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Selling the unified communications convergence story

Telecom service providers are well positioned to sell unified communications and its various components to a variety of business customers, but providers need to stress the value of their networks, capabilities and partners to make the sale.

Many enterprises are still working on their migration to VoIP and IP Telephony. Now telephony, data and software vendors are pushing  unified messaging (UM) and unified communications (UC), and IT departments are looking forward to  Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). To understand where the service provider can participate in the convergence arena, let's review the definitions to make sure service providers and enterprises are on the same page:

  • Yet all of these services have one thing in common -- they depend on and require accessible, reliable and secure communications networks.

    Gary Audin
    President, Delphi Inc.

  • VoIP: Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) was the original term, but enterprises use the term IP Telephony. VoIP is more often used to describe telephone service over a provider's IP network.
  • IP Telephony: A phone system based on standard IP transport over Ethernet that usually includes a server-based system for call control and voice applications (voicemail, etc.) and TDM gateways for PSTN and traditional PBX integration.
  • Convergence: The aggregation of voice, video and data onto a single IP-based network supporting advanced networking features.
  • Unified Messaging: A messaging system that includes single storage for voice, video, e-mail and fax messages. (Some vendors include instant messaging).
  • Unified Communications: A communications system that includes three or more of the following elements: voice, unified messaging, video, mobility, web/data collaboration, conferencing and  presence.
  • Presence: A system for collecting and managing an individual's status, ability to communicate, and their preferences for the mode of communication.
  • Service Oriented Architecture: SOA is software architecture, not a product, that includes the use of loosely coupled software services to support the requirements of business processes. Information and application resources on a network in an SOA environment are made available as independent services.

Now that we've defined our terms, it's important to note that each vendor has a different view of UM and UC. Some offer a wide range of capabilities; others only offer UM. Some only provide middleware for integrating multiple products together. Yet all of these services have one thing in common -- they depend on and require accessible, reliable and secure communications networks.

A real-world UC definition

Unified Communications is really the convergence of six communications product areas. Some have existed for years, while others are recent entries. UC is really part of the evolution of IT and telecom into one common set of features and functions, not a brand new, emerging, concept. Therefore, UC includes:

  • The evolution of the legacy PBX into the IP Telephony system
  • The development of the softphone as part of IP-based PBX offerings
  • Integrating voicemail and e-mail
  • The change in e-mail functions to a desktop management tool
  • Multiple forms of conferencing, including web, voice and video
  • Instant messaging services and capabilities.

How to sell convergence to the enterprise

When selling the convergence and unified communications story to a customer, that customer will obviously consider the technical capabilities of the provider. There are several additional points, however, that the provider can present to sell the case for using its network and services. Beyond your technical capabilities, here's a list of must-mentions:

  • Financial strength. Demonstrate the financial strength of the provider so stability doesn't become an issue, since the move to convergence and UC will be strategic for the customer. Some competitors will be start ups and will be working on investment capital, not profit. Customer will not want to change providers once the commitment has been made, so they need numbers and assurances.
  • Network capacity. Discuss how your backbone and local access bandwidth capacity can support increased traffic especially for voice, data, web and video conferencing.
  • Delivery in the North American market. Be sure to address your network's geographic reach in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Delivery outside North America. If the enterprise needs UC services in locations outside North America, address how you can support all of the enterprise's locations in other countries.
  • Is the solution from a combination of vendors? Be clear about whether your UC solution made up of more than one vendor's products. If it is "best of breed," address how the service provider acts as the prime solution vendor.
  • Where does UC fit in your overall service strategies? Talk to customers about whether UC is the primary product, an addition to an IP Telephony solution, or whether it is a small part of the provider's portfolio.
  •  Service provider reorganizations and mergers Reorganizations and mergers can mean some discontinuity in service development and support, as well as delaying service enhancements. If you have one or the other going on, discuss how the company is dealing with it so potential customers are assured you have a plan.
  • Is the solution possible due to recent acquisitions? Be ready to demonstrate that recently acquired UC components will interoperate well.
  • Is the product delivery direct or indirect? Potential customers will need to know if your UC services will be provided by a third party rather than directly from you. This could be perceived as a weakness if you can't address why this is a good thing rather than a bad one. The provider that doesn't use third parties can use that as a selling advantage.
  • Is a VAR/system integrator necessary to integrate the UC services? If the answer is yes, the enterprise will also need to evaluate the VAR/integrator since successful deployment will depend on that company's deployment capabilities. Be prepared to bring the VAR in to talk to the customer.
  • Is the solution mostly unified messaging? The variations in the UC definitions seem to all include Unified Messaging (UM) as the minimal set of features. Be careful that UM is not the only real function supported if you're selling your solution as UC. At a minimum, presence should be offers in addition to UM.
  • Is the solution network or applications centric? Since most vendors are applications centric, be clear about whether your UC solutions allow only one vendor's equipment or platform to be used, such as a Cisco, Avaya or Nortel IP telephony platforms.
  • Is your focus on all UC elements? The focus of your UC capabilities should be on the entire enterprise, not just IT or telecom. Be clear in your descriptions and/or limitations.
  • Does you have an established record with the UC elements? Experience counts for a lot in terms of confidence in the service. New services will almost always have some initial deployment problems, but explain your track record with potential customers in terms of addressing hiccoughs.
  • Do you have IT as well as telecom and contact center experience? In the customer's view, the broader your experience, the more likely you will be to deliver the range of UC functions successfully.
  • Are your services brand new? Think of all the patches and fixes that occur in the early life of a software product. The newer the product, the less stability the product generally delivers. Demonstrate how you deal with the software change issues.
  • Can your UC services scale to large installations? Function without scalability is not attractive may be useless. Scalability doesn't relate to a single location. Be sure to address how your services can be scaled and distributed over multiple locations.

Some of these considerations may not be important to every enterprise. Enterprises will make their own value judgments on each point, so presenting your solutions thoroughly will give you the best chance of addressing unique customer needs.

Gary Audin, president of Delphi, Inc., has more than 40 years of computer, communications and security experience. He has planned, designed, specified, implemented and operated data, LAN and telephone networks.

This was last published in January 2008

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