UC for the SME

Comms Business examines the SME market for unified communication to find out; do smaller firms understand what it is? Are the applications scalable and should the SME go for a single vendor solution or best of breed applications?

It’s hard to define what an SME is exactly. Do you measure turnover, the number employees or how big a firm is in their own market?

Most people tend to go for employees but even here disagreements and contradictions abound so for the purposes of this report we’ll make the decision. We’re looking at firms with up to around 100 staff.

UC has been around as a concept for many years but in practice, along with deployment and attachment rates, the uptake was disappointing for some time. As ever UC started off in the Enterprise space as only they could afford the cost, had the skills sets to drive it and the determination to realise the productivity benefits.

Today applications are more open and scalable so now the SME has the opportunity to join in and take advantage of unifying communications. However, we are not convinced the channel or the end user is that keen so we put some key questions to suppliers to find out.

1. Is the concept of unified communications very difficult for an SME to understand? Why is that and what can we do about it?

Michelle Jones, Director, EMEA & APAC Channel Strategy & Development at Avaya, says that one of the great things about unified communication is that it can be as simple or as complex as needs dictate – from linking a deskphone and mobile through a single number right up to deploying a full suite of collaboration tools.

“With this in mind I don’t believe UC is difficult to understand for SMEs but many, especially smaller ones, still use consumer or start-up technology that doesn’t offer UC functionality. In the case of slightly larger SMEs who typically have smaller budgets and fewer resources than large organisations, the cost and complexity of many UC solutions have prevented many of them from taking advantage of UC technologies that can help them compete with larger enterprises.”

John Donaldson, Commercial Director, iHub, says this can come down to how you explain applications to the smaller user.

“In our experience if a buyer understands and has already bought into services as a private consumer, then it is far easier for them to articulate the offering and its advantages when acting on behalf of a SME. As a prime example, Hosted IPT can be simply explained as ‘Skype on speed’. Offering the same advantages and cost savings that Skype affords consumers, yet with further features, flexibility and reliability that businesses demand.

By offering vendors the opportunity to trial a particular service internally, key decision makers and/or technical teams are able to witness first hand the immediate cost savings from either mobile charges or travel costs. Videos guiding the SME through the everyday business scenarios and the value adds that UC offers as part of that is often far easier to digest than user guides or datasheets.”

John Bird, Head of Systems and Support Services at Exertis Micro-P Unified Communications, believes that the concept of Unified Communications can be difficult for a SME to understand simply because everyone has their own definition of what UC actually is.

“You could ask five resellers what their definition of what UC is to them and you’ll get five different answers, so this can cause confusion for an end user. Many people believe UC is the ‘consolidation’ of applications and communication methods into one single device or single application but this is not the case – we need to remember that UC can sit across a set of products and different media types.

What can we do to make it easier? Well at Exertis Micro-P we work hard to deliver bespoke sales and technical training for our reseller partners to enable them to understand how to deliver more than just a telephone system solution but a true UC solution – incorporating mobile integration, Instant Messaging, Presence to the mobile, CRM integration, call management and call recording. There is a real value add for any reseller that can deliver the overall solution that SME’s demand.  The UC Business Unit at Exertis Micro-P is seeing consistent month on month growth across attachment rates of applications, showing that resellers are becoming more ‘UC savvy’ and are able to differentiate themselves from competitors by deploying full UC solutions.

To put this into perspective, we’re working with our reseller partners to understand the benefits of deploying a UC solution and who have set themselves targets of attaching applications to every system solution. This not only increases order values on every sale but often creates end user ‘lock in’ and increased customer retention.

I believe that Exertis Micro-P are best placed within the distribution channel to help support resellers deliver UC solutions, not only with the help of pre-sales consultation but throughout the whole sales cycle including on-site support during the installation and deployment of solutions. Seldom does a UC solution comprise product from a single vendor, typically a solution will comprise the ‘voice server’ product from vendor A and the network infrastructure from vendor B and possibly third party applications – certainly I’d expect the solution to integrate with 3rd party product which is existing on the site. We offer a vast portfolio of products across UC, AV, IT, Print, Mobile, Storage and Networking, all of which compliment a UC solution, be it traditional PBX, Hosted Voice, Microsoft Lync or a SIP based ‘soft switch’  – I personally don’t like the phrase ‘one stop shop’ but it’s certainly apt when it comes to our distribution capability, which was recently endorsed by receiving 10 of the leading channel distribution awards in the last 10 months.”

