Build a better business

by Robin Anthony

HOW DOES YOUR BUSINESS LOOK TO CUSTOMERS? Are you still storing client contact information in a Rolodex--or worse--on 3"x4" cards? Do you have a corporate-grade voice mail and call forwarding system? Or does your business sound more like a pizza joint where employees transfer calls by yelling across the room? How your business looks and sounds to clients and potential customers is often just as important as the products you sell or the services you provide. All businesses--whether it's a small startup or a BE 100s firm with millions of dollars in revenues--want technology that can boost profits, provide better customer service, and increase employee efficiency. And they want it all without seriously denting the bottom line.

But better technology doesn't have to mean costly upgrades and fancy gadgets. Simple improvements can go a long way, whether it's retiring an outdated phone system, switching from dial-up to a high-speed Internet connection, or adding a wireless component to your Web connection options. The two companies in the next few pages show that a little investment can go a long way toward making technology work for you, instead of the other way around.


When done right, a simple telephone upgrade can make a world of difference to a small company, even making it seem much larger than it is. That's what Krazy Kickz ( of Durham, North Carolina, discovered. Krazy Kickz is an online sneaker emporium dedicated to sneaker collectors--those who would sooner exhibit their Air Jordans on a shelf than scuff them up on the asphalt.

Sam Robinson, 21, who co-founded the company with LaTesha Burroughs, 20, in 2001, says that although the Website did an excellent job of processing orders, problems arose when customers phoned in. With the old phones, a simple task like transferring a call sometimes meant giving out a personal cell phone number and having the customer make an extra call. Such inefficiency wasn't good for a company that prides itself on providing a high level of customer service to its sneaker-savvy clientele. And if no one was available to answer the phones, the calls went to the partners' home phones. Although Krazy Kickz posted revenues of $230,000 in 2003, Robinson says their antiquated phone system made the company seem as small as it actually was: five employees.

"We were in [class] a lot of the time, and we weren't able to manage the phone calls, so they would go to our home machines," says Burroughs. "It seemed very unprofessional, and we had some complaints because people would call and wonder if we were a legitimate company." Callers wanted to hear an actual greeting from a real company, she adds, and they wanted their calls answered promptly.

So what do busy, young entrepreneurs do when they need to upgrade their company's phone service? They do what everyone else does--they Googled. "We used Google to search for Internet phone companies. We looked at a few of them and compared rates and [features], and was the best solution with [the least] maintenance," says Burroughs. "With our busy schedules, it just made sense."

Because a full-time class schedule and a growing sneaker business left the entrepreneurs little time to take on and learn the ins and outs of a landline solution (which wouldn't have been practical for their Web-based firm anyway), (www.angel .com) was a perfect fit. specializes in voice-enabled technologies and voice mail and call management solutions. Setup and maintenance are easy, and Burroughs and Robinson never have to worry about potential customers mistaking the 3-year-old company for a fly-by-night operation.

For $39.95 per month, supplies Krazy Kickz with a toll-free vanity number (866-2LACEUP), a voice-activated voice mail and call transfer system, and the convenience of being able to manage the service from their PCs. Users can record their own voice messages and voice prompts or simply type them in and let a synthesized voice read the text aloud. And voice mail can be forwarded as an e-mail attachment. Robinson says he opted for the synthesized voice on the Virtual Receptionist feature because it gave the company a consistent corporate sound. He and Burroughs can also configure the service so their calls are delivered to different numbers at different times of the day. And, Robinson notes, the menus were easy to use.

But ease of use and low cost weren't the only things that sold the company on's services. Nor did the partners simply Google and go. "Before we chose a company, we looked at our call volume," says Burroughs. "We receive about 45 calls a day--sales and product questions. With the old system, our phone bill was around $200 a month; now it's only around $50 a month." And if recent call and order volume are any indication, the company may have to upgrade to's Enterprise Service soon.

