Episode 2: Does My Small Business Need an App?
In this episode, Adam Alred, Head of Technology for VoiceNation and product owner of the VoiceNation Mobile App, appeared as a guest on the second episode of Answer the Call. Answer the Call is a business podcast powered by VoiceNation. Tune in to the podcast and see the transcription below:
The number of times we’ve heard customers complaining that they didn’t get their message. I literally have one guy dedicated at one point looking through email logs, just to prove that we did send the email. It’s something now that can be avoided.
Hi, and welcome to Answer the Call, a business podcast powered by VoiceNation. My name is Peyton Duplechien, and I’ll be your host for today’s episode. Today, we’re sitting down with Adam Alred, Head of Technology at VoiceNation and product owner of the VoiceNation mobile app, with his extensive experience in technology marketing and the development space, Adam brings ingenuity, years of knowledge, and innovation to VoiceNation. Today Adam’s sharing his experiences, in the field and with app creation to business owners who are asking themselves the question:
Does my business need an app? And how do I get started?
Adam, Thank you for joining us today. Hello, thank you for having me. Please, take a moment to introduce yourself, your role, your history with VoiceNation, and technology in general.
Oh man, Man, my history let’s see. It’s pretty lengthy but kinda interesting, I don’t necessarily say too interesting, but you know, I went to school over in Marietta, Georgia, went to engineering school there, and I actually never finished. I got a gig through a buddy doing web support, he had an opening. So I got into there and that company did medical billing.
So it was brand new at the time. Because at that time for someone to submit medical claims, and I’m gonna tie this into HIPAA here and how that now helps us out here at VoiceNation. But yes, medical claims were all submitted through the paper at that time, meaning if you were a patient and you needed to have your medical claim insured, it took lots of time. So at that company basically took that [paper medical claims] and made it electronic through the internet.
Again, remember this is 2001. So on the internet, that’s like leading technology. Yeah, leading technology for sure. I came in and was doing web support. And I interfaced a lot with the medical billers through that. I was only in that position about three months they see a knack, well, this guy might be a little bit overqualified for handling password resets and whatnot for customers. So I got moved into system administration. This company had about 325 servers at that time.
Again, remember virtual technology didn’t really exist. Right? So these were all physical servers that had to be maintained. I was administrating those servers with a crew of probably about three or four guys. And from there I seemed to have a knack for management, and remember, I’m only 22 at this time.
So through that, I consumed then what we had as a file monitoring team, which monitored the files that sit on these servers, right. That crew was about 25 people. And then I consumed the web support department, which I used to be a part of, I was managing that. And then I took over the systems monitoring folks, which was a crew of about 12 people that went well for a while until I realized, hey, I was too young.
It was just too much responsibility at that time. But through all those ventures, dealing with medical billing and whatnot, we had to follow the medical and the guidelines through HIPAA, you know, very, very strictly because of it being leading edge,
Hey, we’re sending now medical information on the internet, which the internet at that time remember is very new. So I got a very good young introduction into HIPAA.
But from that, I found myself just very uncomfortable right at that young of an age, managing folks and some great stories of some real good mishaps of managing folks. So I clearly wasn’t ready for that. Personally and obviously from the business side, probably not the greatest idea.
Selling Air & Technology
So from there, I moved on into a smaller business, this working with speakers, authors, and trainers. Folks like John Maxwell let’s see the real Coach Carter, I worked with a business that helped those folks get their product out into the world. It’s pretty big names. Right? Absolutely.
There’s a lot I’m forgetting. Most of ’em, like Zig Ziglar. So through that, I was exposed to a lot of material, a lot of marketing, a lot of sales material, and most of these folks are just selling what I call air right. They’re not giving you this tangible service really.
They’re just offering to coach meaning it’s nothing you’re really gonna leave with other than your ability to pay attention to what these folks are telling you to do. Yeah, and we’re not talking like small dollars here. We would be at these conventions where these folks would run to the back of the room.
I mean literally sprint to the back of the room, at the end of their speech, where they were selling 50,000 hundred thousand hundred and $25,000 packages for like an hour of someone’s time a week or a month. That’s crazy. So these people were professionals at what they did, incredible salespeople, not, not to call ’em sleazy or anything. They were good at what they did and what they were offering was very valuable. I mean, I gained so much from that.
