Top 10 Questions to Ask UC Vendors, Part 2

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.

Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Questions to Ask UC Vendors

This post picks up from a top 10 item from last week, namely how to evaluate UC vendors and their offerings. At the end of the day, it’s all about the vendor you choose and how well they live up to their end of the bargain. As such, this needs further consideration, and what follows is Part 1 of this top 10 analysis. Here I will focus on what you need to ask about the vendor, and my next post follows with what you need to ask about their UC offerings.

1.  Why are you offering UC?

This may seem unnecessary, but not all vendors are in this business for the same reasons. Telephony vendors offer UC to have the next generation solution once their core IP PBX base migrates in this direction. Networking and software-based vendors can build on their strengths with a different path to UC, but one that is quite viable. Hosted and Web-based operators can offer light versions of UC that barely require any on-premise equipment, and can meet the needs of budget-conscious SMBs.

Other types of players exist, and each will have a distinct rationale for UC. Before asking these vendors “why”, you should do the same for yourself. Aside from trying to understand at face value why vendors are offering UC, you really need to see how well-aligned their motivation is with yours. If your ambitions are fairly modest and conservative, you may want to partner with a vendor who is looking to reinvent themselves by entering a new line of business.

On another level, you also need to read between the lines to see if vendors are offering UC purely as a defensive measure to protect their installed base – or an offensive strategy to expand their customer base and enter new markets.  This will help determine how much leverage you have when it comes to picking the right UC partner.

2.  What is your vision for UC?

The above question sets the stage for this, and if they dovetail nicely, then the vendor is probably in the UC space for the right reasons. When asking about their vision, you should listen carefully for indications as to how well they’ve thought UC through. If it’s all about protecting their base, they probably won’t be very adventurous. This should also provide clues as to whether their vision is telecom-centric or Web-centric. The former is still tied to a legacy mindset, and if you want to move further along the innovation curve, this won’t be the right vision.

This line of questioning should also tell you if they are a technology follower or leader. Many UC offerings have a me-too feel, covering the same generic ground as everyone else. If that’s all you want, it probably doesn’t much matter which vendor you choose. However, if UC is strategic for you and a potential source of competitive advantage, you want a vision that comes from a leader, not a follower.

3.  How core is UC to your business?

The above two questions will give you a sense of this, but you also need to ask more specifically, even if you think you already know. What you really want to see is how well they can articulate these things and if it sounds authentic. Telecom vendors, for example, will be in the UC game for the long run. They may be entering the space with a fairly basic solution, but over time, will likely upgrade it to meet evolving needs. If they can express that to you in plain language, chances are UC is pretty core for them. However, if you get fuzzy answers, UC may not be as core to them as you’ve been led to think.

For vendors not so native to UC, the issue of being core is harder to gauge. Initially, it won’t likely be core, but that focus could change depending on their success. Technology keeps on changing, and UC’s value proposition has yet to be fully defined. This also means that its full potential is yet to be realized, and if that promise proves elusive, these particular vendors may choose to exit and revert focus to their true core business. Conversely, if they can unlock new value by tying UC to their other lines of business – such as data analytics – UC could very well become core to them.

4.  How are you going support me and help me be successful with UC?

This will tell you a lot about the character of a vendor, as it reflects how confident they are in this new solution. A vendor with a solid UC track record will know exactly how to answer these questions, and can be forthright in telling you there will be integration and interoperability challenges. However, they know how to resolve them and prevent this from being a deal breaker.

Providing the right support to ensure success requires many posts to address, and the main thing here is to ask the question and press the vendor for as much detail as possible. For both parties, an IP PBX is likely the purchase that preceded UC, and being a hardware-based standalone solution, these questions weren’t very applicable. Success with UC depends heavily on post-deployment support, and the more you show that you understand this, the better the answers you’re going to get.

5.  What is your go-to-market strategy?

In most cases, you’ll be dealing with a channel partner, but some vendors also sell directly. On a basic level, then, you need to understand how they go to market, not just for selling UC but also supporting it. This is important, as UC vendors are struggling to find the right types of channel partners. Traditionally, channels have had a solid business selling hardware-based phone systems. UC is a very different business opportunity, and not all vendors can or want to move in this direction. As such, if you’ll be dealing with a channel partner, you’ve got to be sure they are right for the job.

There’s more to consider in a vendor’s overall go-to-market strategy, but their channel plans will be a good starting point, and should tell you a lot about how ready they are to offer UC. On that note, I’ve now covered five vendor-focused questions, and I’ll address the second set in my next post, with the focus shifting to their UC offerings.


Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Questions about UC, Part 2

I started this topic in a recent post, where 5 of the top 10 questions were addressed. Since then, I got diverted to other topics, but am now coming back to this one and will present 5 more questions to round out the list.

As noted earlier, this “top 10” series is intended to give you quick reads that summarize a lot of ongoing industry research. Every item on these lists can be – and has been written about extensively, but it’s summer, and you probably have better things to do.

My list of questions to ask about UC isn’t comprehensive, but that’s not the point. I cover a lot of ground in the UC space, and these 10 will give you plenty of food for thought to more tightly frame the discussions you need to be having before making any substantive decisions. So, let’s continue where the initial post left off.

6.  How well do I really understand UC?

This may seem like a trick question, but it definitely isn’t.  Every vendor has their own take on UC, and the concept is still pretty new for IT decision makers. Most businesses don’t know enough about UC to be asking for it, so they generally have to rely on what vendors tell them, and that could be colored by their needs at that particular point in time.  They have their own motives for selling UC, and if you’re not paying attention that could well shape the vision they have in mind for you.

Vendors may have created UC, but it’s not a standardized offering, and it’s important to understand that you have a key role to play in shaping the offering for your needs. On the plus side, UC is very flexible, making it adaptable to any business scenario or network environment. However, this also means that UC can be an abstract concept, and it’s incumbent on you to get beyond this, otherwise UC may end up serving the vendor’s needs ahead of yours.

7.  How do I evaluate UC vendors and their offerings?

This question is closely tied to the above, as your understanding of UC needs to include what to expect from vendors. Unlike an IP PBX, this is a hands-on deployment, whereby buyers and sellers will need to work closely together, especially during the deployment phase. UC can be complex to deploy, especially in a multi-vendor environment, and if the vendor is new to your network.

In that regard, your evaluation of them needs to include how well they manage the deployment process. Since this will likely be your first go-round with UC, you have to rely heavily on their experience, not just for the underlying technology, but in working with what you have and minimizing disruption. UC has many more touch points than your phone system, so you need to evaluate how well they manage complexity in addition to their ability to deliver on overall performance.

8.  Is there a right time to be doing this?

This is an inward-looking question, and is likely tied to the fundamental question of “why”. As noted earlier, UC does not address a direct problem, and the “right time” will not likely be triggered by a specific event. Again, when you migrated from TDM to VoIP, there likely was a right time that initiated a clear path of events in order to keep phone service up and running.

With UC, the right time has more to do with strategy and a sense of vision. Since UC will never be a finished product, it doesn’t matter when you deploy, especially since you’ll likely just start with a limited set of integrated applications. In this context, the question of right time has more to do with broader issues driving your business, such as becoming more competitive, accelerating growth by boosting productivity, or enabling remote collaboration as operations become decentralized, etc.

9.  How will I know if UC is paying off?

Now, look ahead past the “right time” and this will be toughest question of them all. I raised the ROI metric in the first post, and by now you should know this isn’t the right or best way to do this. Since UC is not a hard asset, TCO is a better metric, especially if hosted. Again, though, this is a cost-based approach, and while that will appease your CFO, there are other ways to gauge the payoff.

This means thinking about UC differently, since it’s primarily consumed as a service, and delivers benefits that are not easy to measure. The true payoff is aligned with the vision-based examples cited above, and this can be summed up by productivity. You don’t buy a phone system to boost productivity, but that very much is the promise of UC. Most companies don’t know how to measure this, but metrics and methodologies do exist, and perhaps UC will be the catalyst to embrace them. Measuring productivity is a topic unto itself, but for now, the important thing is to frame the UC payoff this way, rather than what you’ve been doing all along with telephony.

10.  What do I have to lose?

To close out this analysis, it’s fair to pose this question. Since UC isn’t addressing a specific problem, there shouldn’t be any pressure to make a fast decision or a firm commitment to buy. You may need to educate yourself a fair bit, and whatever the outcome, this will be time well spent. UC may just be getting on your radar, and if you’re not ready now, you probably will be sooner than later.

As such, you have a lot to gain even it’s just getting up to speed. That way, you’ll be ready if management starts asking you about UC. They’ll likely be hearing about it from different sources and may have very different expectations, and you need to be prepared for that.

On a more practical level, you’re probably already using most of the applications that fall under the UC umbrella. This should mitigate a lot of deployment risk, since employees will be familiar with most of the core tools. The real payoff comes from getting them to use these applications in a new environment, and once there, UC can deliver new value. If that doesn’t happen, you can scale down or even back away from UC fairly easily, so there really is very little to lose.

Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Clues you Might not need Unified Communications

Earlier in this “top 10” series, I outlined 10 clues that you might need Unified Communications. After all, UC is hard to define, and sometimes you have to look carefully for the positive signs. In the spirit of fairness, I’m going to flip the script now, and focus on clues that lead to the opposite conclusion.

Now, I’m playing UC the other way – since it is hard to define, there are plenty of indicators that this might not be worth the trouble. Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely a fan of UC – but it’s not for everyone, at least right now, so you need to see both sides of the coin.

1.  Business is good or even booming

The worst of the 2011 recession is behind us, and the U.S. economy is recovering. Some sectors are booming and profitability has returned. Other sectors, however, are being seriously disrupted by technology, and unless they catch up to things like UC, will struggle to remain viable. However, if your business is on the right side of the growth curve, and current technology is doing the job, you’ll be hard-pressed to see a reason to inject something new into a well-oiled machine. Maybe later, but not right now.

2.  No idea what UC is

Ignorance can be bliss, and building on the above scenario, if things are going well, why would you pursue something you’ve never heard of? UC may be first nature for vendors, but many businesses – especially SMBs – are still taking baby steps with VoIP. Aside from being difficult to define, UC is still new, and if businesses have managed without it so far, they’re not really missing anything. Of course, the converse is what makes UC so exciting, but getting to that point of discovery is another story and merits a separate series of posts.

3.  Vendors can’t explain it

This is related to the above challenge, but falls squarely on the vendor’s shoulders. Telecom vendors have no problem explaining the virtues of an IP PBX; it’s a self-contained point solution that has barely evolved in decades. UC is much more abstract, even for vendors, and this is a big reason why market adoption has been middling. Even if you’re open to hearing about UC, vendors struggle to get the messaging right, and if that raises more questions than answers, you may well conclude that if it’s this complicated, you don’t need it.

4.  No clear ROI or economic benefit

Many businesses still have a legacy mindset, and will view UC the same way. For them, phone systems are assets that have practical utility, and are purchased based on having a clear ROI. UC has a different value proposition and does not conform to that business model. Being a service, UC is better viewed as a TCO decision, but that can be a difficult shift for people to make. For businesses that insist on seeing a tangible economic benefit as the first consideration, UC’s business case will be difficult to establish.

5.  Status quo working well

Even if a business is just doing okay, there may be a tight comfort zone when it comes to adopting new technology. There are many reasons for this, but basically when change is viewed as risky, inertia takes over. Businesses in mature industries are slow to adopt new things, and their realities are very different from growth industries where staying on the leading edge of technology is not an option. For these businesses, the promise of UC is not reason enough to make a change.

6.  Telephony-centric culture

A big part of what defines the above status quo is having a telephony-centric culture. This is a byproduct of legacy thinking, and it’s still prevalent among SMBs. In cases where the business is performing well and the phone system is doing its job, the merits of UC will be difficult to see. Employees may well be using their PCs and mobile devices increasingly for everyday communication, but if the culture remains phone-centric, the time probably isn’t right for UC. Down the road, this will change, but not today.

7.  Been burned before by disruptive offerings

When disruption makes things better, we call it innovation, but there will be losers too, and for them it’s a disaster. Technology has always had a patchy track record, and no vendor is immune. Every business experiences both outcomes over time, and that mix will determine how you view UC. Sometimes this is solely dependent on the vendors, but having limited IT resources, SMBs are often the problem. UC is not without risk, and businesses should expect deployment challenges, so there can be good reason to pass on this basis.

8.  Business is highly centralized

This is a structural factor, and may carry the day even if you’re willing and able to consider UC. There are many drivers for UC adoption, but generally the more decentralized the business, the stronger the case will be. Businesses with a single site or just a few local branches can get some benefit from UC, but the impact is much greater the further dispersed your workforce. Some businesses simply work best with a centralized model, and for them, UC will hold limited appeal.

9.  Management only cares about cost reduction

In top-down organizations, management’s wishes can trump even the best ideas for improving the business. This can be the most frustrating obstacle of all, as short-term priorities often come at the expense of ensuring long-term viability. Technology changes constantly, and the further behind a company falls, operational costs will only rise, not fall. In cases where management thinks that reducing costs now is all that matters, UC will not be the answer.

10.  Productivity claims hard to believe

This factor arises from a positive beginning, where your business is in fact receptive to the UC concept. However, the deeper you dig to understand what form these productivity gains will take, the more fuzzy the vendor’s claims seem to be. For many businesses, this is the key selling point, as productivity has become a competitive differentiator. However, it’s difficult to achieve, especially from UC vendors who are generally not native to the world of workplace productivity. Their forte is communications technologies, but linking that to business processes requires another layer of expertise, and if that’s your criteria for buying, you may conclude that UC isn’t quite ready for your needs – at least from the vendors that are on your radar.

