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Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of May 23rd, 2008

Posted on May 23, 2008 by Vanessa

Happy Memorial Day Weekend everyone!  This weekend is normally blazing hot in sunny Southern California, but as you may have heard we were hit with hail, rain, and, no joke, tornadoes yesterday.  What’s great is the weather isn’t the only exciting thing going on.  Check out this week’s electrifying eCommerce events:

  • This week Linda Bustos graced marketers with an entire series on PPC advertising.  I don’t normally put multiple links to one blog in the Variety but I think these posts are really valuable to both new and distinguished SEM marketers, so I will just list them:
  • For those of you who read Seth Godin’s blog, you already know that he can be quite insightful.  I found a post that he wrote this week to be quite interesting because I think it really pertains to the eCommerce retailer.  We know from experience that conferences can be beneficial; we have experience in being the presenters and the attendees.  Yet, as we grow we have realized that the time and resources given to these conferences can be far greater an expense than the value reciprocated.  Seth offers some ways in which conference organizers can improve on this issue. 
  • If you read our blog, you know we love all that is Google, but even we can admit that Google has seen it’s fair share of, do I dare say, failures.  Tom Spring of PC World composed an article of the “Top 10 Google Flubs, Flops, and Failures”. 
  • Growth can be scary, especially when you are growing too fast.  Frank Adante has quantified the cost of growth for his company, the equation: Optimized for Speed = 30% Waste
  • According to Jackie Baker “Professional Looking Design Drives Conversions”.  She offers insights on color scheme, textual formatting and most of all explains that if you are going to want lasting results you are going to have to be in it for the long haul.  I happen to agree.  You may have seen the Internet Retailer article on our product detail page redesign, which explains how some simple improvements in design and functionality increased conversion, but I can tell you it didn’t happen overnight. 
  • Microsoft launched their Live Search Cashback this week, and TechCrunch took the liberty of analyzing the move for us.

 

Dealing with Difficult Customers: Best Practices for Addressing Customer Complaints

Posted on May 19, 2008 by Archives

We all know it is easy to get along with people you know, like, work well with, and have things in common with, but when it comes customers, sooner or later, we all encounter that difficult patron. That difficult customer could be any of the following: a complainer, picky, frustrated, irate, or just plain angry.

Circumstances that Lead to Complaints

We get our fair share of angry customers. For the majority of cases, there has been some type of error on the customer’s side, such as ordering the wrong product or entering the wrong address; sometimes, it is our fault. At times, it seems impossible to please an angry customer; they expect us to do something that does not make sense for the company and goes against our policies. But to them it makes sense, because they are looking at it from an emotional perspective instead of from a business aspect.

If an error occurred on our part, we are always more than happy to help the customer and fix the error we made. When the customer is at fault, it can become a little more difficult. While we want to provide great service and help the customer, we have certain polices in place to ensure that the least amount of money is lost and that all processes are correctly documented.

Tactics for Dealing with Difficult Customers

What we have found in our customer service department is that the best way to approach the angry customer, is to treat the problem as an opportunity. Below are a few tactics we use when talking with our customers that may fall in to the category we are discussing.

Empathy - We try putting ourselves in the customer’s shoes, so that we can get a better understanding of their perspective. By letting them explain their situation, even more than one time, they know you care, understand, and are listening to them.  Which we are, but if the customer service representative is not genuine about it, the customer will know.

Respect - Any customer service rep that has been in the field long enough will know that it is difficult to respect an angry customer who is yelling at you. Most of the time, the anger is not towards the rep directly, but they are upset about their situation and we are the person they get to take their frustration out on. Staying calm sends a message to the customer you have respect for them.

Know how to Apologize - Sometimes customers just want to hear and know that you are apologetic about their situation, even if it isn’t your fault directly.  Offering an apology regardless of what you can do about the situation will often alleviate some of the stress the customer is feeling.

Take Responsibility - If the error is one made by the merchant; we always take full responsibility and assist the customer so that their problem is solved.

Having to talk and respond to angry customers can at times be stressful. When those customers are over demanding and unreasonable, it can be very hard to deliver great customer service. If you equip your customer service reps with the right tools necessary to handle the upset customers, they are more than likely going to arrive at positive solutions and the customer may return in the future because of the way the problem was handled.

 

 

Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of May 16th, 2008

Posted on May 15, 2008 by Vanessa

Welcome to this week in eCommerce and Entrepreneurship.  Take a look cause the world of eCommerce is getting more interesting by the week.