Customers only need to remember the new, toll-free number for Krazy Kickz.'s Virtual Receptionist feature can be set up to allow customers to contact staffers by speaking the person's name. The service is perfect for a company with clients as far away as China, Germany, and Australia. Robinson and Burroughs, who also travel abroad to trade shows in Japan and to Canada for the annual Soled Out sneaker expo, find that being able to manage their service remotely is invaluable,

Robinson says much of Krazy Kickz's business is international, and that has enabled him to locate and acquire unique shoes that have been released to overseas markets but have yet to make it to the U.S. For example, when Nike's Dunk Pro SB Paris Edition shoes were released in France, only a thousand pairs were made, and they sold for the equivalent of US$200 to US$300. The going price today--if you can find a pair, says Robinson--is closer to $1,000.

These days, Robinson and Burroughs are as likely to be found searching for new ways to streamline their business as they are scouting out the hottest "kicks." When Krazy Kickz started getting inquiries from customers about selling their own shoes, they created a consignment shop on their Website where the company sells the shoes for interested customers. By listening to clients and responding to them quickly, the partners have been able to provide valuable services while improving their company's efficiency. What started out as a childhood hobby has turned into a full-service business that provides not just hard-to-find kicks but also valuable services to clients worldwide.


How do you sell your customers on the benefits of Web technology? You try it yourself first. That's what Chicago-based Burrell Communications Group L.L.C. did. One of the nation's largest black-owned advertising agencies (No. 3 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list with $190 million in billings), Burrell has taken technological development seriously. On any given day, the corporate office is full of staffers jumping to the rings, beeps, and not-so-subtle vibrations of cell phones and two-way pagers, while others are toting laptops or intently poking away at handheld computers.

However, until fairly recently, if a Burrell staffer was on the road and needed to access files on the office network, he or she would have needed to link to the office with a bulky notebook PC loaded with specific software. But things have changed. Burrell recently rolled out new Web services that let employees access the office network, retrieve e-mail, and perform other office functions from any Web-connected device--be it a Web-enabled cell phone, a handheld computer, or a PC at a hotel business center or Internet cafe. And the company has stepped up to videoconferencing using WebEx (, an online conferencing tool, rather than relying on sit-down meetings that would be a nightmare to schedule.

Kelly Williams, vice president of engagement marketing, says this comfort with technology translates into how Burrell deals with its clients; they can sell technology effectively because they've already embraced it. She says clients who come to Burrell with narrow visions of traditional print or broadcast advertising may be cheating themselves out of a cost effective medium: "When you're talking about working with technology, there are so many ways that you can do it. The sky's the limit."

These days, for Burrell, the question is not if they should incorporate interactive elements in to their clients' campaigns, but how many. "We first look to see whether [the client's] message is expandable online," says Kamau Akabueze, group director, engagement marketing. "For example, do they want to advertise, collect data, or have folks enter a sweepstakes? After we know that, then we can decide how to implement [a strategy for them]."

For the past year, Burrell has been convincing clients, such as Crest, Cheerios, McDonald's, and Verizon, to use the Web to enhance their print, broadcast, and promotional ad campaigns. "[We've always used] some component of the Web, even if it was just a Website address," says Akabueze. More recently, the agency has been launching what Akabueze calls "micro-sites"--small Websites within the client's site geared toward a particular promotion or campaign. Another online technology the agency has been experimenting with is eyeblasters--motion-graphics technology that, essentially, is a less intrusive version of the pop-up ads that have been plaguing surfers for some time now. Rather than popping up, opening new browser windows each time, eyeblasters simply glide onto the screen and can be easily removed. "They allow you to create rich media and don't necessarily interfere with your browsing," says Akabueze. But how does Burrell measure whether a particular strategy paid off? "We see the results in the click-through rate. The rates are much higher with the eyeblasters, for example, than with the pop-ups that open up additional windows," he explains. The click-through rate with pop-ups is only about 1.2%; with eyeblasters, it's generally 3.5%. But Akabueze says the click-through rate with Burrell's eyeblasters is about 12%.

Even Burrell's tech-savvy clients aren't always aware of the benefits of incorporating interactive elements into their advertising campaigns. "Clients know that the Internet exists, but they may not realize the full value of it. We help them understand the impact of the vehicle ... then we push them to the next level. It doesn't sink in until they realize how they were impacted by someone else's advertising," says Akabueze.

