Webinars that Raise Your Blood Pressure
I sat in on a webinar today from Aruba Networks, a well-respected manufacturer of wireless network gear. We use Aruba for wireless deployments that involve over, say, 20 users, so I was shocked when today’s webinar on “Cutting the last cord” was actually an hour long pitch for eliminating wired networks by moving to Microsoft’s Lync for your telephone system. Moving away from the desk phone is something I am passionate about, but not by getting in bed with the company that fleeced all of us for decades and were guilty of monopoly abuse of market share. It was like finding out that person you were flirting with at the bar was not only married, but married to the jerk that stole your lunch money in junior high.
I understand Aruba’s angle on this – if people buy the premise that you no longer need cables in the office, they would be required to load up on the wireless network hardware and software that Aruba sells. And I understand Microsoft on this too: Cisco right now owns the corporate enterprise network space, and Microsoft Lync has probably picked off all the easy wins at the enterprise telephone system level with companies that are end-to-end Microsoft. They are hitting the wall many manufacturers have slammed up against: the network guys in very big companies are all Cisco-certified and have invested their entire careers in learning Cisco IOS commands, Cisco’s oddball corruptions of industry standards like SIP, and in trying to breathe life into the Frankenstein monster of acquisitions that is a Cisco voice network. (Full disclosure: I flog my new technicians to earn their CCNAs and deploy Cisco switches in most greenfield installations.) If you can convince the C-suite that they can save money by dumping all of those switches and wires, the Cisco ‘one neck to choke’ value proposition falls apart.
Side note: I got a good chuckle at the fact that Aruba is using PRIs (for non-phone geeks, this is quaint, traditional land line technology) with their brand new Lync implementation and claiming $2M in long distance savings from Lync. I take it this means that the savings was found by stitching offices and remote workers together over the internet, the low hanging multi-office fruit that is a 10-15 year old technology solution. So, yes, the savings was from Lync, like my car’s groundbreaking feature of brakes has made it possible to decelerate.
Cutting the Cord
When I started in this industry in 2004, I had a dream. I had a dream that one day, little companies across Southern California would throw their desk phones in the garbage. They would use the Inter-Tel 8602 softphone, a cool piece of software featuring a handy dandy USB dongle hanging out of the PC or laptop. This softphone would, in my feeble, millennial brain, make it super fast to install a phone system, and make life so much easier for companies since they wouldn’t need PoE switches or to worry about programming phones for users. I pitched it over and over again, first with the Inter-Tel Axxess, then the Inter-Tel 5000, all throughout the aughts. All that fishing, and not one bite.
But We Like Our Phones
The feedback from customers made me feel a bit of deja vu to my time in Little League where I hit a lot of foul balls and lead the team in strike outs. So close, yet so far. CFOs and owners saw the cost savings and forward thinking sales manager types liked the deployment flexibility. IT managers with rooms full of desktops running XP on 1-2GB of RAM were ice cold to the idea. Here was a mission critical piece of software on their virus-plagued, under-powered PCs, and they did not want to take the risk even to save about $100 a seat on hardware costs. There were practical problems in the demo, also, such as an inability to hear the phone ring unless you wore the headset. Oh and speaking of sound… these economy class Dell and Gateway desktops didn’t even have sound cards and sometimes did not even have spare USB ports. So much for my per seat savings projections.
And yes, many managers liked phones. They had an emotional attachment to their desk phone. Their computers crashed, their computers frustrated them, the IT guy was perceived often as a cocky, smelly wizard they hated and maybe feared. Phones? Reliable. Old school. A holdover from their early career. My grandmother even told me once “Businesses will always need phones.”
Businesses of the world, go softphone! You have nothing to lose but your cord!
Fast forward to 2014, and we have a confluence of a few trends that are making it impossible to consider installing an office where everyone gets a desk phone.
Oddly enough, IP phones are a culprit. The secret is out – they are expensive to implement. You have to replace your switches with Power over Ethernet switches, the dreaded PoE upgrade. Your network probably sucks if you haven’t moved to VoIP by now, so assume a technician will be fiddling about in your server closet for an hour or two. And often your cabling is funky. For LA-area startups, there is no cabling, they went wireless only to save precious capital from the start. So that $100 a seat savings in 2004 for a softphone as a best case scenario just exploded into a $250+ per seat savings, because all you are doing is adding software and a license to a desktop connected over WiFi, versus a network overhaul plus phone.
Desktop computers have gotten better too, of course. Minimum specs on Macs and even entry level Dells and HPs are 4GB plus a built in sound card. The shift to laptops didn’t hurt, with relatively sophisticated audio speakers and microphones bundled in. Computers are far more stable – as much as I am a professed Apple snob, the Windows 7 laptop I bang around on at home for gaming and Office hasn’t crashed more than a handful of times since I bought it a few years ago. So we can run streaming audio services like softphones reliably, and we don’t freak out about a daily CTRL-ALT-DEL like we did a few years back. So IT managers are more comfortable with voice on their network, and their networks are better suited for streaming as we moved to gigabit switches and cloud-based applications.
Ubiquitous softphones and tablets have also helped my dream become reality. We have all accepted that we have these phones in our pockets that sound awful on a phone call but are otherwise more or less magical to the lay person, with capabilities beyond anything we could have imagined just a few years ago. Strikingly, the only feature that has not improved with cell phones is the audio quality of a cell phone call. This has trained us to be content with choppy, static-y calls, and thus not mind the occasional audio weirdness from VoIP connections. It also means we all carry awesome computers in our pocket all the time, computers begging to have an app loaded on them, an app that is just an extension of your office’s telephone system.
