Supporting all the latest mod comms

Supporting all the latest mod comms

Answers to how resellers can tap into the burgeoning unified communications (UC) market

It is a perennial dilemma for the average reseller. Perhaps even THE perennial dilemma. Do you stick to the niches you know and consequently pass up the high-value, big ticket, glacial roll-out deals because you do not have the skills, the logistics and the headcount to cope? Or do you try to turn yourself into a hulking behemoth that does the lot ­ with all the massive associated risk and expense; which itself is far easier said than done, of course.

Talk about Hobson’s Choice. In reality, most resellers try to plough a furrow somewhere down the middle of these two approaches. A sort of “No job is too big, no fee is too big” stance. The problem being, obviously, that you can end up stuck in the mud as neither one thing nor the other.

This is particularly pertinent where the currently booming unified communications (UC) market is concerned. There is massive and increasing demand, but how do you tap into it without busting your expenditure and upping your operational risk with extra headcount?

Richard Eglon, marketing manager with third-party service provider Comms-care, says that the most obvious ­ and profitable ­ answer is simply to partner up with providers that do have the requisite headcount and skill sets.

“There are major opportunities out there for the properly geared reseller,” he said. “And joining forces with a third-party provider offers a fast, watertight, high-quality, profitable way to get in on the convergence act without putting your business at risk in any way.

“Converged UC is a huge market right now ­ bigger than most people even realise. Networking these days is converged networking. It is suddenly a mass-market proposition. While VoIP used to be a fairly niche application, for example, now it is right in the middle of the mainstream. As such, it is not so much a question of if a company will move to converged, unified networking, as when.” Now really is the time to capitalise, he says.

Also, not only is UC much more of a “pull” market now, says Eglon, the whole idea of unification is evolving to encompass a much broader set of technologies; offering yet further opportunity for the savvy player in areas such as video, mobility, CRM, ERP and line of business applications.

“However, with such expansion, comes a problem. You cannot possibly retain all the necessary skills in-house to allow you to fully exploit these widening gaps in the market,” he said. “Find the right partner with the requisite skilled, qualified resource and you as the reseller get a broader portfolio, rapid access to market, security and peace of mind for both you and your client, and genuine flexibility of service and offering.”

Scott Dobson is managing director of Vcomm, a trade-only VAD that provides IP telephony products and services to the channel. He agrees that while many resellers have excellent skills in one area, they often lack the all-round expertise to unlock the bigger deals.

“The UC space is evolving very quickly with all of the major voice and data hardware vendors making a play,” he says. “However, the one to watch is Microsoft which owns almost all of the desktops from an OS, messaging and calendar perspective. That is circa 7,000 resellers in the UK alone that have a client base for Microsoft’s UC offering Office Communications Server [OCS]. “However, while these channels most certainly have the Microsoft skills to capitalise on the opportunity, and while many also understand the network implications and have server skills too, where almost all of them need help is in VoIP integration to existing telephony environments, such as the PBX and the PSTN,” says Dobson.

Comms-care managing director Scott Yates cites this need as a major influencing factor. “It is all much more application-driven now. It is much more than a case of simply ripping out and replacing old PBXs. Customers want and expect more than just another telephony system.” This is driving a massive demand for highly skilled engineers, says Yates, which is in turn causing huge resourcing problems for many resellers that often end up paying a premium for engineers qualified at CCIE standard or similar.

However, he notes, the ROI for all concerned tends to far exceed that of traditional networking products. And current demand is such that while it may cost more to offer unification services, these costs can often be passed on to the end user, which is itself happy to pay for the added functionality and value. Often to the tune of 40 margin points for the reseller, according to Yates. Dave Millett, operations director at Inclarity sees things in a similar light. “A reseller may not have the core skills to support every device, so before launching a new device or service, VARs need to incur costs to gain these skills before any revenue comes in, which can prevent them from acting altogether,” he says. “And this has driven the demand for third-party service providers to bolt these skills on rather than gaining them in house.”

Attractive employees A further major driver, says Millett, is that in hiring people with new skill sets, or in developing new skill sets in incumbent employees, a VAR will by definition make his people more attractive to his rivals and to the rest of the market, and will therefore have to pay more to retain such people. Resellers also need to alter the focus of their skills and tool sets, says Jurgen Hekkink, solutions marketing manager at integrator Affiniti.

“Systems integration is becoming an increasingly important element in the provisioning of UC; the ability to glue different software modules together to function as a single entity,” he says. “Also the ability to do software modifying and customisation, as well as the capability to merge applications together based on open standards and middleware platforms is gaining in importance.” Although he says it is important in this instance for all-round communications integrators to have the core UC skill sets in-house, it is impossible to specialise in all of them; to maintain true expertise in every application on every system.

“[Resellers therefore do] need specialist partners. Whether this is the integration into physical security systems, advanced video equipment, content management and delivery, or homegrown LoB applications, integrators need a solid structure to work efficiently with third parties. Core to the SI skill set is the ability to manage the end-to-end project efficiently through every project phase and to be a credible, responsible partner to the end-user,” Hekkink adds.

Kelly MacMillan, market specialist at Mitel, concurs. “While for many, IP telephony adoption has yet to reach the second stage of maturity, whereby customers are looking beyond dial tone, it is vital to convey a vision of what this technology offers. Never before has it been more important for resellers to be able to clearly understand end user issues and requirements in order to develop a genuine solution that meets their needs.

