Last Train Out
In the run-up to the UC Summit next week in La Jolla, the UCStrategies team has written articles and done podcasts about the ongoing and escalating changes facing the solutions integrators and resellers selling unified communications and collaboration. The Summit will feature a number of sessions about these changes and how the channel partners and the consulting community can best adapt to and thrive in this new environment. Come join us!
The good ol’ days of selling boxes and supporting Moves, Adds, and Changes of telephone sets are a fading memory. As this website has demonstrated over the past years, UC isn’t a piece of equipment or a system or an application so much as it is a way of thinking about how communication integrates into business processes to transform how work gets done. That requires different skills and a different approach to selling solutions and serving customers.
Of course traditional PBX gear for voice communications is facing growing competition from alternative sources – wireless device usage is exploding and often is used even in office environments, and peer-to-peer communication including voice is supported by a growing number of UC clients. Voice capabilities are now embedded in a widening spectrum of software applications, desktop clients, and services such as Salesforce.com. “Voice” is ceasing to be thought of as the standalone communications capability it once was. It’s disappearing into the plumbing.
In addition, new sourcing methods are gaining strength – hosted services, managed services, cloud, hybrid methods combining on-prem and off-prem solutions. All of these call into question the business models on which many channel partners built thriving companies in the past – revenues upfront from selling the box, recurring revenues from support.
What’s fundamental about these changes is that the focus is no longer on the devices or systems; it’s on how they are used and paid for. It’s not about installation of equipment; it’s about identifying applications and new opportunities to take advantage of the innovative capabilities available. The clear imperatives for channel partners today are new skills, new business models, and new ways to acquire and serve customers.
If all this is obvious now, it isn’t the first time that the voice-oriented channel companies have had the opportunity to embrace this kind of change. My partner Marty Parker and I, among others, were around when some of the first voice communication “applications” appeared. The voice mail industry is a notable early example, and it has some characteristics that are disturbingly similar to what could happen to unified communications.
Here’s a little background and maybe a startling fact. The first voicemail systems were incapable of answering a telephone call; they weren’t integrated to the telephone systems. Rather, users called into the system, recorded a message, and addressed it to one or a group of recipients. Recipients called into the system periodically, listened to messages, and replied or forwarded the messages to others. Think: verbal email. There were challenges in getting users to think about using this new communications capability. Then, in 1983, Rolm’s PhoneMail integrated to the PBX and introduced telephone answering. Octel, other independent suppliers, and the rest of the PBX manufacturers followed suit.
Suddenly, the sales channels didn’t try to show potential buyers a new way to communicate – verbal email. They could just sell a box that automated an existing clerical process – take a telephone answering message. That was a simpler sale. Some of us at the time worked with the suppliers to train salesforces into helping customers discover applications. Didn’t work; selling communications applications was much harder than selling a telephone answering box. Today, most companies use voicemail for telephone answering, period. Many users don’t even realize they can log into their mailboxes to send messages to one or to a group. What happened was that the internal salesforces and the external channel partners missed an opportunity to learn a new kind of selling and implementation skills. Selling boxes was easier, even if the customers missed an opportunity to introduce a more powerful communications method.
We have a potentially similar situation in unified communications. As you have read on this website before, the use cases for UC cluster into those associated with UC-U(ser productivity) and UC-B(usiness Process). UC-U encourages individuals to use the tools of UC to automate manual functions (e.g., right-click to check presence and launch a phone call or IM). UC-B involves determining where existing communications and collaboration processes break down and identifying which UC capabilities can help fix the problem. Unfortunately, just as telephone answer was easier to sell than verbal email, UC-U can be easier to sell than UC-B.
Clearly, there is value in UC-U use cases. But it’s also clear that companies realize far greater value from UC-B applications, as has been demonstrated in hundreds of case studies. That would seem to make the UC-B sale more attractive to the channels. Yet these sales require new skills within the sales force, and in some cases, they require professional services and consultative selling.
We have seen the opportunity for application-based selling gathering steam in the voice communications industry since the early days of voice mail. A number of VARs and solutions integrators have seen the trends and migrated their business practices to a new model. Many haven’t fully embraced this new future.
This could be the last train out. There may not be many more chances. As voice communications disappears into the plumbing, and selling PBXs becomes an ever more limited opportunity, it is critical to make the transition to understanding applications and selling solutions (on prem, in the cloud…) rather than selling boxes.
The UC Summit is exploring these subjects about transitioning business models and acquiring needed skills. Climb aboard.