Steve North, Managing Director at Stripe 21 gets to his point fast; “It is less about the failure of the SME to understand, but more about making a solid case for the ROI. SME’s generally become interested in technology only when investment in it will reduce their costs or improve their competitive advantage in some way. Making a compelling case for UC revolves around the ROI in a particular business and in many cases that can be difficult to justify.”

Slow Burner

John Howard, EMEA Director, B2B & Unified Communications at Logitech, says that for all the hype and investment, unified communications (UC) is only now starting to deliver the benefits it promised a decade ago when business leaders were initially sold on its transformative potential.

“The capital investment needed for a UC deployment is now within reach for SMEs as well due to hosted and cloud offerings and the wide availability of good bandwidth connections, both in the office and on the move through tablets and smartphones.

One factor inhibiting the use of UC within SMEs is the user experience impacting on adoption rates. If it is easier and more natural to pick up a landline phone than use a UC application on a laptop or smartphone, then that is what employees will choose, and cost savings and productivity can be lost. With simplicity comes adoption and SMEs should look for UC endpoints which can be used both in the workplace with business-class UC clients and also for personal use. It also helps if the endpoints are compatible with a range of UC applications if the SME decides to change UC provider at a later date.”

Charlie Whelpton, Director of Unified Communications at Timico says the concept is difficult for everyone to understand unless they know how to use it!

“As providers, it’s our job to take the technical knowhow that we have and translate that into the information that is business critical for SMEs. They don’t need to get bogged down with specifications or needless complexity – they just need to know how a particular solution can help them on a day-to-day basis. It’s about fixing a problem and selling a service rather than a product.

Essentially, the sales process should be looked upon as a communication experience, in the sense that we should be enabling people to understand each other better. From this comes improved productivity, efficiency and cultural gains. Being able to offer trials and pilots will make the difference for SMEs that can often feel overwhelmed by lengthy contracts and watertight deals. Business is fluid and channel offerings should try to mirror this as much as possible.”

Toshiba’s Daniel Fuller-Smith, Sales Manager UK and EMEA, Unified Communications & Solutions Division says that technological developments over the past few years mean that the time is ripe for SMEs to adopt Unified Communications (UC).

“Today’s availability of tailored solutions provides SMEs with a diverse range of choice which can add significant benefit to the business. Ease of use is always a significant selling point. If users have to wait while software is downloaded and installed before joining a conference, it may result in an important part of the conference being missed, causing disruption and hindering productivity.”

According to Paul Burn, Head of Category Sales at Nimans, there’s still a lot of confusion out there.

“In many ways there’s a misguided perception that everything is UC. So how can they distinguish? Headsets, conferencing, phone systems, mobiles and even paperclips are being badged UC! There’s a danger they think everything is UC. I think one of the most important messages for a reseller to understand is how the quality of any UC solution is judged in the last metre, the quality of device put on the end. If a company is deploying Microsoft Lync in most cases they will make a decision if they like it or not on the basis of the end point. As UC is such a diverse solution, the key is utilising the right elements with the most appropriate devices. Does every company need web collaboration and video conferencing? No. If you choose the wrong end point it will lead to a poor opinion and undermine the overall solution. Right at the last minute, thinking the device you put on the desk is the smallest decision, it’s actually the biggest decision because that’s what the user will be communicating through.

2. Should vendors produce an SME Edition of unified communications applications? 

Michelle Jones, Director, EMEA & APAC Channel Strategy & Development at Avaya

Avaya already offers an SME UC application through its IP Office products which are aimed at up to 2,000 users.  It offers unified communications across voice, data, video and mobility on virtually any device and this week we launched IP Office Contact Centre, extending the functionality further. The success of our flagship SME solution, which has more than 12 million users on more than 350,000 systems worldwide, points to the hunger for a SME UC solution that combines the features customers need, with simplicity of management and use and very importantly, value.

