If your business phone system can be referred to as “retro,” “old school,” or “vintage” then it may be time to seriously consider an upgrade. For small and medium sized business owners, wearing multiple hats and juggling a variety of disciplines is just another day. Because of this, an outdated phone system is pretty low on the priority list. If it rings and you can answer it, then nothing to worry about – right?
Unbeknownst to a lot of entrepreneurs, their phone systems are actually sapping money away from their bottom line. Today we’re sitting down with Shana Mallin, Director of Customer Premise Equipment at Frontier. She leads a team that provides voice, data and Wi-Fi solutions to all types of businesses. She has supported hundreds of customer applications, overseen hundreds of installations and solved multitudes of real-world use cases involving voice networks. So you could say she knows a little something about how phones and businesses interact.
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Presenter: Welcome to “Gain Your Edge,” the podcast created for IT professionals, business owners and leaders looking to sharpen their edge over the competition. Our ever-perceptive host, Skip Lineberg, introduces you to industry thought leaders. Listen and learn from their insights as Skip gets inside the mind of our guest gurus, revealing new ideas, opportunities and insightful updates for you. It’s all sponsored by Frontier Business Edge, your edge in success. Now, here’s our host, Skip Lineberg.
Skip: Welcome to Episode 27 of “Gain Your Edge,” a twice monthly podcast on all things IT. I’m your host, Skip Lineberg, senior marketing manager with Frontier Communications. Our goal with “Gain Your Edge Podcast” is to help you gain a competitive edge for your business. I wanna remind you that you can find all 26 prior episodes of “Gain Your Edge” our full content archive at frontier.com/gainyouredge. We’re on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
I have so much respect for folks who run small and medium size businesses. That’s one reason I love doing this podcast. Any small way that I can give those business leaders and entrepreneurs an inside view into how to make IT work for them is a win in my book. And I know that every person who runs or helps run one of those businesses has to be a professional juggler. They have so many things in the air at once, so many things to keep track of in a wide range of disciplines, from financials to personnel, and of course, IT. With so many things happening at the same time, it’s easy to let things that aren’t emergency sit on the back burner even if they need attention. And for a lot of folks today that non-emergency is an old outdated phone system, you know, the one that’s paid for and when you pick up the receiver you still hear a dial tone.
The only problem with the backburner approach, though, is that unbeknownst to a lot of business leaders their phone system is actually sapping money away from the bottom line and kicking the can down the road on updating your phone system is only making it worse. My guest on “Gain Your Edge Podcast” today is Shana Mallin, Director of Customer Premise Equipment at Frontier. She leads a team of account executives and products specialists who provide voice data and Wi-Fi solutions to businesses, nonprofit organizations and other institutions.
Shana has supported literally hundreds of customer applications, overseen hundreds of installations and solved for multitudes of real-world use cases involving voice networks. So, yeah, you could say she knows a little something about how phones and businesses interact. Good morning, Shana. Thanks for joining me on the show, or, I suppose I should say, welcome back.
Shana: Well, thank you. Good morning.
Skip: Well, Shana, today, you know, we’re talking about old phone systems. And I wanna just start big picture and ask you a painfully obvious question to get us started here, why are we even talking about phones today?
Shana: I guess, you know, there’s a lot of neat technologies, Skip, out there and we support most of it, but the idea of replacing a phone with, let’s say, a cell phone or a PC to communicate is a great idea, but we see that our customers, more often than not, always go back and choose an actual phone, an actual key set.
Shana: The technologies out there, yeah, it works, but I’d say the handset wins. You know, going back to maybe changing the question just a little bit here, going back to voice. You know, my kids would disagree with me if I were to say this, but I would say voice is king, you know. There’s a lot of emailing going on and texting, and chat as well. And there’s a great place for that, very effective, it’s a great way to communicate, but in our business world, Skip, we’re trying to build relationships, move forward, solve complex business issues and make important business decisions. And when we do things like that, voice is still the most effective way of doing that. We’ve got those different tools, like screen sharing, and video and chat, and they add value. And I would still say that voice wins.
Skip: Yeah. Well, you know, one of the other things that we’re trying to do in the business world today is to provide incredible care for customers and with empathy, a lot of times. And how can you do that without voice?
Shana: Right, exactly. Absolutely.
Skip: You know, Shana, your statement there, which I love, how many times have you said, where you took something offline and you went to voice, whether you were solving a problem or settling a disagreement, or making a decision, how many times have you said to the other person, “Boy, I’m glad we had a phone call about this”?