"You have to think out of the box," adds Williams, who joined Burrell early this year. Her diverse resume includes stints as a television news reporter at WTSP-TV in Florida's Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg market and a visiting assistant professor for the Department of Communications and Visual Arts at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. "You can do an in-store promotion around a product where you just tease the customer with an offer or a promotion," she says. "From there, you can drive customers to a Website where they can sign up for special offers or get Web-only discounts. The customers get an extra benefit [from the online perks] and advertisers reap a harvest by getting new customers." This type of promoting also encourages brand loyalty. "You can clearly measure [the benefit of a Web strategy] because the customers are coming to you," says Williams.

In 2002, McDonald's Corp. launched the 365Black campaign to honor the work of African Americans year round, not just during February. The campaign includes an awards event and print, TV, and radio ads, some of them featuring tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Burrell is also working with Verizon on their promotion of a student art competition. Burrell has added a Web component to the promotions of both clients.

"[We have] Verizon posters placed at black colleges and universities around the country promoting a student art competition," says Williams. The posters and ads include directions to a Website ( competition) where students can download an entry form and listen to or view print, radio, and TV ads.

The print and broadcast ads Burrell developed for the McDonald's 365Black campaign were also supplemented by a Website ( that offers more detail about the program and features a list, of those honored at past 365Black awards programs. With both McDonald's and Verizon, the Web surfer is left inside the respective corporate Website, where they can access other events and special promotions.

Sounds easy, right? Not quite. According to Akabueze, any interactive program build (promotional campaign) takes about three months, beginning with "teaser" marketing going all the way up to the integration of products into video games, for example. Having a Web component in their campaigns enables Burrell's clients to quickly and easily measure the campaign's effectiveness. "This is particularly relevant for target marketing," says Williams. "Advertisers are now saying, 'Gee, I can't just have one campaign.' They know that they have to do something different. They find out from us how they can experientially touch the people they're trying to reach. For [Burrell], that's where technology comes in--[providing] innovative ways to reach consumers," she says.


More companies are finding that the Web can be used in numerous ways to make communicating with clients easier. But what about employees? According to Craig Settles, wireless expert and author of Wireless, Inc. (Amacom $29.95;), small business--particularly those in manufacturing, auto sales, and transportation--should really begin to think seriously about their wireless options. He says the smaller the company, the greater the need for wireless technology: "As a little guy, you're going up against companies with bigger resources. Wi-Fi improves your ability to compete with bigger companies at a fraction of the cost." Smaller operations may not need the complex systems that larger corporations do, but the more you use wireless technology and services, the more efficient your business becomes. Four or five years ago, [incorporating wireless technology] would have been prohibitively expensive for small companies."

Although the technology has existed for quite a while, wireless data is relatively new to the broad business community. "Wi-Fi is really starting to come into its own, and the value that it offers is two fold," Settles says. First, it eliminates a lot of wiring issues and the time and costs associated with it; and second, you're no longer tied to wired networks. You're free to move about, to take your laptop to a meeting, for example. "Many of the devices that are coming out over the next couple of years will have [wireless capabilities] built in and will allow people to get at pieces of information and send messages from a lot of locations." But Settles admits that cost is one factor that can't readily be measured. "It's not always a value that you can readily track on a spreadsheet to say we're saving X amount of dollars, but it provides a value in terms of accessibility and ease of use," he says.

For traveling professionals, there are other options, such as adding data services to a cell phone account, particularly if the professional owns devices like a Blackberry or a Treo. Besides Wi-Fi, which allows you to link to the Internet as long as you're within 300 feet of a Wi-Fi access point (or "hotspot"), your cell phone carrier optionally can deliver wireless data--assuming your phone or PDA is capable of receiving the data service--allowing you to download files and e-mail from the passenger seat of a moving car or from anywhere else you would expect your cell phone to work. Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone, offers two data services for mobile professionals: NationalAccess and BroadbandAccess. Both require you to have a notebook or handheld computer with a built-in or add-on cellular data adapter that's compatible with the service. Some cell phones and handheld computers are already compatible, and with some you have to add a card like the Sierra Wireless Aircard 555 PC Card to your notebook computer.