What’s Next: The Monster Dilemma

November 20, 2007

By David H. Freedman

For business owners plagued by a dearth of candidates for key job openings, the Web was supposed to provide an ideal solution. Job-search sites like Monster.com (NASDAQ:MNST) can put postings in front of millions of applicants instantly. And newer business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn provide similarly fertile recruiting territory, supplying access to the contacts of thousands of people. On the other hand, anyone who’s actually tried to hire someone through the Web knows the truth: You post an ad and are immediately flooded with hundreds of resumés, many from people whose backgrounds are wildly inappropriate. So much for the Web making things easier. It’s enough to make you long for the days of print newspaper ads and snail mail.

But just as technology created the problem, newer technology aims to solve it. A new generation of hiring tools promises to screen out inappropriate applicants, allow the suitable ones to put their best foot forward, and even hunt down good candidates who haven’t applied. As these new services get better at these tasks, they may well change the balance of power in the job-recruiting industry and could even redefine the way we think about jobs.

A shot at diverting a river of weak applicants is the chief advantage offered to employers by Protuo, a Woodstock, Georgia-based start-up that launched its service in January. Protuo isn’t only a job-listing site; it also forwards its clients’ listings to some 270 established job-listing sites, including Monster. But applicants can’t respond to a Protuo posting unless they spend seven minutes or so filling out a survey that asks about experience, skills, workstyles, and job preferences. Employers can customize the survey by choosing from a wide field of prepared questions or by adding their own, and they specify which responses get a candidate’s resumé past the screen. Has the candidate managed a technical project? Is he or she willing to move? The approach is modeled, to some extent, on the sort of compatibility gauging one encounters on a matchmaking site like eHarmony, notes Jennifer Gerlach, Protuo’s co-founder and vice president of marketing. Gerlach went through the dating process on eHarmony just to research the technique. “I learned a lot,” she says. “And I met some very, very nice people.”

With online job postings sometimes pulling in more than a thousand applicants, the ability to winnow the flood could mean the difference between being able to retain control of the hiring process and having to bring in a professional recruiter–at a typical cost of $30,000 for a midlevel hire. The time and expense of dealing with a huge influx of resumés is all the more frustrating because much of the flow comes from online applicants who indiscriminately bombard hirers with resumés. You can try a keyword search on the resumés to narrow things down, but applicants have learned to load their resumés with them, often by pasting in phrases from the job posting. Even LinkedIn has suffered from inflation, as many users aggressively build networks of people they don’t really know in order to make themselves appear better connected. “There’s no value in a lot of these contacts,” says LinkedIn user Chris Knudsen, who heads business development for podcasting company Podango in Salt Lake City. “It can just be someone whose card you got at a trade show.” (A LinkedIn spokesperson commented via e-mail: “Anyone can join the LinkedIn network; however, the quality of your own personal LinkedIn network is the responsibility of each individual.”) But a well-designed survey, contends Gerlach, allows users to skim the cream.

Fred Donovan, who runs Donovan Networks, a seven-employee computer network security firm, has been flooded with applicants responding to previous postings to Monster.com and other online job boards. He is currently conducting a Protuo search and likes what he’s seen so far. “I can specify that I want to see only resumés from people who say they have 10 years’ experience in negotiating sales and are familiar with the software development process,” he says. “I’m seeing a small, better-qualified subset of the applicants.” There must be something to the idea. Other hiring sites, including Market10, Jobster, and Taleo (NASDAQ:TLEO), are introducing their own approaches to automated candidate screening. And Monster is doing the same, making available–for a fee that adds about 20 percent to the cost of posting a job–the ability to direct applicants to a questionnaire designed to rank the suitability of candidates.

Sure, candidates can try to game these surveys by being less than truthful. But Gerlach insists that surveys can be designed to stymie such people by asking questions that don’t have an obviously right answer–such as whether the person prefers to work independently or in groups–and by warning candidates that they can be rated as overqualified. Protuo, which costs hirers $44 to $295 a month depending on the number of jobs they’re posting and is currently free to job seekers, also offers applicants a chance to do more than post a resumé. The firm invites users to create online portfolios that can include whatever documents, photos, videos, or other material that best represents that person’s career to date. (Monster is currently testing a similar capability.)

ZoomInfo, in Waltham, Massachusetts, takes a different approach. It assembles profiles of potential job candidates from all available online data, whether or not they’re looking for jobs. Starting with the same techniques that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) uses to gather Web data associated with a person’s name, ZoomInfo adds the significant additional step of crunching the results to pull out the most relevant information, weed out data referring to other people of the same name, and assemble a professional profile. ZoomInfo has an R&D team of 35 working on the technology. So far, the company has assembled some 34 million profiles, and as far as I can tell, most of them are fairly informative and accurate. (Check out your own name to put it to the test.)

But somebody has to pay for all those scientists, and that somebody is you. The company charges $5,000 a user per year for the ability to dig up personnel profiles by company or industry. It sounds like a lot, but ZoomInfo’s COO, Bryan Burdick, notes that if you get the right candidate for a single vacancy, the price is one-sixth that of using a recruiting firm. The company also offers less expensive, more limited searching capabilities aimed at smaller companies, as well as free access to searches on individuals. Many major executive search firms, along with some 500 other corporations, already use ZoomInfo, claims Burdick. “I can find personal information, professional backgrounds–and, sometimes, damning evidence–on tens of millions of people without having to go through 1.5 million Google hits on each one,” says John Boehmer, managing partner at executive search firm Barlow Group in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Boehmer is quick to point out that as ZoomInfo-like services get better, and more companies get comfortable using them, corporate hirers won’t need professional recruiting firms like his to turn up candidates. “It’s commoditizing the front end of what we do,” he says. “Eventually, everyone will know where everyone is and how to get hold of them, so we won’t be able to charge for identifying and contacting candidates.” Search firms will still be valuable for assessing candidates, he contends, though he acknowledges that new e-hiring systems could eventually eat into that end of the business as they get smarter and have more online data to work with.

For that matter, it’s easy to imagine the not-all-that-distant day when online tools make it so easy to find people to fill a specific slot that the notion of permanent jobs becomes irrelevant for many positions. Why hire a manager for years when you can find a new one with exactly the skill set needed for the precise tasks at hand? That’s not necessarily bad for employees: Think of an economy where top employees are constantly being sought out and bid over by companies that recognize them from their Web trails as the perfect short-term solution. And talented employees would be just as smart about whom they choose to work for–using similar services to weed out companies that aren’t good matches for them. You’ll want to treat those people well. If you don’t, and they post that fact online, it could haunt you for a long, long time.

