Product Review: SafeSoft’s Hosted Call Center Solutions 

I’ve been reading a book titled “Call Center Management on Fast Forward.” It is one of those “must read” books that’s been recognized by just about everyone who’s ever taken on the managing a call center. As the foreword says, “To successfully lead and manage, you need a good understanding of today’s unique customer contact environment and an effective planning and management framework.”

If your SMB is looking for a way to generate more sales leads, a call center is a viable option. Inbound call centers react to prospects who respond to your marketing campaigns. Outbound call centers are charged with finding new prospects.

Woman Calling Call CenterOf the two, an inbound call center is a bit easier to setup. You’ll need to find the right cloud based phone solution, hire the right people, train them, get them up to speed on each of your marketing campaigns, and write scripts they can use to respond to inbound phone calls. But don’t under-estimate the work involved in getting an inbound call center up and running. It’s a serious piece of work.

The outbound call center is a different animal all together. You have to be aware of and abide by the Do Not Call rules if you plan to contact consumers. Failure to do so could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in fines. And, you’ll need to write scripts for your telemarketers to use. You’ll probably want to do some A/B testing to see which script delivers the greatest number of new prospects. You’ll need to train your outbound callers. This, too, is a major piece of work.

Enter the turn key call center. SafeSoft Solutions, was founded in 2006. Headquartered in Woodland Hills, CA, they offer a same-day-deployment call center that helps SMB’s cost effectively increase sales, provide more personalized service, and deliver effective targeted marketing campaigns. In other words, SafeSoft offers both inbound and outbound call center operations.

Safesoft provides outbound calling as outlined in the video below, claiming up to 400 percent greater opportunity to generate new leads. Their cloud-based application, MarketDialer, provides an API that lets you connect leading ERP and CRM packages to the Safesoft product.

Their inbound call center product delivers automatic call distribution (ACD) that intelligently routes incoming calls to the best agent, a specific agent queue, an overflow queue, the interactive voice response menu, to a voice mail box or even to a specific agent’s extension.

Inbound caller data can be presented in a “screen pop” to the inbound agent’s desktop directly from the caller’s IVR selections or the caller ID.  Such personal contact and order information follows the call if it is transferred to another agent. If you’d like to learn more about the best way to set up a call center, a visit to SafeSoft’s website is a good place to begin. Feel free to contact me to learn more about Safesoft and other alternatives that can put you online with a cloud-based call center.

Are Cheap IP-PBX Business VoIP Phone Systems Right For Your Business?

The world was still listening to Smashmouth and contemplating the underlying meaning behind The Matrix when the founder of Digium.com, released his free, open source IP PBX software in 1999.

He created an entirely new segment in the open source software market… Not only did companies using Asterisk collectively save millions of dollars when installing the open software, they found it could be hosted or installed on-site, as a call distributor, a VoIP gateway, a conference bridge and much more.  It became the Swiss army knife of IP-based telephony overnight.

But then, in January 2009, one small business Asterisk customer was slapped with a gigantic and unexpected phone bill. His system had been hacked…Is Asterisk Secure?

Australian newspaper Adelaide Now reported: “A small business has been landed with a $120,000 phone bill after criminals hacked into its internet phone system and used it to make 11,000 international calls in just 46 hours.” But the Australian business owner wasn’t the only victim. Three companies in the U.S. using IP PBX systems (two from Asterisk) suffered similar fates around the same time.

Adding insult to injury, a slew of neckbeards eventually went online and posted soundless YouTube videos that exuberantly demonstrated, keystroke by keystroke, how to break into the PBX and make free calls.

So what happened?

As an Asterisk reseller said following an attack on one of his customers, “We were so focused on the telephony side [when we installed Asterisk] that we completely overlooked…the IT side, the security side.”  It was obvious in hindsight. Their failure to secure the server ensured their demise.

