National Zoo animal keeper, Nicole MacCorkle carries Bei Bei the giant panda cub. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

This week, an AT&T veteran asks where to focus his energies, on new customers or existing ones? — Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur

Chebem Chukwu began his telecommunications career in AT&T’s leadership development program. Upon completion of the program, he went on to progress through the company in a variety of technical sales roles, where he became aware of some of the challenges in the industry.

Chukwu’s most recent job with AT&T was using software to helpbusinesses and organizations secure and lock down their mobile devices. “We did that very well,” says Chukwu. “But the one thing I wasn’t able to help my customers with was employees using their work devices’ data plan for their own personal entertainment.”

Chukwu didn’t see a good way to address the challenge. Existing solutions were either difficult to use, too expensive, or just didn’t solve the problem. Chukwu left AT&T in February 2015 and teamed up with two other telecommunications veterans to tackle the problem.

The pitch

Chebem Chukwu, chief executive and co-founder of MobilePhire Corp.

“At MobilePhire, we are on a mission to give businesses an easy and cost-effective way to manage mobile Internet connectivity. Our first product is cloud-based software that lets a company control and analyze usage of a cell phone’s data plan.

“We have helped customers save up to 50 percent on their cell phone data plan costs. The solution also saves IT administrators’ time policing employee usage behavior and helps employers better understand how their employees leverage cellular data for their jobs.

“Some companies may want to use our software to enact time-of-day rules, where they elect to shut off a cell phone’s data plan after work hours and on weekends. Or they might elect to control activities that use a lot of data, like videos, forcing usage to Wi-Fi for these data-draining tasks.

“Without MobilePhire, companies have to scour through cell phone bills at the end of each month and crack down on employees using too much data. Existing mobile device management software can’t control devices at a network level.

“MobilePhire is not an app – it is software that has been integrated on the networks of cellular providers, currently on both Verizon and AT&T. Companies can activate our software immediately, then use it behind the scenes to control data usage.

“As we get ready for a wider launch, one of the areas that I’m spending a lot of time thinking about is customer support. Coming from AT&T, my mentality has been to ‘bear-hug’ my customers because they are so important. However, as an early-stage startup with limited resources, sometimes bear-hugging your customers is not very efficient. What are some best practices for addressing customer support for tech start-ups of our size, especially when selling to enterprise?

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“You shouldn’t just be focusing on getting customers because keeping customers is just as important. It’s harder to get a customer than to keep a customer, even as a small start-up. Start-ups that prioritize customer service generally do better.

“It might not seem efficient, but bear-hugging your customer is actually more efficient than letting that customer go, particularly with the long sales cycle of typical enterprise sales. Even if you personally have to field customer service calls – or put a family member in charge – you need to have very strong customer support, particularly as a business-to-business company. Client companies will be very quick to drop MobilePhire if your customer service isn’t up to par.

“Do your due diligence to see what other comparable companies are doing in the realm of customer service. Have a prominent location on your website devoted to customer service with a phone number and email address. Always have a way for customers to get in touch with you personally – not just an email or voice mailbox.”

The reaction

Chukwu

“There is often outside pressure from competitors and investors that makes us feel like we have to accelerate growth at all costs. We get so caught up with new customer acquisition that it is easy to forget just how important our existing customers are. With the tremendous amount of effort we put into our sales process, it would be devastating to lose customers, especially after overcoming the unique challenges and long sales cycle of enterprise sales.
It will be critical to our success that we continue to retain our customers, especially as a software as a service company. We will continue to think about the great advice you have provided and refocus our energy and resources to ensure that our customer support is exceptional.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.