CCi Voice Founder & CEO Michael LeBlanc recently joined host CJ Arlotta on the Crisis Averted Podcast, produced by CJ Media Solutions.
During the nearly half-hour discussion, LeBlanc revealed how CCi Voice was ready for the uptick in remote access requests in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent stay-at-home orders—as well as how CCi Voice continues to serve clients as they return to the office, or transition entirely to a work-from home environment.
Listen to the podcast at The Crisis Averted Podcast or read the full transcript below!
CJ Arlotta: For listeners who aren't familiar with you, Michael, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Michael LeBlanc: Sure thing. I'm a CPA and computer geek-turned phone guy. From an early age I was into all things technical, and then after working in accounting for probably around seven years—I always had computer clients nights and weekends—I finally started my own business in 1993 as a computer consultant. And then the second year in business, when I did our own company phone system just for fun, I realized how I liked that technology. And so our company started doing phone systems as well. So in the early days, we were both a computer and phone system company. And back then there wasn't a lot of tie-in between the two, but it was beginning to happen. They called it CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) and the best we could do at the time was to make a phone call from your Act database by pressing the spacebar on your keyboard. And that was integrating your phone and your computer. That's how we got started.
Arlotta: What's the big story behind CCi Voice? You know, what was the problem you're really looking to solve.
LeBlanc: We've been in business 27 years and putting phone systems in closets for all that time. And when Voice over IP (VoIP) came out, computers and phones tied together on the network, that was our nirvana. But we've always had phones in closets. Five years ago, we began to become our own carrier around hosted phone service. And the beauty was that we no longer had to rely on some crazy carrier to not do their job yet again. And we would wait hours and days to get simple changes made by the phone company that was themselves in the cloud. So now we got to be the cloud ourselves. And it's been just tremendous. So that was LeBlanc Communications Group, which we converted to CCi Voice this year. And we also purchased a company on Long Island that had over 700 customers and, surprisingly, maybe one or two of all those customers had a cloud based system. And of course, the cloud is all we think about. All of our customers are hosted in the cloud, or just about most of them. So this was an opportunity for us to pick up a company whose customers really needed some help to kind of move along. We do all things infrastructure for companies, including cabling, Ethernet switching, firewall, WiFi, the phones on the desks, the phones at home, and managing all the carriers that go along with all of that—that's what we do. And this is a great opportunity to grow the business. We changed to CCi Voice because it was time to change the name and to merge multiple companies together.
Arlotta: You must have been inundated with requests from businesses looking to transition their employees to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic, correct?
LeBlanc: You have no idea! We do track how many calls a day that we have for support. And in the December, January, and maybe the February timeframe, we did about 100 calls a day where we were helping people with various things they needed for their phones and their other technologies. And suddenly when March hit we were at 300 calls per day with the same staff. So you can imagine we were jamming. And then it happened again in June when people began to go back to the office. And that's been great. The good news is that all of those customers that we had, their technology was ready. They simply either had to bring a phone home or bring their laptop or their smartphone home and have an extension in their pocket or an extension on their computer. They could just go home. And that was the beauty of it all. They did need a little bit of help and getting used to it, but once they did, they were good to go. So it really worked out great for us.
Arlotta: What type of technology challenges did they have when you first started working with them when they were trying to move remotely?
LeBlanc: The biggest challenge, I guess you could say, is that imagine you're going from a corporate environment where all the networking is very reliable and it's buttoned up and good to go, and there's professionals managing all that in a 20, 30, 50, 100, 500 person company, and then all of a sudden those people go home to the network that they have at home. Of course, it's not the same quality. So we've had hardware issues, routers that were only $50, or no router/firewall at all—you take whatever the cable company gives you—little switches that weren't really designed for handling phones. And then internet quality that was subpar, neighborhoods that were oversaturated with usage, and there's not enough internet because everyone's going home at the same time. Those have been the biggest challenges of all. We've been able to work with the customers to get around some of those things. We can't obviously go to everyone's home and hold their hand physically in person every time, but we've been able to do just enough to really get them over the hump so that things work much better. And these clients are so incredibly grateful that it's just amazing to hear the happiness in the voice of these employees. working from home. We actually did this years ago. In 2005, we began having our employees work from home. We've been preaching the gospel of teleworking for a very long time. And finally, the world is catching up to us. Now we're nothing special, but we've been doing this for a long time.
