Unified communications (UC) is reaching a tipping point as enterprise mobility – and the lower cost of deploying video – drive the next wave of business technology uptake.
While there is much to be said for linking back office, front office and call centre, the challenge for 2012 and beyond is to push voice, video, messaging, telepresence and collaboration out to the mobile workforce.
After a slight downturn, the New Zealand UC market is poised for compound annual growth of 9.3% to $212.2 million by 2017, driven by conferencing, collaboration, video and mobility.
Frost & Sullivan’s ANZ ICT research director Audrey William, says IT managers across the board are almost unanimously looking to UC for improved business processes and an ability to reduce costs. That presents a perfect opportunity for resellers to get ahead of the game, become more involved with their customers and lead them on a journey to get the best out of IP voice and UC.
William says it’s not a matter of telling companies they have to change their technology or the way they do things, it’s about getting them ready for what’s up ahead. "If resellers don’t embrace this significant shift they’ll lose out.”
Rather than selling product, channel partners need to understand their customer’s businesses and come up with a roadmap to deploy the various pieces of the UC jigsaw.
While reduced travel, increased efficiency and lower cost of ownership present a clear business case for UC, William says enterprise mobility is the big game changer.
She says the rapid migration to smartphones and tablets is redefining the future of business communication. Mobile employees want basic office applications including VoIP and video conferencing wherever they are.
"All these rich UC applications have taken communications to a very different level,” she says.
William says video – the fastest mover of the UC bundle – is creating a rich experience and a new way of collaborating and sharing information, particularly as the price of end points plummets.
And while voice over IP (VoIP) remains the predominant driver, video is highly specialised and channel partners need to skill up to integrate it into mobile devices.
"You need to know how to manage end-points for organisations deploying group conferencing systems for example.”
William says there’s tremendous opportunity for resellers in educating and integrating; talking about customer needs over the next 5-10 years, and ‘helping put all these building blocks together’.
No single vendor game
Gone are the days when resellers could work with a single vendor for end-to-end UC – they need to be open to multiple players and ensure they have the skills to deliver what the client wants.
"The customer has to decide who they want for video, voice and mobility and there’s a gamut of vendors to choose from,” says William.
However Brendan Maree, ANZ managing director of Interactive Intelligence, warns many resellers fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone.
"If you try to sell everything you are not focussing; you are not doing yourself or your customer any favours.”
While the opportunities in UC and VoIP are numerous, Maree suggests resellers should look for partners with a simple architecture and solutions that provide the least pain for customers.
"The fact is you can’t buy UC from a single vendor, we have a lot of the components but we don’t do collaboration for example, we leave that to Cisco, Microsoft and IBM.”
Avoiding the notwork
Although most resellers are aware they need to upskill and get a better grasp of how customers do business, Maree says they shouldn’t underestimate what that involves.
"A lot of people in industry will talk about consultative selling but half of them don’t know what that means. You have to understand the business as a whole and provide tangible benefits not just the product.
Upfront before any product is sold, resellers should have the network skills and tools to assess whether a network is able to cope with VoIP and UC.
"While they might insist they have a VoIP ready network using Layer 3 switches, resellers should insist on testing the traffic handling capabilities otherwise when things don’t work they could be held responsible.”
Another part of the reseller role is to ensure customers don’t get locked in to a single provider or incompatible technology — unless they want to.
While some businesses baulk at the cost of upgrading from legacy systems, being able to explain ways to operate more nimbly, and the associated productivity gains, can make the case more compelling.
"If you have PBX, conferencing and contact centre applications from different vendors and unified messaging from someone else, it has to be integrated.”
Maree says point solutions with applications from six or more vendors: PABX, IVR, mobility and UC all operating on separate boxes, creates complexity and is a nightmare to administer.
The consultative process discovers what is installed, what a client is trying to achieve, and where their ‘pain point’ is.
Generally he says clients are constrained by prohibitive upgrade costs and version incompatibility. "Even when they do custom integration to ERP and CRM, the system is still managed by the vendor or integrator and they have to pay for integration again.”
Moving toward the whole VoIP, UC, all-in-one platform’ means businesses begin to drive their own processes ‘rather than waiting for integrators to turn another project around’.
A complex pie
Cisco and Microsoft still own the lion’s share of the market globally and locally, although Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya and IBM with Sametime, feature strongly and Zeacom also has an established presence in New Zealand.
In the middle are a raft of resellers, integrators, middleware and application developers, telcos, outsourcing firms, storage and back-up specialists, networking providers and consulting firms all looking for a slice of the pie.
While interoperability still poses problems, particularly in the video space, the market is generally becoming more open to vendor collaboration.
Polycom, for example, is co-operating with others in the videoconferencing market and through its strong alliance with Microsoft for its Lyncs product has achieved good success in New Zealand.
Among the challenges facing IT managers is the shift to the cloud and which applications are best suited to this delivery model.
That’s presenting some thorny issues for the major telcos and the channel to ensure quality of service (QoS).
In fact payroll, billing and even some of the collaboration and social media applications will move to the cloud more quickly than UC because of the fear about response times for voice and video.
Frost & Sullivan’s William says UC is likely to require a hybrid model for some time because of concerns around the performance of mission critical applications like voice and video.
"Companies expect instant dial tone when they pick up the phone and want to see someone’s face immediately during video conferencing. Even waiting two minutes is not acceptable – no-one can tolerate latency or jitter.”
She says resellers can help build customer confidence around real time applications by moving into the hybrid cloud versus on-premise world with guaranteed back-up and redundancy.
William says managed services present a raft of opportunities for the channel, particularly at the high end where sharing video sessions between different parts of the business can be extremely complex.
Another critical area where the channel can claim ground is in security where there are openings for advisory services, including helping to develop access policies and mobile device management.
"With the right skills the channel can look after infrastructure and services and transport enterprise mobility and UC onto mobile devices.”
UC in its various forms has been brewing for several years but is clearly finding its pace as businesses realise it is a smarter way to do more with less. It also facilitates improved responsiveness, customer service and better use of in-house skills.
For example skills-based routing can enable call centre operators handling phone, email or web inquiries to quickly determine the best person available to handle product or technical inquiries.
That opens the way for decision making tools such as process automation and analytics to create notifications and alerts without any agent involvement.
These new tools, including real-time analytics, can monitor voice calls, emails, texts, blogs and social media for key words and flag conversations that need immediate attention.
Once the infrastructure is up to speed and internal links are in place between the back office, front office and call centre, mobility applications can become far more effective.
At the end of the day business managers don’t want to be distracted by detail, they just want to know what works and who they can trust to take the risk and complexity out unifying their communications.
The reseller channel which understands the pieces to the puzzle and how the customer business operates is perfectly positioned to be that partner.