glance. Data is accessed from various sources such as host based banking and contractual systems and the platform integrates all relevant communication channels such as phone, mail, fax, and email. As part of the overall communication flow this system processes some 700,000 fax pages each month.

Enterprise Content Management

As described previously modern fax server solutions can route received fax messages according to criteria such as the dialed number or a dialed extension to mail baskets or users of ERP systems. However, when these documents are associated with specific business processes, instead of individual users, this approach has its natural limitations. An insurance company could e.g. provide different fax numbers for car insurance, life insurance and health insurance. The company could try to further fine tune this approach by providing a specific dial extension for e.g. new appliances, claim related documentation and general inquiries. In practice however this will not work as intended since senders will often ignore or confuse such numbering schemes and a high portion of documents will end up in the wrong place.

Facsimiles is basically unstructured content in the form of images and this is hard to process automatically by means of software. The typical place where such content is handled are Enterprise Content Management systems designed to deal with unstructured text, images including facsimiles, audio and video data.

  • A large government agency in the US handing disability claims stores mountains of claims documents for the millions of people who apply for disability benefits each year. Each claimant has a folder in one of the largest Content Management repositories ever set up in the world. One important source of input data for this system is fax messages sent by applicants, doctors, hospitals and other parties involved in the claims process. Each month 1.4 million fax messages are received and processed by this system.
  • In insurance companies and in particular within claims handling the deployment of ECM systems as a basis for workflow driven business processes is widespread and inevitably involves large volumes of facsimiles in addition to other sources of documentation. An example is a company focusing on specialty products, such as mobile homes and motorcycles. In this company all information related to a claim is stored in folders in a Content Management application and is immediately to hand together with the customer record when e.g. a customer calls. Some 100,000 fax messages are received and processed each month.
  • Credit card transactions are often sent from branch offices as facsimiles to specialized service providers. One of these companies in Germany automated the processing of these messages to a high degree by means of optical character recognition (OCR). The OCR component extracts all relevant data from the fax images and the fax server solution forwards this data in XML format to the workflow management system of the company where the actual transactions are executed. Some 40,000 transactions such as credit card applications, cancellations, blocking of cards and various changes are processed each month using this architecture.

Distributed Systems

In 15% of all installations reviewed in the INTERCOPE study customer written applications running under Windows or Unix use fax services. Most typically these applications serve industry and customer specific requirements.

  • The business of a leading mobile telecommunications company is based on extensive communication with customers by phone, email, fax, and web interfaces. This communication is handled by a proprietary application tailored to the specific business requirements. Fax processing is included in many processes such as e.g. invoicing, SIM activations, number changes, provision of billing information and other aspects of customer interactions resulting in a monthly message volume of more than 300,000 facsimiles.
  • A financial group serving more than six million customers with special focus on household accounts and small and medium enterprises developed a workflow application based on Microsoft SharePoint. Through a web service interface some 280,000 fax messages are processed each month as part of a highly efficient communication infrastructure.