Voice, the Cloud and Snowflakes: A Checklist for Middle Market Companies Thinking about Unified Communications

By Mike Hoyt, SVP-Internet Protocol/Voice Engineering, Windstream [NASDAQ: WIN]

Mike Hoyt, SVP-Internet Protocol/Voice Engineering, Windstream [NASDAQ: WIN]

If you work for one of the 200,000 mid-sized companies in the U.S., the chances are very good that the office phone on your desk is relying on legacy systems that are 10-20 years old with very few of the features that much larger companies and much smaller companies are taking for granted. Does your voice system link to Salesforce.com and collaborative applications that provide greater productivity and more business intelligence? Do you know exactly what happens to customers when they dial in for support and try to navigate the system? Do you know how many of them successfully reach the department or person they are looking for? Do you know how many of them give up and slam down the phone? Most large enterprise companies have unified communications systems that not only give their employees more features but also have far better performance and provide invaluable business intelligence. The same is true for small businesses, who often have plug-and-play hosted communications solutions from their telecom providers. But why not mid-market companies?

"One of the most important things for mid-market companies to keep in mind is that no two implementations are the same for companies of this size, just as no two snowflakes are the same"

Large enterprises are nearly universal users of unified communications for part or all of their operations because telecom providers so often put a focus on those lucrative accounts and have devoted significant resources to assisting these large companies in adopting the cloud and implementing hosted voice solutions in the process. Those big companies have deep pockets, and the simple truth is that they can afford to make aggressive moves to new technology. For small companies, adoption of the cloud and unified communications is widespread not because they have deep pockets, but because these hosted solutions are inexpensive and because they typically have minimal investments in legacy infrastructure. Telecom providers also make it simple for small businesses by providing retail-style bundled packages that allow these businesses to simply flip a switch—figuratively—and get on with their business.

Middle market companies have too often been under-served in this area by providers who see the other two segments of the market as more lucrative. That has meant slower adoption of cloud-based voice solutions in the middle-market, but that is poised to change dramatically. In the past few months, prominent analyst firms have released reports that predict a major wave of cloud adoption by the mid-market in the next 6-12 months as companies of this size successfully complete pilot projects and migrate critical applications to the cloud. Essentially, there is a level of experience and trust now with cloud infrastructure that is opening the door for this migration. And the desire from middle market companies to cut costs and simplify IT management provides the motivation to aggressively step through that open door.

This wave of cloud adoption in the middle market is about much more than voice, but it is compelling companies to think about voice systems that often have not been updated in 10, 15 or 20 years, leaving the company several generations behind what most large and small companies have. Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) solutions allow these companies to make that multi-generational leap in a single, simple step via the cloud, but there are important things they should be looking at and asking about as they move forward:

• UCaaS’s for the Middle Market Are Like Snowflakes–One of the most important things for mid-market companies to keep in mind is that no two implementations are the same for companies of this size, just as no two snowflakes are the same. Hosted voice solutions for smaller businesses often come in “pre-packaged” bundles in a short menu that gives those companies a handful of choices. That may work for a company with 10 employees. But does it work for a company with 500 with departments that have dramatically different needs? For that reason, every discussion about UCaaS needs to start not with a tactical discussion of Option A versus Option B (for example, a hosted multi-tenant option versus true UCaaS), but by backing up several steps and starting with a thorough discussion of the business, its structure, its growth path, the way it interacts with customers. That larger discussion will point your company in a strategic direction that guides each technical decision later on about what UCaaS should provide and how it should be designed. Skipping over that type of discussion will likely be a recipe for a voice solution that does not meet all your needs today and meets even fewer of them in the future.

• The Network Matters–A second consideration for mid-market companies when they are looking at upgrading to a hosted voice solution is to press pause on discussions about the exciting stuff a hosted voice system can do—momentarily at least—and take a close look under the hood at the network that powers it. Their legacy voice system may very well have been powered by a box that sat in the back of the office, and that box was the solution. But the network is the most critical component of a UCaaS solution, and its flexibility, architecture, speed and diversity will have an enormous impact on your employees’ and customers’ experience. For example, the fiber network powering your UCaaS solution will no doubt be touted as fast. But what kind of operational flexibility does it have? Does it utilize dynamic routing? What does it do to maintain voice call quality? Those under-the-hood questions aren’t as exciting as the test drive of end-user capabilities, but they are often the biggest differentiator between one UCaaS service provider and another.

• Don’t Forget Security–Security is one of the most overlooked issues when mid-market companies start examining hosted voice because it is typically associated with other types of IT services. But voice solutions today are much more than just getting a ring on your handset. UCaaS solutions are an extension of the company’s IT operations, serving as a platform for document sharing, collaboration, gathering and reporting business intelligence, and more. Unified communications solutions need to be as secure as the rest of a company’s computing systems, and the right way to have that conversation is not by running through a list of security acronyms and certifications. Like the snowflake analogy above, it needs to start several steps back with a discussion of what your company’s security priorities are. Which other applications will your UCaaS be linked to? Will your UCaaS have contact with patient or customer information? Starting with those questions will lay a foundation for a focused discussion of how the network is designed for security and how the hosted solution has that as a foundational layer for all of the features.

No two UCaaS implementations are the same for mid-market companies, and this checklist of things to look closely at during the early planning process for a transition to hosted voice will help put your company on the right path. For additional resources and best practices regarding adoption of UCaaS and hosted voice, read the selection of helpful blog posts on that topic here.

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