Author Archives: Alon Cohen

About Alon Cohen

Alon Cohen is Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for

Group SMS – A Story About A Counter-Intuitive Solution

by Alon Cohen


As you may know, anyone can create a group SMS on an iPhone by adding two or more participants to the “to” section. This method is also compatible when messaging Android smart phone users.  As a bonus for iPhone users, it even supports MMS (i.e. Pictures).

One problem with this method is that when you create a group, there is no way to save it in the phone address book. Also, if you include people that do not have a smart phone, they cannot respond to all nor can they create such a group either.

Prior to the iOS update that introduced the current group SMS functionality, users could send one SMS to a group of people.  The problem was that each recipient could only respond to the sender.  It was around that time that I sat in a restaurant with my son, Gal Cohen, (at the time, a computer science student at Rutgers University) and we tried to think of service ideas for that might appeal to students.

We recognized that students primarily use SMS (Texting) for communicating with their friends and that hanging out together is a big portion of what occupies their minds.  With that realization we came up with the idea for an application that might help them communicate via SMS when they try to plan a night out. From this discussion emerged the Group SMS service.  Our goal was to create a service that would work from any phone, smart or not, and provide the ability to create persistent groups that could be saved, invoked, created and managed!

The main obstacle we ran into is that in order for each group to be persistent, they need to have a phone number that is stored in the user’s address book. This is very costly since sooner or later would end up with thousands of groups and a phone number associated with each group. Phone numbers in inventory represent a cost to the service provider (e.g., that holds them.

The solution that we found is counter-intuitive. Instead of allocating a phone number to each group, we decided to assign one to each group participant.  This must sound crazy considering I just said that numbers represent a cost.

Here’s how it works.  As long as we know the user based on their caller ID and we never assign the same user the same number twice, we can reuse telephone numbers between different users. In this case, the maximum number of phone numbers we will ever need is equal to the maximum number of groups our most social user will need. In other words, if our most social user has 100 groups, we will need 100 phone numbers for millions and millions of different groups. Our back-end obviously needs to be a bit smart in terms of managing the process, so for the sake of simplicity, I will leave that out and let you read about it in our GroupSMS patent!

I know it sounds a bit complicated and if you did not understand it, you are in good company! It took me hours of working with a patent lawyer to explain it in legal patent language and later elaborate on it to the patent examiner. Luckily, they eventually understood it. They realized this was an innovative solution and allowed our patent.

To try our app, download Group SMS from the App Store.

If you are on any other phone, you can use our free service by sending the text below to 1-973-577-6378.

The TEXT you will need to include in order to initiate a group SMS should be formatted like this:

PhoneNumber1 ParticipantName1 PhoneNumber2 ParticipantName2 PhoneNumber3 ParticipantName3 YourNameLast

Once the bridge responds, it will receive a Persistent Caller ID that you can save in your address book under something like “Group AlonPeterJeremy” or “Group Emergency.”   Give it whatever name you with and you are done.  Now, any time you wish to send an SMS to your group you can simply send an SMS to that particular contact in your address book.

If you text the word “Help” to 1-973-577-6378 you will get few more goodies to play with!

Enjoy! It’s free! University University – Ensuring Business Continuity

by Alon Cohen

When using the service in a small business setting, the users more often than not will use our IP Phones. However, most small businesses do not have an alternate Internet solution since the Internet is usually reliable.  This begs the question of “What is your contingency plan when your Internet connection fails?”

It is also a common misconception for people to think they must have Internet service to receive and place calls with their service..  This actually happens to be only partially true. Yes your IP Phone must have a working Internet connection in order to place or receive calls however, you can set up the system to detect when your Internet is offline and simply route calls to your cell phone instead.   Now, in the event that your office is flooded or your Internet connection is down, you can still run your business without interruption.

Let’s first talk about how this works with inbound calls.  In your call handling rules associated with the extension you can set up the following (see the image below). The idea is to include in the same rule an alternate call destination such as your cell phone number. When your IP phone is offline, our system will initially try to call it and when no one answers, it will forward to the cell phone. However, after some time will realize that the IP phone is unreachable and will immediately call your cell phone. That is until your IP phone is back online.


As for the outbound calling, you can use your cell phone as well to place calls. You do need to make sure the caller ID on the outbound call displays your business number as opposed to your cell number.  To achieve this you will need to install the FREE Mobile Office app on your smart phone (iPhone or Android). Once installed you can use the app to place calls from your cell phone.  From the settings in the app you can configure the caller ID you wish to display.

Our app allows you to do so much more than that.  It includes access to your voicemail, faxes and even SMS (TEXT) messages that were sent to your number and extension.

To learn more about the Mobile Office click here.


UC (Unified Communications) and the Small Business – Q&A Style

by Alon Cohen

The following article is derived from a recent interview with EVP and CTO Alon Cohen on the topic of unified communications.