Arlotta: What are some best practices that companies can give their employees when working from home, so they don't have a lot of those issues?
LeBlanc: Some of the things that we knew were always a problem with Voice-over IP in general: taking a phone home with you, or using some technology on your local WiFi, the local router can often be a problem. I don't want to get too technical here, but there's something called SIP Helper and SIP ALG. Those are features that some firewalls have built in. And they're supposed to help Voice over IP phone calls be better, but they actually do, ironically, the opposite. They destroy quality, they don't work very well. That's one thing that a customer could ask their cable company to help them disable or they could look at their firewall and have it changed out. Sometimes the quality of the firewall/router is so bad, it's literally a $50 or $40 router (The terms 'router' and 'firewall' are often used interchangeably). They can go get a $100 firewall and that makes a difference. Maybe there's no wire near the desk and the person wants to use a hard phone on their desk in their home office. But there's no internet nearby, and they have to get a wire run. So sometimes there's a way to do that wirelessly with special devices or they just use their laptop instead. The most functional thing is to use your laptop as your desk phone, then you can take it anywhere on your home WiFi. But if your WiFi isn't that great ... that could be checked out and improved.
Arlotta: Does your company work with your clients on that? Is that like a continuous process? Because, like you were saying, each one of these employees, they have all different home setups. So what's kind of the best way to get all that on board at the right recommendation?
LeBlanc: We do recommend affordable home appliances that take some of that worry away. And maybe it's a little firewall that might be a $100 device instead of something that they already have. And that's a small upgrade that a home worker could do. Sometimes the customers own IT departments are already advising our customers. And they get the advice from their own company. We usually are an overlay to that. We’ll give them small suggestions for replacements they can use on their own. This is, of course, aside from the barking dogs and the screaming kids in the background. We can't help with that problem. But we can certainly help with some of the other things that come up on the technology front. And also there's a technology in place that is somewhat new, but it's all the rage in the carrier circles, called SD-WAN (Software Defined Wide Area Networking). There are vendors out there and products that can prioritize the traffic in someone's home. So when all your kids are playing Fortnite and downloading and watching movies on Netflix and such during the day or doing their homework and so on, and streaming with the teacher, there's got to be something in place that prioritizes all that traffic and keeps mom and dad's business call and Zoom session at a high quality. There are devices out there in this technology and those services. SD-WAN is the underlying concept behind it, to prioritize what's most important, and minimize what is not critical for mom and dad's phone call.
Arlotta: Do you find a lot of your clients are helping their employees with purchasing a lot of these products? Or is it a mix? Do they give extra money out to enhance their networks at home?
LeBlanc: Yeah, we have seen that happen. We've seen them buy telephones to bring home when they already have a phone in the office, especially when they're going back and forth a lot. They might buy them a lower cost desk phone that can work on the same network. And, us as a carrier, our solution lets users have up to five devices as their user presence. It's a home desk phone, a work desk phone, it's your smartphone in your pocket, it's your desktop, and it's even your cell phone on Verizon, AT&T, that extension is there. So sometimes they will buy that phone for them. Sometimes they will give them a small allocation to upgrade their technology. I know it's a short term thing right now, we think this is going to be over soon. But think of the savings these companies have when they're starting to minimize how much office space they need. The savings is really worthwhile for them to make that investment in their employees at home. So I hope they do that.
Arlotta: You see a lot of your clients going back to the office already? Or do you see a lot of them staying at home?
LeBlanc: That's a great question. We ought to do a survey amongst our customer base to get the real numbers on that. So one of the biggest segments we serve that is critical, is the call center space. They call it contact center now because it's not just phone calls anymore. It could be texting, it could be, you know, messaging from a website, it could be all kinds of ways that you can interact with your customers. And you do it in a way that the customer wants, not the way that you do. So those contact center companies, some of them are in the medical billing space, and a number of our customers do that. They'll be 50-60 employees that are all answering calls about medical bills, and helping maybe make appointments for doctor's offices. They just had no choice but to go home. And in some cases, there's been a COVID scare at the office. And they can't just shut down the business and no one's answering the phone. So they've had to go home. So I actually have been surprised at the number of people still at home. And then once in a while we'll have an office with 30, 40, or 50 people and they tell us we have to go home again, there was a COVID scare, everyone is going home except one or two people. So that is happening. And it's happening regularly. So I'm just grateful that this is working out, that the technology supports it. Of course, you know, the cable companies, and the Fios’ of the world are getting bogged down. We've got plenty of cases where neighborhoods are choking from the burden. But in general, it's working very well, I'm really impressed.
