PlumberSurplus.com Ecommerce and Entrepreneurship Blog | About | Contact | PlumberSurplus.com Store

Speaking at an eCommerce Conference

Posted on June 4, 2008 by josh

Well, Internet Retailer 2008 is coming up in Chicago and Ryan Douglas, our Marketing Team Leader, will be speaking. Interestingly enough, I recently spoke at SMXWest 2008. Why would someone who isn’t even in Search Marketing go to SMXWest 2008? McAfee asked PlumberSurplus.com to speak at SMXWest 2008 regarding our successful implementation of their security badge in our comparison shopping feeds. Our marketing team leader was unavailable to speak. I am the Customer Service manager and had been involved in the selection and implementation of HackerSafe on PlumberSurplus.com and was, consequently, somewhat familiar with our CSE program. Plus, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity for somebody to be able to go and get all the latest goodies in the world of search.

So, what’s my take on speaking? Well, I’ll start with my recent speech. First of all, my speech was scheduled during a lunch time session in the vendor hall. I fully expected to speak in one of the general session rooms of the conference. However, I was perched on a small stage with an area sectioned off for about 30 people to join in if they happened to be wandering by during their conference lunch break. In my experience, lunch time presentations tend to flounder. In fact, I was at Internet Retailer 2007 in San Jose and I remember that there was a lunch time presentation on one of the conference days. The conference was great, but I have no idea who the lunch time presenters were. I was far more interested in networking and eating lunch. Surprisingly, the audience that stopped to listen to my speech at SMX was attentive. Even more surprisingly, people stopped to listen even though there were no more chairs. So with a captive audience, I began my speech and was unpleasantly surprised by early audio difficulties. Thankfully, I was wired up with a supplemental microphone so that McAfee could record the speech. This turned out to be a great idea, since I’m not convinced that the context of my speech was necessarily best for a search marketing conference. Even though I was able to tout the elevated sales we garnered from the use of the HackerSafe logo in our CSE feeds, the speech really centered on the ease of implementation and intrinsic marketing value for an internet retailer. My speech would have, perhaps, been better suited for a conference of other online merchants. The greater value for McAfee will come from distributing my speech through other forums as a testimony of a successful customer implementation of their HackerSafe product.

Going to an industry conference is always an interesting experience. Speaking is even more fun. This particular conference was interesting because of the people. First off, the world of search marketers seems to be a relatively relaxed place. The folks attending the conference weren’t unprofessional (mostly), just relaxed. I met lots of people that seemed to know search marketing and lots who seemed to know very little, but not many in between. It may not surprise you that wearing a little badge that displays “Speaker”, works as a great ice breaker and usually gets people to approach you. This made it easier for this non-search marketer to blend in, make friends, and, frankly, lends immediate credibility. Ryan should have a great time and will likely be able to leverage his “Speaker” status to more easily network with individuals that he may not have otherwise approached.

Some other thoughts on my trip to SMXWest: I find it particularly interesting that search marketing doesn’t have a standardized training platform. Though there are organizations that train in search marketing, there isn’t a formalized university curriculum. Even more, there isn’t a standard text to which one can reference search marketing wisdom. The book would have to change every three months. It seems to me that most get their education in the field through mentorship and constant industry involvement. It may not astonish you to find out that Yahoo! and Microsoft seemed grossly underrepresented at the conference. Every speech that I attended gave the impression that Google was the only game in town. Nearly every speaker used language that all but excluded everyone but Google from the search marketing realm. I realize that Google has a strong hold on search, but that seems like a great opportunity for a solution to create incentives for search marketers. I don’t know what that means, but then, I’m not a search marketer, so it’s easy for me to be critical.

 

 

Cisco 7960 and Trixbox Problems in our VOIP Implementation

Posted on May 8, 2008 by josh

If you didn't already read Challenges of an Internet Retailer’s VOIP Implementation, then you may want to take a quick glance at that post to catch up on our previous issues.

Our decision to use the Grandstream GXP-2000 phones for our VOIP users had been haunting us for some time when a friend of mine recently “donated” a spare Cisco 7960 and a few Polycom IP phones to use. I was naturally excited to plug in phones that I knew were renowned for quality and performance. Both phones were well documented in the TrixBox community and I fully expected to be up and running in minutes. So I gave the Polycom’s a whirl: plugged them in, checked the IP address, logged in to each phone through a web interface and updated all of the settings that I expected to make them work with our TrixBox (version 2.5) implementation. Easy. They worked well. Done.