Q: To clarify any confusion that may be out there, could you first give us a good definition of Unified Communications or UC?

UC has a somewhat elusive definition. There are always new things and new applications that we wish were integrated and unified within our existing set of communication tools that have not yet been integrated or made to work seamlessly with one another.

For one company, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system integrated with their phone system is sufficient, yet for another, audio, video, phone, E-mail, voicemail, and fax may not be sufficient without presence (the ability to know when someone is online and available). So, in fact, the definition changes from one organization to another, and probably changes during the life cycle of the business. 

Q: What are the actual components of UC and how would you break it down?

This depends on your definition of UC. I would say the basics are Presence, Video, Voice, Chat (Instant Messaging), Screen Sharing, Fax, E-mail, Voicemail, and other real-time collaboration tools. A SIP Trunk can be used to connect the voice calls to the world eliminating the need for traditional landline phone circuits and hence we incorporate that function under the UC umbrella and as a needed component for some implementations.

Q: What are the drivers behind UC?

The most common driver is work force efficiency and convenience. People want to work efficiently and effortlessly, and this includes access to other people in an efficient easy to use way. Employees can do more and better work with better tools. UC is such a productivity tool.

Q: What problems does UC solve? What are the ultimate business benefits?

A small business using UC can solve problems such as accessing corporate data from anywhere and from multiple devices. For a larger business, UC can solve data fragmentation issues where people use different systems to share different forms of data. UC enables large organizations to reduce employee-training time by using one common unified system. It helps to achieve better communications between co-workers and serves to simplify IT operations.

Q: Give us a real world example, perhaps one of your customers.  What led them to make the move to unified communications and how did UC change their business for the better? delivers an excellent solution for small businesses that do not wish to invest the money to buy systems such as Microsoft Lync or Avaya. We provide small businesses with built-in unification of voice, fax, and SMS, and we eliminate the need for SIP Trunks or traditional landline phone services which are not required for hosted telephony solutions. also supports one-to-one video within the organization. customers can start at very low entry cost, move the service anywhere as they grow (since it is all hosted), and grow to any level their business needs dictate.

Q: Can you give us a sense of the market demand for UC?   How big of an issue is UC for global business today? Nice to have or got to have?

Given the way technology is evolving and businesses are adapting, some level of UC is already essential no matter the size of the organization. The worldwide market is growing about 17% yearly, and is today estimated to be around $63 Billion! The SIP Trunk portion of UC jumped 83% from 2011 to 2012. By 2018, researchers are forecasting that the global UC marketplace will approach $256 Billion!

Q: In that case, what are some of the challenges organizations face when implementing UC?

Organizations that have not updated their systems for some time or created elaborate integrations using old PBXs will find that they need to move to more open solutions and may need to invest more money in order to effectively transition to UC.

Also, organizations that do not have high speed Internet will need to update their networks. Companies that do so see increased work force efficiency and, in many cases, a reduction in communication costs, regardless of whether or not they implement UC.

Q: Who do you include in the planning when rolling out UC? What roles or departments are included and who takes the lead?

A large organization needs to involve the Information Technology (IT), Telephony, and Information Systems Security people. Secondly, you need to identify who would most benefit from implementation of UC in the organization such as sales, engineering, field support, or other similar groups, and then ensure that they are included in the planning so that their needs are met.

The Inclusion of IT security personnel is important to better understand the potential risks and exposure and the proper ways to mitigate the new threats that emerge as the organizational connectivity is expanded.

Q: Can UC be implemented in stages?  If so what are the typical steps taken?

The shortest path to a UC system is a hosted solution. A hosted solution removes significant number of potential problems because it has already been designed as an integrated alternative. Voice, Fax and E-mail services are the simplest ways to unify your services from companies such as

Q: When implementing UC what are the “gotchas,” the typical mistakes or missteps organizations may take along the way?

The biggest mistake is to assume that people will use all the features without proper training. If you do not spend the time to train people on how to use Video Conferencing effectively, they may continue to buy expensive airline tickets and experience non-productive travel time that could have been reduced or eliminated altogether.

Purchasing expensive customer premises-based telephone equipment (CPE) can also be problematic. What happens if your organization outgrows what you have purchased much faster than expected, or if that major project you were expecting did not materialize and now you are left with a huge phone system that is not needed?

Cloud-based solutions offer much greater flexibility and allow businesses to experience UC without heavy long-term investments. Also, you need to ensure that you have high-speed connectivity to the Internet. T1 is a dinosaur.

Q: For organizational roles that run and manage UC, is there any reorganization or training typically needed?  In other words how does this impact the IT, telecom staff and others?

