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 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 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.


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


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


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


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


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.


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

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.”


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


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


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


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.


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


CRM Made Simple

January 1, 2007

Few pieces of tech jargon are as unwieldy as CRM–customer relationship management. But what CRM systems do is actually quite simple. A CRM system is like an electronic Rolodex souped up so that every entry yields not only a phone number but your entire business history with that customer. The systems also can scan data to spot trends, enabling you to refine your sales, marketing, and customer service efforts. Such systems traditionally have been expensive and complicated, challenging the skills of even the smartest techies. But that’s changing. Forrester Research (NASDAQ:FORR) projects that in 2007, companies with fewer than 100 employees will account for more than a third of the CRM market. In other words, systems are no longer a luxury; increasingly, you need one if you’re going to compete. Here’s what the major vendors are offering.

Best for… Getting it all in one place


What it is: NetSuite provides a collection of software tools to manage nearly everything a business does, from accounting and payroll to e-commerce and publishing. CRM is one of the firm’s signature offerings. Those tools, which handle sales, marketing, and customer support, can be purchased separately from, say, accounting tools. But the company’s strong suit is the breadth of its software operations and its ability to integrate all of those functions into a single system.

What’s cool: NetSuite is best known for its easy-to-use dashboard interface. Its CRM features make it easy for marketers to monitor and fine-tune their search-engine marketing efforts with a tool that tracks keywords and leads, from click to sale. A new feature called SuiteFlex allows people to tailor the software to specific industries, like retailing or maintenance. NetSuite Small Business is geared specifically toward companies with 20 or fewer employees.

Drawbacks: NetSuite’s free e-mail support can take up to a week to respond to questions, so you may need to pay for a support plan.

Price: $499 per month, plus $99 per user per month

Best for… Easing the learning curve

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0

What it is: The software giant’s product for sales, support, and marketing. It’s a licensed product that you install on your own servers rather than access on the Web.

What’s cool: Dynamics CRM appears as a folder in Outlook, and for many users it will seem like it’s another part of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Office. That means staffers will need less training–often the bane of CRM implementation. The system is especially good at managing contacts and creating account information.

Drawbacks: Microsoft is new to CRM and is still working to catch up to its rivals. For instance, there is not yet a sales-commission management tool.

Price: The Small Business Edition, designed for companies with fewer than 50 employees, runs $440 to $499 per user and $528 to $599 per server. The Professional edition costs $622 to $880 per user and $1,244 to $1,761 per server. Both versions include a year of support and maintenance.

Best for… Revving up the sales team

What it is: is the original hosted CRM tool. Over the years, it has expanded from sales force automation to handle customer service, marketing, analytics, and more.

What’s cool: It’s flexible. The software’s latest version lets you customize the way data appears on your screen. Another new feature lets you slide your mouse over a contact name and bring up a pop-up screen filled with data such as current deals in process and service call status. The company also has established the AppExchange, a directory of more than 400 applications that integrate with and extend the capabilities of (as well as other applications).

Drawbacks: remains best at what its name implies: managing sales. It’s not as good at things like customer support and marketing.

Price: The Team Edition (maximum of five users) starts at $995 a year. The Unlimited Edition starts at $195 per user per month.

Best for… Coddling your customers


What it is: RightNow started out as a Web-based customer service application, but has added marketing and sales tools, becoming a full-fledged CRM application. The company’s strong focus on support means it has added interactive voice response and analytics, and also has developed its own professional services team to help businesses figure out how best to use its products.

What’s cool: A tool that lets you automate responses to customer inquiries, no matter where they come from–the Web, e-mail, or telephone. Knowledge management tools keep your entire staff up to date on what’s going on with all of your customers; in other words, you’ll know not to make a sales call to a client who just spent an hour screaming at a customer service rep.

Drawbacks: RightNow’s customer base is now more than 50 percent large companies, and its software really isn’t meant for companies with less than $50 million in sales. It can be difficult for small firms, with small IT departments, to manage.

Price: Starts at $52 per user per month (two-year commitment required)

Best for… Exploring the possibilities


What it is: A Web-based library of more than 100 open-source CRM products that visitors can sample and download for free. The site is sponsored by SugarCRM, a leading open-source CRM provider (see “Something for Nothing,” November 2006).

What’s cool: The exchange is a perfect way for CRM shoppers to get a sense of the range of free, open-source products available. Among the offerings: reporting tools to analyze customer data; contact tracking software; and tools to boost the efficiency of phone-based customer service operations.

Drawbacks: Because it’s stocked exclusively with open-source products, the pickings can be thin in some categories; only one application is available, for example, in list management. Implementing the software could require some in-house technical expertise.

Price: Free

Best for… Following the leader

Oracle’s Siebel CRM On Demand

What it is: Siebel helped invent CRM software, and is the largest company in the market today. (Last January, it was acquired by Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), which also owns CRM firms PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards.)