Shana: When there was an issue, or an important decision, every single time, because it’s really the most authentic way to communicate, because in email and text you don’t hear the intonation, so it’s up to, you know, your interpretation.
Skip: Absolutely. Okay, so let me play devil’s advocate for a second. Say I’m a small- or medium-sized business owner, and my phone works. Now, it’s not new by any means, and definitely doesn’t have any bells or whistles, and the old white plastic is turning a little beige, but, you know, I don’t think I need bells and whistles, and I’m not so concerned that the color is fading. But, you know, when I pick up that receiver, Shana, I still hear a dial tone, and everything’s working, and that’s about all I need, isn’t it? Why should I think about upgrading?
Shana: You know, that’s a great question. And I would say that is probably our most important job as salespeople when we go in to talk to a customer, because it’s our job to go in and help them to talk about their business and identify how we can help them grow. Sometimes our customers don’t really know what needs they have and what problems they’re having until we actually go in and roll up our sleeves and talk to them. There are so many ways that we can help them. Let’s say, my favorite here, increasing revenue, we can help decrease cost, we can help improve customer service with our solutions, but we’ve got to go in first and do a deep dive, and then we can help bring that out, help identify the need.
Skip: Okay, so the reasons for the upgrade, you touched on a few of them, and I know we’re going to get deeper into these, but increasing revenues, driving productivity, operating more efficiently, increasing customer experience, I think those are very high-level business objectives for most companies, aren’t they?
Shana: Absolutely. Do you want me to give you a few examples? You know I love examples.
Skip: Please, I’d love that.
Shana: Okay, cool. So, how can a system increase revenue? So, one way we can do this is making sure that a company’s sales rep, or even customer service reps, never miss a call. So calls today can follow you or sales reps, let’s say, for example, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if they’d like, and being in sales myself, I don’t wanna miss any calls. So, you know, one missed call can result in losing a future opportunity, or an opportunity that I could help my customer and provide them with an exceptional after-hours experience, and both of those are very important to our business.
The other one is decreasing cost. So, there’s no more, “he said she said.” Like, for example, calls can be recorded today for quality service, and we say, “Calls will be recorded for quality service,” but really, that’s an opportunity for us to bump up, let’s say, an order that was taken over the phone against a recorded call so we can make sure there’s accurate information being taken. So no more like giving away the farm because of a “he said she said” situation. And I’ve got one more for you if you want it.
Skip: Yeah. Oh, please.
Shana: Okay. So, improving customer service which is one of my favorites, because the tools that we have available on our phone systems, and these are imbedded tools, many of them. They really help improve a customer’s experience, and that’s one of the biggest goals of besides increasing revenue, right, that businesses have. So, calls, for example, can be routed to the first available person, or even routed to the best available person based on their skills so that your customers don’t have to wait and they can have a positive experience. We can also integrate a business’ CRM tools their phone solutions so that every time a customer calls, their account can pop up on an employee’s screen so that they can see all the details of the customer, their history, and what products they have, or who they’re even talking to.
And, you know, our customers, Skip, they don’t wanna be on hold. They don’t wanna be transferred around from person to person till they get the right representative. So, all of these things can really help to improve customer service.
Skip: Yeah, and that’s awesome. You’re gonna tell me next that if someone has been transferred that the history of the call, the conversation that the customer has engaged in, thus far, can be transferred with that call, that data can go with it.
Shana: Believe it or not it can.
Shana: It really can. It all adds to a great experience, and, you know, it saves time and increases our reps’ productivity. They don’t have to pull up accounts and do the research before they can have a valuable conversation.
Skip: Yeah, and if I put myself in the customer’s shoes, I don’t have to start back at ground zero and explain everything all over again to a new person, and that’s really frustrating when I have to do that.
Skip: So, Shana, let’s shift gears for just a second. We’re going to come back to customer experience because it’s so vitally important. But for now, I’d like to pick your brain a little bit about this scenario of a fatal failure, because that phone system that we described earlier, the one that still works, and, you know, some of the keys are chipped and the plastic has faded, no bells and whistles, let’s say that’s 20 years old or more. I have to believe, when that thing fails, and it will fail, that it’s going to fail hard. And when it fails it’s going to shut down that business’ communication for probably weeks. Is that a fair assessment, Shana? And help us think through the steps involved in that fatal failure scenario.
Shana: Well, it is possible, absolutely. And I would say, first of all, what’s most important here is to be prepared. Preparation, preparation, preparation. You know, it’s technology. Those old systems, they are gonna fail at some time. It’s so much better to be prepared, to have a plan, and to have an upgraded system that actually has tools that’s gonna help you improve the business.
