Hosted Unified Communications for SMBs: Dig Deep!
Hosted can make a lot of sense. But compare capabilities, ease of use, service and support, and other factors, and look beyond just price.
I'm not announcing that 2011 is the year of hosted UC, but I will say that more and more companies--of all sizes--are looking into hosted services as an option for deploying UC. It's clear that hosted UC will be interesting to companies both large and small, but these services currently can make the most sense for SMBs. I recently interviewed several hosted providers focusing their offers at small businesses, and was pleased to see that there are some very comprehensive UC services available at reasonable prices for SMBs. On the other hand, it's not as easy to shop and compare vendors, as I’ll explain shortly. Rather than working with VARs and resellers, most hosted services are sold directly by the providers, mainly via their websites, focusing on features and pricing.
There are lots of reasons for SMBs to explore hosted services. Price is usually the number one reason cited, but I believe that the most compelling argument is that you don't need an experienced IT staff to manage and maintain the solution, and it's easier to stay current with technology and upgrades. Vendors are continually adding new features and upgrades to their products, which means additional cost and admin headaches (e.g.; do I need to upgrade my server to get the new features?). With hosted services, companies generally get automatically upgraded to the latest versions without having to make any changes to their systems.
A common complaint about hosted services is that they typically offer pretty basic features and capabilities, and may not offer all of the functions that their premise-based counterparts offer. This is true for high-end enterprise solutions, but for SMBs, it's just the opposite. Depending on the solution, hosted services may offer more features more cost effectively than users can get with premise-based SMB systems. Most SMBs would be hard pressed to afford capabilities such as presence, IM, conferencing, and mobility in a premise-based solution, but can access these very cost effectively from a hosted service. Several of the hosted vendors I spoke with provide these capabilities as part of their basic offering or for a few dollars extra per month.
At first glance it seems that many of the SMB hosted service offerings are very similar, but when you drill down, the differences become more evident. For example, all of the vendors I interviewed claim that they offer mobile UC capabilities, but for some vendors this simply means being able to forward calls to a mobile device, while for others, such as Fonality, it means also being able to display a user’s presence status on the mobile device. When asked if they offer contact center capabilities, all but one vendor responded yes, but in most cases this simply meant offering call queuing, without providing monitoring, reporting, CTI, or CRM integration.
There aren't too many differences when it comes to basic calling features--all of the companies offer unlimited local and long distance calling, automated attendant, visual voicemail, Call forward/Call transfer/Call waiting, Caller ID, and other basic call functions. Where they differ is in more advanced features such as contact center capabilities, mobility, conferencing, desktop controls, and unified communications capabilities such as presence awareness, IM, and more. Companies considering using a hosted provider need to dig deeper to understand what is and isn’t provided--does conferencing mean a 3-way conference call or web conferencing or a virtual conference room; does Find Me/Follow Me mean simply forwarding calls to a mobile phone, or can you specify rules about who can reach you based on who the caller is, time of day, etc.?
Comparing pricing between vendors is even more difficult. Some features are included in pricing bundles and others are sold a la carte. On the surface, what may seem like the lowest cost provider may not be, based on extra charges that aren’t obvious. Customers need to understand what is included in the package and what is extra. For example, one vendor includes a hard phone in their pricing, but others do not; some include E911 and virtual extensions, while others charge extra; some vendors charge a per-minute fee for mobile capabilities and conference calls, which can dramatically increase the monthly cost.
Hosted UC for SMBs can make a lot of sense. But do your homework--compare capabilities, ease of use, service and support, and other factors, and look beyond the monthly price advertised on the vendors' websites. And maybe next year I'll say that it's the year of hosted UC.