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Selecting the right vendor requires more than UC feature checklist

Selecting a UC vendor can't be reduced to a simple UC features/price checklist, but strategies exist to get the most out of UC equipment choices while fulfilling user needs.

Selecting a unified communications (UC) vendor isn't simple. Enterprises can't rely on simple checklists that compare features and costs. Instead, buyers should adopt a matrix strategy for vendor selection.

As one communications manager recently suggested in an online forum, the first impulse in selecting a UC vendor is to list all the possible criteria, rank each vendor on those criteria, and go from there. But analysts and consultants warn that this approach shortchanges the complexities of integrating unified communications into the business.

"Understand the business requirements and see if there's something special, unique or different about what the company is trying to do," advised Don Van Doren, principal at UniComm Consulting LLC.

If, for example, location-based services are a major element of corporate UC strategy, the unified communications requirements should reflect this need. Otherwise, most standard feature sets released by UC vendors are comparable to the point that doing a feature-by-feature comparison can miss how relatively well executed the products are as a cohesive whole.

"If that's the case, fine -- focus on those, and avoid the 372-item list of features and functions out there," Van Doren said.

After all, the unified communications market is evolving so quickly that the feature which one major vendor lacks today will probably be added in one or two upgrade cycles, he said.

Much more importantly, enterprises must look at the strategic UC vision and the historical roots of each vendor and determine how well these jibe with corporate priorities, Van Doren said.

For example, Avaya's firm telephony roots mean much of its functionality and performance is tied to the IP PBX. For companies with large call centers, Avaya's equipment might be ideally suited for quickly routing and re-routing customer support calls with high reliability. Microsoft's software-centric view of the world, however, might be a better fit for companies that view desktop connectivity and collaboration as critical.

"The problem is everyone claims that they can do everything, but… they can't," Van Doren said. "You really have to look at your business requirements and figure out what direction you want to be coming from."

Developing the right UC checklist

Aligning vendor selection with corporate culture and UC strategy is not enough in most cases because, for better or worse, even the most homogenized corporate entity is ultimately made up of individuals with widely divergent work patterns and communications needs.

"In unified communications, we actually have to profile: We have different types of business users with different types of requirements in how they want to talk, who they want to talk to, how they want to receive voicemail," said Roberta Fox, a senior partner at communications consultancy Fox Group.

She described a recent engagement with a client where she divided the company's 900 employees into seven categories, ranging from the road warrior and knowledge worker to sales force and non-traveling executive. She said companies will vary in the number of user categories they have, depending on size, corporate structure and work policy. Whatever the case, it is important to get an accurate understanding of how people actually use the tools they are given.

"I don't see how you can successfully deploy otherwise," Fox said.

Such profiling also ensures that you purchase the right amount of equipment and licenses for your business needs. It will prevent companies from buying BlackBerry Enterprise Server licenses for employees who never work more than five feet from their desks, or buying desk phones for people who are always in the field.

After these business requirements are developed for each user type, the enterprise can draft a rough UC feature checklist that doesn't compare features but examines whether each feature meets the needs of different employees: Does Microsoft's solution offer voicemail to text? Is Nortel's conferencing up to par?

Then, and only then, can you determine which UC vendors can fit the bill and what each selection will cost the company.

Trying to compare vendors in an apples-to-apples fashion before this winnowing down of requirements can lead down a dangerous path.

"Does it miss the big picture?" Van Doren asked. "Yes, it does. Features and functions are important, but only to the degree that there's something you've got to get right. Beyond that, they're not that important."

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