Do you know who’s calling?

Of late, we’ve been having a  lot of conversations with prospects about their call center. If you’re anything like them:

  • You’re selling products to consumers
  • Your deal-sizes are in the low hundreds of dollars
  • You have a definite repeat-purchase expectation
  • You know that the products you sell are not what wins customer hearts: it’s the service you provide that does
  • You see that your customers have a number of vendors as choices, so “churn” is an important issue.

So you really want to know your customers, beginning with name, email ID, phone number and address, all the way to maybe where they go to dinner on a Saturday night. And you’ve probably invested a fair bit into systems that do various things. But, when one of your customers calls you, your agent responds with the generic “How can I help you?” – no “Thank you for calling, Ms. <whoever>” or “Hello, Mr. <whoever>”. So with all your systems in place, the one point that regularly come into contact with your customers is the one point that had no knowledge about them!

You’re probably thinking “Yes, I know all that, but how can I fix that?” Well, I could tell you that you should just buy Impel and all will be well, but I must admit that that’s a simplistic answer. I’ll get into some of the gory details of call pop-up here, in a two-part blog post. In Part 1 (this one), I’ll cover two critical issues: the “app” that the agent uses and the pop-up screen in it. In the second part (next week!), I’ll cover the intricacies of phone-system integration and the possibilities of outbound calling.

Bear with me – there’s a lot of interesting possibilities out there!

Integrate, Integrate, IntegrateImpel Call Center pop-up

Like I said, you probably have multiple systems in place already. There’s definitely one that handles your sales, maybe one that handles inventory, possibly even one that tracks customer-reported issues. And, I’m sure, there are a number of Excel files floating around. The first thing you should do is to tie them all together in some way, so agents can access data from multiple systems seamlessly. This means at least the following things:

  • Sign in once. Make sure agents need to sign in ONLY ONCE, to access all the systems they need access to. IMHO, this is critical: signing into – and being signed out of – multiple systems is a significant point of frustration, both for the agent and for the caller.
  • Keep it all together. For agents to be able to handle the 80-to-120 calls a day, they need to spend as little time as possible LOOKING for data. The thing is, in most cases, the data they need is a fairly short list – name, email ID, phone number, address, recent conversations, recent transactions, maybe recent tickets. Make sure all that’s available on one single page, maybe as tabs or as a long, scrollable page.
  • Give them buttons to push. Customers – not cuss-tomers! – mostly call to get issues resolved, hopefully to order new stuff. Give your agents ways to do the related things – add a new ticket, add a new order, etc. – all from that one single page, via buttons. If possible, make those functions pop up in separate in-browser “windows” that close when the agent is done with them. My own preference is to not use separate browser windows but use “virtual” windows within the browser, allowing the user to minimize them when not in use, but you may find the other model more effective.
  • Keep it simple. You probably have anything from 5 to 25 “processes” that you’ve organized, triggered from the call center. That’s good, but I’ll bet all those processes can be combined into, say, half a dozen fields on screen and 4 buttons that agents would use. Keep the agent’s life simple – let the system do all the heavy lifting. For example, if the agent has to process a refund but needs someone’s approval, set a workflow rule that’ll let that someone know, so that the agent can key in the data and then forget about it.

Pop it up

If you have at least some limited integration in place, or if you just have one system (the “app”, as I will call it hereon) that agents will need, you can make that one screen pop up fairly quickly, with most PBX systems. Of course, if you’ve got one of those fancy Avaya or Siemens systems in place, you’re in for some serious money to integrate the phone line and the network connection, but that apart, you’ll still need ways to do two things in parallel:

Route the call to a specific agent. This is easy - that’s what the phone system does anyway.
Send a request to that agent’s desktop to show that specific page in your app. Now, this is where things get hairy. First of all, getting this done  depends on what your agents use to for taking calls, meaning, do they use their desktop with VoIP or do they use regular phones?

Using VoIP

With a VoIP-based call center, you will have software on the desktop, called the “VoIP client”, that fields the routed call and makes it possible for the agent to answer and talk. That software, in most cases, can be configured to not just field the call but also get a “URL” (i.e. the address of a page in your app or on the web) to open on the desktop. And that URL can include the caller’s phone number. So when the agent accepts the call, the VoIP client also makes sure that the caller’s record in your app is shown on screen. So your inbound-call pop-up works right away. The problem, though, is that each time a new call comes in, a new page pops up. So the agent needs to close the popped-up page every time s/he finishes a conversation – not the best of solutions.

