Blinds maker sees the light with new IP phone system

The poor telecommunications infrastructure at Accent Blinds got to such a stage that the company was sending out flowers to some customers as a way to compensate them for the terrible service they were receiving.

In many cases the phone system would lose people or would hang up on them.

"In extreme cases people would be put on hold for 20 or 40 minutes and we wouldn't know they were there. And sometimes the system would hang up on them and some funny voice would get on the phone and say 'we're all busy now, call back later'," said Ken Dawes, Accent's CEO.

It eventually took six years, five telephone systems or variations, three customer services managers and an expenditure of $400,000 before a working solution was found.

Window of opportunity

Accent Blinds was founded by Dawes 23 years ago together with his wife, mother and a business partner. His aim was to be the "best" blinds manufacturer in the Hills area, a collective term for suburbs in the leafy, hilly district in North Western Sydney.

The company set a target of $400,000 in revenues for year one, but exceeded that, making $1 million. This then set the tone for year-on-year growth and expansion across NSW and into Melbourne over the next two decades.

With the business growing rapidly, the company moved in 2000 to a new head office in Seven Hills and also switched on its new telephone systems. This worked fine, but with the business growing, Dawes found within a year he needed to have a dedicated call and customer service centre.

"We found in the past our simple, manual methods were fine with the volumes we had. But we grew and grew," he said.

Consequently the company tried to develop systems for its staff of sales, marketing and fitters/installers, to manage this growth.

"We had to systemize things. And make it simple for people."

Everything was aimed at streamlining the business. But without a working phone system, there was a major problem.

The next system it ended up with was based around a Samsung offering. "The phones were OK. But it couldn't do everything."

Eventually things got worse.

"I was getting complaints every day from everyone that we [had contact with]; from customers, our suppliers, internal stuff. Even our sales reps on the road couldn't get through to talk to anybody.

"The customers must have thought we were idiots. So it was critical for us to fix that problem."

It was not just reputation that was being lost. It was costing a lot of money in salaries as well as the required overtime to fix the problem. Then there were the discounts it was giving to compensate and pacify customers.

"It was ridiculous. We were giving out thousands of dollars of discounts a week because they were unhappy. We were even sending out flowers to people to compensate. It was all based around the fact the communication wasn't happening."

Accent spent a year trying to make the Samsung system work, but to no avail.

Dawes said his interest was piqued when Avaya came out with an SME version of its Avaya IP Office. With little hesitation, the old system was gone and in September last year came the new phone system

"By the time we got it in, in the very first month we saw the problems we had almost disappear overnight."

In the first month of using the system the average user call time went from two minutes to 15 seconds. "We would pick everyone up in that time by being able to manage and watch what was happening and move resources around."

"So, from the very first day we put this thing in it started to work. From the very first month we saw a huge return on investment. We saved two salaries (worth $6000) straight up. We don't know the value of the previously lost opportunities, because we don't know how many [calls didn't get through]. But we saw our sales jump over the next month by 50 percent. It was part marketing, part something else. But the new telephone system had a role in it."

Since then, Accent has Voice over IP-enabled its branches using the Avaya solution. It has nine offices networked from Seven Hills, Penrith, Wollongong and Newcastle, in NSW, and Melbourne.

In addition to improved communication, the company now also saves on the simplest of things - call costs.

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