VoIP: A Phone System in Paradise

Tuesday Jul 22nd 2008 by Gerry Blackwell
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The first encounter with a VoIP was a real 'bungle in the jungle' for AmaZulu, a company that sells thatch and bamboo products. Read how Cisco brought a little peace back to paradise.

A phone system can make or break a small company. Just ask Claire Evans, founder and president of AmaZulu Inc., a Florida-based purveyor of thatch and bamboo architectural products.

Evans launched her company in 2002 after emigrating from South Africa. AmaZulu sells tropical-themed construction materials to zoos, restaurants and theme parks – including Disney. Its slogan: “Your vision. Our Passion. Paradise.”

Evans acquired her first voice over Internet (VoIP) phone system from a service provider after AmaZulu had begun to establish itself a couple of years ago. The problem-plagued system was a near disaster. “It made us look ridiculous in front of customers,” she said.

But then Evans won an award for entrepreneurship in the Make Mine a $Million Business Program run by Count Me In, a women's business-development organization in New York.

Evans won the award from Count Me In in recognition of her company hitting $1 million in annual sales after just four years, a feat less often achieved by women-run start-ups than by small companies launched by men – which is the reason for the Count Me In incentive program.

As her prize, she selected a new Cisco Unified Communications phone system, complete with video conferencing gear and new IP phones, all installed by i-TechSupport, an international systems integrator with offices in Orlando. Total value: about $25,000.

“It changed our lives,” Evans said. “It really was phenomenal. Cisco helped catapult us to the next level.”

The "Wow" Moment

Evans knew she had a good thing going when she was able to use the video features to conference with a would-be supplier in China, a non-English speaker, and finally resolve issues with prototypes of a new synthetic thatch product.

While it’s true that Evans paid nothing for the Cisco system and may, as a result, feel obliged to sing its praises or perhaps even exaggerate the benefits, it’s also clear the system really has made a big difference to her business.

AmaZulu has continued its winning ways. It’s now on track to increase revenues to over $1.5 million in the current fiscal year, its first since installing the new phone system in October 2007.

The Back Story

Evans originally came to America on a transfer to work for Intel's sales department. When she discovered the company planned to send her to Toronto or Seattle rather than keeping her in sunny Florida, she decided she couldn’t face a cold climate. So she quit and went to work instead for a family friend with an Orlando company selling thatch products.

After the company collapsed a couple of years later, Evans made the momentous decision to launch her own venture. It would sell similar thatch and bamboo products – and develop its own products too, including synthetics.

“It wasn’t what I'd originally planned [in coming to America], but boy, do I love what I do,” Evans says of her life now.

Before long, AmaZulu was selling to some big customers, including Disney, Outback Steakhouse and the Tommy Bahama clothing company.

What a Difference a Phone Makes

As her company began to take off, Evans realized she would need a proper business phone system. She was seduced by the promise of VoIP, the latest new thing – especially the promise of lower long distance costs. “It just seemed to make sense,” she said.

But the service provider she chose, which also provided the phone system, was trouble from the start. Some basic functionality didn’t work properly. AmaZulu employees couldn’t easily transfer calls, for example, and nine times out of 10 they’d end up cutting the caller off, which is no way to foster good customer relationships.

Worse, the VoIP service provider’s network was constantly going down. “And when it went down, we lost phones, the Internet – everything,” said Evans.

Using the Count-Me-In award to turf the troublesome VoIP service provider and bring in a new system was a no-brainer. And the Cisco system made an immediate difference. It includes among other things, Cisco’s Unified Communications solution, IP phones (some of them wireless), as well as Cisco Unified Video Advantage conferencing equipment.

The new system uses IP phone technology internally, running over the company’s Cisco LAN within AmaZulu’s new 12,000-square-foot warehouse and office facility. But it routes outside calls through gateways to the public switched telephone network (PSTN).

This is More Like It

The new system is more reliable: down time is almost non-existent. All the standard features work properly. “It makes us look a whole lot more professional,” Evans said.

The wireless capabilities mean sales reps can walk out to the warehouse to check on availability while talking to a customer or take customer calls when they’re not at their desks.

The company uses the teleconferencing features to eliminate travel – when it needs to meet with customers about installation jobs, for example. The video conference with the Chinese supplier was a major breakthrough.

AmaZulu had been trying to develop a new synthetic thatch product that some of its biggest customers were demanding so they could eliminate costly maintenance of natural products. Evans would send prototypes to China and then wait, sometimes weeks, for a sample to come back.

“We felt we should have shares in FedEx we were spending so much money on sending samples back and forth,” she said. 

Poor communication stalled the project until Evans hit on the idea of sending the supplier a video conferencing kit and setting up a conference. A picture, as Evans said, is worth a thousand words. It took literally minutes in the video conference to resolve communication problems that had been plaguing the project for months.

A Special Day

“At one point, I pointed to one of the samples, and I saw a big smile on his face,” Evans recalls. “That was a special day.” When the next sample arrived in Florida, it was exactly right. Evans is flying to China soon to sign a deal with the supplier.

She knows she lost at least one important customer because of delays in bringing the new product to market. How many more did she lose because of a bad phone system? She has no way of knowing. The important thing now is that the company is winning lots of new business and growing faster than ever.

“Is that because we’re coming across as more professional, that we’re getting back to customers more efficiently – yes, absolutely, I think so,” Evans said. “The whole company just runs much more efficiently. The staff is less stressed too.”

Easy Implementation

Installing and learning the new system, especially after experiencing the initial one, was a revelation. The first one took six months to fully implement, and it was never right. i-TechSolutions came in and scoped out what AmaZulu needed, configured the components at its own facility and then came in and set up the new system in one day.

Can a good phone system make a company? Not if the company doesn’t have good products and processes, of course. But a bad system can definitely set a good company back. It’s a lesson learned, Evans said.

She offers this advice to other entrepreneurs, especially women, who she acknowledges may be less likely to pay close attention to technology issues. Don’t buy bits and pieces of a network from different sources. Buy the best and buy it all from one vendor. Invest the time and money to make sure everything works well together. Do the due diligence, in other words.

“It will be worth your time tenfold,” Evans said.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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