Listen to Michael Flanter Sr. describe Todd Sharp, and youll think hes talking about an old crony.
"We had had business dealings with him, and we didnt hate him too much," said Flanter.
Not hardly. In fact, Flanter, president and founder of 30-employee, Atlanta-based hospitality product distributor Springfield, and Sharp, director at systems integrator Engage, are about as close as two people in their positions could be. Flanter and his son Michael Flanter Jr., vice president at Springfield, rely on Sharp to keep their eyes open to new ways to solve business problems and to find ways to make new technology available to a company as tiny as Springfield.
"We didnt want just a hired gun. We wanted someone who is more involved in what were doing on a daily basis," said the elder Flanter. "We have a lot of confidence in [Sharps] knowledge of technology and how we do business."
So, when it became apparent in spring 2005 to both father and son that their legacy PBX-based phone system needed to be replaced, they naturally looked to Sharp for a recommendation. They may have gotten more than they bargained for.
Thats because Engage, Sharps employer, was, at the time, implementing an advanced VOIP (voice over IP)-based telecommunications system in its own operations. Siemens Communications HiPath OpenScape software suite features presence-aware capabilities to boost employee productivity. OpenScape provides a view of all users and their devices (voice, instant messaging, e-mail or video), so any user can instantly discover the best way to reach a colleague.
Sharp said he believed OpenScape would be perfect for the Flanters, who were looking to grow their business to serve more of the 200,000 hotels, motels, resorts and condos that make up Springfields potential customer pool. Sharp said he had been impressed with OpenScape since meeting with Siemens representatives at their Atlanta office in late 2005 to evaluate the product for use internally at Engage.
"They blew our doors off. The other products we evaluated didnt have the ability to integrate IP communication into legacy systems. OpenScape does. You can integrate with any switch out there," Sharp said.
Sharp noted that he was especially delighted when the Siemens representatives used the OpenScape system themselves to find technical personnel ready and able to answer Sharps questions.
"They started reaching out virtually to answer our questions. Any time you can use the technology to prove the benefits, its great—and thats just what they did," said Sharp.
Engage made the decision to implement OpenScape in its own operations in early spring 2005. But now, seeing Springfields plight with its old phone system, Sharp began to wonder if there was some way Springfield could afford to access this type of technology.
Sharp said he persuaded the Flanters to delay their buying decision while Engage finished its own implementation. Then Sharp began creating a product that would offer OpenScape as a hosted service, as part of Engages CRM (customer relationship management) product or as a stand-alone. The service would cost a few dollars to $100 per user per month based on features, pay as you go, with the ability to ramp up or cut back at any time.
Embedding HiPath OpenScape into a hosted service offering tailored to SMB (small and midsize business) needs was a powerful idea, according to Grace Tiscareno-Sato, global marketing manager for Siemens, in Boca Raton, Fla.
"Most smaller organizations like Springfield dont have all the infrastructure, such as [Microsofts] Microsoft Exchange, they need to support advanced IP communications," said Tiscareno-Sato. But voice is still the primary way people love to communicate and interact. For companies that have not yet been able to justify investing in infrastructure, renting the equipment and applications in a hosted model makes perfect sense.
The hosted model puts the benefits of presence-aware software within reach for SMBs.
"They can immediately see how to communicate amongst themselves," Tiscareno-Sato said. "They can make sure they dont miss the critical calls from customers. They can route calls from work to home to cell phone and back again. It gives the ability to take out the lag time when youre waiting around for someone to call you back. It gives customers the ability to make faster business decisions," she said.
And Sharp said he believed offering a hosted version of OpenScape filled a pressing need for Engage customers.
"What was missing was a way for customers to have real-time collaboration so that they could improve workflow and productivity," Sharp said. "This is something our customers have been asking us for: technology allowing people to reach each other regardless of where they are [and,] as a result, increasing productivity."