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ICT opinion

Who still cares how much money VoIP can save?

Voice over IP. What's left to say? You can save money. Lots of it. It's great for moves and changes, super easy, even the receptionist can do them. Sure. Tell me something I don't know.
How about this: Most of what you hear in these conversations about VoIP is smoke and mirrors. Even if it's not wrong, it's often also not important.

Let's start with number one. By moving your telephone lines to a VoIP system you will save money and be a hero to the company.

This is wrong in two ways. Firstly, you might not be able to save money with VoIP indefinitely. You save money if the cost of carrying a call is lower over VoIP. But what if Telkom slashes phone call rates? Whoops! Moving from a tried-and-tested land-line system to the sometimes tricky VoIP world, for savings that may not materialise?

Will you be a hero?

And will you be a hero to the company? IT directors get a budget to work with. Do they really want to go to the CEO and say: "Hey, we're saving half a bar a year on voice calls! I can get by on a smaller budget! Do I get the premium parking spot now?"

No - if an IT director finds a way to save on costs, wouldn't he want to take that budget and allocate it to something else on the critical projects list. Show him you can save money and then give him something clever to do with that cash that will help his company and add real value.

The CEO and the FD have heard the cost savings story from VoIP providers before. They like it - cutting costs always rocks their world. But VoIP has been around in mainstream South African business for 10 years. They've heard the promises. They also know that VoIP can be hard to get 100% right. They've had to deal with the fallout of unmet expectations. If they have any sense, they'll kick the decision on VoIP back to their IT director to ask the hard questions of the vendor - because he's going to be the one out on a limb if something doesn't work.

So let's stop talking about cost savings. Yes, they're there. No, they shouldn't be an all-consuming reason to look at VoIP.

No magic bullet

For most IT decision makers, VoIP provides no magic bullet that kills some big pain. The IT director is not going to get fired for sticking with the tried-and-tested Telkom. If he manages to implement VoIP across all offices, branches and satellites successfully, he may get a pat on the head, but no ticker-tape parade.

So what can he do that will make it worth his while to take the potential risk when it comes to choosing the right partner?

How about doing something cool, something hi-tech, and something that will directly impact on staff productivity?

Rather than looking at VoIP in terms of how it improves the plumbing, rather look at staff habits, work practices and real-life interaction, and how VoIP and the new age of digital telephony can improve that. Make no mistake, we are going that route - there's really cool stuff that can be done with a bit of imagination!

Example: if you move to VoIP, it's not a big stretch to then do a full integration of cellphone connectivity to the PABX.

Almost every exec carries a cellphone at the office, out of the office. We don't look up a number and dial it if we can help it, we'd rather select a contact and hit "go". That's our habit. Work with it. When we can't find someone at his desk, we call his cell. That's also our habit. Work with it.

A closed user group cellular package

Maybe integrate a Closed User Group cellular package with your existing land-line infrastructure, where all calls between these cellular and landline extensions are zero cost. When you call someone within the CUG, from either your cellular phone or normal extension, the call is free. In other words, your cell phone now becomes an inter-branch call like any other extension within the company. There are a few options when it comes to the base cost of the Closed User Group; all depends on the group's size and package chosen.

Cost saving - nice. Doing something cool that helps people get their jobs done more easily? Priceless.

Then take it a step further - set up white lists of customers, partners and staff, so that private calls can be billed back to the individual. Blacklist problem numbers. Allocate different white and black lists to different staff groups.

No staff member needs a mobile phone number on their business cards - calls are rung through from the company PABX to ring on both their landline extensions and cellphones. They choose where to pick up the call.

In fact, forget about cellphones and look to tablets. So many execs carry them around - even to the water cooler. Why not run VoIP to tablets through a good, business-quality messaging client that has directory synchronisation with the company contact list? That's something that'll impress the top brass.

Do a bit of thinking

Integrate your VoIP with your CRM and sales force automation systems. Do a bit of thinking about how to reduce information duplication and errors by ensuring that contact information and case files are synchronised.

The reality is that VoIP is a commodity technology.

Assuming that you pick a partner that is technically skilled enough to get it working, and working reliably and consistently (and let's not forget - VoIP is not trivial to do properly), it's much of a muchness which system you use.

So VoIP vendors should not be sending an IP telephony technician to clients, they should be sending in a business analyst to work out how VoIP can be more than a way to get a better voice-minute rate - and then get the engineers working on the solutions. Technology from the top five or six suppliers is pretty similar; it's the value-added services and integration that counts when choosing who to partner.

The IT director is not so much interested in cost-saving projections as in whether the VoIP provider he's talking to would be a good and reliable business partner. Will you add value to my business and life? Will you be responsive and take ownership of the system you're making so many promises about? Are you going to implement VoIP in a way that does not make my life harder (like interfering with other network traffic)? Can you come up with good ideas to make VoIP part of a productivity-enhancement package?

On the typical IT director's list of personal priorities, saving a few per cent in call charges is not big. Having more time to do his job is. Getting kudos for doing cool things for the company is.

The VoIP solution should be about productivity, time saving, labour saving and, lastly, about cutting costs.
    
 

About the author

Riaan Pieterson is enterprise division head of TeleMasters.
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