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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…

 

That's Freaking Spam-tastic: PizzaHut.com Requires Customers to Opt-In to Advertising When Ordering Online

Posted on March 6, 2008 by Tim

At the end of my senior year of high school I was awarded "Scholar Athlete", which came with a certificate published on an ink jet printer and something like $500 bucks.  Now, even though this was pre-steroid scandal, the award is pretty deceiving.  I'm way more scholar than I am athlete.  All the real jocks were, how do I put this lightly, academically challenged.  I think the athletics department just picked the student with the highest GPA, as long as he or she played any sport.  I played on the golf and tennis teams.  Well, actually, I "used" the golf team.  If you joined the golf team, you got to play at all the great local courses, for free, as often as you liked and use the driving range, for free, until they shut off the lights.  I didn't care as much about our team, which wasn't that great anyway, as I did about free golf.

Hang with me, eCommerce-ville just ahead.

The scholar athlete award is so deceiving that heading to college, I couldn't have cared less about sports.  However, once I stepped foot on USC's campus and started mainlining the Koolaid, my metamorphosis into a college football feen went full throttle.  Long story short, now I'm a massive USC football fan.  This addiction has led me to become a huge college football fan.  Being a college football fan means I hang out with people who like pro football; which means I end up watching the Super Bowl.  Inevitably, I annually find myself inhaling a carb-infused feast known as pizza.  It's a natural downward spiral.

Hooray, entering eCommerce-ville!  Population: Many hungry sports fans.

Integrating Offline Advertising with Search Engine Marketing

Following the Super Bowl earlier this month, there's been some interesting chit chat in the blogoshphere discussing how well companies integrated their Super Bowl television commercials with their online presence.  With cost estimates for 30 second spots swirling up to $3 million, it seems critical for advertisers to take full advantage of their commercial exposure by intimately assimilating their online arenas.  After the game, Reprise Media published their 4th annual Search Marketing Scorecard (SMS) which ranks companies who buy Super Bowl commercials by their ability to integrate those commercials with their online presence in order to metric how prepared each company is to capitalize on online interest.  A healthy portion of the conversation has been centered around how the Super Bowl advertisers fared from a website visibility perspective.  More specifically, this conversation has analyzed URL visibility in the commercials, mentioning the URL, displaying or calling out the URL prominently, showing website screenshots and the advertiser's ability to drive traffic to their website.  Another notable portion of the conversation has centered around a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) perspective.  The SEO conversation has analyzed whether advertiser's sites appear in search engine results for branded and non branded phrases associated with the campaign.  For anyone that did not catch the Super Bowl advertisements, Fox created a MySpace page housing all of the advertisements.  Although Fox and MySpace are siblings, both parented by News Corp., the general consensus seems to be that a more strategic SEO move would have been for Fox to host the commercial content on their own domain.  MySpace seems to be doing just fine on the traffic front.

Wait, isn't this post supposed to be about Pizza Hut and email advertising?  Why are we still talking about the Super Bowl?  Hold your horses!  eCommerce-ville has needs.  You can't just rush in.  Where's the foreplay?

Order Online: A Call to Action

All this "Which Super Bowl advertisers ruled and which ones sucked?" conversation reminded me why I'm glad that I'm a college football fan.  Not only do I think college football is superior (trigger flood of hate mail), but, in general, many of the sponsors' advertising campaigns are better as well.  Case in point: Papa John's.  Papa John's sponsored the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, aptly titled the 2007 PapaJohns.com Bowl.  Not only did Papa John's plaster their URL (not just their name) on just about every single piece of marketing that made reference to the game, from the BCS' website to the banner across the televised broadcast, but plenty of the marketing included the call-to-action "Order Online" underneath the Bowl's title.  Even the giant Papa John's logos all over the field were stamped with the instruction to "Order Online".

Now, it doesn't take a marketing research guru to figure out that Papa John's may have had a spike in sales during the Papa John's Bowl due to their sponsorship.  However, the higher level long term branding initiatives are a much more interesting discussion.  It's well known that using a strong call-to-action in Search Engine Marketing (SEM) campaigns is an optimization strategy that, in general, improves the quality and performance of advertising campaigns, without raising costs.  Not only is Papa John's use of a call-to-action capitalizing on this strategy, their implementation in an offline channel generates online traffic while lowering overhead conversion costs.  The costs associated with executing an online transaction are likely markedly less than transactions performed over the phone.  Moreover, every order placed online provides an opportunity for Papa John's to build their email marketing list, up sell and cross sell in an automated fashion, and generate increased loyalty with those who have a positive customer experience.  As such, the "Order Online" mantra may be less about customer acquisition and more about customer retention and market share growth.

Their SEO efforts seem to be in tune as well.  For the searches order pizza online and pizza order online, Papa John's ranks first.  Along with the bowl game sponsorship,  Papa John's created an entire site, papajohnsbowl.com, dedicated to the game and chock full of content.

Eureka!  Our destination!  A conversation about Pizza Hut!  The title of this post does apply!!!

No Opt-In, No Pizza For You

Don't you hate it when you're creating an account on a website so that you can place an order and right before you check "I Agree" to the Terms of Use, you have to UNCHECK, "I Agree" for you to send me a bunch of crap.  Well, Pizza Hut took that annoyance to a whole new level.

