Voice networks are inherently reliable - so much so that they are taken for granted. This quality of service is penalised in a recession. Customers ask why they should go through the cost and upheaval of an upgrade when the system they have already works. Large parts of the IT infrastructure have never been perfected, so limping from upgrade to upgrade always appears perversely justified.
Perhaps it is time communications systems providers learnt something from their computing cousins - not the bad lessons about defective products and so-called solutions that fail to solve anything, but the profitable ones about how to sell technology as the key to business improvement.
Two themes that IT suppliers have played to great effect are the role of technology in achieving efficiencies (doing things more cheaply) and in making business processes more effective (doing things better).
The argument has to be backed up with facts and figures - and in a recession the case has to be more convincing than ever. The criteria may vary from customer to customer, but one or more of the following five "C"s are bound to be on the list.
- Choice - no one wants to be shoehorned into manufacturer-centric contracts. The supplier needs to select best-of-breed products for the customer but still needs to maintain productive relationships with individual manufacturers - a delicate balance that requires the supplier to be closely aligned with manufacturers but not dependent on any
- Comprehensiveness - the supplier must be able to provide as much (or as little) as the customer needs - everything from the incremental enhancement to an existing system to a complete overhaul of the infrastructure from cabling to call centre applications
- Completeness - the ability to put it all together to meet the business need. A mixture of project management and diplomatic skills is needed to marry components sourced from multiple suppliers with the technical integration capability to combine the pieces into a coherent whole
- Certainty - nothing will impress the prospective customer more than real-life examples of other satisfied users. This is tough if you do not have an established track record but no one wants to be your first customer, and in a recession this is truer than ever
- Cost-effectiveness - until the downturn the focus of business investment in technology was the glorious strategic vision. Concerns about cost were for last-generation businesses that lacked the imagination to see the bigger picture - a world of online service delivery, end-to-end automated processes, self servicing customers, and new business models to address them. Now that the bigger picture has gone dark and much of the new economy is conceptually or actually bankrupt, cost-consciousness is firmly back on the agenda.
The onus is on the supplier to be able to identify real return on investment and measurable business benefit. If the case cannot be made in terms of cost alone, then the argument might have to be moved on to cost of ownership. If there is no immediate saving to be made, then there has to be a gain. If neither can be identified, then the supplier is in big trouble.
Recent research revealed that more than half of all requests for a call or an e-mail made to business Web sites fail to get any response. This is a staggering statistic that serves to illustrate that dotcom ventures got their fundamentals completely wrong.
Contrast this with your company's voice systems. Can you imagine users or customers, faced with a day-long outage of the PBX simply shrugging it off and agreeing to try again later when the problem had been fixed?
Telecoms suppliers that hope to survive this downturn need to be able to reassert the message that the telecoms industry has been built on quality and reliability but this is merely the baseline of customer expectation.
They must also be able to demonstrate that they can to deliver voice applications capable both of enhancing service and reducing cost - voice-activated directory services, for instance. In a downturn, talking the talk is not enough. Customers
insist on hearing the evidence and seeing the proof.
Shubhrajit Naha is commercial development manager at Datapulse