Skip: I can see that. So, Shana, some of these old systems that we’re talking about in a hypothetical here, some of those manufacturers are out of business, right?
Shana: Yes, absolutely.
Skip: And are there markets like…can I just Google the part that I need and hope that I can find it somewhere? Or is that a pipe dream?
Shana: Oh, no. You will find the parts. You can go to Craigslist and eBay and find the parts. The problem is, you don’t know what’s that part been through, and who is gonna install that, and the person who installs it, are they certified? You know, when they go into your phone system and they start playing around with it, are they gonna do something that’s gonna change the integrity of your system?
Shana: I wouldn’t do that at all. I think for me, the main thing would be a warranty, or, you know, any type of maintenance support after the fact. So I just wouldn’t recommend it.
Skip: Okay. And so, Shana, let me just ask you one more question in this situation. What is the typical timeline there from first call, whether it’s planned or unplanned, to installation? I know there’s going to be a range, it’s not going to be a specific answer, but how many weeks are we talking about in a typical scenario?
Shana: Sure. So, I would say if it’s something that’s planned, where there’s no emergency here, we ask for between six to eight weeks, but there are so many moving parts in that, Skip. Each situation is completely different.
Skip: Okay. Thank you, Shana. That’s great. Great information to have. Let me ask for the customer who’s listening today who has that old phone system, it’s 20 years old, you know, they’ve been putting off upgrading for year after year. I’m going to ask you to share with us some names of these really old obsolete systems that really concern you that they may be impossible to repair. Could you share some names with us? If a customer were to look down at their phone system, the handset, and see a certain name, what are these red flag ones?
Shana: Well, for me, personally I would say the Meridian, Merlin, Minx, Kixx, BCMs, Telrad. And those are the ones that come to mind.
Skip: Okay. And elaborate a little bit on why those are particularly risky in terms of a failure, and getting those to come back in service if something were to fail.
Shana: Sure. Well, some of these have been manufacturer discontinued. So, what that means is that the manufacturer is no longer porting and making those products. So, if you need any spare parts, they’re gonna be difficult to get, especially with a warranty and the ability to maintain it. So those are things that, at some point, you’ll have to go out on the black market, and you’ll have to find them, and of course they’ve been used. The price is right and sometimes it’s not, believe it or not. Sometimes the price is astronomical, it just depends. But you’re not going to get any sort of future support on those. And then the question comes in, “Who’s going to install it?” “Because we won’t install that because you’re going to hold us accountable for anything that’s wrong with that, and we can’t warranty something like that. We don’t buy it directly from manufacturer.”
Skip: That says a lot right there, Shana. The fact that we won’t sign off on it. Can I just infer from that, and maybe make a recommendation to the listeners who own such an old phone system? Is it fair to say to them that they are accepting an undue measure of risk?
Shana: This is a livelihood of their business. You know, God forbid, their email goes down for a little bit. You know, lights go out, the air conditioning goes out, they’ll survive for an hour or two, but when your phone system goes out, you need your phones. That is the backbone of your business. So, I would say, don’t mess around with that.
Skip: Hey, Shana, there’s another cost associated with this than simply customers being able to get in touch with you, and that’s the cost of productivity, or compromise productivity. Like we said before, newer phone systems have a ton of features that business owners may not even know exist. But for the dial tone diehards out there, why are these features important in terms of productivity?
Shana: Oh, wow, I like that question. Skip, you know, I believe that 9:00 to 5:00 is obsolete, and after hours are just as critical to your business as the traditional working day. And as an employee, I expect to be able to function and support my customers and grow my book of business 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So, the tools today give us access to our voicemail, our email, incoming calls before and after business hours, and clearly, my productivity is going to increase, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. And guess what? You’re not paying me to work after hours, but it’s what I need to do to grow my business. I have a few things that come to mind here. One of them is one number reach. You know, one number reach makes me available to support my customers or win business when my customers are ready to buy. And, again, that’s not always between 9:00 and 5:00.
Skip: Well, that sounds cool. Tell us a little bit about one number reach.
Shana: Okay. So, one number reach is basically when someone calls my phone number, my direct number, it’s going to ring all my devices simultaneously, dynamically, and then I can see who’s calling me, and I can choose to answer or not, and if it’s a customer of course I’ll answer it. But let’s say I don’t get to it in time, it’ll go back to the voicemail at my office, so I can go in and I can retrieve that message, or the message can be sent to me in an email, but I have the opportunity after hours to answer that call on any device.
Skip: From what you’re telling me, one of the great new things about all this, is you can sort of direct the flow of all this information. It’s not a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all solution anymore, is it?