But through that venture, we got into the real estate business where this would’ve been in 2008. And from memory after in 2008, the market crashed, right? Yeah. So we got into the subprime market, offering people to help restore their credit. Okay. Find homes to buy via an option called a lease purchase. So we put together a great system to help folks move through that.
From Small Business to IPO
And of course, the market was perfect for that and it did really well so well that we offered up an IPO, took a business public. Okay. That was a big learning experience. I bet that was, and again yet again at a very young age getting into something that I probably really wasn’t ready for right. I’ll keep this really working. Probably not the best move we made through that. I found that the world is filled with a lot of, a lot of not so genuine people. I’ll parse my words here, but not the greatest of a society. You know, sometimes that’s reality circles around you when you’re trying to raise money and bring a product to the masses that can honestly help. But again, greed takes over and bad things happen.
So through that, I got out of that venture and honestly, I took a break for a little bit.
I was tired, just really tired. And then, you know, I’m like, oh, let’s get back into it. Idle hands.
So in 2014, I found an ad placed by VoiceNation. And what piqued my interest in that was the technology they were using at VoiceNation called Asterisk, which is an open-source telephone soft switch. And when you think of soft switch, it comes from the term from a hard switch where you have the old school operator taking switches and you know, operator, how may I help you?
Oh yeah. That’s what you call a hard switch. So Asterisk is an open-source software version of that. Okay. Open source, meaning free. So at that time, the owner Jay Reeder had basically put together a live-answering solution that we now know VoiceNation and he was having some struggles with the technology there.
So I saw Asterisk in that ad. I applied, I interviewed well. So I came in and boy there definitely were some issues going on and I came in and quickly got things sorted The company started to do really, really well. I only had a staff of actually I only had a staff of one person when I joined, oh wow. One guy had transitioned from our call center, which we like to do here. We look for talent, you know, and help here. We like to hire within first. There was a bright young guy, just very green. He has been there for about three or four months in that position. So I had my hands full, but we got that solved.
So fast-forwarding. We get to where we are now. And we had a mobile app. It was only for iOS and that was made I believe before I even came here and that’s 2014. Oh wow. So young app, but let’s be honest. That app served very little, very little purpose for an end-user I mean, it only offered up the ability to see reports, and to be honest with you, who likes looking at reports, right?
Nobody Really Wants to Just Look at a Report.
Because you need to have a purpose, right? When you wanna look at a report, you’re either looking for an exact problem, where did all these minutes come from? There’s no real purpose behind it. You’ll just quickly look at something and make some sort of conclusion the way you want to build reports is to tell the phone, okay, here’s the data that you’re looking at.
We’ve digested it for you. Here’s what we suggest that you should do with that data.
Right, but that app, that app didn’t do that. So, and again, it only existed for apple, you know, the iOS version. So around 2018, we decided to refresh the app. Now by refresh, but we didn’t necessarily put much more innovation into the app, but more so we added a couple more features. We added the ability to view messages, but we expanded the Android to the Google Play Store. So he broadens your base. I believe adoption right now is 60, 40. You can fact-check me on that, but I believe Android’s about 16 is 40% okay. Apple. So this seemed like a no-brainer, right? Yeah. We, we need to at least give our customers in this time. You know, apps are common and we were talking about 2018.
We’re kind of behind the times there with that one, but we did. And the big thing here, the big point about that was a very smart move. Maintaining an app can get very expensive from the development side because there’s a term called native technology by native. It means original source. And in the software development world, particularly in the app world to say something is native means that the code that you create is native to the operating system, meaning it has the full capability of what the operating systems API offers you to be able to develop upon full access to the microphone, full access to the alerts, all the bells and whistles that your phone can offer or at least if the operating system is allowed into that phone. So Google had just come out with a technology called Flutter. What Flutter allows you to do is to build an app that’s still native, but it works across both platforms, both iOS and Android.