There is an alternative to this mechanism. If you have a VoIP-based PBX (IP-PBX,as it is called), your agents probably log into it using a web page. Your PBX vendor will tell you that they can set up things such that a part of that web page shows the page from your app, with the details of the caller. That’s good – for some things. The multiple-page issue goes away. And the agent sees a consistent page (the PBX’s web page) all the time. The problem is, the way these pages are usually laid out, nearly a fourth of the page will be taken by the PBX’s “call controls” – buttons for Hang Up, Forward and so on. Packing customer-related information in the rest of the screen-space is a challenge. Also, depending on where the PBX is hosted, your app response may seem a lot slower than it really is, since it will be “i-framed” in the PBX’s page. So the agent is left really focusing on the call, not on the customer. Not a great alternative, but possibly the better one, under the circumstances.

Using a regular phone

If your call center uses regular phones without VoIP, possibly with Cloud-based phone systems like Knowlarity, you’ll need to roll out some additional tech. Two things need to happen here:

  1. When a call is routed to an agent, the phone system needs to tell your app about that agent and about the calling number.
  2. Your app now needs to automatically take the relevant agent to the page with the caller’s details.

Most phone systems worth their money can do do item 1 with a few hours of work (although, with the older or or more “eminent” ones, it’ll cost you a fair bit!). For item 2, there are a number of technologies out there. Impel, for example, uses something called Node.js to do this.

Disposition Delay for the next call

One under-appreciated problem with the pop-up mechanism is what I call the “Disposition Delay”. When an agent finishes talking to the caller, you’d expect him/her to be ready to take the next call. The problem is, in a number of cases (60%, we’ve seen), the customer would have hung up, but the agent will still be  making notes about the call for a few minutes. So s/he can’t really take the call yet, although the phone system thinks s/he can (because his/her phone line is free). One way to solve this problem is to “hard-code” a delay in the phone system, such that ALL calls, once hung up, give the agent (say) five minutes to update your app. This actually is a BAD idea: it now uniformly slows your call center, since it adds 5 minutes in 40% of the cases where that’s NOT needed AND 5 minutes may be too much or too little in a number of the other cases. You really need a mechanism where, after the customer hangs up, the agent can somehow tell your phone system “OK, I’m done”. With the better phone systems, that’s certainly possible. For example, we have that kind of stuff worked out already with Asterisk, Knowlarity and Ozonetel.

There are a few other things to think through, but if you get these two major areas covered – the app and the pop-up – you’re pretty much set to get agents focusing on customers instead of on calls.

Next week, we’ll talk about some of the more interesting things you can do with a good PBX and how you can leverage all this for outbound contact, too.

Are there other big tech issues you’ve had to deal with in enabling a call center? Let me know!

UI Design: 3 things that have nothing to do with Design

The traditional wisdom for User Interface (heretofore called the “UI”, thank you) Design is all about looking good while being effective. And I have nothing against that. The only problem is, doing that in a business app like Impel has very few real-life examples to follow. Don’t get me wrong – products like HighRiseHQ are very good to look at and work with, but we could not see how that could apply to a product that has everything from sales automation to customer support to order management. So when we decided to rebuild our UI a few months ago, we had to develop our own “methodology,” so to speak, to figure out what would work and how to make it happen. Here are three things we learnt along the way.

Choose your battles

One of the first things we decided was: No “responsive” UI. You’re probably thinking: “What planet is this guy from? Phones and tablets are where its at!” I agree, but since we have a separate offline app for the Android, we have a workaround for other devices. More importantly, we looked at the current set of users and decided that, if we wanted more of the same in the short term, we could make the first round of UI changes without a “responsive” model but come back to it at a later date. This may sound like a cop-out, but there you have it – a decision based as much on current user behaviour as on available resources. Another decision driven by similar considerations is the one to stay away from a “social” look. I’m talking of the very nice look that products like Nutshell have – very appealing, but not something we could easily figure out how to adapt to, say, someone filling orders in a warehouse. Bottom line, we decided NOT to do a number of things, at least in the short term, and chose the things that we WOULD do quite carefully.

