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Analysis

Unified communications - vendor pipe dreams or reseller reality?
Rob Bamforth By: Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst, Quocirca
Published: 12th February 2010
Copyright Quocirca © 2010
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Terms like ‘unified communications’ (UC) look great on the marketing slides of product vendors, but what do they really mean to those who are, or ‘may be if it can be shown to be worthwhile’, prospective customers? Frankly, not a lot.

The soft and intangible vendor promises that accompany UC don’t always translate into the real benefits that most customers are actually looking for. After all, in many job roles ‘productivity’ is down to employee attitude and time management rather than the clever use of the latest communications tools. Such tools are not always what they seem once the shiny marketing veneer has been rubbed off. Whilst it is true that many communications technologies are converging through the sometimes grudging acceptance of common underlying standards, most vendors are still trying to add that extra bit of differentiation or ‘value add’ that makes their products unique, or, as some might term it, ‘proprietary’ and in some cases ‘incompatible’.

Is this a problem? Well, not for customers who believe a particular vendor’s products will fill all their current and near term needs, or that communications technology will not advance too quickly, or that they will not get overtaken by other changes to the business. That may be the case for a select few, but it’s pretty likely that whatever is implemented will have to fit in with other products, be upgraded or replaced from time to time; to do this there must be a fair amount of flexibility.

So, the first question that should be asked by potential customers of the amalgam of products that will be required to deliver unified communications is ‘what will it look like for us?’.

This is often a tricky question when tabled directly at a specific product vendor, as it is always difficult to demonstrate the fit of its products with others. For example some vendors focus on the desktop, others on IP phones and others in hosted services. It doesn’t matter whether these are all competitive or complementary, but a suitably equipped reseller or integration partner ought to be able to showcase multiple vendors’ products and offer an integrated UC solution.

This is all very well—if all that the customer needed to do was look at the technology—but to really understand the impact, they need to feel it and see it applied to the needs of their specific, and probably complex, environment.

This demands more from the channel partner than the ability to showcase, sell and support various vendors’ technology. They have to demonstrate the ability to integrate them, not only with a customer’s legacy communications tools, but also with that customer’s existing processes, people and working practices. In an ideal world part of the sales process would be to run a pilot where the customer makes a significant commitment with its own systems and people. But this is tough on resources and times are hard so more upfront justification is necessary.

Budding unified communications specialists could take a leaf out of the book of systems integrator and managed services company, Logicalis, which has taken a more direct approach. Logicalis has built a proof of concept staging environment that brings together technology from the major unified communications vendors and allows them to be connected in a variety of ways. The setup is distributed, making use of several locations and has the capacity for building a simplified model of a prospective client’s current communications and then demonstrate how different technologies could be applied to support UC. Diversity of product and technical knowledge helps, but by far the most important success factor will be how well Logicalis understands and models the communications processes of its customers—i.e. its “value add”.

Positive approaches have been adopted by others. Managed communications company Azzurri has recognised that customers look for PBXs and telephony from established telephony vendors and IT products from traditional IT vendors to get a best of breed fit, but Azzurri starts by asking ‘what type of users do you have?’ not ‘how many?’. Systems integrator 2e2 thinks beyond UC in isolation and looks at how communication enables and optimises business processes—2e2 would be disappointed if its customers saw UC as simply a phone system replacement.

Communication, ultimately, is between people, not devices. Joining up the gaps between media and modes of communication in the way that unified communications proponents promote is therefore only worthwhile if it makes a positive change to employee behaviour, streamlining processes, boosting productivity and reducing costs. But without a demonstration of specific impact, these are vague marketing statements.

Any company looking to invest in unified communications should seek out those channel partners—value added resellers, integrators or service providers—who can help with the details of integration—not between technologies, but between people.

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