Buying phone systems is getting more complicated for SMBs (small- to medium-sized businesses). Partly that's because the systems are becoming more complex, and partly it's due to the fact that smaller companies have started expecting more from the systems they choose. For these reasons, such companies are depending more on consultants to help them make the right choices. Consultants are likewise depending on SMBs for a greater percentage of their income.
A recent study by The Brookside Group LLC of Mendham, N.J. tells the story. The firm's "2008 State of the Market Study" surveyed the activities of independent telecom consultants not affiliated with vendors. It analyzed the responses of 342 consultants and the updated professional profiles of 1,750.
The resulting data indicated that 54 percent of the consultants' clients are now SMBs, defined as between six and 999 employees. Enterprises of 1,000 employees and above account for 46 percent. That's up from 45 percent SMB, 55 percent enterprise in 2001, and a 49/51 split in 2005. The growth in SMB clients has particularly accelerated over the past three years, the report found. The majority of those clients fall in the medium-sized category, which the report defines as between 100 and 999 employees.
The main impetus behind the trend has been smaller companies' growing interest in IP PBXes and hosted-IP telephony, according to Brookside founding partner Michael Sawka. Other key drivers are interest in unified communications and the growth of broadband networks that can support such technologies.
But making wise choices about complex new IP-based communication systems requires considerable expertise, which boosts demand for consultants. Their know-how is considerable, with 72 percent of those surveyed having been in business for more than 10 years. The consultants themselves are doing what they can to boost demand even further by broadening the range of services they offer.
Clients have a number of reasons for using consultants to help them with their telephony needs, according to the report. The first is that consultants will help them save money on phone systems and services, a motive of 69 percent. Second, at 52 percent, is a specific interest in a new technology, product or service. Others include the desires to do more with existing phone systems and networks, to increase network efficiency and to improve business processes. Improving business communication and collaboration is a motive of 33 percent, while improving competitive advantage is important for 29 percent.
According to Sawka, the most fundamental service consultants offer is needs assessment, or helping companies determine which equipment or services will work best for them. Beyond that, consultants make themselves useful in a variety of ways, depending on a client's needs and resources. They can help evaluate and choose vendors , for example, even going so far as to write RFPs (request for proposals) and assist in contract negotiations.
And in the last 12 to 18 months, Sawka added, consultants have become involved in network design and configuration because of IP telephony's dependence on complex data networks as opposed to simpler traditional telephone wiring. Consultants are even increasingly moving into deploying and managing phone systems and networks on an outsourced basis, according to Sawka. "There's a growing gray area between consultants and integrators," he explained. "The big difference is that consultants aren't financially compensated by the vendor."
The report noted that a number of vertical industry segments find consultants particularly useful. The top source of clients is health care, followed by banking and finance, local and state government and education (both K-12 and higher). Professionals such as lawyers and accountants also rely significantly on consultants.
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