Palo Alto Software's Sabrina Parsons Interviewed by Eric Enge

Published: March 16, 2009

Sabrina Parsons Photo

This is a little bit off our normal path, as it is not an SEO or analytics centric interview. However, Palo Alto Software has a neat product that small businesses can use to manage their operations, known as Email Center Pro. In addition, it offers some nice analytics tools that can be used to help imporve business operations and results from email inquries from the web.

Sabrina Parsons is currently CEO of Palo Alto Software. See is also an avid blogger on her blog, Mommy CEO. She was a principal co-founder of Lighting Out Consulting, which helped Internet companies realize their online marketing potential.

Prior to co-founding Lighting Out, Sabrina was Sr. Producer at Epinions.com. As Epinions.com's first employee, she conceived, designed and implemented Epinions.com's affiliate/partner program, leading an engineering, web design, and marketing team to the successful implementation of one of the most powerful partner programs on the web today.

Before joining Epinions.com, Sabrina was the Director of Online Marketing for Commtouch Software (CTCH). She launched, product managed, and developed online strategies for Zapzone Network, a global email service provider for webmasters and the SOHO market. Prior to working at Commtouch Software she was the Online Marketing manager for enCommerce, now a part of Entrust Securities (ENTU). At enCommerce Sabrina oversaw two web site re-designs and managed all online marketing activities.

She, along with her husband Noah, funded and successfully grew the UK Palo Alto Software office in London before selling it to the parent company and returning to Eugene Oregon where she joined the Marketing Department as Director of Marketing and Communications.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Can you give us an overview of Palo Alto Software?

Sabrina Parsons: Palo Alto Software is a company thatís been around for a long time in the hi-tech world. Weíve been around since 1983, and our primary focus is to help people succeed in business. Our target market is small business and entrepreneurs. We have provided planning and implementation tools to help people better manage their small businesses for 25 years now. Our flagship product is Business Plan Pro, which people can purchase at Best Buy, Office Depot and all those places, as well as online.

But, we also have a marketing planning product, and recently weíve re-released that product in conjunction with John Jantsch and Duct Tape Marketing. So, thatís been really exciting, but our most exciting new venture is Email Center Pro, which came out in May in Version 1.0.

Since then weíve had nine feature releases, so itís a very different product than it was last May. It is a software-as-a-service product (SAAS), which is also very new thing for Palo Alto Software. Weíve traditionally been software developers developing Windowsí Software, but we see SAAS as the way of the future. So, weíll probably be doing a lot more in the SAAS world in the future.

Iíve been the CEO of Palo Alto Software for just about two years now. Prior to that I was dealing with all the business development, strategic alliances and marketing communications for Palo Alto Software.

Eric Enge: Can you talk a little bit about Email Center Pro from an overview perspective, and go a little more deeply into what it does and how it works.

Sabrina Parsons: Email Center Pro is a little bit of a departure from what Palo Alto Software usually does. Weíve been very entrenched in business and marketing planning, and then thatís been our expertise. We originally created the product about eight years ago to help us internally manage our incoming emails and customer service.

About two years ago, we really looked at the marketplace and looked at this build versus buy concept. Our customer base had gotten bigger and the small little internal tool that we had needed to be rebuilt. It just wasnít robust enough for our needs. And at that time, we just said ďwell, this is crazy, this isnít what we do. Letís go out and buy a solution.Ē So we went out and just looked in the marketplace for a solution. We are not a large company, as we only employ forty-five people, so we didnít want to pay thousands of dollars for something that maybe was a sledgehammer approach to our very defined email problem.

So, the more we looked in the marketplace, the more we realized there really isnít a great email management tool in the customer service space that helps small businesses streamline and improve their workflow and become more efficient. There are lots of tools out for larger companies with a larger budget and an IT infrastructure. But, if you are a small business that maybe doesnít even employ someone in IT and just uses a consultant, you donít have $50,000 to drop on that kind of communication software.

So, you really were just making your email work and doing a lot of duct tape and paperclip type of solutions to deal with more and more incoming emails from your customers, partners and vendors. So in May we released the consumer version of what we had internally been using for a long time, which we called Email Center. Thatís why we called the commercial product Email Center Pro, it really is just focused on helping small businesses become more efficient dealing with their customers, partners and vendors, and helping them provide a better customer service experience. Having something that is easy to use and implement where no one has to worry about upgrading is very valuable. We really feel like SAAS is the way to go, especially for small businesses.

Eric Enge: So, letís just take a little deeper dive into some of the specific problems that a typical small business might have. Say a small business has a dozen people working for it and fairly robust customer service communication happening through a small number of email addresses. How does this fit into that picture?

Sabrina Parsons: As email addresses are posted on websites or forums are used, a lot of small businesses deal with it through the triage methodology. Those emails come in through aliases and they get sent to various people at once. Sometimes they are dealt with through a LISTSERVE, and thatís the same sort of thing. So this 10 to 12-person organization has people wearing a lot of different hats and dealing with a lot of different types of customer interactions.