That’s nice. And that’s really nice on the development side, getting back to the expensive part and the troublesome part a company is if you’re building apps natively without using something like fluter, you have to have two developers because it is quite rare to find a mobile app developer who is both fluent in iOS development and Android development.
They’re usually either good at one or okay at the other you know, and that’s just, who wants to build an okay app. And this one over here is better, right? Yeah. You’re just gonna have a constant support issue with either one side or the other. So this doesn’t make any sense, but of course, a larger company can absorb that kind of cost, but for most small businesses just doesn’t make sense.
It’s two salaries, two contractors, right on. So with Flutter, we have obviously in-house developers here, but what we decided to do is because we already have our own development cycles. We, we maintain here to maintain in ours, the software that we used to run our call center here. And of course, we created our own software or our call center when your software called Open Answer and we have their own open-source soft switch called Asterisk that we develop in-house.
So us even bringing on mobile app development was gonna create even a problem for us. So what we decided to do was to reach out to a company, an outsource company, Top Talent, you can find them online toptalent.com. I highly recommend these folks really vet their developers. And we secured a developer, actually several developers to help us quickly update our app. And refresh this app to get it out there quickly.
Now, mind you this isn’t we weren’t looking to add a whole bunch of technology into this app this time we just wanna refresh it and broaden our rights. So we were able to take that development on flutter and release a refreshed version of our app back in 2018. So that brings us to now yes, right now, what have we done?
What we’ve done now is we’ve decided that we know that this is important for our customers. Basically, the service that we’re providing, right? At the very core of every customer, they’re entrusting us to answer calls on behalf of their business, right? We want this to be a seamless interaction for their customers. Their customers should not even know that when they call in and our agents answer that phone, their customers should not even know it’s us. They should have that. This is going right to their brick and mortar or whatever their situation may be. And it’s very important, right?
So at the very core of that, we offer a message. What happened with that call? What did that inbound call need? What was the request out of that in our business, call that a message, right? Or in some cases to transfer whatever. But in most cases, it’s a message. So we decided to offer the ability to add messages to our app, but also notifications. Okay. Let’s see, what else do we add? We added message filtering.
I know we can call in and out of the app now and now there’s the option to even text out of the app. You can actually correspond with clients from your per phone, which is something that you may not wanna normally do, but from the VoiceNation number, right. Because when you sign up for VoiceNation you do get your own phone number. Yeah. I know some businesses choose not to. They already have an established phone number and they may mask the number and it’s by forwarding to their voice nation number by other businesses, they get that new phone number and with the app, now you can use that number to call outbound, right? Yeah.
There are several more updates we’ve added in there and we’ve got, I know we’ve got some really game-changing ones coming up that are just gonna be absolutely phenomenal, that, I think our customers aren’t gonna be able to live without one of the biggest things though. Let me go back to the notification piece and the message delivery. And this may get a bit nerdy, but I think most people can understand what a spam filter is, right?
What is a Spam Filter?
We’ve all got our, our Gmail, our accounts, Hotmail, whatever email service you may be using to deliver your email and email, believe it or not, is still the primary message receiving ability across the internet. People still lean on email. Right? You rely on it. Right. Even companies like our own we’ve somewhat through the pandemic have adopted we’re using Teams here internally and that’s somewhat taken a little bit of a chunk out of email. Right? The reliance on email, but still haven’t taken over. Yeah. So the problem with email is spam filters, right? Spam filters exist, you know, for a good purpose, to clear your inbox. So you don’t get all the annoying types of emails, you know that you get the same type of stuff you used to get in your mailbox, right?
All this junk mail. But sometimes those things can get in the way. And depending on who your email service provider is, those things are different. From provider to provider, how strict they are, some offer throttling capabilities.
But with our app, with, through the notification and message, delivering with filtering and whatnot, you don’t have to worry our servers connect to your app and deliver that message directly to you. There’s no middle man. The only middle man, if you really want to split hairs would just be the internet. So as long as your app has a data connection, you don’t have to worry about missing a message from us. You’re good, it’s going to get delivered.
Someone calls we answer, right?