Then, excited like a kid at Christmas, I jumped over to the Cisco 7960, plugged it in, checked the IP address, opened a browser… “cannot display the webpage”. Oh. OK. So Cisco doesn’t have a user friendly web interface for the 7960. No problem. So I dove into settings on the phone. Cisco makes a great product and from the granularity and variety of options, it’s clear that this phone can be customized to work well with our system. So I manually plugged away on settings using the phone’s dial pad and rebooted the phone. Now, the phone won’t register with the TrixBox host. Hmmm. Everything seems correct. Maybe I missed a period somewhere… nope. So I tried changing a few settings and rebooting… nope. So I tried changing settings a half dozen or so more times…nope. OK, going to the TrixBox forums. A search for 7960 yields 469 results. OK, no problem. So I dig away, reading through numerous setup walkthroughs.

Finally, I come across a forum where a user posts a setup question relating to the same issue that I am having. He posted on 12/22/2006. The first reply to his post is a “bumped” response that was posted on 3/24/2008 with a very simple solution.

Seriously? It took 15 months to find the solution? Wow.

So, I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through the trouble of digging, here’s what got my Cisco 7960 to work with my implementation of TrixBox:

 

  1. From the TrixBox command line, type “setup-cisco” 
  2. Open http://trixboxhostname/maint 
  3. In the Asterisk menu, select Endpoint Manager 
  4. Click Cisco phones then click Add Phone 
  5. Select the appropriate extension, phone type, and enter the phone’s MAC address 
  6. In the Asterisk menu, select Config Edit 
  7. Click /tftpboot then click SIPDefault.cnf 
  8. In the edit window, find:
    • # NAT/Firewall Traversal
      nat_enable: "0"
    • and change the “0” to “1” (This is the step I was missing)
  9. Manually configure your 7960 to point to your TrixBox host’s IP for tftpboot
  10. Reboot your 7960

 

Tada!  It should work.

 

 

Challenges of an Internet Retailer’s VOIP Implementation

Posted on March 20, 2008 by josh

PlumberSurplus.com’s humble beginnings had us perched around a kitchen table, waiting for the two-line cordless Uniden to ring through our telephone’s Vonage connection.  Yes, we adopted VOIP very early.  As we grew, we found that Vonage was unreliable as a hosted solution and was not scalable. We had grown well beyond our two line capacity.  Consequently, we added several standard Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) lines with basic hunting capabilities to our arsenal and dropped Vonage.  We grew quickly and added a few new POTS lines and customer service personnel as they were needed.  But, we kept growing.

We were faced with a number of issues for a rapidly growing call center.  We had too few lines available for the customers who wanted to call us and our voicemail filled too rapidly.  Also, customers demanded a more sophisticated phone system solution.  The line used to ring in and the first person to pick up the call was your guy or gal; or if all lines were busy, the call went to voicemail, likely resulting in lost revenues and upset customers.  We had an increasing need for more robust routing of calls to qualified reps.  We also needed to allow customers who were willing to hold for a rep, the option to stay in queue, or to leave a message.  We also needed something inexpensive.  So the hunt began.

We requested quotes for several different PBX system solutions (VOIP and nonVOIP), but came up with quotes well beyond our price range.  One quote resulted in a per user deployment cost of $2100 per user!  So, we examined hosted VOIP solutions.  Although the price was better for many services, we could not find a service that satisfied our need for queuing, easily customizable and highly extensible Interactive Voice Response (IVR)/Automated Attendant (AA), and inexpensive scalability.

Finally, we landed on open source VOIP.  We examined two options, Asterisk and SIPX.  Both satisfied our need for queuing, IVR/AA, and both were extremely inexpensive.  What we found as we examined both solutions was that the initial set up was going to be a challenge, since only one person at PlumberSurplus.com had limited experience building, deploying, or supporting a VOIP telephone system.  In the end we decided on an Asterisk-based deployment using Trixbox, mainly due to wide open source community support.

