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Telephony purchase ABCs for SMBs1

Learn how small and mid-sized businesses can successfully evaluate and select telephony systems.

Jim Puchbauer

If you are considering purchasing a new business telephone system, chances are your research journey has taken you to articles and papers about VoIP. VoIP basically involves sending voice data and phone calls via the Internet, instead of using the standard public switched telephone network. While the most obvious business benefit would seem to be long distance toll charge savings, many SMBs are turning to VoIP for a plethora of other features including automated attendants, superior voice mail, comprehensive call detail reporting, and unified messaging -- plus the ability to connect multiple sites via toll-free four-digit extensions.

Current research indicates that 44% of the world's corporate telephone lines will be IP-based by 2008. AMI Partners reports that 130,000 U.S. SMBs have adopted VoIP and another 110,000 SMBs plan to do so within the next year.

But how do you know if and when VoIP is right for your business? What steps lead up to the product demonstration phase?

In many cases, the product demonstration is pushed far too early in the purchasing cycle, many times by sales reps themselves. Many buyers misuse the demonstration process, thinking it will give them insight into current market and product capabilities. While this is somewhat true, what actually happens is that businesses miss the best opportunity to test the fit of a solution for their company.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to evaluating a new telephone system and seeing a product demonstration. It will help you answer that all-important question: "Is VoIP a fit for my business?"


  • Write your own success story
    The first step is to really understand what you are trying to accomplish and what the necessary returns are. Here's an exercise to try: Project forward as if the purchase were complete and then metaphorically look back. Here's an example: Customers have complained to your company that they often have to start from scratch each time they call ("who are you…what is your account number….oh, you need to talk to Mary" "Hello, this is Mary…. who are you…what is your account number...").

    Your success story should include the following: Customers are routed to the right person on the first try and their customer records are automatically delivered to the service representative's PC when they call. Basically, the telephone system serves to help improve your customer relationships by integrating with systems and technology you already have in place (customer databases). The point is that to be able to write your success story, you must first identify the problems the phone system should solve and the goals it should meet.


  • Align technology purchases with strategic business objectives
    Does your company "earn trust the old fashioned way" or "treat customers like family"? Your strategic business decisions and technology purchases should support doing business with these company ideals.


  • Evaluate technology from four perspectives by solving the underlying business issues from four different vantage points:
    • Your customer's perspective (Who is exposed to it)
    • Your employee's perspective (Who will be using it)
    • Your management's perspective (Who manages the process)
    • Your support team's perspective (Who supports the technology)

    The illustration below provides a graphical topology view of the different aspects of your business, from the central office to telecommuters and branch locations. Visualize your business and the different departments and individuals, making sure the solution meets the needs of all your users and business centers. First solve the business process, customer relationship and system management needs, and then implement that solution on the topology that makes sense for your business.


  • Anticipate business needs with a forward-thinking approach
    One of the best ways to future-proof your strategic assets -- in this example your telephone system -- is to assess a few basic likelihoods:
    • Potential growth: How will you handle growth of an individual system or adding additional sites or locations?
    • Potential remote employees: How could you handle business expansion or new business ventures with employees in new markets?
    • Potential new business applications: How could your system integrate with customer relationship management systems or customer databases?
    • Potential emerging technologies: What are the new emerging technologies and how has the vendor's equipment handled keeping up with the new technology in the past? The easier your system is to manage moves, adds and changes, the better you will be able to handle the inevitable change. And if you can do it yourself, it costs you nothing.
    • Interoperability and support for specific standards/regulations: Take, for example, VoIP and 911 services. A 911 call could originate in New York, while the system supporting the IP extension is located in San Francisco, meaning dispatchers could send emergency personnel to the wrong state. Will your potential vendor ensure the right 911 location information is displayed? How will the vendor relay the correct caller ID information to local emergency services?


  • During the demo process, don't let vendors sell you what their product does
    Instead, prepare them to sell you what you need! This involves agreeing on a process that every vendor must follow, complete with framework and vendor expectations. You must require every vendor to do a business analysis. This necessitates giving vendors access to all key user groups -- minimally, the four mentioned in tip number three. This is where you uncover issues from perspectives beyond that of the executive management team (and the sales rep).


  • Ask for an official conclusion and agree on the findings
    Require your vendor to submit a needs analysis. It will invariably go something like this: "Upon evaluating your business environment, we found that we can solve your Xs and give you Y." You must agree that their conclusions are accurate and relevant and that they address and solve your most critical telecom challenges.


  • The vendor should demo only the results of the analysis that you have agreed are relevant to your business
    Your message to the vendor should be, "Show me how you can help me." The goal is to avoid multiple vendors coming in and "machine gunning" you with every feature they have. These feature firefights are unproductive and confusing. After a few demonstrations, you won't remember one system from another and you have lost sight of the original purpose of the process.

If you and your vendors have followed this basic process, the outcome should yield solutions targeted toward your core business issues. If you accept proposals only from vendors that have completed the aforementioned steps, the proposal can pass the "meaningful and relevant" test and the vendor has had a full opportunity to uncover -- and showcase -- unique areas where they can impact your business.

About the author:
James A. Puchbauer is AltiGen Communications' Director of Marketing and has over 19 years experience in the computer, telecom and converged communications marketplace. James has specialized in channel development and in developing complementary sales and marketing organizations. Other past experience includes senior sales or marketing positions with NCR Corporation, McDonnell Douglas, WorldCom Communications and SoloPoint, Inc. He has been with AltiGen since 1998 and is responsible for the strategic targeting and product positioning of the IP-PBX and contact center solutions.

This was last published in September 2004

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