When your CEO delivers a mandate to improve global communications, there are bound to be plenty of sleepless nights.
But Steve Cunha, director of IT for Bemis Associates, didnt lose all that much shut-eye over his decision to move the 100-year-old global manufacturer of thermal plastic adhesives from a traditional PBX to a full VOIP (voice over IP) phone system.
With the help of his longtime IT provider, CBE Technologies, Cunha said he was able to build out a scalable, yet easy-to-administer VOIP infrastructure that delivered high-quality and high-performance telephony services, without requiring big changes from Bemis 250-plus employees.
The move not only saved Bemis money, but it is also paving the way for new telephony capabilities—including videoconferencing—that are enhancing how the companys employees communicate, no matter where they are located, Cunha said.
How did Bemis transition to an emerging technology platform—particularly one as critical to business as telephony and VOIP—with minimal disruption? The trick, said Cunha, is to take a long view of the business need and not scrimp on the investment required to best leverage the technology.
For Bemis, that meant buying a whole lot more than the actual VOIP system. With guidance from systems integrator CBE, Bemis invested $140,000 (nearly $50,000 more than originally budgeted) into the VOIP implementation. That covered the VOIP solution from Cisco Systems as well as new routers, switches and a high-end MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) upgrade to its WAN to prime its environment to best support VOIP.
"Dont look for the cheapest way to implement [VOIP]," advised Cunha in Shirley, Mass. "We were consistently told, If your goal is to improve communication, and thats coming from your CEO, whatever technology you implement better work. CBE let us know [that] if we were willing to invest the time and the energy and appropriate the right resources to the project without cutting corners, wed be successful."
Looking for an inexpensive way to get into the VOIP game is where many companies go astray, according to Sean Kelley, vice president of IP communications at CBE, a 200-person systems integration shop based in Boston.
"If youre talking about multiple sites, you have to have the infrastructure in place to run VOIP," Kelley explained. "A lot of companies who get into this game dont know any better. They just want to sell you a system, but you have to have the right cabling, switches and routers in place. Without them, a lot of companies run into problems."
Bemis was able to steer clear of major obstacles in its VOIP deployment from the outset, Cunha said. The company had grown its adhesives business on a global basis and was enjoying success with SewFree, its newest offering, used to make clothing and outdoor apparel without any stitching.
In early 2004, Bemis management and Cunha saw VOIP as a way to inject efficiencies into internal communications. Specifically, Cunhas team was looking to garner more synergies out of Bemis telephony solutions—at the time, an aging PBX to support its U.S. headquarters as well as separate phone systems in its sales and support offices in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Guatemala and a handful of other satellite offices. Without a single, integrated phone system, Bemis employees who traveled between offices had to cope with three separate phone and voice mail systems, and the company had to deal with multiple vendors to support each environment, Cunha said.
A full-scale switch to VOIP would eliminate the disparity, Cunha explained, and set the stage for new communications capabilities, as well as lower costs by eliminating long-distance toll calls.
Cunha said his key concern, however, was QOS (quality of service), and back in 2004, that was a critical issue—even more so than today.
"Everything we were reading about VOIP at the time pointed to the fact we needed to have a strong, dedicated, highly available network to support VOIP," Cunha said, "and we didnt."
Thats where CBEs systems integration experience with VOIP came in. Along with Cunhas own requirements for the VOIP system to be easy to administer and offer basic capabilities such as call transfer, paging, hands-free calling, voice mail retrieval and calling between offices, the CBE team recommended that the Bemis network infrastructure be upgraded to deliver QOS. In addition to suggesting the purchase of new routers and switches, which could support VOIP, CBE advised Cunha to invest in a critical MPLS upgrade for Bemis WAN to help prioritize voice communication over data on the network.
CBE also coached Bemis to choose a vendor that could offer a soup-to-nuts solution, from VOIP capabilities through related network hardware such as routers and switches. For that reason, in June 2004, Bemis opted to go with a Cisco solution, rather than stay with its existing PBX vendor, and upgrade to Ciscos VOIP-ready product. Bemis installed Ciscos Call Manager 4.0 with Unity Voice Mail in its U.S. headquarters as well as in its other offices. A second Call Manager system was installed in the United States for redundancy, and all voice mail is centralized in this country as well.
Having a single vendor provide the full array of necessary hardware and software streamlines support and avoids any finger-pointing later on, Kelley said. "Cisco was one of the few providers out there who could take [customers] end to end," he said.
Since the Cisco system was deployed, Bemis employees can work from any of the offices around the globe—or from anywhere on the road, for that matter—and access their voice mail and phone functions as if they were in the main office. The system also offers integrated videoconferencing, which Bemis executives worldwide are starting to take advantage of.
"Some of the offices—in Korea and Taiwan, for example—are small, and some of the salespeople work out of their homes," Cunha said. "Sometimes, the president of the company would like to have face-to-face communications, and he doesnt have a chance to do so with [the salespeople] that often. With videoconferencing, he can."
While the upgrade went off without a major hitch, Cunha said there were a few minor hiccups along the way, including some quality problems localized in the United Kingdom. In fact, Cunha said global support was his biggest initial hesitation about CBE, but through remote monitoring technology and arrangements with Cisco-certified specialists overseas, the VAR has been able to handle Bemis VOIP support needs on a global basis.
In addition to needs analysis, vendor evaluation and implementation on the VOIP project, CBE provides 24/7 support for all Bemis locations.
While Cunha didnt divulge any hard ROI (return on investment) numbers, he did say the implementation—despite going over budget—was paying for itself, both in the new capabilities it delivers and in cost savings related to the elimination of toll calls and a significant reduction in telephone support fees. He said the true indicator of the projects success, however, is that the Bemis rank and file are enjoying VOIPs benefits without necessarily knowing theres been a switch in technology.
"The best measure of success is the fact that weve had no complaints," said Cunha. "After we corrected a couple of blips in the road in the remote offices, no one knows the difference. It works like a normal phone system."
Beth Stackpole is a freelancer in Newbury, Mass. E-mail her at email@example.com.