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Improve Your Customer Service With Skype Think Skype is just an internet phone service? Think again. This all-in-one service makes communicating with eBay customers a snap.

By Mike Hogan

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Some things just go well together--peanut butter and jelly,buyers and sellers--and now we can add Skype and eBay to that list.We're well into the second generation of the internet, andit's becoming clear that e-commerce is all about values thatSkype and eBay share: community, value-added services andcommunications.

At the end of the day, eBay's genius is to put buyers intouch with sellers so efficiently that even the smallest commercialtransactions are possible. It's become such a popular mediumthat it has grown into a worldwide community 180 million strong.Similarly, Skype's fast-growing community demonstrates thestrength of its core value proposition: cheap communications. Injust two and a half years, Skype has attracted more than 69 million registeredusers worldwide who are saving big-time on long-distance phonecalls over the net.

Additionally, more than 2 million Skype users have signed up forthe value-added SkypeOut service, which enables them to easilyreach traditional landline numbers outside the Skype community.SkypeOut subscribers can connect to American, Australian orEuropean landline phone numbers for about 2 cents a minute. Callsto most other countries range from a dime to a quarter perminute.

eBay buyers and sellers can appreciate cheap long distance aswell as the next consumer, of course. And another 69 million buyersand sellers would also be a nice addition to the eBay Marketplace,notes Joe Laszlo, research director at Jupitermedia Corp. The more,the merrier.

Communications Central
Skype isn't just another bargain-rate internet phone company.Skype is also a web application born and bred, marrying voice callswith instant messaging and all the conveniences IM can offer thosedoing business over the internet. That union starts with a commoncontact list for IM and phone buddies wrapped inside a small,portable desktop applet with an easy-to-use interface.

Version 2.0 of Skype's tiny voice applet achievesbetter-than-landline call quality over a $10 headset or by adding a$10 PC microphone to your PC's built-in speakers. Additionally,a spate of new Skype phones are being released for those who justhave to have that traditional phone-calling experience. Theyconnect to one of your PC's USB ports, and many, like the $130(all prices street) Linksys CIT200 Skype Phone, are cordless. Theyautomatically download your Skype contact list and generally blendthe features of the Skype desktop with the size and operatingcharacteristics of a cell phone. Skype also adds free callforwarding, so you won't miss a call if you're not loggedin to your PC. Skype can be quickly configured to have incomingcalls ring on another Skype-equipped PC or any combination of threelandlines or mobile phones (if you have SkypeOut for off-networkcalls).

eBay merchants who find a preponderance of their business callscoming from one or more phone exchanges--New York's 212 areacode or Los Angeles' 213, for example--can establish a SkypeInphone number for a few dollars a month or $35 a year. A SkypeInphone number gives your business a local presence in any area codein the world, encouraging customer contact. Time zones being whatthey are, each SkypeIn phone number comes with free voice mail,too, so you can answer calls when it's convenient.

Business Bent
Like so many technologies nowadays, Skype built momentum for itsservices among consumers. But almost one-third of registered Skypeusers report making business calls with the service on a regularbasis, so many of Skype's latest initiatives address the needsof growing businesses.

Skype Groups, for example, lets an entrepreneur use a singleaccount to provision an entire office or several offices with Skypephone and IM services. Employees who are traveling or in distantoffices can get one-click, toll-free voice access to each other aseasily as with an IM message. A Skype voice or IM chat can includeup to four participants, and free videoconferencing is available toanyone whose PC has an inexpensive video camera attached. Anincreasingly popular alternative to business meetings,videoconferencing could also be used for product demonstrations,says Laszlo.

And Skype can be used for transferring digital product photos,user manuals, FAQs or other files. To make these kinds of webinteractions easier still, Skype offers free, preprogrammed HTMLlinks that can be added to any web page, product description orOutlook e-mail.

"Anyone can add a 'SkypeMe' button to a web pagejust by cutting and pasting HTML code from the Skype website,"explains Saul Klein, Skype's vice president of marketing."All of a sudden, more than 69 million Skype users can make afree phone call to you, IM you or leave a voice mail. It's agreat way to provide sales and tech support."

Skype is making its application program interfaces available toother software developers who might like to add this functionalityto their applications. Skype especially wants to see links insearch engine results and context-sensitive ads, says Klein, sothat interested customers need only click to reach merchants.

Like so many internet developments that have changed our oldways of thinking, the merger of Skype and eBay can't becalculated with old math. With their emphasis on efficiency,driving down costs and self-service communities, each has abusiness model with something to offer the other, says Laszlo.

When two of the most successful value propositions of theinternet's first epoch get together, one plus one can equalthree--or more.

Can Your Phone Do This?
Skype 2.0 is jampacked with the following features:

  • Skype video: See your friends and family on the fullcomputer screen or in the Skype calling window. Skype Video alsoincludes a window that lets you view what you look like to theperson you're calling.
  • Simplified user interface: An intuitive menu withone-click access to key features and options makes it easy for thewhole world to talk for free.
  • Self-expression: Broadcast your mood along with youronline presence. Let your contacts know whether you're happy,sad, listening to your favorite music, available to talk or do notwant to be disturbed.
  • Personalization: Personalize your Skype identity withavatars or custom ring tones.
  • Your contacts' time zones: Before you wake up yourfriends, family or colleagues, take a quick glance to see what timeit is in their location.
  • Contact Grouping: Organize your contacts by groupingyour friends, co-workers or family members. Start conference calls,chats or file sharing with the whole group with just oneclick.
  • Real-time contact search: As you type each letter of aname into the dialing field, Skype matches it up to your contactlist for quick retrieval.
  • Skype toolbar for microsoft outlook: Usethe toolbar for one-click calling to contacts from your MicrosoftOutlook address book.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur'stechnology editor.

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