Source:


Beyond Facebook

October 19, 2007

There are people who have the answers you’ve been searching for. Here’s how you’ll find them.

Daniel Serfaty had to appreciate the irony. The founder of Aptima, a Woburn, Massachusetts, software developer, Serfaty was working hard to build a new, high-powered social-networking system designed to find connections between people attempting to solve similar problems. Think Facebook, except rather than connecting college students looking to flirt and swap pictures, it would match people who have highly complex technical questions with experts able to answer them. But there was a rub: Serfaty was having trouble finding a development partner who shared his goal–the very sort of problem his system was intended to solve.

But then the Department of Defense–which Serfaty had pitched but hadn’t been much interested in funding Aptima–suddenly came calling. Why the change in tune? Two DoD managers who had never collaborated, even though they worked one floor apart, ran into each other at a cocktail party and decided that what the department needed was a system that could help people like them find each other.

Scoring the sort of elusive connection that is normally the domain of plain dumb luck is, of course, the promise of online social networking. But if you’ve spent any time on social-networking websites, you know it seldom works out that way. That’s because most of those sites offer more quantity than quality. Log on to MySpace or Facebook or even a business-oriented social-networking site like LinkedIn or Spoke, and it won’t take much time at all to build a network of thousands of contacts. The problem? Managers of sophisticated, fast-growing companies don’t need the world at large to chip in when they have a question. They need input from exactly the right people, and those people are extremely hard to identify and track down.

Fortunately, a new generation of social-networking software is on its way, software that not only lets people build impressive webs of connections but also analyzes those networks to provide all manner of insights to users. Serfaty’s software, for example, monitors a network’s online communications, such as e-mail and instant messaging, to learn who communicates with whom–and uses keyword analysis to determine what sort of problems and expertise are being tossed back and forth. Aptima’s software, which remains in development and is not yet available, will be able to suggest instantly who on the network is the best person to consult when a specific problem comes up. “You leave your footprints everywhere you go in cyberspace,” says Serfaty. “The system can pick all these footprints up and deduce from them that you should call John on the fifth floor to get an answer to your problem.”

Serfaty’s quest is not exactly new. Businesses, mostly large corporations, have been trying for years to get at information about who within an organization talks to whom about what via a technique called organizational network analysis. But such analyses have been cumbersome, expensive, consultant-driven affairs that rely on interviews and surveys and don’t keep up with how relationships and topics change–all of which makes it extremely difficult to use such studies to solve problems as they come up. In effect, Aptima is automating the process of organizational network analysis by gleaning it from online activity.

It’s not the only company taking that approach, which might be termed “intelligent social networking.” Annapolis, Maryland-based eTelemetry already offers a $35,000 self-contained box that can be attached to a corporate network to trace an organization’s electronic communications and map out a network analysis chart that shows which individuals in the organization serve as the hubs or linchpins between different groups. It may turn out, for example, that some lowly product development dweeb has somehow become the go-to guy when the marketing folks want to figure out what the R&D people have up their sleeves. Later this year, the system will gain some limited ability to recognize people’s areas of interest via their Web-surfing habits, notes the company’s CEO, Ermis Sfakiyanudis. “You’ll be able to use the information to see who the thought leaders are in an organization and bridge gaps between departments,” he says. The American Association of Airport Executives, an 80-person industry group, has begun using eTelemetry to improve informal lines of communication between employees. “If we can see where the bottlenecks are, then we can do things to speed up decision making,” says Patrick Osborne, who heads the group’s IT efforts. “We might want to give those employees who are at the hubs of information flow larger budgets or more responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Visible Path, a Foster City, California-based company, has released a beta version of its e-mail-tracking tool on its website. Like eTelemetry, Visible Path doesn’t examine the content of messages; it only notes who sends messages to whom, when they send them, and how frequently. But the company claims it can use this information to derive reliable insights into whether someone has a close working relationship with a contact versus a cursory one. And Illumio, a new product from Tacit Software that is available to individuals for free, pores over the information on the PCs of everyone on a network–it relies on the data indexed by Google’s and Microsoft’s desktop search tools–to identify the people most likely to be able to answer a particular question.

Of course, identifying the right person to talk to is only part of the problem, notes Aptima’s Serfaty. In addition to being knowledgeable, a good collaborator is someone who’s not currently bogged down in other tasks, is willing to be helpful, and works well with people like you. That’s why Aptima’s tools are being designed to take into account not just the depth of knowledge and experience of the people in the network but also their workload and workstyle. Serfaty’s team, which is working with MIT’s Media Lab, is even investigating how the system might recognize the ways in which external events can alter connections–as, for example, the way a suicide bombing in the Middle East can affect political, cultural, and religious alliances. In a business context, that might mean recognizing that a big jump in the price of steel strengthens potential ties between small manufacturing companies and plastics distributors. It sounds compelling, but don’t reach for your checkbook just yet. Aptima’s systems are still in the experimental stage; when they are available, they’ll be aimed at government agencies and large companies. Should they prove successful, systems for smaller companies and consumer markets will follow.

Needless to say, monitoring e-mail and other communications poses privacy issues. But as I’ve argued in this column before, if you give people a benefit in return for giving up some of their online privacy, most will go along with it. In the case of Aptima and eTelemetry, the goal is to get entire organizations to install the software; that will take care of privacy considerations because, in general, companies have the right to subject employees to communications monitoring. That would allow the broad mapping of relationships throughout those organizations and between any organizations that agree to pool their networks.

The drawback is that people outside these organizations won’t be able take advantage of the tools, and it’s often the case that the person who has the solution to your problem isn’t in your company. Visible Path, which has made its software available to the public, hopes to create a mass cross-organization network, but only if it can get enough individuals to sign up to have their e-mail tracked. On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop Aptima and eTelemetry from eventually opening up their tools to the public, perhaps by cutting deals with a Web giant such as Yahoo; both companies say that’s a possibility. And Visible Path, which has teamed up with business information provider Hoover’s, is eager to sign up entire companies as well as individuals.