What’s cool: Siebel systems have great customer service tools, including a feature that automatically routes calls to the support person with the most appropriate skills, rather than just the next one in line. Siebel CRM On Demand also has strong data-reporting capabilities that make it easier to track sales performance.

Drawbacks: On Demand lacks some of the features common in other applications, such as real-time alerts to let sales and support staff respond immediately when a prospect has a question.

Price: $70 per user per month



July 21, 2006

If you’re a book lover and not too secretive, visit as fast as you can.

Keeps a convenient online catalog of book collections. Lets you browse other collections. Connects you with other book lovers. Gives book recommendations.

You can’t expose your online book catalog solely to specific friends and family—it’s either completely private or completely public.


Notes: Free for up to 200 cataloged books; for more than 200 books, shell out either $10 per year or $25 for a lifetime membership.


LibraryThing is a social network of bibliophiles. That’s right. Bibliophiles. Despite its reputation as a frivolous fad among teenagers and twentysomethings, online social networking has the power to serve almost anyone—including people with a passion for books.

Created by Chicagoan Tim Spaulding, this grass-roots site follows in the footsteps of Flickr and Just as Flickr built an online community around digital photos and fashioned a similar social network around browser “favorites,” LibraryThing connects people through their book collections.

To date, more than 39,000 people have cataloged their personal book collections on the site, posting information about more than 2.8 million titles. Some use it to keep tabs on their vast home libraries. Others are merely interested in, well, showing off. But first and foremost it puts you in touch with people who share your tastes. You can browse each other’s collections, trade recommendations, and even forge relationships. It isn’t called social networking for nothing.

At the very least, you should spend a few minutes perusing this vast catalog of book titles. Search on your favorite authors—just to see how popular they are. Track down reviews people have posted about your favorite novels. Find out what else they’re reading. Check out the “Zeitgeist” page, where you’ll find the top 25 most popular titles, the top 75 authors, and more.

I particularly enjoy browsing via “tags.” As with Flickr and, LibraryThing encourages its users to tag their books with keywords, a process that essentially sorts titles into ad hoc subcategories. Tags associated with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince include “adventure,” “british,” and “children,” and if you click on “adventure,” you’ll find a list of other titles carrying the same tag. The Zeitgeist page includes a list of the 75 most popular tags, letting you peruse everything from “historical fiction” to “young adult” books. I could spend hours on the Zeitgeist page alone.

Of course, LibraryThing is even more useful if you post your book collection, and the process is wonderfully easy. Once you key in a username and password—nothing more—you can immediately start cataloging. Simply enter a title or an author, and the site searches and major library sites for matching books. Then, with another click, you can add a book to your list. Within 15 seconds of first visiting LibraryThing, I’d added the first three titles to my catalog. If you’ve got a rare or unusual book that LibraryThing can’t find, you can add it manually.

Assuming the book is found (and most will be), each time you add a book, LibraryThing automatically posts an image of its front cover, its date of publication, its ISBN (International Standard Book Number), a list of other editions, and even where you can buy new copies online. If you like, you can add other information, including tags, a star rating, a Dewey decimal number, the date you acquired the book, the day you started reading, and the date you finished. You can add comments. You even can post a review.

At the very least, this gives you a detailed record of your personal library. That’s a good thing to have on hand, whether you’re giving book recommendations to a friend or trying to remember if there’s a particular title buried somewhere in your collection. I recently bought a copy of Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, not realizing I already owned it. That’s a common problem among big book collectors, and LibraryThing solves it. The site even lets you browse your titles using only their cover images, as if each was propped up on a vast bookshelf.

Better still, posting your collection proves to be an even easier way to leverage that vast LibraryThing network. The site automatically generates book recommendations based on the titles you own. It gives you a list of other users who own the same books. Perhaps my favorite thing about LibraryThing is that you can track down someone who shares your tastes and request a direct recommendation or ask them if a book you’re thinking of buying is any good. You can easily trade comments with users, and you may even develop running relationships. Why not meet up with someone and trade books? Spaulding claims his brother uses the site to meet women.

Don’t want others to see your book collection? No problem. If you like, you can make your catalog completely private. Unfortunately, you can’t expose your collection to specified individuals. I’m hoping this semiprivate option will be added in the future.

Users aren’t afforded a full-fledged Web presence on LibraryThing—you can’t really customize the look and feel of your profile, for instance—but the site does let you sign up for RSS feeds that alert you to newly added books and reviews. How much does it cost? You can browse for free, and you can post up to 200 books for free. Beyond that, you have to pay either $10 for a yearly membership or $25 for a lifetime account.

Yes, LibraryThing has much the same appeal as Gen Y sites like MySpace and FaceBook. In letting you post your book collection for all the world to see, it’s a means of connecting with other people—and a way of feeding your vanity. If you’re not into books, you may not see it that way, but trust me, book lovers are very vain when it comes to their books. On the other hand, there’s a more civilized side to LibraryThing: Not only do you have the option to keep your collection private, but the site also has a very practical purpose of providing book recommendations. For a book lover, nothing’s more practical than that.