You get the message, especially if it’s something important like dispatching or even order processing or something along those lines and you, you know, what’s going on? Do I need to go home? Do I need to prepare this package? Do I need to get someone out to help this person who maybe needs HVAC help or something, especially in a nice Georgia summer or something along those lines? It’s important, you know, they’re not waiting. They don’t have to try and get home log onto their desktop. It comes straight to their mobile phones, which like it or not, we all rely on.
Right? Yeah, and believe me just from working, in being it department, the number of times we’ve heard customers complaining that they didn’t get their message and I literally have one guy dedicated at one point looking through email logs, just to prove that, well, we did send the email and it, it was just almost like a broken record. And I could hear the customer support records and we were great saying, have you whitelisted our IP and going through all the same old steps over and over again, it’s something now that can be avoided.
And also, I can’t believe I forgot our app now offers the ability for SMS. So with that same VoiceNation phone number that you get from us, that number is now SMS enabled SMS. That’s the tech term texting. Yeah. You can now text or MMS, meaning you can send pictures and whatnot.
With the VoiceNation app. And that’s huge now for our customers, you know, with the millennials and whatever the new generations called now, I don’t gen Z must be honest. A lot of those folks, they, a lot on non-confrontational contact so a lot of texting, a lot of not picking up the phone and calling right?
Yes. So for those services of ours that I think of any of our, the restaurants that we may offer live answering services for think of reservation confirmations, and we whatnot, basically anything that your business could use for texting to reach those folks, you can now do that on our app.
How Does Live Chat Work?
I know that we’re also, we’ve started to ramp up some of our live chat services as well too. Is that something that might be coming into the future, those types of messages from that? Or is that already available? It absolutely will be to pull back the curtain a little bit sneak peek of 2022 here. Yes. Live chat is going to be one of our flagship products here at VoiceNation. And absolutely the app will make that a very, a seamless tool for any of our customers to receive those messages. Yeah.
Or the outcome of that inbound request to our that app’s gonna get that message to you, which is great. Because when people are online and they don’t wanna pick up the phone or late at night, someone’s browsing you don’t miss that lead. And that’s incredible. Especially for our e-commerce customers, who have been asking for something like that for a while and they love it so far.
One of the most important things here, we’re always interested in our customer’s opinions on what’s gonna make their life easier, right. We’re not here to be an impediment at all. We’re here to help your business run smoother, more efficient, take the burden of having to go and break away from what you’re doing to go answer that call whether that be, a lead, right?
Or a support request, whatever that us is, we wanna make your job, the client, the customer easier. And we try to think as many things as we can to our conversations with our customers. But we are so eager to hear about what do you think would help. And you just mentioned the live chat piece and my brain just starts immediately going, Ooh, what can we do there?
Well think of the live chat, we will possibly be introducing a live chat feature between our agents and the customer.
Are Live Chat Agents Real?
So the customer’s customer and this always gets a little bit confusing when you’re trying to explain this right. Because the customer has customer and the customers, our customer and so on and so on. But our customer could live chat with our agents who are simultaneously live chatting with their customer mm-hmm right. Think of some of the more complicated scripts that we may have that could come in really, really handy. Yeah. Right. But also another feature we’ve added here is the ability for our customers to know who the agent is. That’s nice. Who’s answering their calls. Now we’re not looking, we’re not exposing social security numbers, home addresses, and stuff like that. We’re talking about who is this person? What is this person like to do? What is their native language?
All of these things that our customers value that enhancement is gonna be coming out here in just a couple short months. That’s exciting. Yeah. Right. And that’s important for our customers to see. And it’s also important for our agents to know that our customers know some about them. It’s very easy in this business to think of the call center, you know, is that the fluorescent lights are on, a very hospital-like very machine-driven, very offshore-like away. And we’re 100% US-based in Georgia.
Exactly, sometimes I wonder, are we doing a good enough job telling that story of we are 100% US-based. There is no offshoring, none of them, that happens with our business. So these are Americans in here answering the phone for other Americans. And they’ll soon be able to see who is this person it brings more of a human factor to this thing, you know? And to me, I think that’s very, very important. I think so.
How Do I Get Started Creating an App?
