A major market newspaper called me this week to talk about VoIP. I did the interview and now they want to send a photographer, so hopefully the story runs soon
The questions centered largely around my customer experience with VoIP, many of which have been chronicled here and on the “World Technology Roundup” which I usually co-host with Ken Rutkowski and Jason Romney. It also seemed to focus on the portability and cost savings of VoIP, but in fairness to the reporter, I won’t go into the details, for I sense he’s doing his homework quite diligently based on the questions he asked.
That prompted my thinking it’s time to get up on the soapbox.
As you may know, my experience with Vonage has been mixed. Sometimes the call quality is good, other times it leads something to be desired, possibly due to my having an early release CISCO ATA-186 they supplied. With AT&T’s CallVantage, no one even knows I’m using VoIP, and in the two and a half or so months I’ve been using it, I’ve yet to find a flaw with their service quality, sans one situation that I expect is caused by a third party.
Much of my experience mirrors the review of VoIP by Knight-Ridder’s Mike Langberg.
Langberg's view that AT&T will open the VoIP floodgates clearly reflects what I wrote when AT&T expanded their VoIP offering. Basically, as a brand leader, AT&T has to do that, or everyone from Dave Dorman on down is out of a job. Not only have they been technology leaders, they have been marketing leaders in the past but not for many years. Their last few leaders, Michael Armstrong come to mind, were basically the same. Expansionists, looking to broaden the business of AT&T into other sectors---do you remember them buying TCI cable? What AT&T did was go into areas they thought they could be bullish in, and ended up hurting their core business. Telephony. Dorman is clearly focusing on just that.
The entry of companies like Sprint and MCI in the 70s and 80s fueled price wars, and then many a new company came along thereafter. With VoIP, AT&T is clearly setting its sites on the market, not just in the USA, but possibly globally.
VoIP connections know no boundaries, and a brand with the global stature of AT&T is clearly going in that direction. If one looks at the type of press coverage Call Vantage is receiving, it is clear that they are seeking out, and securing the trial participation of media thought leaders.
Langberg, whose writings are syndicated by Knight-Ridder, is the type of writer who gets in front of more Ma and Pa America than most. While he's not Walt Mossberg, Langberg’s reporting, when syndicated, hits more people who can be VoIP consumers than the business savvy readers of the Wall Street Journal. That’s just like the daily broadcast on KenRadio.com which I co-host. That broadcast reaches more daily listeners than most tech writers in local USA markets.
VoIP in the USA is about two things. Marketing--giving the customer what they want and Quality of Services, which is what AT&T is setting out to do. Vonage in their defense is also seeking to reach that goal but the difference within their calling technology (SIP vs. MGCP today, a managed and one hop peering network for CallVantage, the open Internet for Vonage, etc) are the differentiators today.
A recent customer service experience with Vonage, done by a VoIP call to their call center resulted in the problem being fixed (someone else’s email address was in my profile for where voice mail was to be forwarded--and in their defense, I was still getting the messages, just the web database was fouled). Within two hours, a Vonage engineer, not a call center rep, was on the phone to me telling me the problem was fixed, and I also received a confirming e-mail. That’s customer service.
AT&T's CallVantage service has been flawless, save one thing. Their e-mail notification for conference calls has not worked 100 percent, in that other parties to calls have reported back that they never received the call notification. To date, my note to AT&T sent via their web support portal has not resulted in a similar type of experience that I had with Vonage’s support center, though their PR person has made note of my comment and responded within minutes to my advising him out of courtesy. He, an AT&T veteran of 20+ years, like Dorman, gets it right.
This gets around to understanding marketing and the media’s role.
Both Vonage and AT&T understand the care and feeding of the press, and respect bloggers and online media people the same way they respect traditional print and electronic reporters. Maybe more so. Our audiences meet the first criteria for a customer for both. The audience has to already be online.
Unfortunately, many VoIP companies don't get it. The list is led by Stanaphone, the company that put out a press release after Memorial Day which prompted a call by me to their PR agency. I loaded the nice and very professional representative up with questions and over a week went by. Nothing. I called her again. No return phone call. I emailed her again and got a note back saying the CEO had been at VON in Europe. So? This is VoIP. VON had broadband. Hotels have phones and the CEO of Stanaphone owns an ISP in Silicon Valley. What’s worse is no one else seemed to be around to answer the questions, leading one to believe that Stanaphone is a very small, under financed company.