Make it look good – on newer screens, particularly

Looking at our users – and at the world at large – we saw that display sizes have moved from the 4:3 (i.e. 1024 X 768) screens to, mostly, 16:9 (you can see details on the Steam Hardware Survey here). Our new UI obviously had to be able to address that. But apart from screen sizes, there were a few other things we addressed:

  • Pixels matter. Since screens were wider than higher, we decided to “hide” our second=level menu, bringing it back on hover (we set up a pin to retain the screen, if the user so wanted). That saved us 5% on the page – makes a difference!menu_pin
  • Clicks matter. Thanks to the additional width,; we could now add functions on the right that did not exist before. So we promoted al the sub-tab-level functions – adding related data, relating current data to other objects and so on – as links on the right, next to the data itself. This right away gives the user a huge enhancement: everything’s available in one click. And that matters.
  • “Social” matters. We introduced a new feature – a way for users to comment on data – via a generic back-end mechanism, but shown in the UI as a specific set of comments for each record. We packed that function right on the view page, making it easy for users to collaborate and comment on everything from Contacts to Collections. So this is “social”, but in a purely business context.
  • Lines matter – in all the wrong ways. The more lines you have, the worse the page seems to look. Add to that an innate desire to show everything in bold and the Indian penchant for Random Capitalization and you have a boxy, bold, loud UI. We made Serious Effort to Stay Away from All That.

Be true to the Basics

Impel has always been an “industrial-looking” app. We’ve added a lot of front-end capabilities, via JSON and JavaScript, but the overall “look” has remained one of tables and cells. That’s probably true of most large systems anyway, since users regularly deal with lots of data – lots of records, lots of columns. And, there are various “types” of users – from operational people receiving inventory to CEOs looking at trends. Given all that, we had no intention of changing that basic look, so while we added a lot of collaborative and quasi-social functions, we retained our overall grid-like look. When we added the user-chat capability, for example, we chose to pack it into the banner, where users can get to it no matter what business function they’re working on.

Makreting Programs - JSON UI

After three months of Engineering and a few hundred back-and-forths on various parts of the UI, we finally rolled it out to users two weeks ago. And the general response has been very, very positive. I know we can do a lot more – and we will! – but I think we’ve come a long way from where we were. Sign up and see for yourself!




Accelerate your business processes with a 360-degree view

No piece of data stands alone – you know that for sure. When you are looking at a Customer, you want to know how many times you’ve spoke to her, what she’s bought from you, maybe even the details of the actual collections you’ve made. When you’re looking at an invoice, maybe you want to see payments and the product batches that were delivered against it. Armed with that holistic view of everything, you can make decisions faster, easier. Impel’s 360-degree view does exactly that, making it easy for you to manage all your data the way you want it. So on one page, you could integrate Account details, Contact details, Activity details, Opportunity details, Emails, Attachments and other operational info. Supporting your users on different modes like mobile, SMS and Web, Impel therefore offers a single platform to manage the entire Business process. Imagine what you could do with, say, check-ins by your field personnel showing up against each dealer, with sales to that dealer, possibly even secondary dales to consumers, all in one place. Getting such a 360-degree view brings real strategic value to organizations that want to deliver high quality customer service and support, to optimize marketing and product development.

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Some of the major things you could include in a 360View are:

  • Sales Automation: Opportunities |Quotation | CTI Integration | Invoices| Activities
  • Support : Alert |Tickets |Email to Ticket |Ticket escalation | Ticket Status
  • Operations: Multi Branch Inventory | Orders| Coupons |
  • Marketing : Mailers | Campaigns |

On the customer front-end, when a customer interacts with your organization, it is vital that the richness of that interaction become available to people in various teams. And the availability of past information can make that interaction itself very effective and efficient.
Beginning from a customer interaction to analyzing payment patterns,; the 360 View makes a huge impact. In a call-center situation, for example, some of the most obvious advantages are:

  • Improved customer service and Sales productivity
  •  Significant Up-Sell and Cross-Sell Potential during interactions
  •  Constructive and profitable relationships with customers
  • Easy and efficient collaboration among internal teams via a comprehensive view
  • Time saved by reducing response-time without having to switch between screens
  • A consistent and satisfying service experience for customers
  • Increased call quality, reduced call duration
  • Money saved on long conversations and customers being on Hold

A 360 degree or a complete view of the Customer brings in a win-win situation for both the customer as well your organization. Better service and efficiency helps you drive higher customer loyalty and thereafter, more repeat business from existing customers.

Come talk to us about how you can make this work for your company!