Permanent link to this article:


Top 10 Questions You Need to Ask About UC

As this “Top 10” series continues, I hope you’re building up a good arsenal of questions to ensure you cover enough ground with UC. These are the kinds of questions you need to ask for yourself even if nobody else is asking them in your company. In many ways, IT will be the driver for UC, and it may even be strategic enough to truly own it if you’re thinking about the long term future of your team.

Regardless, it’s in your interest to be the most knowledgeable party for UC, especially if you’re trying to hit a home run in terms of the benefits. VoIP doesn’t offer this type of upside, so you really need to step up to make sure IT has a hand in achieving the bigger picture gains – and be seen to have a hand. This is not a passive buying decision – IT needs to be very hands-on with UC to get these types of results.
To help build the right foundation, I’ve prepared this two-part post where I’ll briefly touch on 10 questions you need to ask about UC. Each question could easily warrant a dedicated post, but the point of this “top 10” series is to provide quick hits that distill a lot of industry knowledge. Let’s start with the first five, and I’ll cover the rest in my next post.

1. Why do I want UC?
Any good analysis must begin with the question of “why”, and in this case, the focus is on IT’s point of view. Other stakeholders in the company will have their own reasons, which may or may not be driven by your thinking. Since the burden of UC will largely fall on IT’s shoulders, you’d better have a clear answer here.
By now you should know that UC is like a Swiss army knife and can meet many needs depending how you use it. This actually makes the task at hand harder since UC can be almost anything you want it to be. As such, IT needs to give this careful thought and not rely simply on what the vendors are saying. Without a clear vision – and sense of “why” – UC can easily provide a little bit of benefit to various end user groups, but nothing that allows IT have a strong hand in its success. As such, the main message for this question is to take it to heart and don’t pass GO until you have a well-defined sense of purpose.

2. Who is UC really for?
This question naturally flows from the above, and it’s critical you understand how UC will impact the organization. You may well have a strong vision for “why”, but other stakeholders may not – and probably won’t. As noted in other posts, end users won’t be asking for UC, and they may not even know they’re using UC, so they probably won’t have any vision for it.
What makes UC unlike other IT investments is that everyone will use it differently, but there’s no guarantee all end users will actually engage with it. This also means that your success with UC – your vision – depends on end user adoption. UC will be for everyone, but you really need to examine the question around different use case scenarios. For example, customer-facing employees will use UC differently from those who only need it for internal communication.

3. Who should I buy from?
Looking over to the other side of the equation, this is just the first of many questions you need to ask about investing in UC. This topic would require many posts to examine, but even at this high level, there are some important takeaways to consider. The first thing to know is that you’ll need to vet a wider vendor pool than with VoIP. Not only are there many telephony-based vendors in the game, but a wide range as well from vendors outside the communications space – some of which you’ll know and some you won’t.
On top of that, you could just as well partner with a carrier for UC as with a vendor. Given that UC is far from being a standardized offering, it’s not surprising that the playing field is so broad. This means you’ll need to think more carefully about whom to buy from than when you last bought a phone system.

4. What is the ROI?
This question is more difficult than you may think. UC has no precedent, since it doesn’t replace anything that has reached end-of-life. Telephony is the next closest thing, and in many cases this will be your frame of reference for UC decision-making. If your telephony experience is rooted in the PBX, then ROI will be the default metric.

The problem is that UC is a not a product or hardware with an asset-based valuation. While ROI is easily understood, it’s not an appropriate metric here, and you have to think differently. There may be some hardware elements involved, but UC is a suite of applications, and is consumed as a service, much like telephony or broadband. In that regard, you to have to think along the lines of TCO, but even that can be inconclusive. There really isn’t a universal metric for UC, and that’s the answer you need to get to in this discussion. Every vendor has a different approach here, and you have to be prepared for a lot of ambiguity in building the business case.

5. Should this be in the cloud?
This is another question that leads to many other questions, and I’m just priming the conversation here. Your business is likely using the cloud successfully for many applications, but if you’re a long-time TDM user, telephony is pretty new for such consideration. If you think this is a big leap, UC will be much bigger, yet many companies are moving in this direction as fast as possible.
The merits of the cloud require a separate analysis, but when it comes to UC, this is a core question to be asking. You’ll need to consider a lot of things – both strategic and tactical – to determine the answer, and you must also recognize that the cloud is not an either/or proposition. Hybrid models are a popular option for UC, as they allow companies to retain control over premise-based hardware, while outsourcing the more complex needs of network management to a cloud provider.

To be continued…

Permanent link to this article:

Older posts «

» Newer posts