Shana: No, absolutely. You know, maybe somebody from accounting, they don’t want their calls to follow them after 5:00 o’clock at night, so that’s not the way that their phone would be programmed. But I do. And let’s say I have my phone programmed like that, and now I’m off to a cruise in the Caribbean. Well, I’m not gonna get any calls coming through some of that time because of limitations, right, of what the cruise can offer me. So what I would do is I would just reprogram my phone from home or at the office. It takes me about 10 seconds to do it, it’s very intuitive. And I would just turn off my one number reach so that my calls can be routed appropriately while I’m on vacation.
Skip: That’s cool. That is so cool.
Shana: Yeah, yeah. Another one, Skip, is unified messaging. And that’s another way of saying voicemail to email. So during business hours, before and after, any message that’s sent to my voicemail can be sent to my email as a wave file. And that’s really great for me, because I no longer have to depend on, you know those little pink slips that say, “While you were out…”?
Shana: And someone writes down a message? Okay.
Skip: I still see those. I still see those today.
Shana: No. Really?
Shana: Okay. Well, wait, if you’re using those, we need to talk, really. Because if someone hands me a slip that says, “So and so called and please call him back.” I don’t have the opportunity to hear the intonation of my customer. I don’t get to know the details of why they’re calling. And now I’ve got to call them back. What if they don’t answer the phone? And it takes us three days to get in touch with each other going back and forth? If they can have an opportunity to leave me a voicemail, and I can hear immediately and call them right back with the information they’re looking for, it’s not a, you know, phone tag, “Oh, you know what? I didn’t know you were calling about that. Let me do the research and call you back.” That’s all gone. So that unified messaging, or voicemail email we call it, that is such a game changer.
Skip: Well, I think you’ve just contrasted productivity in the one case, versus complete inefficiency in the other. The old pink slip, wait to call back, hope that they’re there when you call back. In fact, you know, what I was thinking about the pink slips is what if the paper is lost, you know, that pink slip blows off the desk, or it gets misplaced, or I take it with me and tuck it in the console of my car, and then somehow it disappears. That’s not great customer service, is it?
Shana: No. And as a sales person, what if it’s that one deal you’ve been waiting for? You know.
Skip: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Shana: I would say a huge game changer. And you know the last one, this is one of my favorites, I’ve got to throw this one in is chatting, instant messaging. When I’m on a call, I can actually answer someone else’s question. Like if someone is pinging me, and they’re asking me a question about something. I can answer their question and help them move forward and with their business. So I can ping somebody and ask them a question to help my customer in that moment. So I don’t have to hang up, get the information, call them back, put them on hold, or transfer them to get to speak with someone else. I can answer questions immediately. It increases my productivity. It gives my customer a great experience and it saves the cost, too. I mean, time is money, is it not?
Skip: Absolutely, absolutely. Hey, let’s talk about one of my pet peeves. And I think maybe I share this with a lot of people who regularly spend time on the phone, the endless robot runaround. You know when you call someone, hoping to get a real human being in one or two steps, and instead you’re stuck in limbo, you’re wasting time. I’ll be honest. Sometimes I’ll just hang up and never call back to that business again. Is that a cost with outdated phone systems in your experience, Shana, that this compromise customer experience?
Shana: Well, first, I’d love to have the phone numbers of the businesses that you would hang up on because I really do know somebody who they should talk to.
Skip: Yeah, okay.
Shana: So, you know, it’s our business to make sure that the phone systems are programmed in a way that supports your business and provides your customers with the great experience, that means the ring timers, the hunt groups, the re-call programming and so on. That shouldn’t happen. Your customer shouldn’t get lost in a voicemail hoop or loop or anything like that. We have to do a thorough discovery and program it so your customers have a great experience and in position.
One thing I’ve noticed, Skip, is that we’ve seen a shift from using automated attendant, going back to live answer.
Skip: Oh, wow.
Shana: It’s still there. Yeah, yeah, it’s still there, and people still use it. Some just use it for after hours, some use it all day, but I do see a shift as compared to years ago. But I do agree, I also hang up when I’m put into that loop. And here’s an interesting scenario. Have you ever gotten a call back when you hang up?
Skip: No, I haven’t.
Shana: Okay. So this is really a great tool that we have for our phone system. So let’s say you’ve got a customer and they call, and they go through the voicemail loop, or let’s just say you don’t answer the phone at all, there’s no one to answer the call. They hang up. Nobody calls them back. You can have a report that is sent to you as a manager or as a sales rep or customer service. It could be sent to you once a day, it could be to you every hour with all of the “abandoned calls” so that we have an opportunity to call our customers back and see how we can serve them. That is also a huge game changer right there. You can miss out on an opportunity, you can miss out on, you know, supporting your customer.