6 questions to help you make that software decision

If you’re like most of our prospects,  you’re probably saying: “Yes, I want a software solution, but WHICH ONE? And how do I decide anyway?” Now, there’s tomes and tomes written about how to choose your CRM solution (1.89 MN entries!). There are even BOOKS written about making this choice, for Pete’s sake. The funny thing is, you will probably have read all this and STILL have the questions. IMHO, this is because most writing out there is consultative (some even with phrases like “organizational commitment” and “operational efficiencies” sprinkled liberally) and that’s not nearly specific enough. In a metaphorical sense, you probably already know where you want to go – you only need to figure out if you’ll take the bus or train or drive on your own. And my intent here is to help you do just that – figure out things at a very prosaic level, by asking questions that should be fairly straightforward to answer.

I’m going to assume that turn-of-the-Century items like Cloud vs. In-premise are no longer issues in your mind, so let’s move forward with my questions.

How many people do you want to pay for?

The answer to this question will tell you fairly clearly if you’re looking for a heavy-duty mass-transit solution or a car to drive in. With 15 people or less, any “car” will do – and buses and trains may be overkill. Meaning, at that level, you probably have a no need for complex configuration, custom reports, workflows and the like. So you can safely leave out all the “platforms” out there. On the other hand, if you have a larger number of people you want to enable, then you’ll consequently also have a larger number of things you want to accomplish with the solution. Head for the platforms.

How important is vendor brand?

This issue has two dimensions: how important is Brand in your decision? And, how big should that Brand be for you to consider it? The latter, actually, is the bigger issue, since larger brands automatically mean bigger price points. I am not implying that the price is the only thing that rises with brand – salespeople wear better suits and take you to better restaurants… No, seriously, if a big brand is very important, then you’re in the Enterprise league – stick to $FDC, M$FT or $AP. If a brand is important, but not necessarily that of a big one, there are a number of other players out there – Sage, Sugar,  Zoho and so on. if brand is not an issue, talk to people like us (who’re all working hard to get into that second tier up there).

How long will you live with your decision?

Think carefully before you answer: the usual answer, “For a long time”, is usually wrong. One of the biggest advantages with SaaS is that you can move from one system to another – not necessarily with all your data, but enough to be effective – fairly easily. Most systems will have ways to export to Excel or CSV, so you can work with a sales force automation system for a few months and then move to a sales+marketing system, then on to sales+marketing+billing and so on. Particularly if you are a small team and your definition of “system” today is spelt E-X-C-E-L, work with a good sales automation system or billing system or whatever makes sense for you in the short term.

How important is “best of breed”?

Another way to ask this question is “How important is it that it all be ONE system?” Some companies by definition want the best possible solutions in each category and are willing to pay for their integration. With SaaS, integration does not imply delayed deployment – a number of vendors are on mechanisms like Zapier, giving you the ability to move data among various best-of-breed solutions automatically. The “comprehensive” systems - like WorkEtc for project-based companies, for example – are cheaper overall, but may not have all the bells and whistles in all the functions that you want to use. As another example, I can tell you that Impel’s Inventory Management does not have a lot of things that an Inventory-specific system like Lettuce or Stitch Labs would have – at least not out of the box.

How important is “vertical”?

Depending on how small or large your industry is, you may want to find a solution that is very specific to what you do and a vendor who’s worked with other companies in your industry. We’ll all tell you that we work with specific industries, but the reality is, there are some vendors that focus on just one or two industries and that may be important for you. For example, if you’re in banking or financial services, you’re probably best served by a solution that works well in your industry and works in very few others. The more “vertical” your needs are, the more you will depend on the vendor, not just to bring good software but to bring things like beast practices in your industry – something that “horizontal” players like us aren’t great at.

How quickly do you want to go Live?

This is a big one: the quicker you think you want go live, the simpler your solution needs to be. Yes, you could choose a “platform” solution and tell yourself that you’ll use its plain-vanilla version to begin with. But the reality is, that rarely works, particularly in larger teams. The moment you trot out your selected “platform” to ten of your key users, you’ll get sixteen  opinions (two people didn’t talk in the meeting!) on how to configure things. With a simple solution, the options to configure are limited, so you can honestly tell your users: “No, we can’t do that” and get straight into deployment. So your target go-Live date will drive your selection, too: consider a “platform” vendor only if you have at least six weeks before you open the doors to other users.

Are there other questions you’ve asked or been asked in making a software decision? Let us know!



