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Virtual help, solid results

Businesses use two tactics to attract customers. Many target smaller clients and move on to mid-sized clients when they have reached a certain level of success. If the businesses offer quality services and stay dedicated – and perhaps get a little lucky – one day they begin signing huge accounts and use that clout to attract larger prospects.

But not all businesses reach for small players first. Some companies go straight for larger merchants. If they are successful in providing quality service to larger players, they assume they can attract smaller clients as well.

Sonoma Technical Support Services prides itself on building a foundation on trust and using its experience as a means to generate big business. The company provides full-service help desk solutions to the POS and financial markets in the United States and Canada.

Its associates work from remote offices in Vancouver, British Columbia; Montreal; Toronto; and Atlanta.

In 1994, Bill Bews founded Sonoma to support the launch of online banking for the credit union market in Canada.

His first client was Van City Savings Credit Union, one of the largest credit unions in North America.

Today, Sonoma supports more than 2 million customers and more than 50% of the credit unions in Canada. It is also expanding into the United States. Since April 2007, Bill Mardis, Vice President of Sales for the U.S. market, has spearheaded the company's efforts to reach beyond its southern border.

In summer 2007, the company signed its first major POS customer in the United States, Way Systems Inc., leveraging its experience in supporting POS customers in the Canadian marketplace, including Global Payments Inc. and Moneris Solutions Corp.

Strength in staffing

Sonoma characterizes its staff as associates filling a permanent position within the company.

"They are not just passing through to their next career," Bews said. "This is their career. They all have ownership in the company. Whoever answers the phone is a partner. We are not here to just support our customers, but to delight them."

The company prefers to hire customer service specialists with the seniority, technical know-how and professionalism necessary to meet its service requirements.

"My job is to provide [customer service specialists] with the tools which will allow them to perform their duties in the most effective manner," Bews said. "It has done us wonders to keep the company lean and mean."

With the combination of the hiring process and the help desk model, Sonoma feels it has the upper hand to attract and keep help desk career workers. Associates are owners with a vested interest in the success of the company who receive benefits and profit sharing.

"The strength of the help desk is people," Bews said. "We don't have levels of supervisors in place. We empower our staff to use their expertise and experience to self-manage most of their daily responsibilities."

Sonoma's employee retention has been 100% in the past 13 years. But if turnover were to come, panic would not ensue. According to Bews, it's typical for most companies to have a turnover rate of 30%. So, as long as the company stays under that percentage, it's in good shape.

One call, one consultant

Sonoma notes that it differentiates itself from other businesses by offering quality services, while being flexible and accommodating. Mardis points to Sonoma's "uncommon level of service that continually exceeds the expectations of our partners," as well as its automated, Web-based interfaces, as areas that surpass its competitors' offerings.

The virtual help desk model, utilizing the Internet, is the main differing factor, according to Sonoma. For a dozen years, Bews fine-tuned this model.

"Sonoma's virtual model is unique in this market, but it is quickly gaining popularity," he said. "It is the foundation for providing a high service level at a very competitive price point."

By offering this type of model, Sonoma is able to operate in multiple locations, instead of be confined to one headquarter. The company stated that the virtual desk is immune to localized network communication failures, such as power outages caused by brownouts or blackouts, because calls are routed to employees in unaffected areas when failures occur.

Bews stated that Sonoma's virtual model gives customers solutions at a faster pace. "Typically call centers are large and first level," he said.

"We are more niche related. … We take a 10 minute call, and move it to a three minute call. Our efficiency translates into better service at a lower cost."

Sonoma uses the motto, "one call, one consultant." Whether callers need phone, online or e-mail support, each help desk representative is equipped to take care of the customer's needs.

The company also has bilingual support in French, English and Spanish and will soon add Cantonese and Mandarin.

The virtual model also enables Sonoma to respond to unexpected increases in call volume immediately. At the first sign of increased activity, the company can bring on staff immediately by contacting available associates to simply log on to the Sonoma system, eliminating a commute to the office.

