Most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), of 500 employees or less, are just emerging from the turbulent waters of the 2008-2009 recession. Many of them have never been able to afford advanced communication solutions, but over the past year, they put all IT and communications spending on hold. With the first signs of economic recovery, these SMBs will start evaluating growth opportunities and looking for tools, including communications infrastructure and applications that can help them enhance their competitive advantage. Most likely, many SMB executives have heard about Unified Communications by now, but more likely than not, are still confused about what exactly it means and are even at a greater loss when it comes to figuring out whether they need it and how it can help them accomplish their goals.
That is why I decided to put some thoughts together hoping to help these SMB decision makers in the process of evaluating UC solutions going forward. By no means is this a comprehensive analysis of the UC market and all the solutions available today; rather, it is a brief overview of most feasible options.
1. Defining UC and Identifying its Benefits to the SMB
What is UC and does it offer any value to SMBs? Though definitions vary, UC is defined by most (including myself) as an integrated set of voice, data and video applications such as: telephony, instant messaging, voice/unified messaging, audio, web and videoconferencing, email, collaboration, mobility, etc. The key components, however, are the integrated (telephony and PC/online) presence and a unified client that allows users to click to communicate in various modes.
Application integration with presence capabilities and a unified client helps users communicate and collaborate more effectively. For a small business, however, the benefits are somewhat different from those UC presents to large, geographically dispersed organizations. The benefits to the latter have been widely discussed, so I will just reiterate a few: more cost-efficient conferencing (i.e. premises-based apps vs hosted services) helps virtual teams stay in touch, while reducing travel costs; video adds a new dimension to business communications; mobile and laptop soft clients reduce mobile communication costs and improve employee accessibility and efficiency.
The same benefits certainly apply to SMBs as well, however, the greatest value of UC for this segment lies in its ability to help users multi-task more efficiently. In a small business, most employees wear multiple hats (e.g. HR+accounting; business development+marketing+PR, etc.) and they need access to their business communications capabilities anywhere, anytime. The same UC features – mobility, presence, ability to switch communication modes (e.g. from IM to voice calls, etc.) – allow SMB employees to more easily move from one task to another, and from one role to another.
Another key benefit of UC for SMBs lies in its ability to improve customer service and brand reputation. Integrated auto attendant, IVR or basic ACD capabilities could enable a very small business that cannot afford an extensive contact center infrastructure to provide better customer service and also appear much more professional in its interactions with clients. Similarly, presence, mobility and various integrated collaboration tools can extend this business’s customer reach and improve lead generation as well as closing rates.
2. Needs Assessment
A key consideration for a small business, or any organization for that matter, is whether it truly requires all of the capabilities in a UC suite or it would derive significant value from just a couple of advanced communications applications. Depending on what the business’ current infrastructure is and what specific benefits executives are looking to accomplish, there may not be a need for a full-fledged UC environment. Maybe a simple IP telephony platform with a soft client and mobile extensions can help reduce communication costs and improve productivity at the same time. Alternatively, one of the more advanced IM/presence platforms with audio and web conferencing (maybe also video) capabilities can improve internal collaboration as well as external communications.
The first step in this process is, therefore, a careful evaluation of existing assets – age and residual value of the telephony platform and endpoints or remaining duration of a hosted services contract; availability of any IM capabilities, current use of conferencing solutions (applications or services), etc. Then pain points and areas of potential improvement need to be identified – e.g. high mobile costs due to frequent travel, high PBX maintenance costs, etc. Based on the findings from this process, decision makers can move onto evaluating specific UC solutions or individual communications applications.
3. Evaluating Options
While it is common knowledge that most vendors typically go after larger businesses for a higher return on their investment, there has been a major shift in vendor attention toward the SMB segment. As competition intensifies and most large businesses become saturated with advanced communications technologies, the SMB market becomes the next battleground for communications vendors and service providers as they seek new growth opportunities.
It would be logical and completely justified for an SMB looking to upgrade its communications infrastructure to first approach its existing vendor(s) or service provider(s). Most likely, such a business is running a platform by an SMB-focused vendor such as (in alphabetical order) Aastra, Interactive Intelligence, Mitel, NEC, Panasonic, ShoreTel or Toshiba. All these vendors have significantly enhanced their platforms over the past couple of years and most can offer an end-to-end UC solution with telephony, conferencing, IM/presence, mobility etc. Their solutions are typically very cost-effective by virtue of delivering all UC applications on a single appliance or in a single software stack and are also easy to implement and manage as they were developed with the SMB in mind.
Businesses should, however, look at some new entrants as well. Open-source telephony vendors such as Digium and Fonality do not only promote free code for those capable of putting together their own solutions, but have some turn-key UC platforms that offer advanced features and capabilities comparable to those of the incumbent vendors.
Microsoft’s OCS architecture is not (yet) suitable for very small businesses, but can provide significant benefits to a medium-sized business. It could represent a cost-effective alternative to existing disparate communications capabilities such as telephony, conferencing and IM as it offers all these capabilities in a single, tightly integrated, entirely software-based solution.
IBM, on the other hand, has chosen to partner with telephony vendors to be able to deliver an end-to-end UC solution to SMBs. Its Lotus Foundations platform enhanced with telephony capabilities from NEC, Mitel and ShoreTel is a viable UC solution for businesses looking to deploy a complete UC stack in a cost-effective manner.
Large vendors such as (in alphabetical order) Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco and Siemens have recently invested a significant amount of effort in enhancing their SMB solutions. They have developed appliances and/or software solutions that combine various UC capabilities and are designed specifically for SMBs, eliminating the complexity and cost of large-business platforms.
Last, but not least, small businesses in search of new communication alternatives should consider hosted/SaaS/cloud UC services. There aren’t many complete network-based UC offerings (yet), but many service providers are considering the possibility of becoming one-stop shops for the entire UC stack. A handful of service providers including Apptix, CallTower, Cypress Communications, LightEdge, Verizon and USA.Net currently offer integrated IM/presence, telephony and some conferencing to their customers. The value of such services is primarily in eliminating all the hassles related to implementing and integrating advanced applications and then managing the entire solution on behalf of customers so they can focus on their core business. Such services also provide better business continuity and disaster recovery capabilities.
SMBs may also wish to keep a close eye on Skype and Google. They are mostly known for their consumer applications, but both are intent on penetrating the business space with bundles of UC applications. It is most likely that these two providers will offer some of the most compelling pricing and will also seek to leverage the cloud for delivering a completely new value proposition to their business customers – extending and federating communication and collaboration capabilities across organizations, integrating more freely and extensively with applications delivered by other service providers, etc.
UC options for SMB have increased over the past year and continue to proliferate. With vendors and service providers struggling for revenues and new competitive advantages, customers currently have the upper hand. In a UC procurement process, SMBs should first require as much information as possible from an extended set of vendors, encourage competitive bids, and boldly negotiate for large-enterprise features at affordable prices. Vendor or partner customer service throughout the process could be a good indicator of that party’s commitment to customer success. SMBs should also consider vendor/provider viability as a major criterion in selecting a new communications solution. However, since a vendor’s financial health is not always obvious, SMBs can ensure investment protection by looking to deploy solutions and applications based on open standards, SIP and SOA so that they can eventually integrate with or switch to other UC solutions.