The 3 P’s of the SaaS Business

Watching the $FDC juggernaut over the last few years makes one wonder: HOW? How is it that, when CRM is considered such a been-there-done-that segment, this one company continues to grow faster than the market, adding millions of dollars to its top line (note: not to the bottom line, but that’s Competitor Carping!)? Much has been written about how $FDC operates, how it positions itself, how it spends more on marketing than on engineering and so on, but really, at the core of it all, there’s obviously a value-proposition that’s beyond anything competitors (including us) have today. The way I see it, $FDC has built three Product Platform Partnerscomponents that, taken together, are very compelling for customers who can afford them. And these components are core pieces of any good SaaS offering.


This is the core product that any SaaS vendor offers, including the advantages of configurability but without extensibility. I separate the two because of the tremendous degree of extensibility that some products have, making that its own pillar (more below). IMHO, the $FDC product itself is fairly puerile. A Nineties (or, possibly, Enterprise) look, a fairly short list of Standard Objects (Orders were introduced only recently) – I could go on. In comparison with anything from the neat peeling-a-small-onion approach of Highrise to the so-sparse-you-have-to-find-me look of M$FT CRM, $FDC is certainly not the best looker, not the most comprehensive, in its basic subscription form. I say this with no disrespect – after all, Impel is not that good to look at, either, when you sign up (oh, but please do – sign up, I mean!). We do have a fancy JSON-based user interface, but the default app looks “industrial”, to put it nicely, without the bells and whistles that you see in the smaller apps. On the other hand, we have everything from accounts and contacts to quotes, orders, invoices and collections – even basic financial transactions – so that should count for something.


Some SaaS players have added a comprehensive layer of extensibility, where someone external to the product development team can go into the product and turn into something that the original designers neither expected nor intended. M$FT offers this via their developer-oriented IDEs, $AP with their ABAP and other tools, $FDC with what is now called  There’s a distinct difference in the appraoch each of these players takes: M$FT squarely targets its legion of ASP.NET developers, $AP the “consultants” and $FDC the “administrators”. $FDC’s platform is by far the easiest to access and use, with a great set of tools to build and deploy, completely on the Cloud. Other players like Zoho have add-ons that provide some of these capabilities, too, as do we. Between Workflows, Front-End Business Rules, Data Views and the like, our own extensibility, I dare say, is as functional as the best in the market. But we don’t have the complete front-end that $FDC has for setting up everything from picklists to workflows. Nor do we have the license management capabilities that $FDC gives its partners – more about that later. Net effect, making Impel do interesting new things takes a deeper level of technical knowledge than does $FDC – for now.


You’re probably thinking: “OK, now he’s going to say M$FT has the best partner network”. Nope, sorry. M$FT’s partner network is certainly a strong one but (like the $FDC UI) is so Nineties. M$FT partners either sell product or are developers implementing them. $FDC partners, on the other hand, LIVE in $FDC. Companies have used to build complete apps that have nothing to do with CRM – a complete financial accounting package, for example. Unlike most other platforms (BUT, like we do!), offers complete customization of everything including Custom Objects – upto 2000 of them (if you have the money to buy a Performance edition). So partners have built their companies on the $FDC Platform, taking the idea of Partnerships to a whole new level. Add the fact that they can sell on the App Exchange – an innovation no other competitor has replicated yet – and you now have a way for customers to truly buy best-of-the-breed in each segment, without worrying about hassles like integration. Of course, such a strong Partner model is as much a result of their success with Product and Platform as of their thinking along these lines. So having the latter without the former (as in the case of smaller companies like us) or vice versa (as for M$FT and $AP) is not as good.

You’re probably now thinking: OK, I get that, but why is this guy singing paeans to a competitor? Well, for the same reason that I ogle at the BMW X5, but I’m very happy with my Scorpio (although I’d love to have an LCD audio control panel). For the most part, $FDC has moved to the high end of the market, targeting large accounts that deliver thousands of users and millions in license fees every year. And their implementation partners have done the same: it is now normal for an $FDC implementation to cost more than its license, much like a $AP deployment. That leaves the mid-market open for SaaS offerings like Impel: offerings that include a very strong Product and a very flexible Platform, looking to develop Partners along the way. So I for one am very happy to see $FDC doing what it does – we can learn a lot from that, choosing the things that make sense for our market. Much like fitting this in my Scorpio!