How ifbyphone Can Help Small and Mid-sized Businesses – An Interview With CEO Irv Shapiro

November 4, 2010

6:16 pm

Most of you probably haven’t heard of ifbyphone, a Chicago-area startup that offers cloud-based telephony services. But the company, founded by Irv Shapiro in 2005, has raised $8 million in funding since that time from a half dozen Illinois and Indiana-based VC firms. Needless to say, Midwest VC’s are really pulling for this one.

The company offers Web-integrated phone applications to small and mid-sized businesses to track, route and automate phone calls to reduce costs, increase sales, and enhance customer communications. We covered ifbyphone in the past when they rolled out free calling via Facebook. Since then there have been a number of innovations and announcements including the acquisition of CloudVox, a cloud based open source phone server.

This week ifbyphone brought on a new VP of Marketing, Jason Ferrara, previously of Careerbuilder, and we got a chance to sync up with CEO, Irv Shapiro for a Q&A interview. Irv has lead a number of companies that have appeared on the Inc. 500 list multiple times and orchestrated a number of successful start-up exits. He is an honored member of the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame and we were happy to get this chance to talk with him.

Tech Cocktail (TC): How did ifbyphone get started?

Irv Shapiro, CEO of ifbyphone

Irv Shapiro, CEO of ifbyphone

Irv Shapiro (IS): The idea for Ifbyphone came from my experiences surfing the web.  I’d have questions about products or services I wanted to buy and was constantly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t simply pick up the phone or click a button and call to ask a question. I thought, “what if I could talk to these people by phone? wouldn’t that make my life easier and my experience better?” From there I began analyzing markets and exploring technologies.

Fortune 500 companies routinely use these automated voice technologies – think for example about what happens when you call an airline. But this enterprise-focused technology is simply too complex and expensive for most small- to mid-sized businesses.  This bothered me since small to mid-sized companies with limited resources need these technologies even more than large enterprises. So, I decided to democratize automated voice technologies and spent about 2 years developing a suite of web-based voice applications that turn the phone into an even more powerful communications tool generating sales leads, improving sales conversions and enhancing customer service.

TC:  Ifbyphone has been extremely active building its business over the past few years. Can you share a simple snapshot of what ifbyphone does, who your target market is and why people should use it?

IS: Ifbyphone builds ready-to-use, off-the-shelf software applications that improve customer interactions for businesses of any size. Our applications are easy to set up and quick to deploy. This ease of use is key for small- to mid-sized businesses – they are juggling lots of projects, the last thing a business needs is software that requires programming or is difficult to set up and use.

You can use Ifbyphone apps to:

Measure advertising – Whether you advertise online or on TV, Ifbyphone helps save you money by measuring offline telephone response rates and online conversion rates where the call-to-action for the advertisement is “call us.”

Manage call flow – A business with multiple locations can configure our system to route phone calls from their main toll-free number to the nearest store, reducing the amount of time a potential customer waits on hold. A sales organization can route inbound calls to sales reps based on product line, territory or other business factors, regardless of what type of phone the rep uses or where the rep is located.

Automate manual, clerical tasks – If your business depends on clients keeping appointments or being available for a service call, Ifbyphone can help your business trigger a personalized reminder call saying something like, “Hello Frank. This is the North Shore Clinic calling to remind you about your appointment tomorrow at 2 PM. To confirm, press 1 or say ‘Confirm’. To reschedule, press 2 or say ‘Reschedule’ and we’ll transfer you to our receptionist.”

TC:  What are a few ways that entrepreneurs might be able to find value from the ifbyphone offering?

IS: If you are advertising your business, either online or offline, and the call to action is “call us”, you should track response rates and online conversions using call tracking technology. Tracking phone calls will tell you exactly which communications channels and advertising efforts are most effective.

If you want to build a new sales or support team, whether they work in your office or remotely, you can setup a “virtual” call center using Ifbyphone’s call distributor technology.  This provides customers with better service because they will be able to always reach a representative live. It also enables increased employee flexibility because you can route calls to different people, at various locations, on any time schedule.

If you want to qualify and nurture sales leads that come from a web form, you can use technology called “click-to-call” which will immediately call the lead’s phone number. This automated call serves many different purposes – it verifies the phone number, it provides high-touch customer service and speeds up the sales process.

TC:  Can you share some of the technology innovations ifbyphone has tackled over the past few years?

IS: In 2005 the typical hosted interactive voice response (IVR) application cost between $0.13 to $0.15 cents per minute.  By using “open source” technology, in conjunction with our proprietary development we have driven these costs down to pennies per minute. These innovations include interactive voice applications such as speech recognition, text to speech and touch tone decoding.

In 2006 we developed an industry-leading customer portal enabling our clients to use the products without learning how to be a programmer. This portal also delivers real-time reporting on their phone-based customer interactions.

In 2008 we developed the ability to view phone calls alongside page views in Google Analytics. The innovation is now featured in the official Google Analytics App Gallery and on Google Analytics Evangelist Avinash Kaushik’s blog. As he points out, if you have a phone number on your site, then you will be very well advised to implement a phone call tracking solution on your website.

We’ve also made a series of award-winning innovations in the Virtual Call Center space, making it easy for businesses of any size (two people to hundreds of people) to configure a virtual call center.

TC:  You’ve made some acquisitions in the past to help further business along (i.e. Cloudvox), can you share your thought process on doing so, and if those acquisitions have been good for business?

IS:  We continue to be opportunistic when it comes to acquisition. Our goal is to build or acquire technology that drives customer interaction across an entire business.

TC: Is there anything else you would like to add or share about ifbyphone?

IS: Up to this point, most innovation around business communication has been focused on written communications, from word processing to the Web. This type of innovation ignores the fact that people still communicate primarily by voice. Think about it, talking is here to stay, regardless of how much you or your children text. Not until recently have voice communications become an area of focus. Ifbyphone is focused on optimizing the way people communicate, improving customer interaction at every opportunity. I’m excited about improving customer interactions – that what we focus on every day from development to sales, from marketing to operations. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, a company well known for its exceptional customer service, recently said in an interview that he believes the telephone is one of the best branding devices out there. I am in complete agreement.

Thank you, Irv, for taking the time to share your story about your latest Midwest startup venture, ifbyphone. If you still need a little more help understanding the ifbyphone business, check out this video.

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Frank Gruber is the cofounder, CEO and Executive Editor of Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail). He is the author of the book, Startup Mixology, Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success. He is also a startup advisor and investor to startups. Find Frank Gruber online and follow him on Twitter at @FrankGruber.

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