Megan E. Doherty
Irv Shapiro was frustrated.
If innovation springs most naturally from the personal experience of, “Hey, I can improve this,” then Shapiro has it down. In 2005, while trying to buy a digital camera online, he wanted to do something simple: call the company. With no phone number listed on the website, he thought through why something so obvious would be missing. The company may be trying to reduce expenses, particularly when they would have no way to track any incoming or outgoing business calls.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” he thought, “if it were very easy for companies on the web to include telephones with the same analytics, the same level of automation, the same spontaneity, that they get for the web. So: If by phone.”
After spending two years developing the technology to do precisely that, Ifbyphone – a voice-based marketing automation platform – was born. Since 2007, when they employed only a handful of people in a couple hundred square foot space, they’ve grown – straight through the recession – at a rate of over 100% annually. A few weeks ago, they moved from their humble home in Skokie, Illinois, to a 21,000 square foot location in Chicago’s West Loop.
What they do to help businesses “manage, measure and automate” phone calls is, he says, “so simple and so obvious, I don’t get why people haven’t been doing this forever.” To track why people call your company and which advertising brings them in, you can have a unique phone number associated with different media. An ad in a magazine will have one, an ad on a billboard will have another. With a bank of hundreds of thousands of virtual numbers, Ifbyphone can supply you with as many as you need (in fact, one of their customers uses approximately 30,000), for a fraction of the cost of getting them through a phone company.
Not only can they tell you where someone has seen your company’s phone number, but they can also tell you precisely what the customer may be looking for. If you conduct a Google search for a particular product or brand, the unique number displayed to you on the company website will be linked to the information of your search. The result is that your call will be transferred to the correct department, and perhaps sub-department, of the business.
Not “spooky” enough for you? Try this. “We will whisper into the ear of the salesperson” – which means they hear it, but the customer doesn’t – that the individual is not only on your website, but that he or she is on the page of a particular product.
So if you ever call a store, and the salesperson “coincidentally” mentions he can give you 5% off of just the brand of refrigerator you were looking for, Ifbyphone might be behind it.
Shapiro’s goal is to do something he’s “never had the privilege of doing before,” which is to “create a brand that defines the market. We have an opportunity to create the voice-based marking automation space. And to brand it and to make it synonymous with Ifbyphone.” Once this is achieved, he wants to give back. He tried the Ifbyphone technology in a number of different markets, and the one that gave him the most satisfaction was not one he knew how to build a sustainable company around: providing voice-based services for the blind. “So when we make it? Then we’ll go back and have the opportunity to start participating in society with the things we’re doing commercially.”
For the time being, his company’s core-values means that Shapiro wants to contribute to the society of Ifbyphone itself – its customers and its employees. “Our first core-value is that we will be the easiest company you’ve ever done business with. We will be the best company our employees have ever worked at. And we have to do both. You can’t build a great company on the backs of your employees. If you beat the crap out of your employees, you can’t expect them to treat your customers right.”
And treat them right he does. The offices in their new, LEED-certified building are airy and spacious, complete with lounge and recreation areas as much as it has conference and “think” rooms. The kitchen has free drinks, and the break room offers weary workers an Xbox, ping-pong table, and even a miniature putting green. White dry-erase boards cover many of the walls, allowing creativity to flow at a moment’s notice. “Acoustic clouds” absorb excess echo above the phone stations of sales and marketing employees, and a suit of armor stands silently in the middle of a room.
“That’s Manuel. Our head of user-interfaces has two degrees from Northwestern, one in engineering and one in music. He toured after college for two years in a band, and took [Manuel] with them to all their gigs.”
If Shapiro seems willing to spare no expense for the sake of a happy working environment, he also knows where to draw the line. “We don’t put money into the corporate kinda stuff. We put money into large-screen computers, technology, into an open office space. That’s what counts.”
The table tops? He says, wrapping his knuckle against one. “All Formica.”
A Chicago-based independent writer, Megan E. Doherty wrote a dissertation on some crazy stuff, and is happy to have re-joined society – complete with a bunny, a banjo, and a lotta books. You can catch a few laughs at her off-beat humor blog, www.irreverentguidetolife.com, and you can stay abreast of whatever it is she’s working on, on that tumblr thing: www.meganedoherty.tumblr.com.