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Is it Getting Harder to Differentiate?

My firm has been involved with several major client procurements recently. Here’s the good news: most, if not all of the UC-based manufacturers today provide full UC Suite feature/functionality. In fact, most deliver on the promise of UC well technically. The full UC suite, of course, includes all components of Telephony, Contact Center, and the UC suite of IM/chat, presence, softphone, Unified Messaging, corporate directory, audio conferencing, video conferencing, collaboration, and more. Most can deliver on a virtualized platform, even using client-side servers. Customers consistently get excited about the new UC-based technologies and want to engage and utilize it.

So the bad news: it’s getting more and more difficult for the channel (and the manufacturers) to differentiate from another.

As we go through a procurement process, we commonly engage with the channel and manufacturers for live demonstrations from the finalists. A common phrase coming from the customer after a second and third demonstration is “didn’t we just see the same thing yesterday? After a couple of these demonstrations they all look the same.” The answer, at a high level, from our clients’ vantage point, is an unequivocal “yes.” Sure, there are nuances – ease of interface for programming and MAC activity, differences among the end points, soft clients, integration with Microsoft Exchange and Google, and how UC clients engage each other and steps involved, Contact Center tools, Web-based conferencing use, SBCs for SIP trunking, using Emergency Notification and E911 tools, and more.

When it comes to the above features and functionality, all manufacturers typically score high to very high marks. It’s not whether the manufacturer offers the technology (or through a partner), it’s the delivery of user perception as to how those features will be adopted by their internal customer, the customer’s user population. The richness of a full UC experience for the enterprise organization is here.


So How Does the Channel Differentiate?

So how does the channel differentiate in today’s “copycat” economy? If you are channel partner, consider the following:

1. Total Cost for the system – including capital and ongoing maintenance and software subscription costs for a seven-year period, NOC services, including a core refresh at approximately month 48

2. Proposal preparedness and strength of your firm and associated manufacturer(s)

3. Understanding as a channel partner the breadth of services offered by your firm to specific target markets, or in conjunction with the manufacturer(s) or other partners

4. Areas of specialization, based on vertical market you are proposing work to and number of end points (SMB, medium-to-large – 500-5,000 end points, and very large – 5,000 end points +)

5. Ability to execute on customer needs short and long term

6. SLAs, guarantees, and associated penalties for non-performance, and providing a serve infrastructure to support the customer on a 9-5 or 24x7 basis depending on the customer and vertical

7. Length of time representing the said manufacturer(s)

8. Annual sales, to demonstrate financial strength and the ability to service the size customer you are targeting

9. NOC services and Network Assessment services, to ensure the customer network, are ready for UC prior to implementation and both voice and data are monitored for possible anomalies 24x7

10. Understanding the cloud as an optional service proposed requested by prospects.

With today’s decreasing margins and overall lower price point for an end point at up to 30% less than just 36 months ago, the need to differentiate is greater today than ever. The race is on to cite a niche for a particular customer size, vertical market, and provide additional services that are above and beyond basic telephony, with an ability to deliver on today’s UC-rich solutions. From the customer viewpoint, this is a great time to be the customer, especially with the decrease in costs in the last 36 months.


Recommendations for the Channel

So for the channel, I recommend to:

1. Determine your vertical market specialization and back it up with customers and nuances and urgencies based on that market niche

2. Have the technical skill sets and certifications necessary in data, voice, video, contact center, and the full UC suite, as well as staff support ratios based on the number of customers and total end points supported

3. Provide Network Assessments and NOC services (as it applies to medium-to-larger clients) either directly or through a partnership that provides such

4. Provide an environment of outstanding customer service that consistently gets a “4.5 – 5” (out of 5) based on customer feedback surveys and word on the street

5. Meet and exceed given SLAs as defined in the customers/our RFP – consistently exceed the committed time to respond, both remotely and on site, and even consider providing an option for a time-to-fix SLA for outages

6. Present the most professional, complete proposal at all times in response to a Request For Proposal or customer request for a proposal. Ease of proposal review and compliance with terms and shows a lot to a customer for a channel partner’s ability to work with the customer.


And What About the Enterprise Buyer?

For the enterprise organization, the buyer, the criteria are similar, yet different:

1. Determine the strength of the channel partner that could possibly win your business. Can they provide reference-able customers in your line size? In your vertical market(s)? Your organization may be in more than one vertical – for example, many healthcare providers are associated with major universities, and therefore two market niches are important to note here for serviceability and experience – as much as these two groups are alike they are also different, as the 24x7 nature of healthcare is different than the less-than 24x7 nature of a university

2. Identify the skill sets the vendor needs to have in order to service your organization for a fully loaded implementation and ongoing services

3. Determine if the channel partner offers Network Assessments and/or NOC services as a part of their implementation and NOC services as an ongoing support, 24x7 monitoring function for anomalous activity and report on it proactively

4. Identify, through references and other media, the channel partner’s philosophy and ability to over-deliver on the customer experience. How is this aligned with your internal customer service model? What grade would any of their references or customers give them on a scale of 1 - 5 based on knowledge, response to a major or minor outage, implementation and project management skill sets?

5. Determine if the channel partner offers SLAs and offers penalties for those not met. Also, is it possible that the channel partner offer a time to fix guarantee? (some do)

6. What is the completeness of the channel partner’s proposal like? Did they provide complete and concise answers all proposal questions? Did they provide a complete pricing model? Did they adhere to most of the terms and conditions stated? Does the channel partner’s technical offer meet or exceed your baseline technical requirements?


Your Next Step

As a channel partner you must look at every possible vantage point and determine, whether it be internal skill sets or partnered skill sets, that you can meet or exceed requirements set forth in a customer Request For Proposal. What makes you different from another channel partner? What implementation and services infrastructure do you offer? Can you offer those components cited in this post and then some? Do you specialize in the vertical markets you are proposing and understand the nuances associated with those verticals? Your prospects do.

As an enterprise customer, a thorough evaluation of those UC providers that specialize in your vertical market and line size can make the difference between an OK implementation and a superior implementation and customer experience. UC technologies are complex and real-time, and require the specialized knowledge of a prequalified channel partner and manufacturer that best suits your needs. The technical nuances can be subtle, and yet the cost and service variances can be significant – brought altogether, going through the process can result in (a) better price points to your organization, (b) an overall better solution based on the requirements stated in your RFP document, and (c) services and guarantees that facilitate a highly successful implementation and users who want to embrace all aspects of a full UC suite.