Arlotta: You just talked a little bit about your communications platform and how that's kind of different from Zoom, or some of the other video conferencing platforms out there.
LeBlanc: We've been in the local phone business for forever. We serve a general area—southern New England, New York, and New Jersey. We serve that region, which is the Northeast, and we consider ourselves local because we can go and visit a customer and put that phone system and hold their hand—COVID allowing, of course—to train them and get them up to speed on the technology. Whereas the national providers largely will ship you everything and say good luck with that. So that's what we consider being a local phone company: That we will go on site, anytime we have to, if something is wrong. But all of it is in the cloud. The box in the closet is no longer in the closet. We are the closet, so who cares if your building loses power, and so on. But because we are local, that makes us different. So I think the big differentiator between us as a phone company is that we really care about employees and get visibly upset if someone's having a bad day on the phone system site at their office, because their internet or whatever is wrong. We care and we will go on site when needed. So we'll do cabling, we'll do new WiFi, we’ll go and install a new internet connection, maybe as a backup to the primary. And that's been one of the biggest things that we've seen with COVID being so crazy, that the cable modem companies are choking. We're putting in backup cellular and other types of products to make the cable work better. And that alone is a great reason to be local. You can't take care of that nationally. You have to be there to be able to do this sort of thing. What I'm hearing from customers about why they love us so much and why we get such rave reviews—it's because we're a local phone company, not a national.
Arlotta: You mentioned that you work with smaller companies, as well as larger companies and sometimes you work with those internal IT departments. Where are you when it comes to the customers you work with primarily? Are the majority of your customer base those larger companies where you're working with insurance IT departments or are they really smaller businesses where you're taking care of a lot?
LeBlanc: Between those with it and those without it, there's a cut off. Typically, if it's maybe 35, 40 or 50 employees, you begin to see that there's an IT person in house. Otherwise, smaller companies will hire out a firm that helps them with it. If there's 100, 200, 300, 500 employees like some of our customers—we have 1,500 and larger size customers—those won't just have an IT person, they'll have an entire team. We've seen 20 and 30 person IT teams. So we love working with the large groups because we train the trainer, so to speak, and they get so good at it because they're the ones internally who hear their employees' questions. They go and take care of them. And they're very happy to get to do local support themselves. In fact, they have a pride in being the local support for their people. So Ironically, the easiest customers for us are the ones that are very, very large, because a lot of the day-to-day is taken care of by those people. Then on the smaller customer side, let's say 20-30 employees or even 15, we’re the only thing they have, we're doing every single change. Now, I hate to admit it, but we have customers who sometimes call us every other day. Because their business is so dynamic and changing, they need our help. Sadly, for us, we can't charge for that, because everything we do is unlimited. It's all included at no extra charge. But it's what we signed up for. And then there's customers that might only talk to us maybe every two or three months with a question or change, maybe a holiday that comes up or special handling for a new product or launch and they want to have a new phone number that is special for that. It changes all the time. But we love the dynamic nature of it. My employees never get bored because they're always talking to somebody interesting.
Arlotta: How can businesses prepare for 2021 from a technology standpoint?
LeBlanc: It's been a fascinating awakening, this explosion of video as a functionality. Now obviously Zoom is one of those things. And Zoom is now a word like Kleenex and it's a verb instead of a product. We're happy about that. Partially because we have our own product, which is called Sangoma Meet, that does all the same things and it's free and you can actually make your own meeting with just your name—I can go to meet.sangoma.com/michael, if I want. I've now created a meeting. That alone, just having a tool, like a Zoom or anything like that, and making it become something you do every day, something that your customers are used to and your employees are used to, will make those work-from-home people not seem so far away. You have to avoid the isolation that happens with work-from-home situations. And people have to feel a part of culture and part of the team. As long as management is encouraging the use of these collaboration tools, I think that will make the next wave, whatever the next wave is, even if it's that we're all going to just work from home or whatever, that's going to make technology that's easy and not intimidating. We'll make everyone feel like they're part of the team no matter where they work.