Since then, Asterisk has solidified enormously.  It’s now backed up by thousands of skilled IT experts in an open source community who take security very seriously. As of today, there are more than a million Asterisk-based systems in use across more than 170 countries.

The upside of Asterisk

In a nutshell, Internet Protocol Private Brand Exchange allows you as your own personal phone company. You can set up branch menus, dial “9” for an outside line, assign 3 digit extensions for every team member at the office and much more.

We’ve all used PBX and are familiar with the functionality it provides, but most people think of it as something too complex or expensive to implement on our own. Thanks to Asterisk, that’s not the case.

Asterisk offers the same functionality of a hardware PBX, for free… Below is a feature list from Asterisk.org (click on the image to visit the page)

Asterisk Features

Laying the groundwork

There are a lot of ways to set up Asterisk. The easiest and most efficient is by installing one of the pre compiled distributions. Of those, we recommend Asterisk Now because, while it’s not as flexible as home brew installations, it allows relatively inexperienced users to change the plumbing and create customization. It needs to be stressed that that you will be forced to operate in a predefined framework though.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can always create your own from the source. When you go this route, you get a lot more control over the functionality and it’s actually not as hard as you might think (assuming you know basic command line).

When you install Asterisk from the source, it enables you the freedom of choosing your own Linux OS (we recommend Ubuntu) and then tweaking the installation for your environment and hardware to maximize performance.

Find full instructions on installing Asterisk from source here.

Parting thoughts

If you’re planning an Asterisk installation and need advice on securing the system, Ward Mundy has collected the most critical steps for locking down your installation. You’ll find further advice in the forums and wiki at the Asterisk.org website.

So while using Asterisk to commit phone fraud is no longer an issue, hackers (some of whom may be your employees, suppliers or business partners) often find ways to defraud using the system. Click here to download a Phone Bill Fraud Prevention Checklist from the Telecom Association.

AT&T and Verizon Alternatives

When the Bell System monopoly on telephone communication run by AT&T was broken into “Baby Bells,” also called Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) in 1982, the monopoly on phone service seemed to be at its end.

The original anti-trust action by the Department of Justice was initiated in 1972, but legal wrangling stalled the final breakup until 1982. Thirty plus years later, I often wonder whether the quality of service has improved.  A quick online scan shows throngs of unhappy customers’ voices have echoing across forums and consumer advocacy sites.

Freedom From Telecom Bullies

Verizon is the other major player in the space, selling its phone service under the FIOS brand.  They also bundle internet access and TV service and deliver it over a fiber network. Verizon was initially known as Bell Atlantic, one of the aforementioned RBOCs. In 2000 it merged with GTE and re-branded itself with the name we know today. Now, with millions of customers across the country, Verizon too has been inundated by hordes of unhappy customers who complain about phone service and virtually every other service Verizon offers.

Fortunately, the telecom landscape has evolved in recent years and now provides businesses many alternatives to those two incumbent phone companies. The VoIP revolution has transformed the industry, so I’d like to suggest a few companies that we feel comfortable recommending to business clientele looking for a change.

Here are our top picks:

ShoreTel

ShoreTel targets mid-sized and larger companies, generally those that need 25 or more phones. The ShoreTel Connect product is a VoIP system that can be run as a managed service from the cloud, or as a system with its own hardware and servers that you manage at your place of business. Or, if you have multiple locations, you can install Connect as a hybrid deployment where certain locations are managed in the cloud while others are managed on site. The product supports IM, VoIP, conferencing, web sharing and video. Its allows users to move from an IM to a phone call, to an online meeting then to a desktop share that can include video, all with a single click.

Ooma

Ooma began as a VoIP provider for residential customers, then expanded into business services with a clear customer demographic: small businesses that need 25 or fewer phones. Ooma works with any traditional phone (of the curly cord variety), eliminating the need to buy IP phones. You can easily set the system up to ring remote extensions off premises, including employee cell phones which is useful for sales, service and other workers who spend time outside the office. This short video leads you through the basic setup process.

