Magazine Article | September 17, 2012

Unified Communications Systems Take Off

By Brian Albright, Business Solutions Magazine

There is ample opportunity for resellers to differentiate themselves in the emerging UC market.

The market for unified communications (UC) solutions is expanding. ABI Research forecasts the global market to reach $2.3 billion by 2016. UC solutions include a lot of moving parts, requiring the integration of wireline and mobile telephony, email, instant messaging, video conferencing, and other capabilities. Resellers and managed services providers are well-positioned to reap the rewards as clients look for implementation and training assistance.

According to Mike Fitz, VP of wireline at Sprint, there are three major trends occurring in the UC space that have converged to create increased demand for unified communications, as well as hosted “UC-as-a-Service” offerings, all of which can benefit the channel. First, end users are demanding more mobility and portability of their information and their work capabilities. “Users are becoming more familiar with tools like instant messaging, video, and voice calling technology that can integrate with IM,” Fitz says. “They are comfortable with that, and they are asking for it from their employers. They want the benefits of having a single email box or a single number, or simultaneous rings to their office and mobile numbers.”

Second, CIOs are now more focused on finding ways to support the line of business activities in their companies, not just on tech enablement of employees. “That is leading them to look for outsourcing opportunities which lend themselves well to services like UC,” Fitz says.

Finally, UC technology is expanding and improving. “With the proliferation of hosted UC services, providers like Sprint and other resellers and partners are in a position to offer those services in ways that weren’t possible before,” Fitz says.

That combination of buy in from CIOs, end user demands, and technology capabilities are creating a “perfect storm,” Fitz says. “Now is the time for companies to start investing in UC-as-a-Service.”

Although there is competition in the UC space (including from large providers like Sprint and its competitors), there are plenty of opportunities for VARs and MSPs to carve out their own space. “There is nothing vanilla about UC services yet,” Fitz says. “Each customer is unique. Also, what comes with UC is all the user migration that has to take place, including employee education and buy in of users. All of that is very unique and represents an opportunity for channel partners to differentiate themselves in ways not possible when just selling T1s, for example.”

Client Buy In Is The Top Challenge
For resellers trying to sell UC solutions, the biggest challenge is convincing clients that moving to this type of communications service is a good idea. “It’s a big deal to get them to take out their on-premise PBX systems and move to the cloud,” Fitz says. “You have to get the IT leaders over the hump and convince them that this will not be a career-limiting move.”

What ultimately convinces most companies is the tremendous productivity gains enabled by UC. It’s much easier to hold meetings, work remotely, and connect employees at remote locations. “All of those capabilities are integrated into the core UC voice services,” Fitz says. “There is so much more productivity to be gained that clients can’t ignore it.”

From there, the next biggest challenge is getting end users on board. “It’s a big change for them as well,” Fitz says. “There’s a learning curve to get up to speed with the new tools, so end user education is very important. Ultimately, what we find is that once we get them up to speed, they love it and don’t want to go back.”

Structuring the migration also can be a stumbling block, as many IT departments want to take a phased approach. “Many want gradual rollouts, or they want to run both systems in parallel,” Fitz says. “Running simultaneous systems prolongs the deployment and introduces complexity that can jeopardize the project. What works best is to flash-cut groups of users to the new system, then continue to transition other employee groups. They may experience a day or two of challenges, but it’s a lot simpler in the long run.”

Bear in mind, these services may very well be more expensive than traditional voice packages. Fitz says that one Sprint client, which had deployed around 150 mobile devices, approached the company asking for a reduction in the price of its services. “We went back to them with a UC solution, demonstrated the value, and showed them the productivity gains,” Fitz says. “Eventually, they renewed with us and wound up spending more than they were before. They were willing to do that because the value of UC goes beyond cost; this is about productivity, and what you can get out of your employees when you have these systems in place.