But even intelligent social-networking tools, no matter how smart they get, will sometimes fail to get a handle on who can solve whose problems. That’s because despite all the emphasis we tend to place these days on online activity, many of the most effective people still get a lot of their work done the old-fashioned way, that is, via phone calls or by dragging their butts over to someone’s office for a talk, and the substance and even existence of those conversations can’t easily be captured. And no matter how capable and all-knowing these systems get, you’ll still stumble on the occasional great contact at a cocktail party or trade show or on an airplane flight. Technology can do wonders, but there’s no complete replacement for the miracles accomplished every day through plain dumb luck.

Source: INC magazine


Changing the Way People Search

October 19, 2007

New start-ups are changing the way people search the Web — and the way advertisers reach them.

Now that Google is a verb, it would seem the story of search has been written, published and put on the shelf. But don’t put that book away just yet. Dozens of start-ups are working hard to re-write it, both with Google’s help and without it.

Much of the new technology in search focuses on the flood of multimedia content that Google’s underlying technology doesn’t address. Search engines for video, audio and even three-dimensional still images are coming to market and changing the way users think about search. One search start-up has optimized its engine for mobile users, and opened a new platform for content providers to make their sites more accessible by mobile users, too. Others are trying to improve the search experience for online shoppers.

At DEMO 2006 in February, a conference showcasing new technologies and companies, 10 of the 69 start-ups on stage had developed new concepts in search. At DEMOFall seven months later, half a dozen more unveiled search plans.

What this means for small business

As companies change the way that people can search the Web, small and mid-size businesses need to keep abreast of the new techniques. Searching the Web is one of the key ways that potential customers find companies with which they want to do business in the 21st Century. If new types of search technologies take off, businesses may need to reassess how they describe their products online, how their websites optimize search and/or advertise on search engines and what type of multimedia content they feature on the Web.

Start-up Transparensee, based in New York City, is designed to improve search results by understanding the meaning of data fields in structured data (as opposed to Google’s emphasis on random, unstructured data). Using this kind of “fuzzy” logic, Transparensee allows users to weight various parameters; if they say they’re looking for a 10X optical zoom camera with 5 megapixels of resolution, they’ll get to see the 12X cameras with 6 megapixel resolution if those models are in their price range.

In multimedia search, Pluggd, of Seattle, Wash., offers HearHere, a search service that lets podcast listeners avoid irrelevant content by taking them straight to the segment of an audio or video feed that relates to their search request. Nexidia, of Altanta, recently introduced a “developer edition” to let content sites add audio indexing similar to HearHere’s search. The company is already well established in audio analysis for enterprise and government needs, such as analyzing call center conversations and finding interesting segments of surveillance recordings. Sonic Foundry Sonic Foundry, of Madison, Wis., also provides audio search through Mediasite.com, its “rich media” database of expert lectures and presentations.

“We believe search lies at the heart of efficient, Web-based communication,” says Sonic Foundry CEO Rimas Buinevicius. “Finding a specific document or phrase has become a necessary part of working and learning.”

That may also influence the type of content that companies may want to feature on their websites in order to attract traffic and potential customers.

Reaching mobile customers

Search also has become an important part of the mobile experience. Rather than paying $1 to $1.50 per 411 call, mobile users are trying out free mobile text services. Start-up 4INFO, of Palo Alto, Calif., has taken its mobile text-message search service a step beyond those offered by Google and Yahoo; the company recently debuted an open development platform that lets any content provider create 4INFO-searchable content. Revenues from advertising embedded in the search results are shared between 4INFO and the content provider.

Potential customers also are finding easier paths through the search thicket to the products they want. FatLens, of Mountain View, Calif., which recently rolled out an event search site that sells tickets, also has created a site, TheFind.com, which does comparison shopping searches without relying on advertising dollars to influence the order of the results. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, 82 percent of online shoppers use search sites to find what they want, but 85 percent of them are dissatisfied with the experience. If sites like TheFind.com ease their pain, small companies should be able to compete with major retailers to sell their products on an equal footing.

Source: INC magazine


Local Search — How Do I Use it for My Business?

October 19, 2007

Some small business owners don’t see the value of online advertising because they aren’t interested in attracting website visitors worldwide. Local search changes all that.

Studies show that the majority of small businesses draw customers from within a 50-mile radius. The good news is that a variety of tools make it easier for your business to be found by people searching for local businesses. And the tools are getting more precise and more intelligent as the search engine companies invest in local search technology.

Here’s a primer on local search.

What is local search

Local search is a pretty simple concept. It’s when people search in Google or another search engine using a geographical parameter.

For instance, let’s say I want to order a pizza. I might search for “pizza” plus the name of my local city “Medina” or maybe by city AND state, “Medina, Ohio.” Or I might plug in my zip code in place of the city and state if I want to be especially precise.

That’s local search. You may have done searches this way yourself.

But there’s another way local search occurs: when the search engines help out. For instance, some of the search engines can detect from my IP (computer) address where I am located, and will deliver up local search results even if I neglect to plug in the city, state or zip code. The search engine technology “fills in” the searcher’s location.

How can local search for my business

If you want your business to get found by those searching for local businesses, there are a number of specific actions you can take to increase your chances of being located.

To provide local search insights, I called on Bill Slawski, an expert in local search and President of SEO by the Sea, Inc.. Here are some of the pointers Slawski suggested:

1. Include address information on your website

The most common reason businesses do not rank well in local searches is that they fail to include their full address information prominently on their websites. Remember to:

  • Include your address in text, not in an image — search engine spiders read text.
  • Use your full address, including street, city, state/province and zip code. That way your business shows up for all those search parameters.
  • Spell out the state or province, not just the postal abbreviation, since many people search by full state name (“Ohio” rather than “OH”).
  • Do not bury your address three layers deep. Put it in the footer of your home page.
  • Include city and/or state in your title tags and/or Meta tags in your site’s HTML code.

2. Use “key value pairs” to describe contact information

Some search engines recognize something called key value pairs. In other words, their spiders look for information paired up with a key term. The word “telephone” is a key and your actual telephone number is a value: Thus, use a word such as telephone along with a colon and the number. Example: “Telephone: 800-000-0000.” This way, your contact information will be more likely to be found.

3. Include hours, disabled access and more

Some specialized local search engines provide more information about a business than simply address. For instance, they may provide business hours, accessibility for the disabled, and so on. According to Slawski, one of the search engine patents says its algorithm considers pages with such detailed business information to be more important than other kinds of pages. Plus, detailed information is a sign of credibility for your business, aside from the search engines.

4. Remember local searchers using mobile phones

Residents in your local area are the obvious people searching for local businesses. But don’t overlook a wider potential audience. Slawski says, “Remember business travelers, tourists, those visiting relatives in the area, commuters who live elsewhere but work in your area, and relocating newcomers who will soon be moving to the area — they will be looking for you via their mobile phones.“

Local search is becoming tied closely to mobile search. Those looking on their cell phones may find you if you are listed well in local search engines. Consider optimizing your site for mobile-phone viewing.

5. Consider mail forwarding for a home business

Home-based businesses have a special problem. They want to be found, yet for security reasons prefer not to publicize their home addresses on the Web. A mail forwarding service that provides a physical address for mail may be worth it. Even a post office box address is helpful. For fax and phone, consider a phone forwarding and fax forwarding service (I use GotVMail) so that the numbers cannot be cross-referenced to your home.

6. If you can’t get a link, at least get a mention

Standard search engine optimization advice beats us silly with the idea that we must get links to our websites. “But for purposes of local search, mentions even without hyperlinks can have value,” says Slawski. If you can get your business mentioned where the mention also includes your address or phone number, the search engines may extract the information and use it to validate that the business is in fact associated with that location. So, for example, getting mentioned in the local chamber of commerce website or in your local online newspaper, can be helpful for local search purposes. The more mentions, and the more specific the mentions, the better.

7. Geo-target paid search campaigns

So far we have been talking about unpaid search results. But if you purchase search advertising, such as Google AdWords, be sure to geo-target your ads, so that they are shown only to those in your area. Paid search for a local market is not as expensive as for a global market.

8. Be found even without a website

It is possible to be found via local search even though you don’t have a website. Visit some of the local search engines and local directories to: (1) make sure your business is listed, and (2) make sure the information is correct. To do this, look for a link, often near the bottom of the page, saying something like “add/edit your business” or “list your business.”

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.

Inc magazine


Do You Know Where Your Content Is?

October 19, 2007

By Anita Campbell

Web content used to just appear on individual webpages. But now your content now may be accessed by people in dozens of other places. Your content can become a “roving ambassador” for your business.

It’s 10:00 p.m. Three people are reading their favorite business information online:

  • John in Alabama opens up Bloglines to catch up on reading the latest RSS headlines from his favorite blogs and news sites.
  • Maria heads over to Inc.com to read the latest articles online. BlogRovr, a free application she uses, retrieves and displays the latest blog articles linking to the Inc articles she is reading. That extends the conversation surrounding the articles she is reading, as she can now see what her favorite bloggers have to say about the articles, right while she is reading them.
  • Marcus fires up iGoogle to the start page he has set up containing a dozen and half gadgets containing bits of information, such as RSS headlines or interactive applications, from his favorite sites. For instance, he uses iGoogle to monitor activity on his profiles on social media sites, such as Facebook, as well as the latest “twitters” of the people he is following on Twitter.

John, Maria and Marcus are each reading and interacting with their favorite sites and Web applications. They may be reading YOUR blog articles or pulling in information from the application they use from YOUR site.

But you’ll notice one important fact: none of them actually visited your Web URL that evening. In fact, they haven’t been to your site in weeks, maybe months.

Welcome to the cut-and-paste Web, as it has been dubbed by blogger and PR executive Steve Rubel. The cut-and-paste Web is where the Web reader (user) is in control. It’s where the reader can decide to move content around. Today’s Web consumer chooses what he or she wants to see and where.

What’s more, most of the activity involving your site may be happening off your site.

I’ve had personal experience with this. Just in the past three months on three separate days, the number of article views via RSS feeds from one of my own websites exceeded the number of on-site page views that day. Think about that a moment. On three different days more people consumed my content off of my site, than on it. At present growth rates, I project that within a year, more people regularly will be viewing my site’s content off-site than on-page.

The thought is staggering. It changes everything about how I view what I am doing, from my site’s business model, to how I define a “community,” to how I go about adding new features.

Portability of content has profound implications for Web publishers and site owners:

  1. Make it embeddable. Content wants to be free. Set up your site so that chunks of it are portable and easy for users to embed into other websites, such as start pages like iGoogle or RSS readers. Better yet, have your development team create widgets or gadgets and submit them to widget directories or start-pages sites, for users. Another important step is to create an “app” or application for Facebook, so that users can use it there. This will extend the reach of your site and broaden your community base. Learn how to leverage sites and tools such as: WidgetBox, iGoogle, Netvibes, PageFlakes, FreeWebs.

  2. Think desktop widgets. Widgets are not only embeddable in other Web pages, but increasingly users are placing them on their computer desktops. You can’t get much more visible than that, when users see your widget every time they boot their computer up and see their desktop screen. Try these sites for desktop widget building tools and directories of places to submit your widget: Yahoo Widgets; SpringWidgets.

  3. Use other measurements besides pageviews. If people don’t actually visit your URL, then you cannot very fully measure your site’s reach using traditional metrics of visits and page views. So you will need to start tracking alternative measurements. One of the easiest to track is RSS subscribers and RSS item use. For this, the hands-down best solution today is FeedBurner.

  4. Rethink advertising-based sites. If your business model is advertising based, calculated on CPM rates (i.e., number of page impressions), start now offering alternative ad placements and rate structures. One option is ads in your RSS feeds. Today advertisers still are not willing to pay the same advertising rates in RSS feeds as for on-site or even newsletter placements. But in the future as RSS becomes more accepted, that could change. FeedBurner offers a feed-based ad network for publishers to monetize their feeds, as does Pheedo.

  5. You will no longer control what people see. Get over the idea that you can control what the user sees. That may be true if users come to your website (and plenty of people still do today). But in the future, as increasing numbers of consumers come only once to your site to check it out or set up an account, thereafter they may not only display your content where they want it, but even start changing how it looks. For instance, some widgets allow users to change background colors and other display features.

The bottom line: Embrace the portability of content as a kind of roving ambassador for your website and your business. Your content and your site’s applications can be working for you around the Web in dozens, hundreds, thousands of places.

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.

Source: INC magazine


The Monster Dilemma

October 18, 2007

Posting jobs on the Web is easy. It’s sifting through hundreds of resumés that’s a pain.

For business owners plagued by a dearth of candidates for key job openings, the Web was supposed to provide an ideal solution. Job-search sites like Monster.com can put postings in front of millions of applicants instantly. And newer business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn provide similarly fertile recruiting territory, supplying access to the contacts of thousands of people. On the other hand, anyone who’s actually tried to hire someone through the Web knows the truth: You post an ad and are immediately flooded with hundreds of resumés, many from people whose backgrounds are wildly inappropriate. So much for the Web making things easier. It’s enough to make you long for the days of print newspaper ads and snail mail.

But just as technology created the problem, newer technology aims to solve it. A new generation of hiring tools promises to screen out inappropriate applicants, allow the suitable ones to put their best foot forward, and even hunt down good candidates who haven’t applied. As these new services get better at these tasks, they may well change the balance of power in the job-recruiting industry and could even redefine the way we think about jobs.

A shot at diverting a river of weak applicants is the chief advantage offered to employers by Protuo, a Woodstock, Georgia-based start-up that launched its service in January. Protuo isn’t only a job-listing site; it also forwards its clients’ listings to some 270 established job-listing sites, including Monster. But applicants can’t respond to a Protuo posting unless they spend seven minutes or so filling out a survey that asks about experience, skills, workstyles, and job preferences. Employers can customize the survey by choosing from a wide field of prepared questions or by adding their own, and they specify which responses get a candidate’s resumé past the screen. Has the candidate managed a technical project? Is he or she willing to move? The approach is modeled, to some extent, on the sort of compatibility gauging one encounters on a matchmaking site like eHarmony, notes Jennifer Gerlach, Protuo’s co-founder and vice president of marketing. Gerlach went through the dating process on eHarmony just to research the technique. “I learned a lot,” she says. “And I met some very, very nice people.”

With online job postings sometimes pulling in more than a thousand applicants, the ability to winnow the flood could mean the difference between being able to retain control of the hiring process and having to bring in a professional recruiter–at a typical cost of $30,000 for a midlevel hire. The time and expense of dealing with a huge influx of resumés is all the more frustrating because much of the flow comes from online applicants who indiscriminately bombard hirers with resumés. You can try a keyword search on the resumés to narrow things down, but applicants have learned to load their resumés with them, often by pasting in phrases from the job posting. Even LinkedIn has suffered from inflation, as many users aggressively build networks of people they don’t really know in order to make themselves appear better connected. “There’s no value in a lot of these contacts,” says LinkedIn user Chris Knudsen, who heads business development for podcasting company Podango in Salt Lake City. “It can just be someone whose card you got at a trade show.” (A LinkedIn spokesperson commented via e-mail: “Anyone can join the LinkedIn network; however, the quality of your own personal LinkedIn network is the responsibility of each individual.”) But a well-designed survey, contends Gerlach, allows users to skim the cream.

Fred Donovan, who runs Donovan Networks, a seven-employee computer network security firm, has been flooded with applicants responding to previous postings to Monster.com and other online job boards. He is currently conducting a Protuo search and likes what he’s seen so far. “I can specify that I want to see only resumés from people who say they have 10 years’ experience in negotiating sales and are familiar with the software development process,” he says. “I’m seeing a small, better-qualified subset of the applicants.” There must be something to the idea. Other hiring sites, including Market10, Jobster, and Taleo, are introducing their own approaches to automated candidate screening. And Monster is doing the same, making available–for a fee that adds about 20 percent to the cost of posting a job–the ability to direct applicants to a questionnaire designed to rank the suitability of candidates.

Sure, candidates can try to game these surveys by being less than truthful. But Gerlach insists that surveys can be designed to stymie such people by asking questions that don’t have an obviously right answer–such as whether the person prefers to work independently or in groups–and by warning candidates that they can be rated as overqualified. Protuo, which costs hirers $44 to $295 a month depending on the number of jobs they’re posting and is currently free to job seekers, also offers applicants a chance to do more than post a resumé. The firm invites users to create online portfolios that can include whatever documents, photos, videos, or other material that best represents that person’s career to date. (Monster is currently testing a similar capability.)

ZoomInfo, in Waltham, Massachusetts, takes a different approach. It assembles profiles of potential job candidates from all available online data, whether or not they’re looking for jobs. Starting with the same techniques that Google uses to gather Web data associated with a person’s name, ZoomInfo adds the significant additional step of crunching the results to pull out the most relevant information, weed out data referring to other people of the same name, and assemble a professional profile. ZoomInfo has an R&D team of 35 working on the technology. So far, the company has assembled some 34 million profiles, and as far as I can tell, most of them are fairly informative and accurate. (Check out your own name to put it to the test.)

But somebody has to pay for all those scientists, and that somebody is you. The company charges $5,000 a user per year for the ability to dig up personnel profiles by company or industry. It sounds like a lot, but ZoomInfo’s COO, Bryan Burdick, notes that if you get the right candidate for a single vacancy, the price is one-sixth that of using a recruiting firm. The company also offers less expensive, more limited searching capabilities aimed at smaller companies, as well as free access to searches on individuals. Many major executive search firms, along with some 500 other corporations, already use ZoomInfo, claims Burdick. “I can find personal information, professional backgrounds–and, sometimes, damning evidence–on tens of millions of people without having to go through 1.5 million Google hits on each one,” says John Boehmer, managing partner at executive search firm Barlow Group in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Boehmer is quick to point out that as ZoomInfo-like services get better, and more companies get comfortable using them, corporate hirers won’t need professional recruiting firms like his to turn up candidates. “It’s commoditizing the front end of what we do,” he says. “Eventually, everyone will know where everyone is and how to get hold of them, so we won’t be able to charge for identifying and contacting candidates.” Search firms will still be valuable for assessing candidates, he contends, though he acknowledges that new e-hiring systems could eventually eat into that end of the business as they get smarter and have more online data to work with.

For that matter, it’s easy to imagine the not-all-that-distant day when online tools make it so easy to find people to fill a specific slot that the notion of permanent jobs becomes irrelevant for many positions. Why hire a manager for years when you can find a new one with exactly the skill set needed for the precise tasks at hand? That’s not necessarily bad for employees: Think of an economy where top employees are constantly being sought out and bid over by companies that recognize them from their Web trails as the perfect short-term solution. And talented employees would be just as smart about whom they choose to work for–using similar services to weed out companies that aren’t good matches for them. You’ll want to treat those people well. If you don’t, and they post that fact online, it could haunt you for a long, long time.


Helping Customers Help Each Other Online

October 18, 2007

By Minda Zetlin

A growing number of companies are creating online community forums, or other ways for customers to interact. This not only improves customer satisfaction, but also saves time and resources for your business.

About a year ago, Thor Muller, Amy Muller, and Lane Becker were running a company called Valleyschwag, a swag-of-the-month club that offered the latest in t-shirts, baseball caps, key chains, and other Silicon Valley promotional giveaways to subscribers around the world.

They handled customer questions and complaints themselves, via email. “We had several thousand customers and we spent most of our time responding to their issues, most of which were repetitive,” Thor Muller says. “We didn’t have enough hours in the day.”

Meanwhile, the partners noticed an interesting phenomenon. “In the comment section of our blog, customers began to help other customers,” Muller says. Sometimes the comments related to the original post — for instance, to ask a question about a new feature announced in the blog. Other times, customers would pose questions about sizing, shipping times, or other issues as comments to a blog post on a completely different topic.

And these questions were getting answers. “They were responding faster than we were,” Muller says.

“There were two completely different channels for customer communications,” Becker notes. “One was the email approach, which was company-run and inefficient. The other was the blog comments, which was customer-run and amazingly efficient.”

Faster, cheaper, better

The partners had inadvertently discovered the power of online community as a means of providing customer service. The fact is, providing an environment where customers answer each others’ questions can be much more effective than simply providing the answers yourself. For one thing, few companies can afford to hire (or outsource) the number of customer service reps needed to give helpful responses quickly to every customer who needs them. Second, as Becker and Muller saw, customers often respond to each other faster than customer service reps can. And third, the answers customers give each other are often better than answers from company staff. For instance, Muller says, Valleyschwag customers provided each other better help with the subtleties of picking the right t-shirt size than they themselves could have.

Creating a customer-service community can help your customers be more engaged with both your product and your company, says Sean O’Driscoll, general manager, community support services, customer service, and support at Microsoft. “How do you get users to want to stay at your site and engage with others? The only way is peer-to-peer discussion, in their own voices, rather than the company’s voice,” he says.

O’Driscoll recommends giving customers a means to identify the most useful answers to their questions, and having those answers come up first in response to a question or search. He also recommends identifying and rewarding what is usually a core group of customers who consistently provide those answers.

Culture of trust

It’s also important to create an atmosphere where customers want to help each other, notes Craig Newmark, customer service rep and founder of Craigslist.org. “It begins with treating customers the way you’d like to be treated, taking customer service seriously and following through,” he says. “The way we run our site encourages people to give each other a break because of that culture of trust.”

Whatever you do, don’t try to edit or otherwise control what customers say about your product or company. This may require a mental leap, O’Driscoll notes. “I spent my whole career being told to manage the brand, control the brand,” he says. “The emergence of citizen markets means I can’t control the brand anymore.”

Which brings us back to the former Valleyschwag partners. Ready to move on from that venture (“You have to really love shipping,” Becker says) they used their customer service experience to launch a customer service site, as Muller puts it, “revolving around customers rather than companies.”

The service, named Satisfaction, is built on a simple concept: Anyone, whether customer or company representative, can start a conversation about any product or service and anyone else can join in. Some companies stay out of these conversations (though their employees may offer non-officially-sanctioned comments). Others see them as a resource, including the messenger bag company Timbuk2, which offers a link to Satisfaction’s “People-Powered Customer Service” from its site.

Ultimately, Muller says, customers can help each other with or without a company’s blessing. “Companies large or small have thought they could send out messages and people would passively receive them, but it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “Whether or not you decide to embrace that conversation within your own sphere doesn’t matter –because it will be happening somewhere.”

 

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Yes, No, and Somewhat Likely

October 1, 2007

There was a time when you practically had to hire a scientist to research the market for a product or service. These days, you can choose among dozens of online tools for polling customers, employees, and complete strangers. Options range from free services that let you create quick polls for learning about visitors or entertaining them with results, to pricey “feedback management” systems that can analyze years of responses, storing gigabytes of survey results as securely as if the information were valuable company financial data. Which, in a way, it is. Most new survey tools are versatile and Web-based and require no software installation. Here are some ways companies are using them.

Assembling quick focus groups
Zoomerang zPro and Zoomerang Sample
The zPro software is for designing Web-based surveys and viewing results. Zoomerang Sample sends a survey to a portion of its 2.5 million-member online panel.

In action: In 2004, former advertising exec Patrick Raymond got the brainstorm for a shower curtain-rod attachment that created more elbow room in a shower by pushing the curtain out slightly. He needed affordable market research to see if anyone else cared. In 2005 and 2006, Raymond had Zoomerang send two 20-question surveys, which he designed himself using the zPro software, to samples of U.S. adults who had a shower curtain in their main bathrooms. He got about 400 responses to each and paid $5,000 total.

“The survey results blew me away,” he says. Forty-three percent of respondents said their shower curtains crowd them; 28 percent said they probably or definitely would buy a product like the one he proposed. The numbers made it into his business plan, with which he raised about $500,000. The data also helped convince an industrial design firm that Raymond was worth taking on as a customer. The $19.99 ShowerBow started selling this year. One area in which the research hasn’t helped a lot has been in winning retail distribution, Raymond says (though ShowerBow is sold at Amazon.com). And, although Zoomerang offers a service in which it will help devise a survey, users are on their own in making sense of survey results.

Pricing: $599 a year (or $199 for three months) for unlimited use of the survey software. $500 and up per survey for use of Zoomerang’s panel. (Reaching more targeted groups costs more.)

Monitoring customer satisfaction
SurveyMonkey
SurveyMonkey is Web-based software for creating, administering, and viewing results of online surveys.

In action: Queensboro Shirt, a $12 million seller of custom-embroidered shirts, caters to small-business buyers whose average order is under $200. It never had salespeople dedicated to particular customers. But president and founder Fred Meyers always liked to have the company give clients follow-up calls asking about their satisfaction. As the business grew, and online sales took off, it became difficult to call everyone personally. So Meyers had his website programmers weave a connection to SurveyMonkey’s polling software into the order processing system.

Now, in addition to receiving automated order and shipping confirmations, each Queensboro customer receives an e-mail–scheduled to arrive a day after the product does–with a link to a 10-question customer satisfaction survey. Buyers are asked questions that rate their happiness with things like product quality and delivery speed. Queensboro did some extra programming to convert the ratings into a sort of “grade point average” for each metric of satisfaction. The company’s managers use the scores to guide their operational decisions. For example, when Queensboro noticed scores for shipment speed lagging, the company put more resources into delivering products within 10 days. “It’s like bringing customers to the conference table,” says Meyers.

Pricing: $200 per year for unlimited use or $19.95 a month for 1,000 survey responses per month

Building a polling network
Vizu Answers
Vizu will place a poll–typically one question–on multiple websites, the way you might run an ad on various sites. Vizu has deals with 700 established sites that cover disparate interests, so you can select the demographic you want to hear from.

In action: Greg Deutsch needed research on pizza preferences, specifically what kind of crust and sauce residents of Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee prefer. Within the giant Food Services of America, a $3 billion private company that distributes food to stores and institutions, Deutsch directs retail sales for a small unit that formulates “take and bake” pizzas that grocery stores private-label.

Looking to approach stores armed with knowledge of regional pizza tastes, Deutsch had Vizu post two one-question polls (about crust and sauce) on 50 websites. Responses started immediately, but because Deutsch wanted to know only about respondents from four states, accumulating data took time (Vizu uses IP addresses to tell where someone is). Over three months ending in August, the question about pizza crust got about 452,000 page views–and 131 qualifying responses.

The results aren’t rigorously scientific, but Deutsch feels he will have an advantage by being able to go to prospective customers knowing that a substantial percentage of people in their region like thick crust more. “In my business, the majority rules,” he says. Vizu’s fee: about $800.

Pricing: $1 and up per qualified response, depending on the specificity of the target demographic

Hearing employees think
Vovici EFM Feedback
EFM Feedback is a subscription service designed for ongoing surveys of customers or employees. Vovici will store historic data securely and provides reports as well as analysis.

In action: BDO Seidman, a Chicago accounting firm with 2,500 employees in 35 U.S. offices, conducted its first companywide survey in 2005. Employees indicated how they felt about the firm’s benefits, management, career development, and other issues, about 50 questions in all. The company conducted the survey itself, via a website. What it got back was “very much raw data” that took the human resources staff more time than anyone expected to wrangle into digestible format, says Sandi Guy, national director of human resources.

This year Seidman did the survey again but handed off the job to Vovici. Vovici built a webpage for the questions, and the accounting firm sent each employee an e-mail containing a link to the survey. About 55 percent responded. Vovici prepared a summary that broke down the anonymous responses by region, office, and practice area and compared the responses with those from 2005. The report went to the human resources department and the company’s top management, and Vovici advised the firm on how to roll out results to employees. “A lot of the feedback, some people said they were unclear what the path to partnership was,” Guy says. BDO Seidman spent about $30,000.

Pricing: $1,800 per year and up–to six figures–depending on usage and reports desired. Vovici also offers low-cost Web polls.

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Let’s Get Together

August 1, 2007

It’s not just who you know. It’s also who they know, and what they know. Online social networks have the potential to connect you to a vast world of people and resources, and they’ve gone from fad to fact of business life. Generally speaking, social networking services connect your list of personal contacts to the lists and profiles of others, giving you a bigger Rolodex of potential associates. These networks are finding ever more ways to be useful for tasks like finding employees and sales prospects, tracking down expertise, spreading marketing messages, and gathering customer feedback. Here are six services worth knowing.

Best for…Finding professionals

LinkedIn

What it is: A membership service through which 11 million people list work experience, references, and job goals. LinkedIn’s search engine, which scans the profiles, is an excellent tool for recruiting and job hunting. It’s aimed at individuals, though some companies use it.

What’s cool: A jobs area gives companies a huge base of connected businesspeople to recruit from. An answers service, which allows the posting of business questions, has a start-up and small-business category.

Drawbacks: Network spam–people you don’t know will ask to connect with you.

Price: The basic version is free. Premium versions offer features such as a greater number of introduction requests, fuller access to other people’s profiles, and the ability to directly contact people who aren’t connected to you. Plans range widely, from $60 to $2,000 a year (or $20 to $200 a month).

Best for…Looking good fast

Small World Labs

What it is: An online service that hosts customized social networks that use your own branding and Web address. Small World builds it; you can use it to link employees or to turn customers into a social network so they can share ideas.

What’s cool: Support for reviews, ratings, and a video gallery allow companies to build libraries of things such as customer-generated product demonstrations. For business use, “friends” can be called “contacts,” and “comments” are “testimonials.” You control what happens to customer data, reducing privacy issues.

Drawbacks: It’s pricey, though cheaper than hiring IT staff to build and maintain a network.

Price: There’s a $10,000 to $75,000 setup fee. Monthly hosting fees vary based on the size of the network; it typically falls between $500 and $3,000.

Best for…Marketing to Gen-Y

MySpace

What it is: You know about MySpace. About 65 million people use it to create pages with personal pictures, blog entries, video clips, and links to the pages of their friends. Its size and the passion of its users make MySpace a good way to build buzz among consumers, especially younger ones. Bands and authors build pages looking to get linked to by MySpace members and featured on MySpace pages dedicated to music or artists.

What’s cool: Even if you don’t have a MySpace page, the company’s partnership with Google allows placement of ads targeted to specific pages, interests, and searches. If you have a page, you control how it looks, and it’s easy to post audio and video.

Drawbacks: It’s easy to develop an ugly MySpace page. It takes time to maintain a good one–time you could be spending on your main website.

Price: Free

Best for…Mobile marketing

Twitter

What it is: A message-posting service designed to let people send very short messages–140 characters or less. While many people use it for short-form blogging, marketers can use it to post quickie updates to customers and work groups can use it to keep tabs on what other members are doing.

What’s cool: Free search engines, developed by third parties, let you type in your company name and see Twitterers talking about it. In addition to computers, Twitter also runs on cell phones, so customers or co-workers don’t have to be at a desk to get or post messages.

Drawbacks: Twitter is still experimental, and its developers haven’t done anything to tailor it for business use. Making it work requires building your own network of customers or clients.

Price: Free

Best for…Hearing customers

Yelp

What it is: An online service that lets users rate and comment on local businesses. You can see what your customers think about you and engage with them.

What’s cool: Yelp can help entrepreneurs move their real-world buzz to the Web by capturing it in writing. The feedback provided by reviews and ratings can be invaluable–and it’s cheaper than running a survey. Business owners can engage customers directly. Yelp also offers a sponsorship program in which companies can pay for increased prominence in searches.

Drawbacks: You don’t control the content; consumers can post whatever they like. Business sponsorships are currently available in only three cities: San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Price: Free to register. Sponsorships cost $250 to $2,000 a month.

Best for…Helping salespeople

Visible Path

What it is: Software that integrates with e-mail, CRM applications, and other corporate programs to produce a searchable web of the relationships that exist within and outside a company.

What’s cool: Companies can use Visible Path’s software to grease the rails for salespeople by giving them better introductions to potential clients–the theory being that someone in your company might well have a good relationship with someone at a potential client company. It even defines the closeness of contacts (who’s one personal connection away, two away, and so on).

Drawbacks: There’s still not a lot of hard data to verify that using social networks leads to more sales than traditional cold calling.

Price: The basic version is free; a version with added support and administration is $20 per subscriber per month.

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Voice Mail 2.0 – New Tools for SME

June 1, 2007

By Ryan McCarthy

For big-wave surfers around the world, it’s the one call they don’t want to miss: the word from Jeff Clark that the Mavericks Surf Contest is about to begin. Clark is founder of Mavericks Surf Ventures, a company named after the legendary beach in Half Moon Bay, California, where surfers convene from around the world to test their skills against towering swells that can top 50 feet. Mavericks is a fickle spot, delivering those massive breakers only about five times each winter. So when the surf is up, the athletes need to know. And Clark needs to notify them because his company earns most of its revenue from the competition’s sponsors, such as Ask.com.

For most of the company’s three-year history, Clark and his staff have spent hours every week in winter calling two dozen surfers scattered across several continents, as well as corporate sponsors, caterers, media outlets, and volunteers, to update them on surf conditions. This year, however, he found a new voice messaging tool called Pinger, which allows him to send instant voice mails to large groups of people without actually calling them. He dials Pinger’s number and records a message, which is automatically forwarded to everyone he needs to reach–this year, more than 600 people at once. “When I see something in the waves, I have to be able to get the message out now,” says Clark. “The competitors are stoked to get the updates.”

Digital technology has changed nearly everything about the way we communicate–except voice mail. Which is to say that keeping up with voice mail is still the royal pain it’s always been. That’s especially true today, when nearly everyone has multiple phone numbers and voice mail boxes. Checking all of those accounts means entering PIN numbers and listening to messages in the order in which they were received. But what if you could listen to that urgent message from a client before that drawn-out message from your aunt? Or merge all your voice mail accounts into a single location? Or read voice mail messages off your BlackBerry?

Some of these voice mail 2.0 services have long been available at large companies with big communications budgets. Now start-ups such as Pinger, SimulScribe, GotVoice, Jott, and GrandCentral, all of which have launched their products in the past few years, are giving small-business and consumer voice mail a much-needed technological overhaul. They take slightly different approaches. GotVoice, based in Kirkland, Washington, uses an automatic dialing system to log in to each of your voice mail accounts. It records the messages and e-mails them to you as MP3 files. “Voice mail is usually just drudgery,” says Bruce Peterson, co-founder of GotVoice. “Our service is for anyone who’s busy, can’t miss a call, and hates to check messages.”

New York City-based SimulScribe takes another approach. It uses software to transcribe voice messages into text files, which are e-mailed to you–so you can read your voice mail on a BlackBerry while, say, you sit in a meeting. Other services, including GotVoice, Pinger, and Jott, help you send messages to a large group of staff or clients. Jott users dial a number and record a message. The message is transcribed in India and delivered via e-mail and text message, usually within four to five minutes.

Another company is trying to end the era of multiple phone numbers. GrandCentral, based in Fremont, California, lets you consolidate all your phone numbers–your home, work, and cellular lines–into one new number provided by GrandCentral. When messages come into the voice mail box on one of your old lines, they’re forwarded to your new GrandCentral number and kept as audio files in an online mailbox for easy access. But the service has a major downside: To use all of GrandCentral’s features, your contacts have to switch to the new number.

Many of these products are in public beta formats and the vendors are still working out kinks. Because of some glitches with GrandCentral, for example, some customers canceled the service and had to tell all their friends and clients they were changing their numbers back. And SimulScribe’s transcription software can miss some words, though the company says the transcriptions are about 90 percent accurate.

Despite these glitches, voice mail 2.0 tools have already changed the way some entrepreneurs do business. Before using SimulScribe, Jason Weissman, the 28-year-old founder of Boston Realty Advisors, a commercial and residential real estate firm, was inundated by up to 50 voice mail messages a day on his office phone and another 15 to 20 on his cell phone. For Weissman and his brokers, a missed call can mean a missed sale. “Getting back to someone quickly is absolutely everything in this business,” says Weissman.

Weissman recently hooked up SimulScribe for all 30 of his real estate brokers. Because SimulScribe stores all of their voice mails online, Weissman’s brokers never have to search for that lost phone number scrawled on a napkin. They can also sift through their online SimulScribe boxes, which retain all incoming messages, for sales leads.

Compared with his $30,000 to $40,000 annual bill for phone, fax, and BlackBerry, Weissman says his SimulScribe investment of about $15 per user per month is relatively small. Even though he says the service struggles to translate some words, Weissman expects to see the results of his new investment reflected in his company’s bottom line soon. “It’s definitely a paradigm shift in terms of the way I operate,” says Weissman. “I really believe this creates an efficiency for our agents and gives us an edge over the competition.”

Pinger

Approach: Send a message to multiple people with a single call.

Pro: In addition to the voice recording, Pinger sends an e-mail and text message with a link to an audio file.

Con: No transcription

Price: Free for now

Jott

Approach: Users record a message, which is transcribed and e-mailed to contacts.

Pro: Recipients can quickly scan transcription for important information.

Con: Only for outgoing messages

Price: Free for now

GotVoice

Approach: Logs in to all of your voice mail accounts and e-mails you a link to your messages.

Pro: No need to change your phone number

Con: No transcription

Price: Free for basic service

SimulScribe

Approach: Uses software to transcribe your voice mails and sends them as e-mails and text messages.

Pro: Check messages while in a meeting.

Con: Not totally accurate

Price: $9.95 per month for 40 transcriptions. Enterprise pricing also available.

GrandCentral

Approach: Links all of your phone lines under one new number

Pro: Use only one voice mail box.

Con: To use all the features, you have to change your number.

Price: Free for now

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