Getting ready to VoIP: Building your evaluation checklist
As this series of articles explains, many small and medium businesses are grappling with the choice of whether to adopt VoIP, and if they do, whether to go with a hosted or an on-premise solution. This article addresses how small and medium organizations can ready themselves to start evaluating solutions. The benefits to VoIP and unified communications are substantial (not sure what Voice over Internet Protocol or unified communications is? Read my previous article!).
What benefits should you expect? Lower costs, great productivity
The good news is that VoIP and unified communications can lower costs and help your employees respond to customers more quickly and more professionally. On the other hand, it can also increase network and business process complexity. If inexpensive long-distance isn’t critical to your business, VoIP many not be the best choice. If you do most of your business on the Web instead of by phone or fax, unified communications may not be worth the expense.
On the other hand, many new PBX replacements are much less expensive (even with all of the added features and benefits) than their traditional PBX competitors; many are much less expensive to install; and you never know when your business requirements might change substantially. The more flexible, less expensive, better-featured solution with more benefits is rarely a bad business decision.
The benefits are worth the costs for FAR. With VoIP, when I call a customer in Texas or in Australia (for example), I save on the long distance charges. FAR doesn’t even use a traditional phone company. We use an Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP). The company who provides me the service is BabyTel, and I can tell you, the calls are as reliable and the quality is just as good as a regular phone line I don’t even have to worry about the cost and apathy of dealing with a regular phone company.
In addition to the cost savings of VoIP, with NetVanta’s Unified Communications Server (the VoIP and UC solution FAR uses), FAR benefits from a wide range of productivity features with call control, unified messaging, simple administration, and more.
Building your checklist—identifying whether VoIP or UC can benefit your organization
When businesses consider an information technology purchase, they should always consider the nature of the specific challenges they are trying to meet. What’s most important is to figure out which features are most important to your business and which features are nice to have, and how much you want to spend up-front and overtime, as well as what you expect to pay in terms of ownership and finally, what kind of return on investment you hope to see. The last is very important, and it’s often the most difficult to calculate. Some other common questions follow, but this is by no means exhaustive:
First, are your customers widely distributed geographically? One of the best reasons to invest in a VoIP solution is to cut long distance call costs. If your business conducts a lot of its business by phone and has customers in Paris, France and Paris Texas, VoIP might be a good fit.
Second, do you have a lot of fax machines? If you do, your business can always replace your fax machines with a fax server product, but many VoIP solutions include fax. A fax server can help make your fax environment more secure where privacy is an issue. With customers who just want a fax server, FAR recommends they consider NetVanta just for his capability alone. It’s considerably less expensive than many off the shelf fax server alternatives and often more secure than stand-alone fax machines.
Third, do you have a lot of branch offices, teleworkers or a mobile sales force? This is increasingly true for most small and medium organizations. More people are working from home or remotely. Many industries are simply given to having a lot of branch offices (e.g., insurance and real estate, among others). Unified communications features (e.g., being about to route your calls to any phone with find me/follow me) and unified messaging (e.g. getting your office voicemail as an email attachment on your Blackberry at a customer site) and wonderful for today’s nimble small and medium organizations.
Unified messaging is not necessarily a part of all unified communications offerings, but I would never recommend that a client buy a unified communications solution that didn’t have UM. I can also have my calls ring my cell-phone, my home, to a hotel phone (or all four) with call control. Anyone who calls me at my desk can be routed to my cell. It’s not a bunch of arcane numbers and symbols I have to punch into my phone. Everything’s right in front of me on my desktop in Windows-based software.
Fourth, do you want to streamline customer service by providing information and account services to customers by phone self-service? In the old days, it was called Interactive Voice Response (IVR), and it still is in some cases. Today, it’s increasingly called CEBP (communications-enabled business process), but these phrases are painfully polysyllabic ways to describe the organizational productivity behind: “Press 1 one now to check the status of your package”-style phone applications.
A good unified communications solution should help any business streamline customer service with self-service phone applications. Whether it’s checking the status of their package or order, transferring funds, registering for college classes, reporting their kids absent and more, phone-based self-service is increasingly popular. It helps organizations work more intelligently and collaboratively. NetVanta UC Server has a great point and click service environment that allows organizations or their service providers to build these kinds of applications quickly and cost-effectively.
Fifth, how critical is it to your IT team to be able to manage VoIP? FAR uses NetVanta because it provides a simple, Windows-based environment for us to do administration remotely for our clients (I really like NetVanta, but yes, there are lots of other solutions on the market).
It’s all managed through simple, Windows-based software. It integrates simply and effectively with Microsoft Exchange and our Blackberries. If I need to add a new employee, one of my managers just opens Active Directory and adds them as a user to the system and then plugs their phone into the network. The software auto-configures phones from snom, Polycom, Grandstream and a lot of other vendors.
Sometimes, very obscure features offer a lot of value. For example, I had no idea what a “hunt group” was before FAR installed NetVanta UC Server (it was Objectworld UC Server back then). A “hunt group” means that a call rings one extension, and then another extension, and then another until someone picks up. It’s a good way to ensure that calls are routed to the most appropriate person first, but then escalated appropriately if that person can’t take a call. Today, that feature is very important to FAR’s business process and our customer response.
Once you have a clear idea of your expectations and a checklist, you’re reading to start evaluating specific hosted vs. on-premise solutions.
Once they have a clear idea of what communications challenges they’re hoping to meet, businesses should do is to determine how they want to communicate with their customers in order to compete effectively, decide what their costs tolerances are, and then start looking for specific solutions that meet those needs. If this sounds too complicated already, don’t worry. IT managed services firms work with small and medium organizations to help them conduct these kinds of evaluations and make the best choices for their businesses.
If there’s one thing that’s true about comparing VoIP and unified communications offerings, it’s that comparisons are rarely apples to apples and the feature descriptions are rarely intuitive. Unless you can really trust your vendor, be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Ask a lot of questions anyhow – if you trust your vendor, I’m sure s/he’ll be happy to answer any questions you have. Next week, I’m going to start talking about price, cost and value in hosted vs. on-premise solutions. Be sure to check back!