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Unified Communications Magazine May 2008
Volume 1 / Number 6
Unified Communications Magazine
Martin Suter

Unified Communications: What Do SMBs Really Want?

A number of vendors have recently announced new unified communications offerings specifically aimed at the small- to mediumsized market. Many of these are traditional telephony vendors “reinvented” as UC software companies. They’ve added a sentence or two about how much their products cost per day, per user, mostly to provide the impression of being low-cost to attract SMB customers. But these companies don’t really understand the SMB and what it expects in terms of UC. So, what do SMBs want?

By David Levy, Now UC It

First, they want predictable capital and operational costs. Unlike enterprises, SMBs need to know what a solution costs to determine whether or not it fits their budget. Expensive and variable professional services from the vendor in order to cope with growth and change are simply not affordable for most SMBs. As a corollary, they also want cost transparency. Telephony vendors, up until very recently, have tended to be very secretive with their prices and cagey about overall solution costs. SMBs need to know what an end-to-end solution is going to cost them. They also want to be able to pick and choose commodity hardware and software.

Second, they want solutions that are within their available skill set to use, manage, and administer. What this typically means is the deployment of UC as software, since most SMBs have at least one or two IT professionals, or they outsource their IT requirements to a knowledgeable partner. When the UC solution is Microsoft Windowsbased, that makes it even easier for an SMB to manage the solution with the resources it has. This puts traditional telephony vendors at a particular disadvantage, since these companies, no matter how they restyle themselves as software vendors, don’t have the long history of responding to the needs of individual users. They understand devices and hardware, but not desktop-level productivity. Third, they want low risk solutions without costly trials. Most SMBs, depending on their exact size, don’t have time or resources for extensive trials. They don’t necessarily have large labs that they run in tandem with a production data center. They need reliable solutions that represent the least amount of disruption to their business processes from which they can start benefiting as soon as possible.

Fourth, they want flexibility. They way want to buy some Polycom phones, some Grandstream phones and some Snom phones. But with most telephony vendors, you have to buy their phones and their PBXs, or, only slightly better, you have one or two choices of phones. If I buy a desktop computer from Dell and a printer from HP, it’s not a problem. It should be the same way with unified communications: the phones, gateways and PBXs should be as interoperable as any other computer peripheral.

Most of all, SMBs deploy solutions that solve specific, known business problems. An SMB may buy a UC product for a number of reasons. Most analysts now agree that an SMB will probably buy a UC solution for a very specific reason, and then discover more value the more they use the system. One business may buy a UC solution with a fax server to centralize fax requirements and eliminate their 40-odd fax lines (saving thousand every month in operational expenses). Another business may buy a UC solution that notifies employees of new messages when they’re out of the office to support better mobility.

So, what does a reasonable UC solution for the SMB look like? First, it should solve a number of key business problems: notification, mobility, unified messaging, fax, low-cost voice. Second, it should also provide simple administration. Ideally, it should work with an existing directory protocol (like Microsoft Active Directory, for example) to make life as simple as possible for IT administrators. Third, it should work with an existing PBX deployment or provide VoIP. Most vendors have focused on providing UC either to an existing PBX or as part of a VoIP solution. Most SMBs will probably want to mix and match.

Finally, where possible, the solution should make it simple to link business communications, whether it’s voice, fax, or email, with business processes and corporate data (usually referred to as communications-enabled business process). A number of analysts have wondered aloud whether or not CEBP is worthwhile for SMBs, but many SMBs are already using CEBP and just don’t know it. Real-estate agents can use unified messaging and fax forwarding to streamline the movement of offers. Manufacturing and logistics firms can use UC to streamline their supply processes. Schools can use phone-based homework hotlines and emergency notification.

The practical applications and benefits of a unified communications system for the SMB are practically unlimited. It’s up to vendors to make it attractive.

David Levy is President and CEO of Objectworld Communications.

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