By Brian Mahony, Chief Trender
OK, so I have to start with full disclosure— I am a VOIP guy (Voice Over Internet Protocol). I spent a good chunk of the past 15+ years in the telecommunications and internet services industries, with a focus on internet telephony and video, so VoIP has a special place in my heart. Having worked with several vendors in the space (Netcentrex, Siemens), I have been following this space with a vested interest for some time.
So it was with keen interest that I was able to meet with one of the pioneers of the internet telephony industry when I sat down with Mary Grikas, Vonage Executive Director of Device Development. For those unfamiliar, Vonage allows you to make and receive phone calls with a touch tone telephone using any broadband Internet connection and has an experience similar to traditional telephone services. Being that Trender Research is focused on how everyday people use technology, I was very interested to hear about Vonage’s efforts to broaden their appeal to the mass market.
Grikas said Vonage is focusing on the fundamentals-- trying to improve ease of use and the overall customer experience. It’s all part of the company’s “MyVonage” campaign and is the result of months of effort to better understand how customers use their service. Grikas points to a beta group of 1,000 subscribers who the company has leveraged for feedback on every aspect of the user experience.
“We initially focused on our VoIP Network,” said Grikas. “It takes a while to build a solid network and we have programs in place to continually improve our quality. But as our subscriber base has evolved from early adopters to the more mainstream, we knew we needed to follow our customers more closely.”
So follow them they did. Vonage, now with over 2.5 million subscribers, looked at every aspect of how customers use their service, from initial set-up to usage of advanced features. They realized, like with most gadgets, that customers rarely read instructions. They also learned about customers’ struggles with wiring and connection to the PC.
They end result of their efforts is the V-Portal, a digital voice adapter with a built-in liquid crystal display (LCD). The nifty thing about the V-Portal, besides being sleek and cool, is that it actually helps you debug common problems via messages that scroll across the display. In addition to caller ID and call logs, it gives you an error message and then suggests what to do about it with simple commands such as “plug in the blue cable.” V-Portal has the potential to really help Vonage cross the chasm to reach out to new subscribers, who want low-cost telephony and ease of use.
The other product Vonage unveiled at CES last year (commercial release later in 2008) also has the potential to meet the needs of everyday folks. The Vonage Contact Book, which they describe as a “one-stop communication center” for integrating all contacts from home, desktop and mobile address books, includes some pretty useful features and shows Vonage “gets it” when it comes to fitting into how we live our lives. While some users will appreciate Group Calling, Voice Activated Dialing, and Speed Dial, I know of many families who will find Call Blast of real benefit. Call blast allows you to do exactly that, to blast out a recorded message to all members of a pre-defined group. Think soccer team, girl-scout troop, Mom’s club, poker night buddies and all the myriad of other associations with which we find ourselves ensnared in the busy-ness of modern life.
So after years of huge and aggressive (sometimes violent) advertising, big-ticket patent infringement lawsuits, and an edginess that appealed to some, turned off others, Vonage seems to have grown up. They are listening to customers, improving their subscriber experience, and finally finding ways to leverage the true capabilities of internet telephony to differentiate and add value to our lives.
“We’ve built a strong core base of customers,” said Grikas. “Now with MyVonage, we are rolling out a whole suite of products and services that fit into your lifestyle.”