At the top of that organization, you have the business owner who probably has his hands in all these email addresses. You have a problem that happens when an email comes into an info@yourdomain.com email address. That creates this workflow issue where youíve got multiple people receiving the same email into their inbox. Sometimes the business owners jumps in and answers one of the emails that look interesting Ė but often times neglects to let other proplr know. So customers may get multiple responses from the company Ė one from the business owner and one or more from other team mebers who receive the same email.

Inevitably this workflow leads to a lot of effort making sure emails are answered accurately and only one time. And everybody is dealing with it in their individual email, so there is no way to track history and there is no visibility or accountability.

Say there are four emails in this organization and they all get sent into Email Center Pro, they would all be organized by mailbox. So you can have an info mailbox, a sales mailbox, a partnerís mailbox and a help mailbox, etc. And as those emails start coming in, they are automatically put in one place and everyone in that organization can have access to them. They can log in and see whatís going on, and the moment someone starts reading an email and decides to reply to it, everybody else can still see that email, but nobody else can take an action on it. It will tell you, ďJoe is replying to this email.Ē

Weíve also then given people internal communications tools. I can place a note on that email and let Joe who is in the middle of responding to it, something that I think might be relevant. If I am a business owner, I can go in and cherry-pick the emails I want to respond to, but everybody else can see my responses and how Iíve chosen to deal with that email. Or, I can come in and look through some emails and maybe just add some notes, and then assign them to somebody else for follow up.

The system also has all kinds of checks and balances in place. If somebody gets assigned an email, you can have an alert setup so you are alerted when you get assigned to an email. That way you know someone has assigned you an email, so then you can go in Email Center Pro, deal with the email and answer it. Anytime an email is replied to, it automatically gets archived and moved out of the inbox. And thatís one of those workflow issues.

People like to see clear inboxes, because it makes them feel like they are accomplishing something. So, weíve made that part of the workflow at Email Center Pro. An email comes in, it gets replied to and you donít have to file it, delete it or move it, because it automatically gets archived into sent mail. You can archive any email that comes in that doesnít need a response.

From a customer point of view, I will automatically get assigned the response if I answer an email so that I can continue the conversation with that person. And, thatís what we are really trying to help companies do, treat emails like conversations with real people, because thatís what they are. These are people that are actually sending requests for information to buy things and get proposals, and they just get forgotten or ignored all too often. You see all these helpdesk ticketing systems that people are using now. You send an email, and then all of a sudden you get a response and a number. But the problem is that you donít want a number, you want an answer to your question. So those are some of the things that we are trying to deal with, with Email Center Pro.

Additionally because we are a company that is very fanatical about data analytics, and we feel like you can get a lot of information to help you run your business better if you have access to the right information, we built a bunch of different analytics into Email Center Pro to help that business owner understand whatís going on. Just to give you a practical example of how itís being used, we have a client company called Herbal Buddy, a top Herbalife distributor.

Itís vitamin company, which distributes Herbalife products on HerbalBuddy.com. It has an e-commerce site and it does very well. They signed up for Email Center Pro, started using our analytics and realized some patterns and some trends, because they were all of a sudden able to see email traffic in the same way that they look at website traffic.

They started realizing that they actually had trends in terms of when customers or potential customers contacted them. Herbal Buddy matched those trends to their Google Adwords account, and actually spent more money during the hours when they noticed more email volume. In the first month they did that, they increased their sales though Adwords by 30%.

We are trying to provide a lot of analytics about what happens in email so people start to understand email communication as an integral part of their outwardly facing marketing effort. If you send out an email marketing campaign to a bunch of customers, you have to respond and be willing and able to deal with people coming back to you, or you are potentially losing customers and sales.

From our perspective, Email Center Pro is a tool to help you manage your incoming emails and deal with the workflow to and make things easier. But itís also intended to give business owners some of that visibility that they can get from Google Analytics to allow them to track and manage their income and expenses and to give them that extra information. Now more than ever, in this economy, itís so important for businesses to understand that keeping a customer is a lot cheaper than finding a new one.

Eric Enge: Can you outline the various specific types of analytic data you can get?

Sabrina Parsons: Sure. You can look at your mailbox traffic over all your mailboxes or a specific mailbox over any time period you desire. You can see mailbox traffic over the last week, the last month or the last quarter. And you can also drill down to your sales mailbox, your business development mailbox or you can look at your entire email traffic in cumulative.

Another analytic that you can look at is actual mailbox breakdown, which is a pie-chart that shows you the breakdown of all of the messages in the system by a mailbox, whether they are assigned or unassigned. You can find out if your team is dealing with them or not.

We also have a mailbox traffic distribution analytics, which helps you see the distribution of emails across your different mailboxes. This allows you to see the trends of when you are receiving the most emails and where they are going. We also have a mailbox response-time analytics which allows you to see how fast you are responding to emails, either by mailbox or globally over the whole account. And thatís one of the analytics that I track on the Palo Alto account, because we use Email Center Pro internally for all of our customer service. I like to see what our average response time is globally over all of our email and specifically for instance in just our sales@ inbox.

