As part of my series about the “5 Things, You Need to Know to Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Reeder, CEO and Founder of VoiceNation. With over 28 years in telecommunications, Jay Reeder built his career by creating innovative solutions to real-world challenges. He began crafting voicemail systems in high school, which led to his first “real” summer job at a telecommunications company called SDI. In 2002 he founded revolutionary live answering call center VoiceNation. Jay is innovative, forward-thinking and a leader who inspires encourages and offers opportunities to make the world a better place.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated high school in 1990, just as the computer industry was beginning to take off. That summer, I worked at a small telecommunications firm and soon became captivated. I put my college degree on hold and immersed myself in the world of technology. After two years, I became the Head of Voice at this company and shortly after, founded my own company as a virtual PBX provider in my early twenties.
We sold voice platforms to switch manufacturers, up until the recession hit in 2001. A number of large providers went under fast and there was a tremendous slowdown on hardware purchasing. We needed to find a way to monetize our technology and thus, VoiceNation was born. We were a cloud-hosted software service company before SaaS was even in the lexicon. This led to a period of immense growth that (at times) became too cumbersome to manage.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
During our period of rapid growth in the early 2000s, VoiceNation would receive more phone calls than we knew what to do with. The phone would ring nonstop and we didn’t have enough staff to manage our inbound leads. By the end of the day, our inbox would be full of unattended calls. To make room for the next day’s calls, we would clear out voicemail knowing we potentially missed out on new prospects.
It was then when the ‘Aha Moment’ occurred. It soon clicked there had to be a better way to do this, and I began looking into different answering services. Yet, I couldn’t find a provider to fit our needs. A common intricacy for most businesses in the path of scaling, our company was too small for large providers, and our needs were too complex for smaller shops. VoiceNation needed help to scale our business and it was likely our issues were not an isolated incident. We decided to launch our own live-answering platform and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. We pivoted away from many of our white-labeled cloud solutions and ended up doubling our revenue and setting our brand up for longevity.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Back in 2006, a large nationwide organization was transitioning many of their customer accounts over to us. One of our account managers was tasked with migrating over all of the customer data. A few days before the rollout, we realized that little of the data had been entered. In a panic, I spent the entire weekend in the office personally migrating over all this information. While not sleeping or seeing my family wasn’t too funny at the time, it did teach me a valuable lesson on the importance of having the right people and processes in place. Without that, it’s impossible to scale.
VoiceNation says its virtual receptionists engage with the caller 24/7. Engage implies more than a short response taking name and number for a call back. Can you tell us a bit how you engage with the callers? With 500,000 clients how is it possible for VoiceNation virtual receptionists to gain knowledge and familiarity with the client’s company, and processes to be able to properly reply to callers? We’d love to hear your secret.
While this encompasses several things, a key component is our technology. Unlike many of our competitors, all of our software is proprietary and award-winning, having been named an ITEXPO Best in Show recipient. Our call center technology tracks and prompts our agents using artificial intelligence with remote capabilities. We developed our own training program to give our team the ability to build these connections with our customers.
We handle thousands of calls a day for many companies, and each call is as personal as the next. A combination of our technology, training, and culture enables this. Developing a great place to work creates an explosion of personality. This translates to how our agents interact with callers and enhance the overall customer experience.
In what area does VoiceNation strive to differentiate itself from competitors? Does it pride itself in cutting edge technology or premium customer service?
We focus on areas that provide solutions for customers, which goes beyond the typical service model. We empower the SMB to help them scale their business, by offering best-in-class customer experiences. From order entry to bilingual operators and 24/7/365 support, we offer anything our clients need as an extension of their team.
Many of our competitors have solutions that relay a message or confirm an appointment. VoiceNation is built to go the extra mile. We deliver this via our technology, training and our culture to become ingrained in our clients’ businesses.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We live in an internet-enabled world. Despite this, people still feel disconnected. There is inherent value in the human voice and hearing an assuring person on the other side of the line brings comfort. Not a bot, but a real-life human. VoiceNation taps into this to enable SMBs to grow and focus on what they do best. We handle the calls, which is still many companies’ most important lead channel. In fact, 80% of deals are closed over the phone. A live answering service is a very cost-effective way to nurture prospects, compared to bringing on a full-time receptionist. VoiceNation’s services actually save customers thousands of dollars a month compared to having full-time employees. For example, at $15/hour, you’d have to hire four full-time staff to be available 24/7/365. This breaks out to $9600/month, not including other benefits and costs for training and taxes which is a luxury many small businesses can’t afford.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We create a culture where people love what they do and love coming to work. Leveraging technology to allow people to work from home is a big driver of this mindset. It is great to offer flexibility and give people stress reduction savings and work/life balance. Remote work lets many of our employees be present in both their family and community, while still being an integral part of our team. VoiceNation is currently 60% remote and our goal is to increase that number with our call center representatives to at least 75%. We intend to offer training in our offices, and then outfit our staff with all the technology they need to work efficiently from the comfort of their homes. This added flexibility is a major driver of our retention and resonates with the quality experiences we create for our customers.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. We aim to make VoiceNation a place that fosters this mindset. We have many initiatives in place to ensure this is displayed through actions, not just words. We have a Dare-to-Dream program in place to help our team live out their wildest dreams. Every employee submits their bucket list items and once a month, we help them achieve it. As well, we partner with local banks to train our team on personal finance to extend more skills and mentorship beyond their specific role.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
VoiceNation has grown so quickly, it has truly been an explosive journey. Our challenge has been sustaining our growth and adapting with the ebbs and flows of the industry. We’ve had to assemble a team built to last and think proactively about the needs of our customers before they become issues. Our team inspires me every single day and is the reason VoiceNation will never quit and always strive to think beyond the call.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Essentialism — Let the 80/20 rule guide your decision-making. Focus on the most important things, the ones that will drive the greatest return. You will never be able to get to every task but keying in on the big picture will equate to success.
Assembling the Right Team- Regardless of how good an idea is, if the right people aren’t in place to implement, it won’t matter. Focus on surrounding yourself with the best team possible and everything else will fall into place.
Building Processes: Building replicable processes is essential to scale. It helps new employees get up to speed and ensures consistency across every touchpoint of your company. In our business, clients expect the same level of experience, regardless of who is on the phone. Our processes enable success in this area.
Customer Experience- Always keeping CX in focus while growing and building your company is crucial. You can have the best technology available, but the customer only sees what experience is put in front of them.
Focus on Margins: You are better off with smaller clients with larger margins than vice versa. Your bottom line must always be a driving factor in business decisions.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The first person that comes to mind is my father. He passed away several decades ago and was a proud small business owner. He started his company in the early 90s and I watched him persevere through many hardships and recessions to live out the American Dream. This set the tone for how I’ve operated VoiceNation. To be a resource for all entrepreneurs and treat my company like a family.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
VoiceNation established a nonprofit called Georgia Calls. This provided vocational training and mentorship for recently released prisoners. We wanted to help get their lives back on track and be a resource when many places would turn their backs. Today, many graduates of this program are full-time team members at VoiceNation, including one manager in our call center. My wish would be to scale this movement and grant more opportunities for those in need of a second chance.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow VoiceNation here on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.