This is a very important question. Traditional telecom managers understood circuit switched environments very well. They understand the need for real-time, effective communications. IT managers have been accustomed to managing databases. These two worlds are coming together and both skill sets are required. One specific concept IT people need to learn about is SIP security. Next is SIP trunking (if they invest in CPE), and last is how to implement Quality of Service (QOS) on their networks.

Q: When investing in UC, do firms typically reach to the outside for help with implementation and the selection of vendors?  Or can most swing this with the regular staff

I find that companies start the research internally. However, some vendors including have agents that have gained significant experience in helping companies make the jump from traditional telecom to UC. Using resources that understand the jargon of telecom and how to translate the organization needs to the UC feature set is important and helpful in many cases. Reaching out to those resources can save time and prevent mistakes.

Q: Can you offer several best practices for a successful implementation?

  • Define your current and future business needs and how these will relate to a unified communications environment.
  • Look for a cloud solution as an alternative to an expensive and potentially risky capital expenditure.
  • Look for open systems that have integration points like Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that will allow for integration with other business systems and services.
  • Invest in as much connectivity as you can afford – you will need it!
  • Do not underestimate security.

Q: According to Wikipedia, “UC is not necessarily a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user-interface and user-experience across multiple devices and media-types. Considering that, tell us about the vendor landscape when it comes to UC. Who are the big players and what products or services do they provide?  Is there a way to one stop shop when it comes to UC or must there be a number of vendors/providers in the mix?

Tells us a bit about your firm and the products and services offered?

The most comprehensive system, if you are a Microsoft fan, is Lync. The presence information is threaded throughout the different systems components like calendar, e-mail, and so on. It is available in both hosted and on-site models.

There are Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) systems, such as Mitel, Shoretel, and Avaya. Those systems are expensive. Most CPE vendors will integrate a few systems and services from other vendors. Components like Session Border Controllers (SBC) i.e the firewall for VoIP from AudioCodes or InGate, and SIP Trunks from various service providers are common.

However, for small businesses, is really ideal. It is all hosted with the basic functionality and low cost that a small company requires. Although does not currently provide all of the functionality described under UC, we have the important features that small businesses need today.

Q: In general, how can organizations make good choices when selecting vendors and service providers? What would you recommend the selection process include?

Here are my recommendations.

  • Make sure the system covers your important requirements.
  • Ensure that the system can scale with the business – both up and down.
  • Make sure your vendor has the best customer support that is available 24 X 7, 365 days a year!

Did I mention that just won the NYER Customer Support Award in NY? As you can imagine, when you use a hosted solution, the vendor’s customer support is your lifeline when something goes wrong!


Organizations are keen to get a good return on investment when they implement technology solutions. What kind of ROI can be expected with UC?

The ROI depends on the stage your company is at in terms of new technology adoption.

In the past week, I have seen ROI variations from 1 year to 1 month. It also depends on your current cost structure. The main investment in a hosted UC solution is the endpoints such as the IP-phones.

Q: What concluding take-away advice would you offer organizations looking to implement UC?

  • Do not wait. There are significant cost savings to be gained and business process improvements to be experienced!
  • Try a hosted solution rather than investing in large, uncertain capital expenditures for hardware and services.
  • Upgrade your Internet connection (T1 is considered a dinosaur).
  • Upgrade your security awareness.
  • Make sure your vendor has good customer support, and an excellent track record. Customer support personnel based in the USA are preferred as they more easily understand your problems and are less likely to have language or cultural challenges.

The Practical Guide To Building A Small Business Customer Support Organization – Part 2

by Alon Cohen

As a continuation of our discussion of customer support from Part 1, let’s take a look at suggestions 6 through 10.

6) Make your Company DNA Conducive to Support – If you believe (like I do) that customer support is imperative for your company’s success, you need to make that part of the company’s DNA. You need to make sure the company culture supports that notion. In the first startup that I co-founded, half of the company was convinced that customers were evil. By the time I tried to change that, it was already a steep hill to climb. So:

  • Make EXCELLENT support, part of the company DNA and culture.
  • If possible, give every developer some customer-facing support duties. You will get better code.
  • Make sure everyone knows that customers pay their salaries. Not you, not the investors, it’s the customer that pays every employee’s bills.
  • Hire support agents with personalities that derive satisfaction from helping other people.

7) QA the support – After you set up your support organization, you will need to monitor the quality of support and make adjustments.

  • Read every support e-mail. It is not such a big task when you are small.
  • Eliminate (or block) negative words like (Unfortunately… We are sorry but… No we cannot….). Think Positive!

When an agent must answer with a negative, it is probably because the product is missing a key feature. Learn from that and improve your product or service.


8) Monitor Key Metrics – Send a questionnaire to customers after each closed ticket in order to learn about your Net Promoter Score (NPS). A single question such as “What is the likelihood that you will recommend our service to others” Can provide great responses!

Monitor other service level key indicators such as the number of calls answered under 1 minute. See the sample list pictured.