Broadview Networks

Broadview Networks, discussed elsewhere on this blog, serves more than 200,000 users every day with its OfficeSuite cloud phone system. It provides not only excellent quality VoIP phone service; Broadview also lets you communicate with hi def video, web and audio conferencing, and toll-free service.

As network speeds increase and technology becomes more refined, the marketplace for VoIP continues to grow and become more relevant. Contact us with any additional questions you might have relating to finding a suitable alternative to the incumbent phone companies.

Why Build a Secure, Business-Grade Multilocation 4G Wireless Network?

I’ve been hearing for a while that the benefits of keeping a distributed enterprise connected wirelessly, could provide one of those rare occasions where CFOs and CTOs can actually agree on something.

As 4G networks from the major carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile continue to grow in coverage, speed and reliability, I began to consider whether I could tie multipleGetting Free From POTS locations together via 4G rather than using the public WAN or a dedicated, managed service from one of the major providers. Then, if it were possible, could it be done so that I also got the quality of service my applications required at a cost lower than conventional MPLS solutions using VPN? Furthermore, would it make sense to build a multi-location 4G wireless network to serve as a backup in the event of catastrophic failure of hard-wired solutions?

I had a lot of questions and my first step in getting answers involved looking at speed and coverage the various 4G providers deliver, as I had no dreams of approaching the FCC to setup my own 4G infrastructure.

I found the interactive graph at OpenSignal.com (hover your mouse over the flag of the country you’re interested in). That gave me an overview of download speeds and coverage from the major providers, although I quickly realized I needed to look at speed and coverage at each of my locations. Fortunately, a free app from OpenSignal.com, which describes itself as “the global authority on wireless networks,”  offered all the data I needed. Their 3G 4G WiFi Maps & Speed Test app showed me which carriers offer the best service at each location, including download, upload and latency statistics.

Armed with information on the carrier that delivered the best overall coverage and speed in my area, I asked our IT people at each remote location to measure speed and latency inside each room.  In doing that, we found that some locations needed a signal booster and/or a high gain antenna on the roof to overcome the attenuation caused by the brick and mortar certain buildings interposed between the cell tower and the computer room.

Finally, I looked at various appliances that provide an interface between the 4G signal and the local area network. I considered several important issues, including remote management of the appliance; monitoring (and automatic reporting alarms) when latency or speed fell below acceptable values; load balancing and fail-over capabilities; and the ability to route traffic via conventional terrestrial networks.

Data Transfer Through 4GThis last issue is critical. Having a 4G network doesn’t mean it should be used for all traffic because 4G is metered and can be expensive. There’s no reason to pay for data transfer via 4G that can be handled more economically over non-metered terrestrial means.

If you’re considering a 4G network as an alternate path for your data as a backup for terrestrial traffic during an outage or to connect services like VoiP between you business locations, feel free to reach out. We would be glad to assist or point you to a trustworthy, local solution provider.

Additional Resources:

Whitepaper on building a 4G WAN

4G WAN Glossary

How to Get Good Vanity Phone Numbers for a New Business or Marketing Campaign

In this day and age, it’s easy to think of phone numbers as low on the marketing priority list. I realized I had fallen into that trap the day I had a client reach out to me and say, “Hey, before I forget, we need to get some new, easy to remember phone numbers in our area code. You can do that, right?”

Confidently, I replied, “No problem”. (fingers crossed)

How Do You Find Easy To Remember Numbers?

In ancient times, when there were only a couple phone companies providing local phone service, obtaining a vanity number wasn’t that hard. This was due to the fact that just a couple entities were able to tap the pool of unused phone numbers in a given area code.

Things have changed dramatically since then though. Today, there are literally thousands of players in the local phone service game. Some of these companies could be the old Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), cell phone providers, cable companies or one of the thousands of VOIP providers.

Why is this a problem? All of the unused vanity numbers are now divided up and dispersed across a numerous phone companies instead of just a few.