  • Brainstorming for keywords can be tough especially if you or your search marketer has hit their own form of writers block.  Search Engine Journal put out a list of tools to help with keyword generation. 
  • “The Churchill Club of Silicon Valley just wrapped up one of its most anticipated events: the Annual Top Ten Tech Trends Debate. Five well-known and opinionated venture capitalists weighed in on what trends will take flight and what trends will fizzle out in the months ahead.” …more 
  • I am not a fan of the Dallas Mavericks nor am I really a fan of Mark Cuban, not for any particular reason other than the fact that I am a Laker fan.  As a fan of the competition, one tends to feel a little sour towards the Mavericks owner.  As you may know though, he is one of us, an ecommerce nerd.  This week he pondered about how to beat Google, and what he came up with may interest you. 
  • It is no secret that companies have discovered that employee health and well being cuts out on the amount of sick days used which cuts costs and increases productivity.  What about the employees that just plain play hooky?  Well a new technology has surfaced that can detect when an employee is lying over the phone.  From the article: “The technology means someone phoning in for a sickie will speak not to a sympathetic secretary but to a computer set up to check whether their voice is steady and reliable.” 
  • In response to New York tax laws, Overstock.com has cancelled all relationships with affiliates in New York.

 

Vanessa’s Variety for the Week of May 9th, 2008

Posted on May 9, 2008 by Vanessa

Take a look at this week’s recap in eCommerce.

  • The Microsoft and Yahoo deal has floundered, but Microsoft has a plan B.  Plan B includes making the case that search advertising is overrated and that display advertising is the wave of the future.
  • Earn more than $3000 a month in Paypal Payments?  Find out how you can save money here
  • eCommerce gurus are gracious enough to give tips to the rest of us about how to deal with information overflow. 
  • On May 15th 2008 say goodbye to “Hello”. 
  • While the Lakers may be smashing the Utah Jazz in the NBA playoffs, Carlos Boozer has other reasons to celebrate.  Overstock.com just signed the NBA All-Star to a four year public relations campaign. 

 

 

Human Resources: Is It In You to be the Policy Maker?

Posted on April 22, 2008 by Ellen

In the week of my annual review, I thought it would be fun to write a blog legitimizing my existence.  As one of the only departments not actively involved in increasing sales, I rely heavily on the efficiency argument when reporting our accomplishments in the weekly meetings.  At that, even the efficiency argument is qualitative, and lacks much quantitative backup. 

As an e-commerce entrepreneur and small business owner, one must decide when the right time is to implement POLICIES.  That’s right I said it; rules, structure and even some formalities.  In an environment where “business casual” only means no ponchos or pajamas, implementing structure into a small business can be daunting.  There are so many fine lines: When is an Indian War Club a weapon, and when is it inventory?  When does hiring your cousins go from, they’re the only ones who will work for me to, I’ve got a company full of related upper management and it is a morale problem for the other employees? And finally, when does a laugh at the office go from a joke between friends, to a million dollar lawsuit?

Here are four tips to consider when implementing a Human Resources Department: 

  1. Tag Team – Combine the Human Resources role with another operational role, such as Finance.  The budget lover and policy pundit combination is a rare breed, but finding someone with the ability to understand both, strengthens decision making for the entire business. 

  2. “If You Build It, They Will Come” – Similar to a civic planning philosophy, if you prepare for growth by building infrastructure, you will attract the growth. In HR, this is true with employee manuals, benefits, liabilities, hiring, etc.  One of the first benefits offered to PlumberSurplus.com employees was the food program: virtually unlimited breakfast, lunch and snacks.  Starting that program early allowed us to pound out inefficiencies so that expensive mistakes and morale killing issues could be limited.  It is one of our most popular and cherished benefits. 

  3. Plug that Hole – Hurry, we need three customer service representatives ASAP!  Having a structured HR department that can fill holes quickly and intelligently makes quick decision making a viable option.  Without the HR structure, hiring three employees in a matter of hours could be the difference between efficiency, and domination; intelligent people placement is a skill most important for a small, growing business when the effect of one person is greater to the entire organization. 

  4. Oh Crap – “But Judge, there’s no such thing as an inappropriate joke…that’s why they’re jokes!”  Quoting Michael from the Office is not going to get you off the hook from that $1 Million sexual harassment lawsuit.  Training employees early to detect and prevent costly personnel liabilities can save millions in time and money in the future.  Setting this tone from the beginning is a zero sum game.  Remember, it only takes one phone call… 

The decision to have a Human Resources department is a decision about how fast and efficiently you want to grow your business.   Having the infrastructure in place early will facilitate a strong, scalable and efficient business with an edge.   

There!  Now do I get a raise?

 

eCommerce Food Programs: Sometimes Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner Can Get Messy

Posted on April 1, 2008 by Ellen

Got Milk?  Sometimes we do.  A popular benefit of dot coms is providing ample amounts of food to feed the entrepreneurial soul.  Food can be a great benefit for employees.  It can be a huge money and time saver and moral booster.  But managing a comprehensive food program can get messy.   

