Five Things You Should Look for With an IP Telephony Vendor

Updated: November 13, 2010

Rather than present an exhaustive checklist of features and functions, I think you will be better served by stepping back and first evaluating five things about the vendor and their overall set of offerings.

Having worked closely with most of these vendors over the past few months, I believe this guidance will hold true whether you're an SMB or an enterprise.

1. Ease of use

This sounds like motherhood, but with choice comes complexity. One of the key selling points of IP telephony is getting a rich feature set at a fraction of the price for legacy systems. If you have had one of these systems for a long time, then it will be very familiar to your end users. Most phones work basically the same way, but they all have their quirks. For IP telephony to have a smooth transition from legacy, ease of use is paramount.

End users should not have to learn new behaviors to do basic things like transfer calls, add callers to a group session, update their greetings, etc. You should not assume that all phone systems work exactly the same way for everyday needs. Furthermore, you will most likely be getting new features with IP telephony, and if these are going to gain adoption, ease of use is even more important. As such, this should be one of the very first things you try to determine when considering an IP telephony vendor.

2. Unified Communications story

When considering IP telephony, some businesses may only be interested in updating their phone system. There is nothing wrong with that, especially if you can reduce your costs and get more features in the bargain. Thinking ahead, however, the real value of IP telephony lies in the integration of voice with other communications modes. This brings us into the circle of Unified Communications, and virtually all telecom vendors have a UC story.

UC has been slow to gain traction, but is now on the radar of many businesses. The way we work is changing, and the notion of keeping telecom separate from data and IT is becoming counter-productive. Businesses are starting to look beyond ROI when making telephony decisions, and aside from being ROI-friendly, UC enables productivity gains that go well beyond what a legacy phone system can deliver.

Productivity gains may be difficult to measure, but businesses will see value in things like faster response time, more calls handled per hour, less customer turnover, faster decision-making, fewer lost days due to weather or travel conditions, etc. Businesses don't have to make a major commitment to UC right away, but to a make the right long-term vendor choice, they need to know how they can go from VoIP to UC.

3. Mobility story

This is often an extension of the UC story, but mobility should be considered on its own merits. Aside from being too voice-centric in your thinking about telephony, there is also the risk of thinking strictly in terms of a desk set for your phone system. Whether you have road warriors, home workers, texters, or soccer moms, an increasing share of voice communication is taking place away from the desk phone. This trend is only going to continue, not just to manage everyday business conversations, but to support the work/life balance that has become part of today's always-on digital world.

When considering IP telephony vendors, you should get their mobility story. Some are further along than others, and for more advanced deployments, capabilities like FMC - fixed mobile convergence - can be real differentiators. Even if mobility has a limited impact on your business today, it would not be a good decision to ignore this in your thinking about IP telephony.

4. Video story

For the most part, UC and mobility are about voice, but video is the next concentric ring around that. Larger enterprises have the resources and cost justification to make greater use of video, but scaled down solutions are rapidly finding their way for the rest of the market. Video is not critical for an SMB today, and won't be critical tomorrow, but it will certainly become mainstream within the lifespan of your next IP telephony system.

Video is an exciting space, and affordable, high quality solutions are being developed for all screens - PCs, desk phones, mobile phones, tablets and standalone videoconferencing systems. As bandwidth speeds increase, video will become practical everywhere, at which point it will seem as normal as making a phone call. Not all vendors have a video story yet, so if this is a big part of your thinking, you'll need to do your homework.

5. Applications

Finally, as your thinking moves beyond everyday communications, a more strategic view would be around how these new technologies can make your company more competitive as well as how they can address specific business problems. One of the virtues of IP is its flexibility, and being based on open standards, can easily and inexpensively be customized. Another virtue of IP is low cost, and as the price of telephony continues to fall with VoIP, the underlying value of telephone service becomes diminished.

This is more of a problem for your phone company, and it has become a driver for both operators and vendors to leverage IP and create new services that can be monetized. As any iPhone user knows, this has given rise to an industry built around creating applications. For businesses to get full value out of IP telephony they should think along these lines. To varying degrees, IP telephony vendors - and/or their technology partners - can provide or develop applications to address just about any custom need you may have. This may take a bit of research to ascertain, but if you see value in applications, these capabilities could well be the deal-maker.

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