If I could do a globally heard technology program from London and Paris using my VoIP phone last November using Vonage, if laptops have softphones, how hard would it be to call back to the USA. One more week went by and I received an e-mail from the CEO. He apologized for being @ VON, then proceeded to give me what read like a form letter response, without answering one question of the dozen or so that I posed. I replied two or three days ago (from my Danger Sidekick) while on the road suggesting he and his PR person get a conference call set up, and again....no reply.
Let me compare them to Skype. A question emailed to their London, England PR team was replied to in minutes with comments from their engineering team and questions about my experience using the Clarisys USB phone, which seemed less than compatible with Skype than a regular headset/mic combination. That’s why Skype is getting such wide spread publicity. They get it.
Add Broadvoice to the list of clueless marketers. They have, or claim to have, the early lead with WiSIP---WiFi enabled handset from Pulver Innovations that works as a SIP endpoint with PSTN termination. It has been over a month since my query to the CEO. To date he has not replied to questions, or provided a demo to determine how good their service is. Hype? Or just poor marketing and media skills.
VoiceGlo, a company whose motives I question, only is furthering that feeling with their absolutely clueless PR strategy. First they hired a big name PR firm. The person running the account has no clue about VoIP--as evidenced by the fact that when I talked to him he admitted as much saying he “was just getting up to speed” when I called. He promised though to "keep me clued in" on their efforts and appreciated my “reaching out to him.” I brought this to the attention of the PR person for VoiceGlo, who promised action. Nada. Zippo. Nothing.
To date, not one VoiceGlo press release has hit my inbox, and judging by their apparent sales strategy, using resellers and distributors to build their customer base, and working the analysts to gain respect they are seeking to influence Wall Street and the financial community, more than the media that can drive the customers their way. Their VoIP PBX solution *COULD* serve a large niche in the SOHO market, but without knowing the quality of their offering, or having technical questions answered, it becomes hard to provide fair and balanced coverage of their offerings.
So the world knows, analysts and the firms they work for are usually paid to write nice things about client companies, or if they have nothing nice to say, they follow mom’s advice, and say nothing. I don’t. Candidly, I like on paper what VoiceGlo is setting out to do. Michael Egan is a very smart, successful, if not a bit full of himself, ego driven, arts loving, modern era CEO. So, what, some people might say the same about me. However, Egan is very good at building up a business that the market can understand. He knows how to produce sales and turn a profit for a business that can eventually be sold off. The question is does VoiceGlo really have the product that it claims to have and the team to get that story out?
Next up is Peerio. They issued a press release back in May. To date their client software is not out, Supercomm is around the corner. In defense their newest PR person, I think this is PR person number three since they first came out of stealth mode (something I first broke on VoIPWatch), and has promised full cooperation after SuperComm…big whoop. Bloggers like me want to break stories, not be followers. We pave trails like pioneers, often going where others have yet to tred. Peerio has a very interesting model, from what I know from background provided by someone close to the company. It would be nice to really be able to tell the whole story, accurately.
The bottom line is blog based journalists break stories and provide critical insight to the real goings on inside an industry. We’re not analysts whose coverage is tempered by the client list. We’re not media supported by an ad sales team that insures a paycheck every week. Bloggers and online journalists provide useful, insightful, experienced usage to the readers and the PR folks who give us the same respect they give Walt Mossberg and others.
I’ll be the first to admit that both AT&T and Vonage have for periods of time provided the service and equipment for free. So has Webley, as have companies that send products and software to review. A responsive PR team that understands how to work with media influencers wins the battle of the mind and the wallets of the marketplace.
But as a blogger, like my friend Bob Cox, who authors The National Debate, the traditional media is recognizing us, and seeking out our views on subjects, not only lifting information from out blogs. The same for PaidContent.org and Om Malik's GigaOm in the new technology media and content space. They are not only breaking stories, they are each providing outstanding content about the spaces they cover from a truely journalist first, fair is fair, and facts may mess up their story, but they report accurately and provide well written commentary. In a word, they are today's Press.
Bloggers are becoming subject matter experts, and should the story I was interviewed for run soon, I’m sure the companies mentioned, both pro and con, will know that.. Not only with their service, but with how they care and feed all the press. Bloggers and webcasters included.
Off the soap box.