"This gives us the unique flexibility to expand our capacity to handle surges in call volume on a short term basis," Bews said.

Sonoma's help desk enables the company to get clients up and running quickly, typically within 30 to 45 days, sometimes faster. But quality is not sacrificed, according to Bews. System requirements The help desk consists of a secure, customer relationship management (CRM) and trouble ticketing system. The CRM system integrates the following:

  • Relational database
  • Knowledge base
  • Reporting system
  • Business automation

The trouble ticketing system is designed to efficiently handle call volume and help requests. It serves as a tracking and workflow management tool, which helps in the following areas:

  • The capture and recording of all subscriber interactions
  • Review of trouble ticket status and severity
  • Adherence to predetermined escalation policies and procedures
  • Identification and elimination of chronic service delivery problems
  • Automation of workflow and reduction of resolution time
  • On-demand call recording
  • Real-time call monitoring

Customized support

Sonoma's virtual help desk support services are designed for ISOs, processors, value added resellers and equipment manufacturers. The service also provides assistance to merchants and customers during conversions due to a change in hardware, software or processors.

"Our support will be down to the merchant level," Mardis said. "Our goal is to provide knowledgeable and focused help desk support for the POS marketplace."

Some of Sonoma's clients use the company for full customer support, while others use it as a supplement for in-house efforts. For example, if a processor or bank shuts down its call center at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sonoma can take over until 8 a.m. Monday morning, thus providing customers with 24/7 support. Sonoma also provides overflow call support in cases where existing call centers cannot keep up with call volume. Sonoma operates as a partner, helping companies outsource some or all of their help desk services.

"Sonoma is committed to a partnership with our customers that emphasizes a superior level of service to both the end-user caller and our customer," Mardis said.

When end users call the help desk, they are under the impression they are calling the business Sonoma was hired by. Account holders call Sonoma directly for support, but it's as though they are calling a financial institution or POS service provider.

Each client has a unique toll-free phone number, and all branding and conversations are about the client. "We are not Sonoma to them," Mardis said. "We are XYZ financial institution."

Web solutions

Sonoma claims a large part of its success is knowing where the calls are coming from and how those end users will need information relayed to them. The company's mission is to provide a quality POS help desk solution to end users with easy access to meaningful information to allow customers to improve their businesses. That is why Sonoma emphasizes meaningful, real-time reporting. Detailed information regarding all call incidents, issues and resolution, and outstanding call tickets are available via Sonoma's Web portal.

Sonoma's reports include statistics and trend analysis, which help its clients remedy troubles or prevent future problems. Since these reports are real-time, issues can be spotted and solved before they become unmanageable.

Recognizing the need for his company's services, Bews hopes Sonoma can offer customers great satisfaction. "Unfortunately, when it comes to help services to support the POS merchant base, third party providers struggle to meet expectations of their customers and the end users," he said. "This is where Sonoma will make a difference."

Sonoma feels its virtual help desk is just the beginning of an opportunity to offer customers better service. So far, the call support has been very productive for Sonoma, allowing it to obtain large and mid-size clients. And it seems customers are satisfied with the business practices of Sonoma. "We are focused on being the best in the markets we serve. … Our customers tell us we are succeeding," Marde said. This reinforces that Sonoma is on to something good. end of article

Notice to readers: These are archived articles. Contact names or information may be out of date. We regret any inconvenience.

Sonoma Technical Support Services

Sonoma Technical Support Services

ISO/MLS contact:

Bill Mardis
Vice President, Sales
Phone: 770-518-4113
Fax: 770-518-4113
E-mail: billm@sonomaservices.com

Company address:
505-8840 210th St.
Suite 342
Langley BC V1M 2Y2
Phone: 866-898-3123
Web site: www.sonomaservices.com

ISO/MLS benefits:

  • 24/7 help desk solution
  • Merchant and end user training
  • Real-time reporting
  • Competitive pricing
  • Customized services
  • Multichannel help resolution

Company Profile originally appeared in
The Green Sheet Issue 080102

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