What was the cost of the system?  The Trixbox software, which is open source under the GPL, cost $0.  The host computer on which we run the system, a Dell workstation, was $1200.  The VOIP phones, Grandstream GXP-2000, were $90 each (Note: we have since implemented several softphones, $0, with USB headsets, $40: Note, LivePerson gave us several USB headsets for free).  The analog to IP gateway for the phone lines, $676.  The final cost came from dozens of hours of implementation research on Asterisk and Trixbox forums.

Once we had an operational test environment, deployment was relatively easy.  The system worked exactly as expected, with one major exception: Quality was terrible.  During our research, we learned that analog to IP implementations would experience some call quality issues.  In our testing of the system, we had great results; the call quality was approximately equivalent to a cell phone connection.  However, once we went live, we experienced a host of issues.

The biggest issues were echo and static.  Users complained incessantly about “the phones that talk back at them.”  Our particular type of implementation was not widely discussed among the open source community and this made optimization a nightmare.  The quandary was that we were already live with the new solution and did not have a great way to test system changes during optimization for fear that we may cause intolerable system disturbances or, at worst, take the system down completely.  After months of tweaking, we have finally found a reasonable plateau of quality.

The next issue was our VOIP phone selection.  We opted to go with inexpensive VOIP phones to keep costs down.  In hindsight, it may have been better to spend the extra money to get better phones.  The speakerphone did not work well, phones would randomly reboot, and, worst of all, the phones would intermittently drop calls.  Manufacturer support for the phones was positive in that firmware updates are frequent and they appear to attempt to address issues discussed in the community.  However, many of the firmware updates we used created new issues.  We have, however, found a stable version that works well for us.  Also, two of the phones we used locked up and died.  Our supplier, 888VoipStore.com, was great in getting them replaced quickly.

That brings us to today.  Again, we’re faced with an increasing number of users with telephone needs and we still need better call quality.  We’re likely going to transition our digital-to-analog-to-digital lines over to full digital and vastly expand the number of lines available.  That will be Part 2 of “Challenges of an Internet Retailer’s VOIP Implementation”.  In the end, I feel like we did well with our implementation, relative to our goals.  We kept costs to a bare minimum and implemented a system that is fully customizable and scalable.  If we could do it over, I would have probably paid someone to do the initial setup and optimization, then customized our own preferences.  Also, I would not have opted for the cheapest IP Phones possible.

One to grow on…

 

Michael Gray Topless at SMX? Live from Search Marketing Expo West, Matt Cutts Offers Michael Gray Cash to Strip on Stage, Andy Beal Vehemently Objects!

Posted on February 27, 2008 by josh

Tomorrow I'll be speaking at Search Marketing Expo West in Santa Clara. I will be discussing PlumberSurplus.com's development and implementation of HackerSafe along with our utilization of the HackerSafe trustmark in our comparison shopping engine feeds. My speech is during lunch in the exhibit hall, which, according to Katie Gausepohl, Third Door Media's Director of Finance, is a first for the circuit, so I hope I can provide some value to what I expect to be a semi-captive, and very hungry, lunching audience.

I've been meaning to put together some posts discussing the conference, but keep finding myself buried in prepping my speech, attending sessions, hobnobbing with Google over drinks and appetizers at
Sino Restaurant & Lounge, desperately trying to keep up on email and touching base with my super team back at home. However, sometimes a morsel of content so incredibly entertaining comes along, that a real time insta-post is absolutely required.

This afternoon I attended the
SEO & Blogging session on the Wonder Twins track. At the beginning of the Q & A, Matt Cutts, sitting against the back wall of the room, offered Michael Gray $100 to take off his shirt and dance on the table during the session. The audience erupted in laughter as Matt Cutt's was pulling out wads of cash. While the entire audience was rooting for Michael to get up and groove, Andy Beal counter offered $200 if Michael wouldn't end up half naked. Panelist antics such as these are what can make conferences extra enjoyable. The networking and learning opportunity is enormous, but a bit of levity woven through the event make fast paced cram sessions bearable. Also, it's interesting to see how loose, and apparently close, all of the Bloggers were in this particular session.

Here's a photo just after the mayhem ensued.  From left to right: Vanessa Fox of Ignition Partners (the moderator), Aaron Wall of SEO Book, Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim, Michael Gray of Graywolf's SEO Blog.

