Photograph by Gabe Meline
ALL WORK, NO PLAY: Dane Jasper in Sonic.net's break room, which sits tellingly empty of employees as a monitor warns of 10-minute wait times for support calls.
Success is the right problem to have, but can Sonic.net keep up?
By Leilani Clark
While most who call customer service are subjected to relentless pop Muzak as they wait for help, callers to Sonic.net in early January heard something completely different—a message of apology from Sonic cofounder and CEO Dane Jasper.
"I'd like to apologize in advance for what may be a much longer than usual hold time today," Jasper intones on the pre-recorded message. "Our new Fusion broadband and phone service is growing rapidly and our whole team is trying hard to keep up.
"We are hiring," Jasper goes on to say. "If you know any friendly Sonoma County people who are good with technology, please tell them about our employment page."
Oft lauded for timely and competent service support, wait times at the North Bay's largest independent ISP have recently been as long as 37 minutes, much to Jasper's unease. The demands on Sonic.net's customer-service agents have skyrocketed since lower prices for the popular Fusion service went into effect. Fusion combines broadband internet service with a long-distance-enabled landline, a move that provides locally minded folks an option aside from AT&T. The popularity of Fusion combined with the December announcement of a partnership with Google on a Stanford University campus fiber-to-home network has led to lightning-fast increases in customer requests.
"We have the pre-roll message to let customers know that we know this is abnormal and we are growing as quickly as we can," says Jasper from behind the desk in his corner office at company headquarters in southeast Santa Rosa. A lanky, thirty-something man, Jasper talks about his company with candor, his voice carrying a balance of pride in the company's success and concern for its current challenges. "That is a regrettable side effect of our growth. I would characterize it as growing pains," continues Jasper. "This is not the norm."
Growing pains might be the norm for any ambitious organization, but can Sonic.net maintain its homegrown ethic while expanding at such a rapid rate? What began in 1994 as a two-person operation has grown to a staff of 100. Revenue for 2009 reached $21 million. Customers have more than doubled in the past decade, from 15,000 in 2000 to 31,585 total customers as of January 2011.
Jasper shares his computer desktop image. It's a detailed map covered in dots, each representing a service area. The dots pepper the Bay Area, from Ukiah to San Jose and most areas in between. A new local serving office just opened in Milpitas, and plans are moving forward on a Napa County expansion via Yountville and St. Helena. Might this once tiny business end up going in the direction of those monolithic phone and internet companies, whose workforce is most often outsourced to other parts of the country and other continents? Jasper says he's opposed to outsourcing his customer service.
"It's a challenge that we think a lot about here," says Jasper. "We have 100 staff today. What happens when we're at 200? Five hundred?"
Bruce Kunkel, board member at Sonoma County Go-Local and owner of an organizational development consulting firm, sees Sonic.net's partnership with Google as an opportunity and not a threat.
"Nobody understands the long-term consequences of this kind of thing," says Kunkel by from his home in Santa Rosa, "but Google is a significant player in rolling out the infrastructure for the world we are about to create. I'm excited about Sonic being chosen for this opportunity."
Jasper has not taken the struggle to stay up with customer demand lightly. From his office, the CEO is able to monitor a large computer screen mounted on the wall above rows of cubicles. The board displays the number of agents available versus the number tending to calls. An orange line illustrates hold time length. At the moment there are five people waiting on hold, and the peak time for the day has reached 18 minutes.
"Our goal is to try to drive that back down," says Jasper. "Our average hold time early last year was between a minute and a minute and thirty seconds. That's our target."
His main strategy thus far is to hire more staff—at least 10 positions in customer service and support, along with roughly five installation and repair positions. But with a fourfold increase in customer demand since the combined blast of the Google Partnership and the Fusion offer, such positions will have their work cut out for them.
The seeds of Sonic.net began in 1991, with a partnership formed at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Jasper, then a student lab technician in the computing services lab, began working with Scott Doty and others on the ambitious goal of creating a campus-wide internet system. Jasper ended up dropping out of SRJC, and the two young men parlayed the success at their venture into a full-time business. They began operations out of a small office in downtown Santa Rosa and christened the company Sonic.net.
Sonic.net continued to grow, making a name as an early adopter of consumer broadband in California after introducing DSL access in 1999. The local company also cultivated a reputation for house calls and pristine customer service, almost all through word-of-mouth marketing. In 2002, the company moved to its current location, providing five times as much space for their spaceship-like data center.
In an Aug. 17, 2000 article, for the New York Times titled "In Praise of the Mom-and-Pop I.S.P." journalist Katie Hafner praised Sonic.net's homegrown roots and attitude. At the time, they had just 30 employees. According to Hafner, when calling tech support, a customer was "treated like royalty . . . any of the 15 technicians, several of them still teenagers, focus on your problem with the single-mindedness of emergency-room doctors rallying to someone who has been transported to the hospital by helicopter."
Jasper claims to be adamantly against outsourcing customer interactions. He spends approximately two hours a day responding personally to tweets and blog comments, in addition to interacting with customers on popular technology shopping forums like "Slick Deals." He says he often writes such responses in the middle of the night and early in the morning.
"I anticipate continuing to do that," says Jasper when asked whether he will be able to continue the high level of customer interaction. "I enjoy it and I find it very interesting to get direct feedback from customers."
Matt Silver, currently an IT tech at O'Reilly Media and a Sonic.net customer since the late 1990s, believes the company will be able to rise above the current glitches. Silver emphasizes that hold times are also connected to the individual attention given to each situation by the call center employees, who use a more natural trouble-shooting process. "When you call some other tech-support companies, it feels like you're getting pushed through a script," says Silver.
As a former tech support member at Sonic.net, Silver insists the company has survived periods of rapid growth in the past. "When I was there, we went through a huge period of expansion selling DSL service. There were a lot of new customers in a short amount of time. We had hold times of up to 12 minutes," he says.
Still, it remains to be seen whether Sonic.net will emerge from this latest round of expansion with its homegrown ethic intact. Kunkel commends the ISP for carving out a niche independently of AT&T and other corporations, and he believes that their mom-and-pop character runs deep enough to survive without becoming another "monopolist scheme."
"The long wait times at this point are to be expected. They haven't had a chance to expand the infrastructure. I'm certain because of the character of the people involved in that they will fix it," he says.