One of the beauties of the Internet is that anyone with a good idea can start a company and still keep their day job until the company starts generating enough revenue to replace the needed paycheck. That was Warren Sager's situation. He worked for an e-Commerce company but started Internet Retail Connection, a group of online retailers that sell picnic baskets, pocket knives, and other niche products.
Sager's customers certainly communicate through e-mail. But some want to do things the "Donna Reed" way--they want to talk to a real person about their needs. He certainly couldn't answer their calls at his workplace. So they stacked up in his voice mail; he returned them when he came home every night.
This worked at the outset when the company didn't have an avalanche of orders. But then the site took off. In 1994, when he had 30 orders a day, Sager decided he needed a customer service representative (CSR). But how was she going to answer his calls?
His employer purchased a $10,000 phone system, which needed constant programming and maintenance. "As a layman, I couldn't do that," he says. He couldn't afford the cash outlay, either. He needed a different kind of solution.
Telephony as a Service
After an online search, Sager outsourced that task to GotVMail LLC, a Boston, Massachusetts-based company that provides telephone systems "for small businesses looking for all the telephone functionality and professional presence of a large corporate phone system," according to David Powers, Vice President, Communications, for GotVMail. Small businesses can sign up for GotVMail's monthly service online and receive a toll-free or local number, a customized main voice greeting, mailboxes for employees and departments, a dial-by-name directory, and "follow me" call forwarding capability. GotVMail's service plans start at under $10 a month.
Sager hired a CSR who works at home. He received a toll-free number from GotVMail, which routed incoming sales and service calls to employees. They didn't have to change any telephone behaviors. They weren't stymied by complicated technology or frustrated by endless options in an integrated voice response (IVR) system. Powers says the supplier's call-forwarding feature allows his buyers to route calls "anywhere in the world, to any type of phone."
Here's how it works: A caller places a call to GotVMail's toll-free or local number. She hears a customized automated greeting (e.g., "Thank you for calling The Internet Retail Connection..."). The caller chooses an extension; the system places her on hold with music, while it forwards the call to the appropriate employee or department.
If no one answers, the system can take a voice message and then deliver a voice mail as an MP3 attachment to that person's e-mail box. The system can notify the called person on the screen of their PDA or BlackBerry. Users can view their messages -- both voice mails and faxes -- online at the myGotVMail.com portal.
Today, with sales volume at 250 orders a day, Sager has five CSRs. "We set up a streamlined call center even though we are in different spots," he marvels. Powers says GotVMail is an outsourced service for small business like Sager's that allows them to "add functionality and features as they grow."
The Importance of Personalized Service for Online Retailers
Sager says personalized customer service is "a key reason" why his online business is successful. "Online you need every advantage possible. We discovered our online customers want to talk to us, and now we are there for them."
Anita Campbell, CEO of Small Business Trends, says shoppers "want to know the people behind the Web site." She says people are purchasing more items online that they used to buy in a store. But now they don't have the item in front of them. "So they have a lot more questions since they can't touch or actually see the item," she says.
In addition, if people make an impulse buy, they want the online retailer to answer a question about the item right now. Being able to return a call instantly is crucial to complete these kinds of sales, she explains.
Sager says his call center is working so well he rewrote his Web site to encourage his e-Commerce customers to phone. Now the site prominently displays the toll-free number on every page. "Today's technology is great. People want to shop on the Internet. But we discovered they also want to talk to their retailer. They want to hear someone pick up the phone and say, 'How can I help you?'" he reports.
Sager says the best thing about GotVMail is that it's up 100 percent of the time. (Actually, Powers says the network is up 99.995 percent of the time.) Sager says he uses other applications that have periodic down times, which would "kill our business if the phones were down. We can't have them down even 10 minutes," he notes.
He also liked the fact there were no up-front costs to use the system. Powers says "there's nothing to buy;" customers can use their landlines, cell phones, or even VoIP numbers. And since this is a hosted software application, buyers don't have to load any software on their computers.
And it's so simple "everyone can make changes," according to Sager. He says he can change call answering and forwarding settings on-the-fly with a telephone key pad or Web browser.
He also used the professional voice talent to record his main greeting. "It's important that small business sound professional," adds Campbell. "Customers know if they are calling a cell phone or a home answering machine. Those don't give customers much confidence," she says.
A dial-by-name directory is also available.
Even though Sager is receiving telephony as a service, he says he has built a partnership relationship with GotVMail. "They had the right people with the right product at the right time for us," he says.
Outsourcing for the 'Increasing Mobile Entrepreneur'
In addition to small businesses, another target market is what Powers calls "highly mobile entrepreneurs." These are owners who "are highly mobile and need to be reachable wherever they are an on whatever phone they have," explains the GotVMail exec. Like Sager, they have experienced the features and efficiency of large company communications systems.
One of these entrepreneurs is Adam Hollander, Head of Creative Products for Brands Marketing. He has offices all over the country, so he appreciates the ability to route calls to wherever he is. Since everyone at his firm has Web-enabled phones, they receive their voice-mail messages instantly.
Instantly is the operative word since he has "to react immediately" if there is a problem with any segment of his custom ad campaigns. He says he can send an e-mail to a supplier while he's on the phone talking to one of his customers with a challenge.
He says GotVMail "is way more cost-effective" than other telephony solutions. He doesn't have to purchase anything. Before he signed up four years ago, he thought he'd have to spend hundreds of dollars for a PBX system. "I have virtually the same things with GotVMail," he says.
Currently, GotVMail has served more than 45,000 small business customers. Powers says the company has been profitable since its second month in business and has grown its business principally by word-of-mouth advocacy of its current customers who think enough of the GotVMail hosted phone service to tell others about it.
Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:
- Online customers like shopping on the Internet but they also want the comfort of talking to a real person about the items. Internet retailers need a telephone option to succeed online.
- Telephony as a service is an affordable option for businesses with one to 10 employees and highly mobile entrepreneurs.
- Telephony as a service means outsourcing buyers do not have to purchase or maintain any equipment. It's telephony light.