SMX West 2008 Panel

After the session, Aaron and Andy were nice enough to discuss this blog and our strategy in general. I also had a chance to catch up with Matt. A few months back, we outed a competitor for black hat spamming with hidden links. During an interview with Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting, Matt addressed the issue and offered some perspective. I thanked Matt for mentioning the issue during the interview and Matt was glad to contribute, as always.

Though I sometimes get worn out sitting in these sessions by the end of the second day of a conference, it's experiences like this that remind me of why I love eCommerce. The people are great and the opportunity to take home some nuggets of knowledge are equally matched by nuggets of fun. I'll post more about my experiences at the conference soon.

 

10 Things That Every E-Commerce Customer Service Rep Should Be Equipped With

Posted on February 4, 2008 by josh

1. Product Training
It cannot be overstated how critical it is that your customer service reps, at a minimum, know your product offering.  A basic understanding of the features and benefits of your major categories is essential.  PlumberSurplus.com has had great success with the creation of training content that is available to customer service reps and customers via our online learning center.  We’ve included How-To Guides, Buying Guides, and Videos.  In addition, we record video for all internal product training sessions and post it to our company intranet.

2. Sales Training
Beyond basic telephone skills and scripts, it is important that your customer service reps are given appropriate, ongoing sales training.  This includes cross-selling and upselling techniques, current and upcoming marketing and merchandising efforts, and tips for handling angry or difficult customers.

3. A Fast Internet Connection
Any e-commerce employee will tell you how frustrating it is to be faced with unnecessary internet slowing. This is especially true as more and more applications transition from desktop to web apps and more businesses utilize hosted solutions.

4. Two or More Available Phone Lines
Your reps will inevitably be faced with the need to call UPS or FedEx while the customer is on hold. Your customers will demand information in real time that requires a phone call.  Your reps will too.

5. Decision-making Guidelines
If you don’t give your customer service reps at least a little bit of decision making latitude, they will not feel empowered to do their job.

6. Roboform
Any e-commerce employee with 43 distinct login names and passwords will tell you what a pain it is to keep track of all of them.  Roboform is a password manager, form filler, and password generator.  This little gem is a huge time saver and comes in a few different flavors.  There is a free version that allows for up to 10 passcards, or a Pro version that retails for $39.90 with two licenses.

7. Dual Monitors
This may seem like a superfluous luxury, but having the extra real estate can really make a difference.  A typical e-commerce customer service rep doesn’t work with a single application.  Usually they’ll have multiple web browsers, some backend or CRM application, email, and maybe instant messaging open at any give time. Give your reps another monitor.  It’s cheap, it will save them time and they will love you for it.  Keep in mind, though, that you will need a secondary graphics card; these are also very cheap.

Customer Service Representative with Two Monitors

 

8. Your Time
As a customer service manager or supervisor your time is extremely valuable.  However, it is imperative that you make yourself available to your reps.  Often a customer service role can be unforgiving with spurts of angry or upset customers.  Your department’s morale will benefit greatly from your accessibility.

9. Collaboration Tools
Your customer service reps need to be able to share information with one another easily.  Give them access to tools that make it easy for them to communicate and work together.  Google Docs & Spreadsheets has helped us a great deal, and it doesn’t cost you anything.

10. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Tools
CRM is the process by which a company stores, tracks, and analyzes customer experience data.  You don’t have to go out and buy a unified SAP solution to give your reps CRM tools.  Even a small e-commerce business can take advantage of inexpensive, but highly useful tools like SugarCRM or LivePerson.  SugarCRM is an open source CRM platform that is available for free; although there will be costs associated with development, deployment, and training. SugarCRM also offers paid solutions, depending on needs. LivePerson, widely known as a chat solution, is also a useful tool for communicating with customers via email and phone.  LivePerson, at a minimum, will allow your customer service reps to chat with customers and track email history with your customers via an email ticketing system.  LivePerson’s small business package is licensed per seat, but it is well worth the cost.

*Bonus

11. Instant Messaging (IM)
Many companies have debated internally about the implementation of IM because of privacy and productivity.  In e-commerce, it is almost a necessity.  Try to communicate a URL to a fellow customer service rep over the phone.  Waiting for an email to come across can be frustrating.  IM makes it easier and faster to communicate some things.  Your reps will frequently need quick information from other reps for help, the warehouse for an update, your marketing team for promotional clarification, etc.