Keeping in Touch with Telecommunications
11/2012 - By Cassandra Balentine - Business Tech Edge
In spite of a continuing trend towards Internet-based communications, small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) still rely on phone systems to maintain customer and partner relationships. However, it is important to recognize the landscape has and continues to adapt with technology advancements.
The market is fragmented and many vendors serve the space with varying phone systems, some tailored to very specific needs. However, Alberto Montilla, product manager, small business technology group, Cisco Systems, Inc., notes common requests. “SMB systems that are simple to procure, install, and use tend to be more popular. Phone systems that build on simplicity with business-enabling collaboration applications with a strong offering of end points tend to stay in the leadership position,” he offers.
Major trends affecting phone systems in the space include consideration for cloud-based services, mobile worker and phone compatibility, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunk adoption, collaboration tools such as instant messaging (IM) and presence—real-time status and availability, and IP-enablement made possible with Private Branch Exchange (PBX).
Move to Mobility
Smartphones and other mobile communications devices are strongly affecting the way businesses and consumers alike communicate—amongst themselves and with one another.
“Smartphones are proliferating in the SMB workspace at a significant pace and are allowing SMBs the ability to access critical data at speeds that were not possible before,” suggests Montilla. However, he adds that they are not replacing landline systems. “Rather, this trend has given rise to increased adoption of collaboration applications, and landline-based phone systems are required to provide tighter integration with mobile devices through applications like soft phones and instant messaging clients,” he adds.
Bill Savino, marketing manager, SMB, Panasonic Corporation of North America, sees mobility as a key driver in business and the need to support mobile phones as office extensions is increasingly important. “An SMB phone system should allow end users to use any cell phone or smartphone as a virtual extension of the office phone system, making the transfer of calls and the ability to receive voicemail possible anywhere in the world,” he adds.
Laura Schaffer, product manager, Phonebooth, a division of Bandwidth.com, Inc., points out that smartphones have created a pain point for landline providers that did not previously exist. “With the advent of the smartphone, employees are as productive in the field as they are at their desk. Nevertheless, they still require interconnectivity with their business’ central phone system. The need to accommodate mobility is likely the biggest drive, from plain old telephone service to hosted options,” she adds.
Desk and mobile phones are seen as complementary by Natalia Kagramanova, senior product manager, SMB, ShoreTel Inc. “Desk phones are still more suitable for in-office communications with speaker phones, whereas solutions like ShoreTel put the power of the desk phone in your pocket with smartphones when you happen to be away from your desk or at a remote location.”
Vani Edwardson, director, solutions marketing, Mitel Networks Corporation, agrees, suggesting that smartphones have simply become an extension of the business communication system and are not a replacement for the communications platform or even the desktop-based device.
As previously noted, a variety of phone systems serve different needs. Solutions providers highlight products suited to the SMB. Additionally, feature sets most demanded and utilized by smaller organizations are shared.
Cisco offers several phone systems suited to the SMB. Among them is the Cisco Unified Communications (UC) 300 Series, which allows businesses to take advantage of IP telephony to reduce costs, boost productivity, and create a more collaborative company. It also includes built-in data and wireless support, plus advanced phone features such as voicemail and automated attendant. The company suggests that with its UC series, users can replace PBX or key systems with a single, all-in-one network solution. Part of the Cisco Small Business product family, the solution is easy to set up and manage, but flexible enough to change along with a business. The system supports voice, SIP trunking, integrated wireless, and built-in routing and switching.
Montilla suggests that the average use of a phone system before it needs to be replaced or upgraded is seven to ten years on average. This figure varies by geography. “Developed countries tend to be on a shorter refresh cycle than emerging countries. Another factor determining the average usage—at least in the last five years—is access to leasing the phone system from service providers, partners, or manufacturers. In this case, average usage depends on the lease terms—typically 36 to 48 months,” he notes.
Mitel’s virtualized UC offering is based on the company’s Mitel Communications Director and the Mitel Applications Suite. It is designed to provide SMBs the ability to deploy UC either as premises-, hosted-, or cloud-based, or a combination; as well as in a VMware virtualized environment.
To meet the growing demand to support an increasing number of mobile employees, Mitel offers Unified Customer Advanced (UCA) included in MAS, a UC-client for the desktop and mobile devices. UCA integrates presence, IM, audio conferencing, as well as Web and video collaboration with Mitel call control capabilities. As an option, Mitel extends UC capabilities to mobile workers on smartphones or tablets.
Edwardson lists key features for SMBs from a role-based perspective including IT Manager, a simplified administration via a centralized single point of access and ability to leverage existing technology investments; Mobile Workers, the ability to work remotely on a device of choice leveraging features such as teleworking, twinning, and SIP-based mobile clients; as well as Knowledge Workers, the ability to communicate and collaborate to ensure efficient, effective decision-making by leveraging collaboration tools such as IM, presence, knowledge management, video, and audio conferencing.
The Panasonic Network Communication Platform (NCP) system is a highly-modular, all-in-one communication, collaboration, and monitoring solution that supports a variety of endpoints including IP telephones, conference phones, DECT 6.0 wireless phones, digital, and analog phones. It is designed to provide SMBs with a broad choice of options to customize a solution to best suit their unique needs. The NCP solution is also highly flexible and is developed to improve business communications workflow. The solution allows SMB users to effectively reach, serve, and retain customers by offering a combination of intelligent call routing, call center functionality, and integral desktop productivity applications.
Specific advantageous features of NCP include built-in voice messaging and automated attendant functionality; advanced voicemail using optional TVA50 and TVA200 voice processing systems; mobility applications that support mobile phones as office extensions; support for remote workers and offices; access to cordless handsets; remote management, upgrades, and monitoring of phone system; desktop, network, and business application integration; Communication Assistant call management software; built-in support for Advanced IP extensions; and integrated SIP solutions via SIP trunking providers for more affordable monthly telecommunication costs.
Phonebooth offers a hosted phone system. The company’s Phonebooth OnDemand enables SMBs to sign up online and instantly set up cloud-based PBX through an online portal, select features, and go. The only physical requirement is a high-speed Internet connection and IP phones.
“The greatest benefit of a hosted VoIP phone system to SMBs is the immediacy with which they can customize and adjust their system based on business needs. As soon as they sign up, they are immediately able to log in and add or remove users and set up call groups,” explains Schaffer.
According to the company’s SMB customer base, the most valuable feature of Phonebooth OnDemand is the voice-to-text message transcription service, which sends voicemails as email attachments to a user’s inbox. Schaffer states that customers report time savings on a daily basis.
ShoreTel is a phone system provider market that recently earned Gartner’s Strong Positive rating for UC for the SMB Market. The company provides ShoreTel 13, a complete UC system that starts at about $600 per user, but varies based on the existing network equipment available to support the applications. The product integrates with mobile phones through the ShoreTel Mobility software. Up to 20,000 users are allowed on a single system.
Kagramanova says the most important phone system feature for the SMB is simple management, which helps those with a small IT department. “We have the lowest total cost of ownership because of the reduced complexity compared to other systems,” she states, offering an example. “When a company opens a new location, there is no need to buy a new system. On ShoreTel only takes a couple of minutes to configure a new site and add users to the new site—it’s so easy.”
Another advantage is scalability. The same system scales from ten to thousands of users. This means that customers will never reach the breaking point when they have to replace the system.
Many vendors provide next-generation phone systems and support to the SMB space. Changing business demands, such as the integration of mobility, enter into traditional phone systems at every scale, enabling small business owners to compete at an enterprise level.
Nov2012, Business TechEdge