Channel partners selling this product have a chance to differentiate themselves, not only in the fact that they are offering an SME-specific solution, but also in the integration, tailoring and maintenance services they offer. SMEs typically have very little in-house IT expertise so a UC product for SMEs represents a great opportunity for resellers.

Steve North at Stripe 21 is quite blunt when he says “The cheaper it gets, the more interested the SME sector becomes. UC lends itself to the hosted environment, where increasing use of BYOD over 4G networks really bring it to life. The main barrier to sales is the price, not the understanding.”

Keith Harvey, Head of Sales Partner/Channel at the TFM Group thinks SME versions could be useful.

“Certainly, it would be very helpful if vendors could produce something which articulates the value proposition specifically for SME’s.  For Hosted ‘Call Server as a service’ applications specifically, the ability to add applications to grow to a full UC deployment would appeal to the SME market and subsequently improve uptake.

The introduction of SME editions of unified communications applications would enable SME’s to save costs whilst simultaneously providing resellers with the opportunity to move up the value chain and into a hosted managed service.”

Charlie Whelpton, Director of Unified Communications, says, “Perhaps not a specifically characterised SME edition, but an offering with a more limited feature set or a full service bundle at a discounted price would be beneficial. Naturally, more accessible pricing will encourage adoption, as will an improvement in communication and an SME-focussed strategy.”

3. Do you think that end users are better served by single vendor solutions or by a best of breed mix of third party applications?

Robin Hayman, Product and Marketing Director at SpliceCom believes that when it comes to Unified Communication what’s required for smaller businesses is the same best of breed approach towards applications as that adopted by larger organisations, it’s just that the integration needs to be made easier.

“A well-planned and delivered Unified Communication strategy allows businesses to work smarter, whilst simultaneously reducing costs. The workforce can be freed from their dependence on the office, allowing them to be just as productive when they’re mobile as they are sat behind a desk. This provides a reduction in office space required, building/ travel/meeting costs and overall communication, voice conferencing and mobile phone expenses.”

Michelle Jones at Avaya says her company has from the outset recognised that single vendor strategies are contrary to what unified communication is about – i.e. ultimate flexibility, accessibility and responsiveness.

“SMEs need to think about the future. In these days of consumerised IT, as they grow, they are unlikely to have their entire workforce to agree on particular application or device from one particular vendor: employees and the business both need, and deserve, choice – so we give them the best of both worlds through our flexible, all-encompassing solution.”

Rosie Jackson, Head of Product Marketing at Outsourcery, says that implementing solutions with a single vendor would be the most efficient way to manage solutions. With one supplier, you have a single place to go if you need support, and the solutions you receive are likely to be designed to integrate together to offer maximum functionality. Whereas having various disparate solutions can be confusing to support. If you’re struggling with interoperability issues, it is less clear which supplier will be able to help and if they’d have the same level of knowledge about all the solutions within your system.”

John Donaldson at iHub, points out the not so obvious, “The reality is that very few vendors undertake initial development of UC services on their own, they either contract this out with a detailed end game in mind or they look to an already successful provider and licence them to produce something similar to what the provider has already delivered. Take the Counterpath Bria app and its various incarnations as a standalone mobile client across Android and IOS and separately licensed through some hosted providers.”

Paul Burn at Nimans believes there’s good and bad here and in some cases it’s a balancing act.

“Single vendor solutions were built to work together. In theory ‘best of breed’ should work seamlessly but that’s not always the case. It’s a bit like a guy from Newcastle having a chat with a man from South Wales. They are speaking the same language but sometimes things can become confused and misunderstood. Often there are cost benefits and more flexibility by choosing different third party components, but you take your chance they will work in harmony. Software upgrades is another potential pitfall of the third party route. There are central features that will always work across multiple brands, under the ‘Open Standards’ umbrella but it depends how bespoke the solution needs to be. Multiple support contracts are another potential headache.”

Ed Says…

There can be no doubt that the market is maturing for SME unified communications solutions and that the fog is thinning when it comes to understanding how to sell those applications.


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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine