This post is the second aspect of the broader topic regarding what questions you should be asking of UC vendors. In the spirit of the “top 10” theme I’ve been writing about lately, I broke this topic into two focus areas – five questions to ask about the vendor, and five to ask about their offerings. I addressed the former in my last post, and now it’s time to look at the latter. Here are the top five questions you should be asking UC vendors about their offerings, and rounds out my top 10 list for this topic.
6. What is the focus of your UC offering?
Presuming you now have a comfort level about vendors based on the earlier questions, this is the starting point for questions about their offerings. When asking about their focus, we’re really talking about the value proposition, and at a high level, everyone knows this is about productivity.
All vendors have to provide that, and what you’re looking for is how well they articulate the value proposition. If all you hear are generic platitudes about great accessibility, faster response times, more productive meetings, etc., you should be wary about this being a one-size-fits-all offering.
This will be fine for a basic deployment or if you really want to play it safe. Of course, this all flows from what your focus is for UC. If you don’t have a clearly-defined objective for UC, then a generic offering will do the job. However, if you have very specific outcomes in mind, you have to hear messaging that tells you the vendor’s focus is aligned with your needs.
7. What deployment models are you favoring?
This is another question that may seem obvious, but needs to be explored. As per above, the expectations will depend on your knowledge and/or preferences of deployment models. If all you know is premise-based systems, then cloud-based UC may seem exotic. When vendors start talking about the cloud and you’re not ready for it, the pitch could sound too good to be true – at which point you have to be careful. If you don’t know what questions to ask, there’s a risk in relying too heavily on what the vendor or their channel partner are saying.
Hopefully you know there are three basic deployment models for UC – premise-based, cloud and hybrid. Each has a valid use case, and to make the right choice, you need to know how each would impact your business. Not only do you need to know the impact on your network, but also what to expect from vendors. This is why asking the right questions of vendors is so important. You need to know why they favor a particular model, why it’s good for them and for you, as well as how long they plan to stick with it. You don’t want to buy premise-based UC from a vendor who plans to go all-cloud in two years.
8. How are you developing a partner ecosystem for applications?
One of the most fundamental realities of UC is that no single vendor has all the pieces. Aside from the fact that UC can be a very broad concept, even a pretty basic solution will require partners. Even the Tier 1 UC players have a partner ecosystem, and vendors are increasingly being judged by the strength of this ecosystem. New applications are coming all the time, and when it comes to vertical market requirements, this is how UC vendors can really differentiate.
This holds true for most lines of business in technology, but is especially true with UC. Initially, UC offerings were telephony-centric, but they are quickly becoming software and cloud-based. Along with that, the value proposition is becoming less about the hardware elements attached to your network, and more about the applications that run over your network and on to the endpoints of your employees. This is where the true innovation lies, and as core connectivity blends in with the plumbing, you need to know what types of company potential UC providers are keeping with applications developers.
9. How can you help me with performance metrics to gauge my ROI?
The relevance of this question depends on how important it is to have hard ROI metrics to support a buying decision for UC. Since UC has no precedent, true ROI-style metrics are hard to come by. In most cases, UC will be a step up from an IP PBX, but you can’t apply telephony metrics to UC. Productivity gains will be the best yardstick for UC, but most businesses don’t have the expertise to do this, and this is where vendors have a great opportunity to add value.
Along those lines, a second consideration is that UC presents an opportunity to rethink your overall IT ROI. In other words, aside from the performance metrics of UC itself, you can also be looking at your network infrastructure. Just as UC shifts the investment from Capex to Opex, pushing more applications to the cloud allows you to think that way about the network as well. If so, this could heavily influence the kind of UC vendor you end up doing business with.
10. What UC successes have you had with customers similar to me?
Proof-of-concept is the best selling point of them all, and not much needs to be said here. However, it’s particularly relevant with UC given its short track record and sometimes-fuzzy value proposition. You don’t want to be their first customer unless you see something really special in the offering and/or you feel compelled to deploy right now to stay ahead of the competition.
Beyond that, however, you also need to ask more focused questions to reduce the perceived risks for your business. For starters, you should ask about results with companies with a comparable size and structure to yours. Generally speaking, UC has more value the more decentralized the business is. Probing further, you need evidence of their expertise deploying UC in your industry. Vertical market success will go a long way to assure you that they truly understand your needs.