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Incorporating Technology Into Entrepreneurial Companies

Mike Faith, Founder, CEO, and President,

At our company, technology means:

  • Phone system
  • Web site
  • LivePerson, a service/tool on our Web site
  • Email/WorkFlow routing
  • Database marketing
  • FileMaker Pro, our sales order and inventory system

That’s it. Why? Because at,Inc., which I founded in 1998 and which we expect will become the nation’s number one retailer of telephone headsets by 2006, technology is a tool. We embrace it if, and only if, it serves our core goal, and if, and only if, it helps provide the superior Customer Service that, we believe, will alone assure that we meet that goal.

Notice how I’ve written Customer with a capital C, which I’ll continue to do throughout this article. I want to underscore our emphasis on the Customer, and for the purpose of this article, put our company’s philosophy and practices regarding technology into perspective. I feel strongly about our tech strategy, and I am confident about recommending it to other entrepreneurs building fast-growth companies.

Here’s how our philosophy about tech shakes out in practice: we’re constantly being bombarded by tempting offers of services and technological “advancements” that on the surface will make us more efficient. However, we recognize that many of these are fool’s-gold offerings because they don’t drive our mandate to win Customers and turn Customers into Satisfied Customers in pursuit of our goal of becoming number one.

Customer-Centric Tech

As a company, we enjoy exceptionally high revenue per employee—$800,000. We are, by any measure, an extremely efficient company in a very competitive landscape, yet we never invest in technology solely to make us more efficient. We believe technology should never be the driving force.

Take our phone system, for example. When we outgrew our old PBX system, in which all lines ring when a call comes in, we looked at what we needed to give better Customer Service. We needed absolute uptime—a 24/7 connection; a system that worked in multiple locations; sophisticated reporting to measure our service standards; and intelligent call routing to get the Customer on the phone with the right person in the shortest amount of time. What we didn’t need were “self-help” systems, call queues, fax-back services, and convoluted menus. All the stuff that puts up a barrier between giving the Customer what he or she needs in return for payment—doing business with us.

So we looked around, and we were impressed by many high-technology systems—systems that incorporated video conferencing, least-cost routing, infinitely configurable menus, etc., a whole lot of stuff that was of no immediate use to our Customers. In the end, we went for an Internet-Protocol (IP) system (which means it can be accessed from a computer Internet connection and thus remotely) from Avaya that was admittedly costly ($35,000 in hard dollars, plus soft-dollar for our in-house tech staff to rig it up) but worth it.

The new system has helped reduce our call wait time to near zero—98 percent of all calls are answered within four rings by a live person who is trained and able to resolve the issue at hand within that same call. We have very few callbacks, escalations, or transfers. For example, if someone calls from Canada, that individual goes directly to a representative who deals exclusively in Canadian dollars. If a Customer we’ve previously identified as having complex needs calls our 800 number, that person gets routed to a senior call center representative.

This has helped us be the clear service leader in our industry. The technology didn’t drive the decision, though; the desire to give great service did.

Web Without Tears

In another tech-laden area, our Web presence, we’ve also removed anything that doesn’t directly give the Customer a great experience. We’ve removed all the “self-help.” (Nothing says you don’t care quite like asking your Customers to help themselves.) We’ve built tools to help Customers find what they need, if they know, or work out what they need if they don’t. Always the tools are conspicuously combined with as many opportunities to get in contact with us as we can cram onto the screen.

Unlike many companies, we don’t want Customers to place an order without speaking to us. There is nothing that a computer system can do that beats speaking with reps who “know their stuff.” There is just no more flexible and efficient interface than verbal communication with a live person.

For the past four years, we’ve used a live chat feature to our site, manned by knowledgeable, dedicated employees who are motivated to serve the Customer and have the capacity to do a good job. Indeed, our 28 Customer Service Representatives (CSRs), who all work in-house, are handpicked, trained, and coached by a professional business psychologist. We adopted the live chat technology because it gave better Customer Service, and because our Customers asked for it, not because it was exciting or because other companies were using it.

When we add anything to our two Web sites (one is exclusive to Canadian customers), from products to copy, features to tools, we do it because it helps the prospect become a Customer, or it helps the Customer become a Satisfied Customer. There is no other reason to add things—certainly not just because they are technically “neat.” We don’t put PDFs of our paper catalogs on our sites. (Why would we? PDFs are cumbersome; it’s better to put the information right on the site.) We don’t have “contact forms” on our site. (Why wouldn’t we just publish our telephone number?) No blogs; no forums; no flash ads. Our Customers aren’t looking for such things, and adopting them just because we could would be a waste of our time.

Tech in Control

We adopted an email routing system when it was necessary. We publicly state that we will respond to Customer emails within two hours. In actuality, we respond with an hour. As we’ve grown, we’ve looked for ways technology can help us continue to meet this published standard, and we have adopted accordingly. The email routing system was an immediate help. As response times drifted past the one-hour mark, we installed the system and got the times back down below goal. However, we’ve resisted the impulse to add “email and workflow routing” to other areas of the business, such as internal communications, because it would have no direct effect on Customers.

Finally, we build our systems in-house, relying on a staff of four tech-savvy employees, rather than use off-the-shelf software. This means we can tailor our solutions to meet our Customers’ needs, rather than having to change our business practices to suit the software that’s available and leaving the Customer short-changed in the service department while we’re at it. This has meant that we have to employ an in-house staff to develop and maintain these systems—but it’s an inconsequential price to pay for the flexibility and immediacy of the results.

Winning Tech Tactics

For entrepreneurs interested in embracing our philosophy and practices regarding technology, our experience points up the wisdom of employing the following tactics:

  • Keep the Customer focus at all times—this drives your decisions about tech, and not the other way around.
  • Think of what the cost is and what return you will get for the dollars you spend.
  • Make an assessment of the soft costs involved. A $30,000 piece of equipment can easily cost double that amount when you add the cost of installing, supporting, and upgrading it.
  • Don’t be afraid to abandon what isn’t working. A good example was a conferencing feature on our Web site that wasn’t paying its dues in terms of servicing our Customers.
  • Don’t implement technology simply because everyone else is. Enough said.

In closing, we have incorporated a lot of technology into our business, as you will likely do, but never to “keep up with the other guy” and never from any perspective other than the all-important Customer.

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