The week before the super bowl, my wife mentioned that we had a couple unused Pizza Hut gift cards that had been magneted to our refrigerator for over a year.  She was under the impression that the card's value begins to depreciate one year after purchase (If true, don't even get me started on this issue!).  Perfect!  We had a super bowl party to attend, so we decided to donate to the cause.  Since Super Bowl Sunday is like the biggest pizza ordering day, I dropped the gift cards off at my friends house the night before the game so we could get our order in before the frenzy.  We grab the mac book, find the codes on the gift cards, and head to pizzahut.com.  After spending time starring at the coupons, figuring out the promotions, figuring out how many bodies we need to feed and filling up our shopping cart, we end up at that account creation page.  After filling out a bunch of data, we get to the bottom of the form and see this:

 

PizzHut.com customer sign up page

 

WHAT?!?!  Are you serious?  Really Pizza Hut?  Really?  You can't be.  This can't be right.  I really can't buy your product online unless I agree to receive your junk mail?  There's no check to opt-in, LET ALONE AN UNCHECK TO OPT-OUT?

Let me get this right.  In order to order pizza online from pizzahut.com I MUST "agree to receive information about Pizza Hut®/WingStreet® coupons, promotions, announcements, events and specials".  Are you freaking kidding me?  Refresh!  This must be a mistake.  No, even better, they must have been hacked by a competitor.  Dominoes... you sneaky, sneaky, guys (KIDDING, no calls from lawyers).  I was absolutely floored.  Now, I have no idea how easy it is to opt-out of the "information", once the "coupons, promotions, announcements, events and specials" start flooding in since my buddy refused to create an account.  I'm imagining the subject of an email right now: "WingStreet Wings: So Damn Good, You'll Never Unsubscribe, So Why Give You the Option?".

In scanning the policies, I couldn't quite figure out how they were going to advertise to me.  Is it email, snail mail, text, pizza delivery boy stopping by, blimp, tattoo?  Also, I don't know why there is a "Pizza Hut Terms of Use and Privacy Policy" and a "WingStreet® Terms of Use and Privacy Policy".  Both of the Terms of Use links land on the same page (http://www.pizzahut.com/TermsOfUse.aspx) and both of the Privacy Policy links land on the same page (http://www.pizzahut.com/PrivacyPolicy.aspx).  Neither of the documents make it clear whether they are the "Pizza Hut" docs or the "WingStreet" docs.  The account creation form requires several pieces of information, including: email address, street address and phone number.  Other types of information are optional, like a cell phone number.  While I was wondering what channels and mediums this "information" would come via, I came across some great content in the Privacy Policy.  My favorite part of the policy is reproduced below:

 

PizzaHut.com Policies

Hilarious!  I love it.  They say "For those who initially opted-in to receive future offers or promotional materials or to allow the sharing of Personal Information with third parties may subsequently opt-out as follows".  Ummm, by "For those who" do you mean "everyone who bought online" since it's impossible to not "initially" opt-in?  Underneath that, the policy provides instructions on how to opt-out of email and text message communications, which implies they advertise via both of these mediums assuming you cough up your cell phone number.  I'm guessing they advertise to the street address as well.  For perspective, it looks like Papa John's let's you opt-out of both email advertising (by unchecking) and text message advertising (by not checking).

Since we thought this was a terrible policy, didn't want to end up on their advertising lists, didn't want to have to figure out opting out later and didn't want to deal with a bunch of junk mail until we could get off their lists, we closed our browser and called our order in over the phone.  We would have gone to a competitor if we didn't already have the gift cards.


This experience raises at least two serious concerns.  First, it completely eliminated all of the value mentioned above that could have been created by an online order.  Since we called in, conversion costs increased, Pizza Hut will never have the opportunity to add our email address to their marketing lists (via a check or a non-uncheck), they will never have the chance to up sell or cross sell to us in an automated fashion, they have completely obliterated any loyalty we had and they provided an utterly terrible customer experience.  Moreover, their customer retention and market share numbers just dwindled by a body count of two (my friend and I).  Second, the strategy that Pizza Hut is utilizing makes me wonder if most users don't notice what they're getting themselves into and if this is what Pizza Hut is shooting for.  Well known practice in eCommerce is to force a customer to agree to a sites general terms of use in order to transact on that site.  Sometimes, at the same time a user is agreeing to the Terms of Use, a second, optional, opportunity is provided that allows the the customer to opt-in to advertising.  If only one option is given, it is by and large a Terms of Use agreement.  Therefore, if a customer only sees one option, and doesn't read the details, they assume that they are agreeing to a sites Terms of Use, and that no option to opt-in to advertising exists, let alone that they are opting in if they agree to the Terms of Use.

By the way, in the past, I've been a big fan of Pizza Hut's crust.  This time, we went for the Pizza Mia's.  I have to say, I was definitely disappointed.  Icing on the cake...

Well, so long for today eCommerce-ville.  The sun is setting on you once again.  It's been a good visit.  A long one, but a good one.  Next fall during football season (college or pro) when I order pizza online, it's Papa John's all the way.

 

 

 

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.