Way back in 2004, we noted in eWEEK that VOIP remained relatively obscure to everyone but large enterprises. A June 2004 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, for example, found that just 27 percent of U.S. Internet users had heard of Internet telephony. Theres been a lot of action in the small and midsize business VOIP market since then. Weve seen plenty of new products from networking companies big and small. Thats all well and good; choice is nice. But its also confusing.
According to a recent study by telecommunications management consultancy Savatar (sponsored in part by Lucent Technologies, Level 3 Communications and BroadSoft), SMB interest in VOIP actually slipped in the past year. When Savatar surveyed SMBs in the third quarter of 2005 to see how many were interested in VOIP, 43 percent perked up their ears. That figure fell to 27 percent in a third-quarter survey this year.
Why arent SMBs biting? Theyre confused. A major reason is the lack of unified, national programs from the big telephone companies. Part of Savatars survey method is to pose as interested VOIP customers; the company hunts for service on behalf of its survey respondents to better understand the customer experience. Savatar found that SMBs that called AT&T to request service were immediately redirected at random to either hosted services or premise services, each with different sales and support teams.
Companies with offices in multiple cities can face more confusing choices. Calling the 800-number for AT&T, BellSouth or Verizon and trying to purchase VOIP led all too often, Savatar found, to the disheartening response: "Do we sell that?" The big guys, it seems, just dont have the hang of what it will take to get SMBs on board.
For small enterprises, low-cost and streamlined management is much more important than extra features. However, service providers too often have blinders on when it comes to SMB customers. They typically lead with features first, regardless of whether smaller customers need them.
Small-enterprise customers also want education; they want the intricacies of this relatively new technology to be explained clearly. SMBs have, out of necessity, small IT work forces to help them sort through options when implementing advanced technologies.
Telcos say they want a piece of the small-enterprise pie, and we think they mean it. But more is needed: They must deserve it. They need to understand the need for low cost among SMB customers, they must understand the need to educate potential SMB buyers and they must make a commitment to SMB customers by learning about their businesses.
The emergence of nationally recognized brands in the VOIP market would help small customers as well. But, for now, well settle with call center operators who know what theyre selling. Hey, its a start.
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eWEEKs Editorial Board consists of Jason Brooks, Larry Dignan, Stan Gibson, Scot Petersen and Lisa Vaas.