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Virtual call center helps Fetch keep tails wagging

With the company expanding rapidly, Fetch Pet Care's CEO turned to hosted call center software to cost-effectively connect his 100 pet sitting and dog walking franchises.

For some organizations, finding a cost-effective PBX software system takes priority over finding the software with...

the best functionality.

That was the case at Fetch Pet Care, a rapidly expanding, Berkeley, Calif.-based pet services and dog walking company.

The company, which recently announced its 127th franchise and has 23 more slated to open within the next two months, needed a solid call center system to support increased customer demand. However, IT resources and budget for the project were scarce, said Paul Mann, Fetch's founder. After deliberation over cost and functionality, Mann chose virtual call center technology from San Jose, Calif.-based Virtual PBX.

The Virtual PBX system is "cost-effective," and he loves having one corporate phone number to advertise instead of 100 different numbers for each of his franchises, Mann said. Yet his staff regularly encounters problems with call routing within the Virtual PBX system. For example, callers are occasionally routed to a fax machine instead of a live person. Problems like these have hindered user adoption among franchisees, but Mann is hopeful that bugs like these will be fixed in future releases.

"These are things that need to be bulletproof," Mann said. "If a customer has a bad experience they may not call again. We are highly dependent on this system."

Still, he says, this product was the right choice for a company like his with limited resources.

"Overall, we're happy we chose Virtual PBX," Mann said. "It's really enabled us to have a seamless communication system across all of our franchise offices nationwide. We needed something that would be flexible and cost effective. We [didn't] have the ability to invest in PBX hardware."

Fetch adopted Virtual PBX in January 2006. Today, a customer looking for a pet sitter or any of the services Fetch offers can call the corporate number, enter their zip code and the call is routed to the Fetch franchise closest to the client's home. A Fetch franchise owner or a dispatcher answers the call and uses a separate calendar system to determine the best pet sitter to handle the assignment.

Pricing for Virtual PBX's Small Business product, which Fetch uses at the corporate level, starts at 5.9 cents per-minute, while the SOHO product, which the company uses at the franchisee level, starts at 6.9 cents per minute. When Mann compared these prices to rates from AT&T two years ago, he felt that Virtual PBX's hosted model was the best choice for his small business.

With call centers increasing employing remote workers, virtual PBX systems are becoming more important. Today, functionally-rich on-demand call center offerings are available on a monthly basis with relatively little risk, Donna Fluss, founder and president of West Orange, N.J. - based DMG Consulting, said in a column on The newest generation of hosted offerings provides most of the systems and applications needed to operate and manage a world-class call center, she added.

Besides dog walking and pet sitting, Fetch offers a variety of pet services, including doggie fitness programs, boarding, taxi rides to the groomer and yard clean up. As CEO of a company whose motto is 'We've got your tail covered,' Mann is happy to take care of his customers and their pets, and leave the technology alone.

"Pet sitting and dog walking is a low margin business and [for us], it's all about providing a great experience for the pets," Mann said. "We shouldn't have to worry about the systems, they should be streamlined and self-supporting."

Virtual call center the cost-effective choice

Two years ago, when Fetch began considering a PBX system to handle call routing for customers across the country, Mann had enough experience with traditional, PBX hardware systems to know that his small business couldn't afford to purchase expensive equipment or technology. After evaluating a few options, Mann chose Virtual PBX because the price was right and he thought it was the most robust system for the money.

"For small companies looking into a similar phone system, I would recommend they first look at exactly what they need the system to do and what their budget is," Mann said. "Different vendors provide different features at different prices."

User adoption a challenge

While the hosted offering may be cost-effective, several Fetch franchise owners have been hesitant to adopt Virtual PBX.

Mann said those franchisees are concerned because customers who call the toll free number have a longer wait time while the call is routed than those who call directly. As a result, franchise owners have been hesitant to give out the main number, instead opting for a local number. To compound this issue, erratic call routing means customers and employees are occasionally connected to a fax line instead of a person.

"Some of the franchisees don't trust the network," Mann said. "With the transfer time, some prefer not to take that risk. [But] this is an education process we have to go through."

Customers often turn to Virtual PBX because it is the cost-effective choice for a distributed workforce, according to Greg Brashier, Virtual PBX's vice president of marketing.

"We see a lot more acceptance of people working remotely," Brashier said. "[Our customers] want to have a distributed workforce, but they want to use them efficiently."

What the future holds

With systems like Virtual PBX in place, Mann has more time to devote his true passions, like 'dog adventures.' What's a dog adventure?

"We take a group of dogs to the park or to the beach, anywhere where we can let them off a leash for an hour or so," he said. "They love it [and] they come back dog tired."

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