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Consumer Retail Tries To Get Versed In VoIP

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Consumer Retail Tries To Get Versed In Voip

January 19, 2005

By Mike Angell

As more consumers and small businesses explore the idea of making phone calls via the Internet, they’ll likely go to a familiar place to learn about the technology: consumer electronics retailers.

But retailers may not be wellequipped to explain the benefits and limitations of Internet calling technology — known as VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol. Informal visits to retailers like Best Buy, Circuit City and Office Depot showed that store employees had the Voip gear, the displays and the brochures — but little in terms of training and knowledge.

Voip service providers hope retailers will be an important avenue for selling the service. And retailers say they can provide the in-store help and answer questions most people have about the service. But both sides admit it will take time before Voip becomes as familiar as other electronics wares.

“Voice is a young category for retailers,” said Dave Goodwin, head of retail sales for Vonage Holdings, a Voip service provider. “While it may be easy to sell TV or video games since there’s more knowledge about them, you can’t do that quite yet with VoIP.”

Electronics retailers hope to get a good chunk of the Voip services market, which is expected to boom this year.

The number of U.S. homes and small businesses using Voip will rise from 1 million last year to 1.75 million this year, analysts say.

Edison, N.J.-based Vonage is now available in 8,000 retail stores. AT&T’s T Voip service, CallVantage, is available at 3,000 retail stores.

Service providers and retailers have the responsibility of training store personnel, Goodwin says. So far, Vonage reps have visited or given video demonstrations at 3,600 retail stores.

AT&T did not say how many stores it has trained, but it has “hundreds” of people visiting stores to get them familiar with CallVantage.

So what kind of job are retailers doing? At one store visited, employees said they received brochures and displays but no training. Employees at other stores knew the basics of how Voip worked, but they couldn’t answer detailed questions.

Vonage’s Goodwin had the same problem. He went into a big- box electronics retailer New Year’s weekend and asked about VoIP.

One salesperson knew how the service worked and how to hook up the necessary gear. But the salesperson wasn’t familiar with more advanced features of Voip such as the ability to have “virtual” area codes and phone numbers.

That’s so people in other states can phone a Voip number as though it’s a local number.

The salesperson “knew the basic facts, but could have made a stronger sale,” Goodwin said.

Kevin Leonard, CallVantage’s head of retail sales, did his own secret shopping. Two months ago, his experience with store personnel trying to sell Voip was pretty dismal. It has improved, he says, but more work needs to be done in training.

CallVantage “has been in retailers just since October, so it’s still new,” Leonard said.

Leonard says at least one retailer set up an in-store demonstration of Voip where shoppers could make calls. But he says most customers did not not want to make a phone call in the middle of a store.

One issue confronting retailers is that most floor personnel may have been on the job for only a short while, Goodwin says. Many still need to get up to speed on other products like TV and digital cameras, let alone VoIP.

Goodwin says he’s had good experiences when he’s trained store personnel. “They are all very excited and want to know more about VoIP,” he said.

That excitement will need to keep going into 2005.

Goodwin says Vonage has very “aggressive” estimates for the number of new subscribers coming through retailers. One- quarter of Vonage subscribers are coming from that channel.

Installation is the biggest issue that customers turn to retailers for help. That includes how to connect the Voip adapter, how Voip might fit in a home network, and how to make sure their broadband service allows Voip connections.

“Usually, most returns (of Voip products) are related to installation,” said Dave Sprosty, vice president of subscription services for Best Buy BBY .

Mark Amos, Office Depot’s ODP head of network gear sales, says customers have similar questions when they enter the

store: how does it work, what are its limitations, and how can they set up the equipment needed for the service.

Linksys, the home networking division of Cisco Systems CSCO , has set up a customer service line to answer consumer questions about Voip installation and service, Amos notes.

Best Buy’s Sprosty says most Voip customers who visit his stores are already familiar with VoIP, so they don’t need too much help. Yet, as more mainstream consumers try out VoIP, a sales rep’s help will become more crucial. “People understand it somewhat,” Sprosty said. “We’re there to strip out the complexity.”

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