And I think that actually is a nice segue into something that I actually wanted to talk a little bit more about out too, of when it comes to small businesses. And they’re thinking about these apps, they’re thinking about serving their customers and providing that, that extra touch. That’s gonna set them apart for their clients, whatever industries they’re in, what are some of the potential purposes they might be able to think of when it comes to a mobile app? What are some good questions they might be able to pose and ask themselves when they’re thinking about, I love to reach them on a digital level, but how do I get there?
That’s a great question. And most of that’s easily answered. I can guarantee you that of everyone who watches or listens to this or reads this, if they took their left hand on the right hand, put your hand in your back pocket, front pocket. What’s in there? It’s a phone, a smartphone.
Now think from a business perspective, how important and how valuable that is?
That is a direct conduit via the great world of phones here and data, you know, your 5g and 4g, you’ve got data, data connection directly to someone’s pocket to deliver whatever it is that you want to deliver to that person. They’re going to see it. Think back to what I said about email, you know, spam filters came about because they cluttered your inbox. Heck if it wasn’t an appealing subject or you didn’t know who it was from, you might not even open it. Yeah. You might even read it. It’s half a marketer’s job right now in email marketing, right. It’s to try and make that, you know, even freaky things like, Ooh, it’s a reply to something, right? Yeah. We’ve all seen it. And some of us still fall for it.
That’s not the case with an app with that notification feature, you see every one of them. Cause what do you have to do you at least have to clear them, right? Or else the top bar, your phone there is just gonna become a complete disaster. And you have the ability also with our app and with most apps, to gauge, you know, the level of notifications that you want. But if any business out there, and I can’t think of one that doesn’t want to communicate with our customer. Yeah. Stay away from an app. If you don’t wanna communicate with customers, absolutely stay away from an app. Just, just stay away from it.
But I don’t think that’s the case.
So if you’re wanting to communicate with your customer where the market upsells, whatever customer service, whatever the purpose may be, an app is the way to go. Right?
And going back to the technology that we use, we may introduce this as, as well, that Flutter capability gives us the ability obviously to create apps for a phone, but that doesn’t stop there. Now with windows and with your apple operating system, they stopped calling ’em really applications. You know, the app is short for that application, but that you can create that same software, that same package, that same app can be deployed on your Windows machine, your apple, your iOS. So you’re not strictly bound to just a phone, right?
So it’s limitless there. And to me, if you’re not developing an app you’re behind the curve, you really are. You’re behind the curve. So for those who are gonna be playing catch, what are some of the first steps in obstacles say may encounter when starting out on this journey? I know we mentioned some of ’em.
Yeah. We mentioned some ’em right. It’s obviously the expense, right? Yeah. Everybody has to get you a P and L sheet. So clearly going like the flood route or there are other frameworks out there that accomplish the same thing, but obviously want to do first, start off with something. That’s gonna get you into both, both ecosystems and being apple and Google.
But then you obviously need to think about what is it that your company’s delivering? What is the value that your customers are signing up for? Right. And it may not apply to some, right, but at a minimum, if someone’s a customer of yours, they have a bill to pay services and whatnot. And we all know that the payroll lady and the bookkeeping lady, she’s always busy, right? At a minimum giving them the ability to manage their subscription or services or view invoices, any kinda way that you can curb inbound requests into your company is a way to go.
Now I probably shouldn’t say that thing with us, with us being a live answering. You know, we want those phone calls, but Hey, and we obviously customers look at us and you know, thinking about, you know, how many phone calls do I make and can I afford voice nation, which you should be able to. And we’re the cheapest one out there. I should say the word inexpensive CU business out there, affordable, affordable. There we go. There’s a more software word.
But if you can develop yourself an app there to lessen the number of requests, lessen the amount of overhead coming into your business. That’s a good thing. Yeah, of course. We love to pick up the slack there for you what’s ever left over for after that. But that’s what you should be looking at is what is it that you can do? What is it, the service that you’re providing are customers currently going to a website to get that information, to get that service delivery? And secondly, what are the support, and what are you getting burdened with now? That an app could possibly help you with. Obviously, I’ve given a referral out there to top talent (now Toptal) there. You know, if you’re looking for development help there, I would highly suggest you look their way first.