Let’s not ignore this guy
We don’t make phone calls like we used to. There are whole departments in businesses that seem to hate using the phone, and a whole generation of people – my generation – that prefer text and SMS and IM and Facebook Messenger and GChat and Snapchat and even email to communicating via voice. I can’t even remember the last time I called a friend for anything. In fact, when my phone rings at night or on weekends, it usually means someone died or a system crashed, so I probably have a pretty terrible phone demeanor in my free time. All that said, some roles, transactions, industries and circumstances will always be better served by real-time human voice, so I am not holding a funeral for the phone. I am saying that it was easier to justify spending hundreds of dollars per user on telephones when they were the only game in town for communications.
I’m a Business. I need a phone system. Now What?
For one, call us at 800-640-2411 and talk to one of our helpful folks in Sales, or email us from our website. We will meet with you, assess your needs, write up a proposal, demo products for you and help you feel like you understand this new vocabulary and whirlwind of technology at least 1% better. That is our “1% less confused guarantee” that has won us at least three compliments.
Without knowing your situation, I would recommend that your receptionist or front desk have a phone, for image and for the ability to handle a call if the computer is shut off. I would recommend conference rooms have physical conference room phones because you need a specialized device for group conversations. This can be a USB “hockey puck” type device but that doesn’t cut it if you have say 6+ people in a room or a room with challenging acoustics. People that make you a lot of money should get whatever they want, so ask them what makes them happy; a phone is a small price to pay to keep your President’s Club broker to stay happy. I’m not going to sit here and piss off your top producer. People with big desks are important and should probably have a phone, and rooms where an intercom and/or paging is important. Everyone else? Softphone it up. A Mitel MiCollab (former UCA) client or a Zultys MXIE client will blow the doors off any telephone in terms of capabilities, and can travel with your employee if they take their laptop home or move about your office. They are also easy to requisition if you have let someone go, as it is just a license you turn on or off with a click, versus a $150 service call to reprogram ye olde ancient phone.
But blow the doors off? Yes. No doors anymore. Your phone’s plaything buttons and paper labels and weird plastic consoles taking up half your desk should be thrown in the trash. With a softphone-enabled Unified Communications client like what we sell with Mitel and Zultys, you can see in detail what everyone is doing, you can highlight and dial with a mouse, you can drag and drop contacts to call and create conferences, and you never have to look at a manual again; contextual help is built right into the software. Dump the phone. You barely use it. That salesperson trying to sell you phones for your entire user community is pushing horse drawn carriages on you. Get a softphone and dial a contact in Outlook by hitting a hotkey combination on your keyboard.
The question you need to ask is, “Why does this person need a phone?” and come up with material, realistic use scenarios to justify a physical phone. If you have reporting, look at the calls per day. Look at your phone bill. I can’t tell you how many businesses tell me they have “a lot of phone calls” and are averaging about an hour or two of phone calls in a week per user. You wouldn’t buy all of your staff a personal fax machine. Why are you getting people that barely use the phone a $200+ piece of equipment only they can use?
Commonalities in Extenda Softphones
We don’t sell lame software that looks like a phone on your PC anymore. That doesn’t even make sense. Someone tell Shoretel?
Both of the award-winning softphones form Mitel and Zultys have a host of built-in Unified Communications features that make the software a central point of control of your communications – a real-time dashboard, if you will. Yes you can make a call, but you can also chat, launch a video call, send an email or share your desktop. You can also create custom calling rules that would have cost $10,000 and a dedicated server to implement just a few years ago. Visual voicemail, personal status, presence and a unified, company-wide address book and personal buddy lists are table stakes in this game. Now look at that stupid phone on your desk again, staring back at you like a dummy.
Why Mitel MiCollab
The former Unified Communicator Advanced has a lot of great features. It is a clean, great design, very easy on the eyes. It is unobtrusive. It is great in Windows environments, with a lot of great built-in hooks to Outlook and Office products. The hooks to the Mitel family of products are seamless, especially the video and desktop sharing components and the provisioning through the MiCollab (former MAS). It can also be adapted to Lync environments, so you don’t have to use the oddball 3rd party products Microsoft requires to get phone calls going on their system, with the voice component just fitting in to the Lync interface for simple deployments.
Why Zultys MXIE
Zultys thrives in mixed OS environments and/or when you want to empower your users with granular control over their communications. The MXIE is going to get a face lift in the next year if you don’t love the look, but most of my customers see the great personality. This is a very powerful communications tool that features fax and group mailbox access. It is also easier to train on than competing products, because whether you are an operator, a call center agent, a supervisor or part of the rank and file, it is the same software product with slight tweaks for different roles. Products from other companies have specialized software for the call center, for operators, for supervisors and for knowledge workers, which is 4 products to master instead of one. It can also be configured and administered through the MXadmin software as with everything else in the Zultys world, which is very convenient.
I love my smartphone apps from Mitel and Zultys. At the risk of upsetting some people, I like hiding my cell phone number from customers – I need to retain control over my personal time, and my cell phone’s native phone apps do not give me the tools like my office phone system does for sorting and routing calls appropriately. I like having access to my company directory and the ability to chat with a coworker’s desktop from anywhere. That said, you might get some resistance if you aren’t paying for employee cell phones, so the decision on deploying these devices or not is something I leave in your able hands. It effectively replaces a cordless phone for me, and the shorter battery life on my cell from the app running all day is more than made up for with the convenience of being able to see who in my company is available at a glance, set up my own personal status and call routing with a couple of flicks on my smartphone, and access corporate contacts.