So if you find an easy to remember phone number that works for your business needs, you have no choice but to activate that number through the company who owns it. Since there isn’t a law in place that obligates the company to release that phone number, you don’t always have the option of using it with the provider of your choice.

So how did I find the right vanity number for my customer?

The client needed a vanity number because they were launching a new product that was going to be marketed through TV.  They wanted a number relating to the automotive industry that was simple to remember. The VOIP provider that we positioned the business with told us that getting a vanity number “wouldn’t be a problem”.

It actually was a problem.

A couple weeks before the deadline, the VOIP provider came back to us, claiming there wasn’t a way to search for vanity numbers through the carrier vendors they used and the only way to sort through the underlying carrier’s untapped numbers was to select an area code/ prefix one by one and then manually scan through every number in the hope that we would stumble upon something usable. After days and way too much coffee, we still had yet to find anything good.

At this point, panic was setting in. After a flurry of Google searches for “available phone numbers” and “vanity phone number search”, I found several vanity number providers and started brainstorming.

I was looking for a number that was:

  • Easy to remember – Using all letters to create a simple call to action (when possible) that a prospective customer can easily recall at a later time is always the best option (e.g. 1-202-BUY-CARS)
  • A simple, dictionary word – Getting creative with the spelling (e.g. 1-202-BUY-CARZ ) isn’t the way to go because two weeks after the fact, customers might have forgotten and end up calling a competitor. Similarly, hybrid numbers like 1-202-214-CARS aren’t ideal because most customers have a hard time remembering random digits.
  • Clear about what my client does – This number was going to become incorporated into the client’s branding, so I wanted it to clearly reinforce their offering through the number.
Looking for available numbers?
These are our recommended providers.

At one provider, I could easily do a vanity number search but it was too limited in that I had to first enter a city and state. Because my client was doing a national media buy, it would have helped a lot if I could have searched everything without having to limit myself to a small area first. So with this limitation, I first went to allareacodes.com and made a list of cities with area codes that would be easy to remember, such as 303 (Denver), 404 (Atlanta) and 808 (Honolulu).

After some time spent jotting down dozens of potentially viable vanity numbers that I found on Hosted Numbers, I reached out to our VOIP carrier and asked why they didn’t provide the same capability.

The account manager at the VOIP provider asked for some example numbers that I found on Hosted Numbers and we looked them up at fonefinder.net to see who the underlying carrier was. As it turned out, bandwidth.com and broadvox.com held most of the numbers on my list.

Thankfully, our VOIP carrier already had a relationship with the carrier (bandwidth.com) behind the number that best fit my client’s needs. They were able to claim the number and make it available to our VOIP carrier relatively quickly. While Hosted Numbers has a decent search platform, I found their platform a little weak in that they’re only searching available number databases from a few third party carriers and not their own pool.

So basically, I lucked out.

Finding a number through hostednumbers.com that my client liked and then having it be available to our VOIP carrier was a stroke of luck, indeed. If that wouldn’t have worked, my plan was to “port” the number away from Hosted Numbers to the carrier I was working with. The problem is, number ports take anywhere between 5 days to a month to complete, which meant my client wouldn’t make their broadcast deadline.

Toll Free Vanity Numbers

This client also wanted to split test the response rates between a local vanity number and a toll free one (1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866 and the newest, 1-855). For this ask, I had already decided to use ringboost.com because friends of mine have been able to find some great toll free vanity numbers there.

After 45 minutes of searching the site, I was able to create a list of every toll free vanity number my client would want to consider and then after some quick deliberation, we purchased the TFN and did the RespOrg change (the switch of ownership) from Toll Free Numbers to our carrier.

Unlike “porting”, which can take up to a month to complete, transferring TFN between carriers only takes two days to a couple weeks, and is a much less painful process if everyone involved does what they are supposed to do.

Ready with some good vanity number ideas?
Start your search at our recommended providers.