The First Step in Creating an App Is…
Would you say that’s the first place you would start? Like, let’s say it’s a, if it’s a business owner who maybe doesn’t have, they’ve outsourced several parts of their business like most companies do because that’s a great way to get a small business started. I know that’s one of the great things here about VoiceNation is they can outsource receptionists services, you know, saves them time, money, management, time, all the other good stuff. When they’re reaching out, trying to figure out where do I even start? I have an idea. I know what I wanna do with an app, but I don’t know where to go from there. I’m completely blank. I don’t know enough about technology to go from here.
Okay. Well, the great thing. Now I could give you a complete pull of the old it where we’ll just Google it, right? Yeah. But honestly, these days it’s really, I know. And it’s I say it’s not hard. It’s really not that hard, t honestly, isn’t both Google and Apple offer great tutorials on how to get your app out there. What, what should you do and kinda handhold you through this process. But I obviously should you outsource the building of the app, right?
You’ve got your idea and I encourage everyone who’s getting into development, right? You start developing an app. You’re getting into the development world. Yeah. Write your ideas down. Construct them down, write ’em just like you’re, you know, if you’re gonna build a house, you wouldn’t just go up to the builder and say, Hey, build me a, what kind of house do you want?
What does the builder then do? He makes a blueprint. So you don’t have to build some sort of elaborate software design scheme. Yet you leave that to your developer to do. Yeah, but you need to put down what you want your app to look like, write down these ideas, put it in an outline form. These are the functions. These are the capabilities I want the app to have. And you put ’em down.
If you take that, you’ve made the effort to write it down. You outsource that development project. It’s gonna make that process so much easier. Believe me. They’ll greatly appreciate it because most of these outsource firms are used to someone just getting on the phone and trying to talk through it. Just build me a house. Yeah. They’ll talk it through ’em they’ll try and, and try to build that for them.
But from experience going that route, without your ideas collected and put together in a written form and submitted, you might not end up with what you ultimately wanted. Yeah. So again, you’re gonna end up with your app quicker. You’re gonna end up with what you wanted at that point. Once you outsource, most likely you won’t even have to worry about the whole submitting it on the store and whatnot. Right.
And there’s obviously there are firms out there to help you market your app because there are techniques behind what’s the summary of your app should be what’s screenshot. Should you provide in there? But honestly, I wouldn’t trouble you with that. Yeah. Right. For most of our customers, the app is going to be a supplemental piece to their business. And they’re not looking in more so in a subscription-based model. So the whole marketing piece, I would recommend not struggling with that work on making a functional. Good. Okay. Because customers will appreciate that. They’ll see that. And obviously, if it brings value, your customers are gonna like it.
Saving Time and Money at Your Small Business
I’m hearing a whole lot of some business terms that small business owners particularly enjoy, which is saving them time and money. Lots of That. Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve learned a lot of this, the hard way everybody’s looking to save time and money, but there are some places where your time is gonna be well spent and that’s putting those ideas down on paper and reading ’em back then. Right?
What happens when you write something down and you go back? Cause it’s not something you’re gonna get done in, in an hour. Yeah. It’s something you’re gonna probably, it’s gonna take a, a few days to get through and every time you come back to it, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna read through that. And you’re gonna, like, I don’t know. Maybe I don’t like it now!
It’s a drafting process. That’s Right. Yeah. Seems like a lost art. Sometimes it does. So yeah, that drafting process is something I definitely highly, highly recommend. I think this has been some really good information for everybody. And I know that the concept of outsourcing and building apps, or is the concept of trying to expand beyond what you know, can be really scary for business owners, especially entrepreneurs who are working on a solopreneur basis, or those who are starting out with a team of three or four, like yours, the one you came on here with your it department. I shouldn’t say that to customers.
Yeah. it’s grown a bit since then. I would say considerably, but it takes time. And I think it’s good to know that that kind of stuff is okay. It’s okay to outsource. It’s okay to look outwards for help. Because there are other businesses to help build your business up. That’s it in things in the developing world do quickly get outta control from an expense standpoint.
Well, thank you so much for your time today, Adam. Absolutely. I hope you have a great rest of your day and thank you. We’ll talk to everybody next time.