The Voice of Service
Balancing business, service and technology in an ever-growing market
Paul Levering saw hosting voice-over IP services as the future long before it was a readily available option. After being laid off from a company that sold phone systems at the end of 2002, he was offered a safe job with another company, but he couldn’t stop thinking and talking about the possibilities that hosting held.
Eventually, his wife gave him the prod he needed. And thus, FeatureTel was born in 2003.
FeatureTel’s hosted voice-over IP service makes it unnecessary for clients to buy telephone systems ever again, according to Levering. FeatureTel’s clients range in size from one employee at home to the City of Durham with more than 1,800 employees.
Regardless the business size, it’s important to Levering to stay connected to his clients and to put their needs first. Having happy customers and happy employees are the main goals for his company he says, along with being “kind, smart and helpful.” These are the words clients used to describe FeatureTel when it was small and Levering wants to carry that reputation into the future.
“As a company grows, people get promoted away from customer service. So the bigger you get, the most competent and the people with the best character, those best employees get promoted away from the customer,” Levering explains. “And customer service is very often the job that is relegated to the entry level positions. So you get the big telecoms with the ‘lousy service.’ It’s because people get promoted away from the customers.”
Levering explains that as FeatureTel’s owner, he has a hand in all things big and small that go on with the company.
“I see every support unit, every email that comes and goes through tech support. Things that people are asking for, comments, things like that. I get copied on all customer interactions with our tech staff,” he says. “And whenever I see something where someone is giving us praise, that gets copied to the whole company.”
Two tasks Levering does outsource are marketing and CFO duties.
“As we’ve grown, it’s hard to find experts, but when you do, it’s a very good thing,” he says. “Some people really specialize. So as we’ve grown and the market has continually evolved, we’ve brought in an outsourced CFO position to help us look at strategy. How do we go forward and how do we leverage what we’ve done.”
Scaling up the company while maintaining its quality is a key issue on Levering’s mind now. In the beginning, Levering and his CTO John Carnes tackled all the duties regarding sales and technology, which were their passions. Now there is less of that as the business grows, and with 15 employees now, more time must be devoted to human resources and strategic planning. Luckily, Levering describes himself as versatile and says that he can handle anything thrown at him. He also makes sure that he surrounds himself with the best employees.
“It’s easy to be wonderful when it’s just you or a few people because you control everything. And if you’re good at what you do, then people are going to love you. But how do you scale that? To scale it, you have to hire similarly wonderful, capable people.
Two things you look for in hiring are character and competence. Competence can be taught. Character cannot.”
Levering seems to be striking the right balance, as his company continues to receive accolade after accolade. In addition to making the Inc. 5000 list this year, FeatureTel also won the Pinnacle Business Award for consistent growth, which had been a long-time goal of Levering’s.
Giving back to the community is a priority for the company as well, and FeatureTel’s achievements in this area won them the Apex Small Business Award in 2010 for outstanding contribution to the community. Levering calls education a big soapbox issue of his. FeatureTel supports donorschoose.org, a cause which allows teachers to earn funding for projects, and which has garnered endorsement by celebrities such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon.
Levering got his first taste of being a leader as the manager of a McDonald’s in Chapel Hill while he was in college at UNC. He jokes that maybe he wasn’t necessarily a good manager but he led by example and his employees followed suit.
Owning his own business is a different ball game though.
“You have to be a little bit crazy and a little bit ignorant to start a business, because if you know everything you’re in for, you might not start that business,” Levering says. “But once you have it going and it’s up and running, in my case anyway, you get a lot more conservative and a lot more cautious because you want to hold on to what you’ve got. So it forces you to think long term.”
As for challenges he faces, Levering says staying on top of his game consistently is the main one.
“Your customers expect you to be the expert in your field. And with technology that changes so quickly,” he says. “I swear it changes faster and faster all the time. It is a challenge to keep up with the latest technologies and the latest tools available for your clients.”
He goes on to explain, “You have to do a lot of work to research and keep up with things. Because there are a lot of things that come up that are fast. There are going to be flashes in the pan and you need to know the difference between a fad, a trend, or something that’s going to have greater impact for your client and that’s going to be around awhile.”