VoIP Redemption

A phone system can boost the image of a small company—or it can destroy it. Just ask Claire Evans, founder and president of amaZulu Inc., a Florida-based purveyor of thatch and bamboo architectural products.

Evans launched her company in 2002 after emigrating from South Africa. AmaZulu sells tropical-themed construction materials to zoos, restaurants, and theme parks—including Disney. Its slogan: “Your vision. Our Passion. Paradise.”

Evans acquired her first VoIP phone system from a service provider after amaZulu had begun to establish itself a couple of years ago. Alas, the problem-plagued system was a near disaster. “It made us look ridiculous in front of customers,” she said.

But then Evans won an entrepreneurship award in the Make Mine a $Million Business Program run by Count Me In, a women’s business-development organization in New York.

As her prize, Evans selected a new Cisco Unified Communications system, complete with video conferencing gear and new IP phones, all installed by i-Tech Support, an international systems integrator with offices in Orlando. Total value: about $25,000.

“It changed our lives,” Evans said. “It really was phenomenal. Cisco helped catapult us to the next level.”

First, the happy ending

Evans knew she had a good thing going when she was able to use the video features to conference with a would-be supplier in China—a non-English speaker—and finally resolve issues with prototypes of a new synthetic thatch product.

While it’s true that Evans paid nothing for the Cisco system and may, as a result, feel obliged to sing its praises or perhaps even exaggerate the benefits, it’s also clear the system really has made a big difference to her business.

AmaZulu has continued its winning ways. It’s now on track to increase revenues to over $1.5 million in the current fiscal year, its first since installing the new phone system in October 2007.

The not-so-happy history

As her company began to take off, Evans realized she would need a proper business phone system. She was seduced by the promise of the latest new thing, voice over IP—especially the promise of lower long distance costs. “It just seemed to make sense,” she said.

But the service provider she chose, which also provided the phone system, was trouble from the start. Some basic functionality didn’t work properly. AmaZulu employees couldn’t easily transfer calls, for example, and nine times out of ten, they’d end up cutting the caller off—not a way to foster good customer relations.

Worse, the VoIP service provider’s network was constantly going down. “And when it went down, we lost phones, the Internet—everything,” said Evans.

Using the Count-Me-In award to turf the troublesome VoIP service provider and bring in a new system was a no-brainer. And the Cisco system made an immediate difference. It includes among other things, Cisco’s Unified Communications solution, IP phones (some of them wireless), as well as Cisco Unified Video Advantage conferencing equipment.

The new system uses IP phone technology internally, running over the company’s Cisco LAN within amaZulu’s new 12,000-square-foot warehouse and office facility. But it routes outside calls through VoIP gateways to the public switched telephone network.

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