Arlotta: If somebody is looking to work with a firm like yours, what are some things they should look for? What are some questions they should ask?
LeBlanc: If you get an internet-based phone service, there's a lot that can go wrong. And that's really the first question: How do you, the carrier—and we are carriers in our industry—how do you help us to know when something is wrong? Imagine if all of us in the business were being blamed for internet problems when it was nothing of our doing. It wasn't our fault. It's the internet, right? Well, we don't want to have that reputation. And we don't want to be responsible for things that we have no control over. So long ago, we instituted some amazing monitoring systems that let us check in constantly, 24 hours-a-day, and monitor the quality of every one of our customer sites, even some of the work-from-home people. We take the time to put those IP addresses in if we can. So now when someone says, "I'm having a problem with my phone call," we know why. But it goes beyond that. Internet quality and phone quality is measured by something called the MOS (Mean Opinion Score). The MOS is from one-to-five: Five being the best, which is almost never achievable, as 4.5 is the actual best you'll get on a phone call, which is really HD Voice quality. Then 3.5 is considered good cell phone quality, 3.0 is poor cell phone quality, 2.5 is virtually unusable, and 2.0, forget about it. So we measure all of our call quality on our backend servers. We check the quality electronically of every phone call. If we see that a customer is having a lot of problems, my staff gets notified that XYZ company has had four or five bad calls in the last 20 minutes. We then reach out to them and say, “Hey, XYZ company, we're so sorry. We're seeing you're having bad voice quality. Maybe you haven't noticed yet, but we're already working on it to identify what the problem is. And oh, by the way, we just figured out it's your internet connection. There's a lot of packet loss and high ping times, it started an hour ago, we're already contacting the internet carrier for you. We're on it, we'll let you know how things go.” Which phone company would ever do that? None of them do. That's something that you could try to ask for. We do it because we don't want to be blamed for something that's not our fault. We don't want to chase our tail for nothing. Having that data in place, tells us immediately what the problem is without any circling around and chasing ourselves. We just know.
Arlotta: What about a lot of these employees that are working from home? If you notice the issue is something that's not on your end and maybe something at the home, how do you go about bringing that up to your client?
LeBlanc: I can think of a few instances, not many, but just a couple where this has come up. One of our clients has a very large call center for a convenience store chain with 1,500 stores throughout North America. And we do all the support for their phone system and for the IT folks. And one of their people had significant, ongoing continual problems at her home office. We could see that it was her Comcast, day-in and day-out. And so we let them know. Eventually, I think she had to get a different carrier, or just beat up her own cable company because they just weren't fixing the problem. But we have to let them know, it's just our job. And then eventually it gets fixed. There's only so much you can do. Typically, if someone has a choice between, let's say Comcast and Fios in their neighborhood, well, if their local cable company isn't doing the job, they have no choice but to go get someone else. And that's an example of when we can give them the data to prove it. We can even give charts and graphs to people to give to their cable company to show why they're so bad.
Arlotta: So you mentioned before you recently acquired a company. Are you looking to continue to acquire more companies?
LeBlanc: Absolutely. I think there's probably three-to-four, maybe five acquisitions left in the next three-to-five years. And we're focusing on the northeast. I'm not sure if that will change. That's really our focus is this area. But of course, our business doesn't have to be local and regional, it can be national. We only will grow as fast as we can stay ahead of the quality of our service to our customers, because then we lose our unique advantage. We can't grow so big that we can't be the responsive company that we've always been. That's our goal.
Arlotta: And what type of companies are you looking to acquire?
LeBlanc: Well, there are actually a number of folks in our industry who are probably getting ready to retire. They've had a wonderful business for a long time, providing service to clients in their region and their market. And they're just done. They're just ready to move on. And to make the leap into hosted phone service like we did—we have I think well over $750,000, perhaps as much as $1 million invested in multiple data centers that we've built with technology. It's not easy, it's really difficult. And if you're an older business owner that has had a great career, but not ready to make that next leap, those are the kind of partners that we're probably looking to team up with. And it could be a partnership and it could be an acquisition. We’re flexible. We don't really know where it's going to be. But we have a lot of options.
