By Mandy Aguilar
Tech news mills are churning with dispatches of Microsoft acquiring Skype. The software titans out of Seattle have agreed to dish out $8.5 billion for the pioneers in Internet phone calls, making this their largest acquisition ever. Think about that: They’ve never paid more for anything else in their history! What do they see in Skype?
Beyond the obvious jumpstart, they’ll get in on the trifecta of tech Google, Apple and Facebook; perhaps Microsoft sees that we all want to stay in touch and connect to people anytime, any way while at work, home or traveling. Perhaps they also see that we want to do this for free. Skype does precisely that today for more than 107 million users who spend on average 100 minutes per month making telephone calls, sending text messages, leaving voicemails and mostly making videocalls with friends, family and colleagues amazingly at no cost to the users!
I have been a Skype user for years. I have it on my PC, laptop, iPhone and TV. I also use their cheap long distance calling plan, one of their few fee-based features, to reach out to customers and friends abroad. It works great on Smartphones. At a recent dinner in Miami, my customers needed to make a call back to a customer of theirs in Quito, Ecuador.
Everyone at the table had the latest iPhones and BlackBerrys with all kinds of cellular calling plans, but not one person had the ability to make a simple international call. I whipped out my iPhone’s Skype app, dialed the phone just like you would on your own phone and was rewarded by a look of amazement in my customer’s eyes when I handed him the phone, his customer waiting for him on the other side at the planet’s equator, and all for just 15.5 cents a minute.
The shocker here is how little we use Skype in the auto parts industry in this country. Skype is very prevalent amongst international auto parts industry members. After email, Skype is our go-to tool to reach out to customers in the Caribbean and South America. Users there are all well-versed in Skype. Regrettably, this is not the case with our customers and vendors in the States. I have my Skype username printed on my business card next to my email and phone numbers. Whenever I hand it out to a new acquaintance that is based abroad, they immediately respond with a gratifying: “ahhh, you use Skype.” They know I can be reached for free. Don’t we all want all of our customers to feel this way? Not once has this has happened when I exchange business cards with someone who is based in this country.
Clearly the cost of communications from abroad are so much higher than our widely available cheap cellular calling plans with coast-to-coast unlimited national calling. No doubt that has been a key motivator for Skype’s growth abroad, but I feel we have lost something in this trade-off: the ability to connect with customers using video.
Video chatting with customers is a powerful tool to personalize relationships. Yes, face time is key as a competitive advantage, but it costs real money. We all still spend heavily on our outside sales forces and our travel expenses continue to increase. We do this so our customers get to know who we are as a people. I don’t think video chatting will ever replace that, but without a doubt it will add value to the relationship. However, video is nowhere to be found in our industry. Not even on the conference calls and webinars that have become all too frequent. By now you’ll figure that one of the many vendors out there who support our industry’s e-commerce platforms would have offered us this tool to differentiate their product, but to my knowledge, no one is even offering text chatting let alone any video.
At times we hear criticisms that with e-commerce we lose the personal touch, and I agree with this to a degree. Customers engage us on our e-commerce platforms because they are looking for a trade-off: less personal touch for speedier transactions and increased capacity. But we all know there are times when customers still need to “see” us (can I hear a hallelujah out there?) and if we offer a quick, no-cost alternative to do it by video, we will create the opportunity to further anchor our customers’ loyalty by providing a superior service experience using this tool.
Perhaps the Microsoft/Skype duo will accelerate video communications’ absorption in our industry, perhaps is up to ourselves to do it.
What’s clear is that video is coming, so brush your teeth, comb your hair and smile for the camera.
Mandy Aguilar is the regional vice president for Jacksonville, Fla.-based The Parts House.