Partner ecosystems “Partnerships are key here, and VARs should be exploring the development of their own partner ecosystem to take advantage of the multitude of end-user applications and custom development opportunities that exist. For the sophisticated reseller, building partnerships between IT specialists and communications VARs will expand their opportunity into new accounts and generate new revenue streams into their existing bases.”

For many, she explains, the advantage of partnering is that it enables both parties to engage with the customer without having to become experts on technologies with which they are unfamiliar, and that may allow them to work together to share their respective customer base to cross-sell and up-sell corresponding offerings.

“It is significant to note that some resellers have rightly predicted the direction technology is taking and have already moved into the IT space and are developing custom applications into targeted markets,” says MacMillan. “Such craftsmanship has proven a very profitable endeavour for these VARs, while others are simply outsourcing this development to IT specialists.

“Smart resellers will continue to build expertise across multiple layers of technology but, importantly, they will focus on resolving critical business issues with a view to technology as an enabler of business, not as a magic panacea to solve all ills.

“It is vital for the reseller to decide what its core capabilities are and to ensure that it has the correct level of resources, skills and experience to support its portfolio,” says Hekkink, and this is where third-party services providers can help ­ allowing resellers to adopt smart introduction processes to look at new emerging technologies and to adopt these into their portfolios in a structured, controlled way.

“So instead of gearing the whole services organisation up, it might make sense to partner with smaller specialist partners, and build a core of expertise in-house that focuses on the expertise and skills required to move forward into new markets.”

InClarity’s Millett cautions resellers to be careful not to dilute their client presence or to undermine their core offerings too much however, as by using third party service providers VARs “may risk weakening their own message”.

“The VAR is positioning itself as manager of the UC, but without the skills in house to support every device/service. How does a customer validate those capabilities? If it is an area where you do not have the skill set, the customer may rightly question your claim to be an expert.” Here, he says, vendors need to do their bit and provide simple, supportable solutions that will not hamper resellers from adding their solutions to the mix.

“Interoperability is one example ­ without offering it the vendor is simply being lazy when it comes to supporting its VARs. Often vendors will try to develop on too many fronts and de-prioritise the support required for its reseller partners.

“FMC and UC have been over-hyped for many years, but for the end customer, what does it achieve? Many will benefit from doing the bulk of it, rather than going for the whole hog from day one. Rather than going for ‘UC nirvana’, most companies would benefit from some basic steps towards UC, taken one at a time.”

As such, according to Hekkink, resellers should look for three qualities in potential partners: innovation, advanced skills, and reliability. “The partner’s skill set should be complementary, but without too much overlap. It is also critical that both parties are open and honest with each other on where and how they will work together, the partnership’s aim and future expectations.”

Everyone’s a winner Here, as long as the reseller and specialist partner both play to their core strengths, then a win-win relationship can be developed, says Hekkink. “Customers like to see clear project ownership and will expect the reseller to manage partners successfully.” In other words, resellers should avoid partnering with organisations that may have hidden or secondary goals, or have interests that may conflict with those of the end customer. So beware those with direct competitors or with an apparent desire to build any kind of direct relationships with your customer.

“This can easily sour a partnering relationship and could cause problems in delivering an excellent customer experience,” says Hekkink. Andrew Lough, business manager for communications and collaboration at a&o UK, offers similar advice. “When considering a third party to overcome skills and resource issues, [resellers should] choose partners that are experienced in working in complex IT environments that can provide deployment, business application integration and support services at the desktop, rather than just at the voice switch,” he says.

“Currently, many UC installations are close to stalling point, and this is caused by poor advice from technology focused voice suppliers. The business case for UC is less about technology, and more about enhanced communication and collaboration processes that improve productivity, efficiency and competitive edge. Resellers need to work with third parties used to addressing value through IT service delivery and integration of business solutions at the desktop.”

This is a sentiment borne out by the experience of Des Lekerman, managing director of Eurodata Systems, a five-times Microsoft Gold Certified Partner system integrator that serves the mid-market.

When Eurodata wanted to get involved in a customer’s implementation and management of a unified converged communications solution, it required voice expertise; something that the company did not have in house at the time.

“First invested in people with telecommunications backgrounds and trained existing staff to understand how new Microsoft technology worked with both legacy and existing voice systems,” Lekerman says. “We then trained our new voice experts on Microsoft applications. Basically, we combined our knowledge. We then decided to partner with Mitel, which understands how to integrate voice and data on Microsoft applications.

“We managed to build our processes together with Mitel and we now have a formula for an end-to-end UC solution to be deployed for our mid-market customers. Our methodology allows our mid-market customers to pick and choose the elements of the UC applications they want to integrate. It is not one-size-fits-all: we have to be completely flexible and understand the different customers’ businesses and needs.”

Partnering with Mitel on the UC deployment has, according to Lekerman, allowed Eurodata to provide more flexibility and agility to teleworkers and mobile workers within mid-market organisations, something once only offered to larger organisations.

However, he concedes, finding the right partner can be a challenge. “When looking for third parties, it is vital to understand their customer base as well as their technical expertise, and to take references,” he says. “The perfect partner needs to have complementary skills and good synergies, as well as flexibility and a proven track record. A good partner also needs to have a confidential approach. We would counsel against working with any third party that cannot prove a service-orientated attitude.”