9) Training – Being a customer support agent could be frustrating for many people. Continuous training is required since there are always new features and there is usually high agent turnover. Make sure agents know how to use the tools and remember, a frustrated agent will have a hard time providing good customer support!


10) Special Treats – If you show your customer that they are important by offering “special treats,” they will respond in kind (see letter pictured). Here are some options to help you make your customer feel special:

  • Customize your support to each user. Use their name.
  • Try to avoid canned answers.
  • Visit your customers.
  • Learn how they use the system and add features to your wish list.
  • Discover customer pain points and work to fix them.
  • Send customers hand written thank you notes.

To summarize, we all want the best customer support whenever it is needed. We can help that happen by educating other business about customer support. We find that we improve ourselves when educating others. For more ideas and updates on how we do things at, take a look at:

  • Support Leaders’ blog
  • Check out Jenny singing her own “Customer Service Blues” song talking about the hardship of being on the front line:

If you need something else to think about, here is a take home question:

What support function should have a faster response time?

A)    Sales agents

B)   Support agents

Let us know what you think.

The Practical Guide To Building A Small Business Customer Support Organization – Part 1

by Alon Cohen

customer-service.0822.12In 1989, I co-founded VocalTec and soon, we were a company of 3-4 people doing everything from coding to customer support. Years later in 2005, I co-founded Bitwine (, an e-commerce website for human intellect. More recently in 2007, I became the first hired employee at and jumped into customer support. Although I still do this from time to time with great pride, I feel as if I was an integral part of the process of what has become the award winning support organization. In short, this is my third time through the customer support formation process and wanted to share some thoughts with you.

A mature support organization is complicated and expensive with the need for documented procedures and tools. However, that complexity is not created in a day. There are many ways to start an effective and simple support team with minimal cost.

This blog will provide a few guidelines that can help the small business jump-start a support organization that evolves with the company. It does not need to be complicated.

1) Define Your Support Goals – What is your customer support philosophy? Here are some examples.

  • Zappos (“Make Every Customer Happy”)
  • (striving to “Be Awesome”)
  • Google (Free product. Enough said!)

To better understand the goal of to “Be Awesome,” here is how Jenny & Jeremy, the Customer Support leaders, define it:

“Awesome embodies much more than just happiness – it embodies a genuine, honest, friendly and real approach to customer service. We want our customers to feel empowered and appreciated with our service. We want our CSRs (Customer Support Representatives) to have every resource available to resolve problems while being able to let their unique qualities shine. We’ll do whatever it takes to help the customer – even if it means spending extra time / money / resources to do so.”

Having clearly articulated goals is important. It defines the effort and leads to the budget needed for customer support efforts.

2) Define Your Support Technical Parameters – Based on the type of service you provide and even the support your competition provides, you will need to define your support parameters. This will help determine the tools to be used and the people required. Here are some parameters for technical customer support:

  • Response time (1 Minute or 3 days? Weekdays only or 24×7?)
  • Modalities (Web, E-mail, Phone?)
  • Synchronous (Phone, Chat, Video?)
  • Asynchronous (E-mail and Voice mail?)
  • Sourcing (In-house, Outsourced, Offshore?)

Customers appreciate it when they can communicate with support agents in the best way for them, so an important consideration might be offering E-mail, Phone (Toll Free), Chat, Twitter, Facebook, and even text (SMS).

3) Select Your Ticket System – A ticket system will help you record your communication with the customer and retain the thread. It will help you know when a problem was resolved or it can remind you to get back to a customer who might be waiting for an answer.

There are many ticket systems. Some are expensive and some are free. Here are few examples.

  • Gmail (Free – keeps your communication thread in one place)
  • Zoho (Very low cost)
  • Kayako (Very cost effective with both hosted and on-site versions)
  • Saleseforce (Very Expensive)

4) Build Back-end Agent Tools – An agent is as good as the tools at their disposal. In the same way that a blind person has a hard time navigating without a cane, an agent with no tools is just as blind. At a minimum, the agent tools must provide the ability to perform the following:

  • Refunds
  • Account Cancelations
  • Check Log files
  • Password Recovery
  • Password Reset
  • Account Search
  • Package tracking
  • Customer Authentication (Is the caller really who he says he is?)

5) Best Practices – Best practices and documented procedures are required for agents to follow and for training of new agents. Empower your agents to help by providing guidelines and safeguards. For instance, Zappos gives each agent $100/day to make customers happy. Here are some other ideas:

  • Enable a few trusted agents to open free accounts (not to all)
  • Permit a few agents to offer predetermined discounts
  • Let agents provide refunds within limits:
    • Not every agent can make a refund.
    • A refund cannot be larger than what the customer originally paid.
    • A refund must be done to the same credit card originally used.

Stay tuned for part two and five more guidelines for building your customer support organization.