Big carriers up the ante on small business support

When Brad Tunnard wanted to create an online presence for his Toronto-based contracting business, he called tech support.

The owner and operator of BT Contracting knows a lot about drywall repairs and basement waterproofing, and almost nothing about domain name servers and search engine optimization. So he called a number to connect with Rogers Communications Inc.’s new small business specialists and asked a lot of questions. Soon enough, he had a Web site online at – and he didn’t even feel pressured to buy something.

“It’s hard to find information without someone trying to sell you something,” Tunnard says. He did originally buy a Rogers hosting package for his site after using the customer service line, but switched to NetFirms a few months ago.

Rogers wants more success stories like Tunnard’s, and to achieve that has rolled out the small business specialist program to 157 retail locations across Canada.  Friendly tech support workers will be on hand to talk to customers in store or on the phone about communications services, tailored to the specific needs of a small business.

Related Story: Bell launches Web-based app store aimed at small firms

Rogers isn’t the only big carrier making overtures to small businesses, using the sweet sound of more accessible and targeted customer support as the big lure. Telus Corp. and Bell Canada are also making efforts to court customers with an entrepreneurial bent. As more ‘prosumer’ mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are released to market and distributed by the carriers, the incumbents are finding small businesses want more help in learning how to put the new devices and accompanying services to good use.

Telus Business Centre locations: present and planned.

View Telus Business Centre locations in a larger map

“We saw through primary research there was a demand for that personal touch,” says Tisha Rattos, director of small business marketing at Rogers. “They want to deal with someone local and someone that understands their business needs.”

That research was conducted by Ipsos Reid on behalf of Rogers between April 29 and May 5 among 1,027 Canadian adults. It found that on average, small business owners are spending 6.9 hours per week managing communications technology. It also found that eight in 10 agree that customer service “makes or breaks” their choice of telecom provider.

So it’s no wonder that Rogers last year launched LiveAgent, a for-pay small business service that guarantees a human will pick up the phone when you call for support. The small business specialist program is the next phase of that, Rattos says. The specialists can be booked for a meeting online.

“They’re also trained on the operating systems and the applications your business would use to be more productive,” she says.

Telus opens chain of small business-focused retail locations

The first Telus Business Centre opened last June in Calgary. A second was added in Surrey, B.C. by December and the next two are slated to open in Edmonton in June and July. Telus also hopes to bring the stores out east with two Toronto locations targeted for opening in October and November, says Anish Makim, director of business stores & retail SMB marketing at Telus Corp.

“We decided to experiment with this retail concept,” Makim says. “We knew that a lot of people walking into stores were small businesses anyway.”

The stores’ focus is on Telus products and services targeted to small business, but there are some other perks. The main layout difference that sets it apart from consumer stores – seats. Instead of standing around and looking at products through glass cases, entrepreneurs can sit down with Telus representatives and perhaps get a hands-on demo. Some stores may also have video-conferencing facilities set up for demonstration, Makim says.

Each store has an integrated Telus Learning Centre that can host a small audience of eight to 12 people as a manufacturer demonstrates how to use a product. Several sessions in Calgary focused on the iPhone 4 soon after it launched, and proved popular among attendees.

“We’ve seen great anecdotal success from customers about The Learning Centre and our approach around that,” Makim says. “Some of the sessions we’ve opened up to non-Telus customers. We’re just going to teach anyone that wants to learn about these products.”

Telus converted existing storefronts to the new small business model, he says. It has seen an increase in the number of sales and renewals at those locations since doing so.

Telus is currently running a contest offering a $100,000 grant to a small business that can explain the biggest challenge it faces today and how the cash could help overcome that. It also pledged to give $50 for each smartphone activation by a Toronto-based business it does until the end of the year to Junior Achievement Canada, a program that provides youth mentorship and educational programming.

Bell‘s online store and integrated service approach

Instead of opening bricks-and-mortar locations like Telus, Bell launched the Bell Business Apps Store in February, offering numerous Web-based tools available on a monthly subscription basis. Businesses can browse through applications in categories including project management, accounting, collaboration, customer relationships management, and more.

Aside from an online portal serving the needs of small businesses, Bell also offers business customers “round the clock SMB customer service reps which can be contacted from any phone or on site in our Bell stores,” according to a company spokesperson. All Bell retail stores are ready to support SMB customers.

Bell’s Small Business tech support call centre is 24/7 and can help business customize plans to fit their needs.

Though it’s rare to hear about telecom firms winning praise for customer support, new efforts may leave more entrepreneurs sounding like Tunnard. The contractor called Rogers a couple of times a month while he was planning his Web site, and was always able to get through.

“Even at their business times, it was pretty good,” he says.

When it comes to experiences with tech support, many would take “pretty good” over a more typical experience.

Brian Jackson is Associate Editor at Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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