I track the response-time for the sales inbox because I want to see how fast our customer service people get back to people who have questions that come into sales@paloalto.com. I can adjust the average response time for business hours. Since we are open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m, the adjusted average response time for the sales inbox currently today, is one hour and three minutes.

That means that, on average, every email that comes into sales@paloalto.com gets answered within an hour and three minutes. . These analytics help me to quickly understand how we are getting back to our customers, and how my team is dealing with emails. So, as an business owner, I love that feature.

You can also see user activities, analytics which are used for more accountability and visibility. I track these analytics for for sales and for our customer service team that deals with all of our sales inquiries. I can see how many messages are assigned to each person, how many messages each person actually answers and what their individual average response time is. For example, Jay, who is one of our stars on our customer service team, has been assigned 550 emails in the last month, but he has actually answered over a 1,000. So that gives me a sense of his productivity. He is answering more emails than he is getting assigned, and his average response time is 47 minutes right now.

Eric Enge: Right, which is better than average.

Sabrina Parsons: Exactly. So, that gives me some really good visibility over whatís happening with my business and it allows me to see if my customers are getting responses in a timely fashion.

We also have a mailbox traffic timeline, which gives a detailed interactive timeline of emails sent and received for a particular mailbox for a date range. So, itís not just overall mail volume, but itís actually separating sent and received emailsThere are more analytics, but I have mentioned that main ones.

We have other widgets also available for more visibility into your businessí email communications, but they are not all pure analytics. You can have a saved search that constantly searches different types of communications and conversations that your team is interested inIn our account, we have saved searches for all our eBay customers, or for anybody who wants a Mac version of Business Plan Pro.We donít have a Mac version right now, but we want to track what the interest is for a Mac version.

We also have a recent actions widget, where you can monitor everything thatís happening on a global level or on a subset of it if you are looking at one mailbox. You can see who is doing what to emails in Email Center Pro and track certain mailboxes and keep an eye on who is answering emails, what the responses are, and how quickly they are responding.

I think kind of takes you through pretty much all of our informational and analytic widgets. We also have something called the Conversation Tracker, which works with our conversation history. For every email that comes in, which we call a conversation, we can track its history.

You can use a Conversation Tracker to specifically track certain conversations you are interested in. Next to each email conversation you will see a display of exactly when the email was received, if it was assigned to anyone, who assigned it, who it was assigned to, if it was replied to, what time it went out, if ,the customer replied back and what time that response came back in.

You get a full picture of whatís actually happening with that conversation. And again, the idea there is that these are people that you are dealing with and they want to be treated respectfully and intelligently. But, on the business side, that tracking needs to be efficient and quick, and something that actually saves you time and money as opposed to something that adds more workload to what is usually a pretty barebones team in a small busines.

Eric Enge: Right. So, the ability to look into that history is clearly one of the important things you can do here. If you are a busy customer service person, and youíve just had a conversation with someone a week ago, youíre not always going to remember everything that went on.

Sabrina Parsons: Exactly.

Eric Enge: So letís say the customer service person who originally answered someoneís emails is on vacation. Do you have some sort of way to flag that so they get assigned to someone else?

Sabrina Parsons: Yes. If Jay has been dealing with the customer, and he is not there, it comes into the general inbox. So youíll see that Jay is not even signed in, and presumably teams will know that somebody is on vacation. That conversation can just be assigned to somebody else. We typically assign one ďownerĒ to every mailbox, and that person monitors the mailbox for things like that.

So say Jay is not around and we assign the conversation to Shawnee for the time being. If Jay is curious about what was going on with that customer when he was gone, he could go back and track that conversation. Then he can jump in and say to Shawnee, ďhey the next time that person responds, I am going to grab that because of the long history we have together.Ē

Thatís one of things that I think Email Center Pro does very, very well. But Email center Pro is not just useful for businesses that have customer service teams. We have a PR of company thatís just ten people that uses Email Center Pro. The reason they use it is, because they had an email failBefore this PR company started using Email center Pro, they had anoffice manager, who got all their info@ emails into her outlooks.. She would then triage each info@ email and send it to the right people. If she didnít know who to send it to, sheíd send it to the CEO, and heíd decide. She was a really consistent employee and sheíd been at the company for a couple of years. Things seemed to be fine with this workflow until the one week she got very, very sick.

She wasnít there, and unlike other times when sheíd gone on vacation and arranged for someone else to check the inbox, and everybody forgot that the info@ email came into her. So, a week later when she came back, she had a request proposal from a very big company in her email, just sitting there, unresponded to for over 5 business daysBasically this PR company missed this opportunity because nobody checked that email. And this happens so often in small organizations, where itís just one of those things that people forget.

And, thatís precisely one of the reasons why Email Center Pro is great, even if you are not dealing with hundreds of incoming customer service emails. And, thatís why we wanted to price it the way we did. We wanted it to be an affordable option for small businesses which donít necessarily need a huge back office infrastructure, but they still struggle with this email problem.

Eric Enge: Thanks Sabrina!

Sabrina Parsons: Thank you Eric!

Have comments or want to discuss? You can comment on the Sabrina Parsons interview here.

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About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.

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