Here are five rules to help:

  1. Identify your non-negotiables:  No we are not going to buy Monster Energy Drinks, sorry.  Communicate to your employees that there are certain items that are not available through the food program.  This way, employees will not expect to see such an item in the selection; the less disappointment the better.
  2. Make a list:  Identify certain items that you will always purchase and invite employees to participate in the process.  Post the shopping list in a conspicuous place so that when an item is running low, or is out, it can be communicated efficiently to the office food buyer.
  3. Order Regularly:  We order food at least once a week, and sometimes twice.  This keeps a constant flow of food through the kitchen.  It is also a huge moral booster.  When the employees see a cart full of goodies roll through the office, they get excited.
  4. Put in a few surprises:  Every once in a while, buy a few items that aren’t on the list that are maybe on the more expensive side.
  5. Diversify:  You can only eat frozen bean-less burritos for so long.  Analyze the list after some time to make sure that the consistent items are sitting in the freezer for too long because the employees are simply just getting tired of them.  Try a new brand, different flavors and different food items to keep the food program exciting to the employee.


Keeping quantities up, while keeping costs low and still satisfying the taste buds of multiple employees can be a challenge.  Keeping those five simple rules in mind can reduce the stress and management of a worthwhile and cost efficient benefit that makes your workplace exceptional.

 

 

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…

 

PlumberSurplus.com at the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards Banquet

Posted on March 5, 2008 by Zach

In the world of eCommerce we interact daily via the blogosphere, forums, etc.  Every now and then it is nice to get involved in the community and interact with those outside of the eCommerce circle.  Everyone at PlumberSurplus.com loves to go out, get dressed up and attend industry events. Recently we were nominated for the 2007 Emerging Entrepreneur award by the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards program, so many of us got suited up and headed to the awards banquet. Some background on the Spirit of the Entrepreneur: In 2003, the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship (IECE) at California State University San Bernardino, The Press-Enterprise Co., and The Business Press launched the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards program to honor the top entrepreneurs in the Inland Empire. The inaugural event, with over 600 attendees, was a resounding success, and 2004, 2005, and 2006 have followed with highly successful programs.

A good time was had by all with a huge silent auction, some great food, an engaging student fast pitch competition and of course the awards presentation. Although the silent auction did have some pretty awesome motorcycles up for grabs my favorite part of the event was the student fast pitch competition. As a part of the Spirit Awards program, select students from Cal State San Bernardino's annual Student Fast Pitch Competition are invited to make a 90 second pitch of their promising business venture idea to the audience. During the evening, the audience heard a pitch from five students and voted on the most promising idea. At the end of the evening, just prior to the presentation of the final Spirit Award, the top three student pitches where recognized with the top student pitch receiving a $2,000 prize.

While everyone from PlumberSurplus.com enjoyed the awards banquet and we where hopeful of winning the award, CornerTurn, LLC - of Corona won the award for Emerging Entrepreneur. Our hopes are high though that we will be nominated again next year and bring home a win.

Below are some photographs of our night at the event.


Several of our companies managers and team leaders with their guests.

Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards Banquet

Our company table.

 

Part of the PlumberSurplus.com Team at the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards Banquet

Our Executives Tim and Brian having a good old time.

Here's Tim....

Tim's mustache

And here's Brian!

 

Brian's mustache

 

 

Should 2008 Election Opinions be Kept Hush Around the Office?

Posted on February 5, 2008 by Ellen

Excuse Me, Who did you vote for?

Should 2008 Election Opinions be Kept Hush Around the Office?


You may be asked this question in this frenzied Presidential election year, but should you answer?  From a human resources stand point I would recommend keeping this personal information to yourself.  While you and your colleagues may feel comfortable discussing your views and opinions on ecommerce, technology, and video games, be cautious of airing your political opinions.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these “one liners” whispered around your workplace lately:
“I don't know if you heard this or not but Fred Thompson has dropped out of the presidential race.  Don't worry about Fred, he can always go back to his prestigious fake law firm. ... packing the bags under his eyes” -David Letterman

As this 2008 Presidential race heats up and consumes the discussions on our televisions, at our dinner tables, and even at work, be aware of what you say at the workplace; political opinions are not protected against discrimination or retaliation.  As an “at will employee” if your “Romney loving” boss hates that you volunteer for Hillary Clinton, he or she can fire you.  If you are feeling pressured to share your opinions you are not alone.  According to a survey done by Vault.com "35 percent of bosses openly share their political views with employees. Nine percent of workers said they've felt pressured to conform to their boss' views."  So no matter who tickles your “political fancy” whether it be Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee be careful what you say around the office, you don't know who you might end up offending.  Perhaps two pieces of tape across the mouth are your best bet.