Skip: Yes, of course.
Shana: And, you know, there are other reports, Skip, besides that that can actually analyze call volume, and they can help business owners adjust staffing to support high and low call volumes. And we’re not talking huge contact centers here, huge call centers. Any business small or large, if you have a group of people, or two people, three people that answer calls, many calls at a given time, there’s an opportunity there that we can help, and we can route calls appropriately based on availability, scale. We can show you reports where you can say, “You know what, we don’t get any calls between 1:00 and 3:00 so we can probably have just one person answering the phone there, but we get all of our calls between 11:00 and 1:00, and we need to at least have four people answering the call.” So you can staff appropriately.
Skip: That is so valuable. Wow. You can certainly move people around. It’s not like you’re going to hire less people, or you’re going to lay people off, but you’re just going to redirect resources, right? So someone that’s filling orders or involved in order entry, or shipping during a certain part of the day, could be reassigned for an hour or two to help out with incoming calls.
Shana: Yeah, and as you know, and I’ve worked first small businesses for many years, that we all wear multiple hats and in a smaller business. And so, I might be entering calls at one time to support the call flow, but my main job could be something entirely different. But I can certainly add value during those times and just be placed into a hunt group to answer calls.
Skip: That’s neat. You know, drilling down into a customer experience further, I would imagine, you got my wheels turning here, but with the modern phone technology that a small business could even have day of the week or seasonal intelligence built into their phone system so that the phones would know when it’s a holiday, the phones would know when the businesses are open or closed. Does that really exist or am I dreaming?
Shana: No, no. I would say, hey, if you can think of it, we can make it happen. It can’t make coffee, but we can get pretty darn close.
Shana: So what you’re talking about is basically…I’m not going to use the acronyms here, but we can pre-program the automated attendant to answer based on time, day, and it can say different messages for different holidays. So when we program a system, you can give us a list of all your holidays, and we can have, you know, your Christmas or Thanksgiving, or New Year’s greeting, for, you know, that specific day from… and start at 8:00, ends at 5:00 and then it goes back to the regular greeting.
We can program all of that for you ahead of time so that you don’t have to the day before a holiday call us and say, “Hey, can you call in?” Or, “Can you roll a truck out to program this? We’re gonna be closed and we want our customers to know.” All of that can be done ahead of time, and it’s so intuitive. We can teach you how to do it yourself so that if you wanna change it, or make a modification, you can. But, yes, it’s all programmable and we can even program like a day and night ring. So if you start every day at 6:00 am, the phones can all go off of auto attendant at 6:00 a.m., and go back on auto attendant, let’s say, 7:00 p.m. or whatever your hours are.
Skip: I love it. That’s going to translate directly into a better customer experience.
Shana: Always, yeah.
Skip: Okay, Shana, so, assuming that we’ve convinced some listeners out there of the merits of upgrading their old outdated phone system now instead of waiting until the voicemail hits the fan, so to speak, how should they go about making positive changes? How can they get started?
Shana: You know, I would say, give us a call. We can visit with you, we can learn about your business, and like I said earlier, you know, the conversation is no longer about, “How many phone lines do you have? How many phones do you need?” It’s really about your business. What do you do? What do you need? How do you grow? We roll up our sleeves, and we go and we take a consultative approach, and we develop a solution that’s going to help you grow your business before your system tells you that it’s time.
I’m confident, I am 100% confident that we can show you how we can help you to increase your revenue, decrease your cost, and improve your customer’s experience. Skip, I hope I’ve got you sold.
Skip: I’m sold. I’m sold. Shana, thank you so much for joining us today, coming back on the show and sharing your insights. I know you agree that anything you or I can do to help corporate technology managers and small business owners out there in the trenches save money and operate more successfully, well, that’s been a good day, hasn’t it?
Skip: Thanks again.
Shana: You’re welcome, and thanks for having me. This was really fun.
Skip: That’s a wrap on Episode 27 of “Gain Your Edge.” Today, we’ve learned a lot about old outdated phone systems, how those can cost your business money. I hope this has been valuable for you today. I encourage you to download this podcast and share it with a friend. You can do that on our website frontier.com/gainyouredge, or on iTunes. Please join me, Skip Lineberg next time on “Gain Your Edge.” Until then, be careful especially if you’re kicking an old can down the road. Stay sharp everyone.