Arlotta: What are some of the trends that you're seeing in your space for 2021?
LeBlanc: We always look toward integrations with databases. CRM, databases, customer relation management, like Salesforce and HubSpot. We use HubSpot ourselves. We look for those sorts of opportunities to tie in. One of the major ones that we're seeing is the integration with texting and messaging. One of our local pediatrician offices with three locations, they were overloaded with phone calls. They just said, “Help. We're in trouble. We've had to hire two or three people to help answer all the calls.” Think about the typical interaction between a patient and the pediatrician. How many phone calls and contacts are there? They have paperwork that says that they're COVID safe. And maybe if they're a new patient, they have to have paperwork that gives them all their medical history. And they have to arrange the appointment and then come into the office. They have to wait outside because they can't come in yet. Well, it's double and triple the number of contacts. We now have applications that we provide that let the doctor's office communicate directly with the patient by texting, including giving them documents to fill out on their cell phone. They get all that paperwork done ahead of time, instead of handing them a clipboard when they walk in the door. Who wants to have a clipboard today with the pandemic? So that's all done ahead of time. And they can even pay when they're all finished. It can send a link, “click here to pay with your copay on your cell phone, using your credit card in your car after you're done the visit.” This is all done by texting. Now, we have some wonderful services for that. That's just an example I think of the things that are changing and will become much more commonplace in 2021.
Arlotta: When you talk about monitoring the phone systems for your clients, what are some of the biggest issues you see when you monitor the systems? What are some of the big issues where you do have to send a team out to fix them?
LeBlanc: Oftentimes there could be a bad wire in a network closet that could be causing issues or a poor Ethernet switch that maybe it's outdated, or a firewall that's outdated. Those are things we go on site for. This is a little bit of a follow up to something I said before: I had a close business buddy of mine who has our phone service in the security alarm industry. He monitors and protects people's businesses, puts security alarms in their homes. And he wanted to have a meeting with his IT firm and us, his phone company, to talk about why his phone service was bad. So I went on to my monitoring and I looked at his system. His ping times were off the charts. His ping losses were really bad—we ping him and he never answers back. So then I took a look at where his business was. And I did a Google Map of his business. I saw the building. It's a nice corporate building with a lot of companies inside, and all around his business there's townhouses and condo complexes. And there are gobs and gobs of single-family houses all around that little corporate area that he is in. So I took a picture of that with Google Maps. And I highlighted for him. “Look, I'm sorry, but you're in a neighborhood.” And then I looked at the history in the last three days—Sunday, Monday, Tuesday—of his ping times. Sunday was spotless, his pings were awesome. Monday and Tuesday, the problems started at 8:30 or 9 a.m. and went through the day and they finished at 5 or 6 p.m. Then it was good again. And the same thing on Tuesday. I reminded my buddy, we're in a pandemic. And you're using simple, low-cost, consumer-grade cable service for your business. And you're in a neighborhood where everyone's doing Zoom, and doing the virtual classes, and they're downloading movies and watching movies and doing whatever kids do at home. There's no question why you're having a problem, right? So I suggest we look at fiber. Fiber internet is usually at least double the price. It's a minimum of $500, usually $450 or $500 minimum for any kind of fiber service. And it can go up from there for corporations. But it's guaranteed. Every bit of internet you get is guaranteed to you. Nobody shares your internet. Cable modem service, which is most prolific throughout the country, is a shared medium. It gets a pipe into the neighborhood. And then everyone in the neighborhood gets their share of that pipe that was brought to them. And that's where the problems are coming in. For businesses, that's the number one thing we see wrong. Some of the cable companies in our area, some of them are horrible, and I'm not going to name any names, because I don't want to get in any trouble, but some of them are horrendous. They're not upgrading their networks. They should be doubling and tripling their nodes. They should increase the bandwidth and the equipment in the neighborhoods to increase what's out there and they're not doing it and I'm getting really frustrated about that because we're the ones who are having to break the news to the customers why they're having problems.