Choosing a Los Angeles Telephone Vendor

Baby elephant on a soccer ball

Obviously, just call (800) 640-2411 or email sales@teamextenda.com to make your life easy. Extenda makes picking a telephone system a breeze. Some of you will of course be skeptical and perhaps even standoffish, in which case you ought to see the baby animals at the L.A. Zoo to find love in your hearts again before returning to the phone purchasing trenches.

Baby elephant on a soccer ball

This happy guy called Extenda when it was time to modernize their Los Angeles telephone system

Picking your vendor

At last count, there were over 4,000 registered class C-7 contractors (low voltage voice and data installers) in California. Add to that total all of the IT guys, contractors and moonlighting network admins without licenses, and by conservative estimates one in three Californians are installing SaaS / hosted / cloud-based communications.

That means you, as a consumer, have a lot of choices.

We suggest you narrow down your choices with the following questions.

  1. How many technicians do you employ? How many are certified on the system you are proposing? (make sure you are not going to be left in the lurch when the only tech that knows your product skips town)
  2. Can we see a Certificate of Insurance covering your installations? (you want to see significant commercial coverage in case things go south)
  3. Can we try your system before we buy? Alternatively, is there a money back guarantee? (good companies will let you play with the gear before committing time and money)
  4. How long have you been in business? (longevity is good)
  5. Can we review a sample contract for a purchase or rental? For your managed service? (helpful to understand where the gotchas are – what is covered, what is not)
  6. What does our Total Cost of Ownership over five to eight years look like? (important to include phone, phone system maintenance and internet bills with this)
  7. What does the initial support period look like? (nothing worse than being left in the lurch because only so many hours were built into the implementation)

Note that there are some things typically recommended for phone system shoppers that I skipped over.

  1. Don’t check references. Everyone has a brother-in-law or other pet accounts. Conduct a customer site visit instead and see the system in action.
  2. Take awards and press with a grain of salt. Very few tests, reviews or surveys in the industry are being evaluated scientifically, unless you are measuring which vendor spent the most advertising on the reviewer’s website. Same goes for industry awards -be skeptical.
  3. Don’t consider the phone system first, the vendor second. Your dream system implemented badly will disappoint, while a second tier system implemented expertly will delight you. The manufacturers really harp on small differences to drive sales, but most phone systems provide similar functionality. If you want a smooth transition, recognize that a good vendor is as important as a state-of-the-art unified communications solution.

Happy hunting!

Choosing a Telephone Systems for your Los Angeles business

Joker shopping

Whether you are looking to replace a telephone system that is past it’s useful service life or hoping to improve your customer care, image and capabilities, it is important that you do your homework before shopping. Knowing the size of your system, how much you are paying, what your users want, what the boss wants, and how the system is used are very important. This empowers your vendors to come up with solutions that can add new value while preserving existing business rules.

Joker shopping

Shopping with confidence and a sense of humor as he looks for a new telephone system

I recommend companies take the following steps listed below when looking to replace aging equipment and/or acquire new capabilities.

  1. Phone Audit. First, figure out what you have. This includes basic things like how many phones you own by type. Be sure to count those door phones, fax machines, conference room phones, cordless phones and paging horns. Many systems are sized for a specific range of devices, so this helps you narrow down your choices considerably.
  2. Map Programming. Then, write down how the system is programmed. A spreadsheet of users by name, extension, personal phone and fax number is the best place to start, usually by copying over a company directory. If you have special features or software people find useful, this is a good time to note those things. It also means calling into your phone system and mapping out your automated attendant and call routing – where do calls go and who answers the calls. Simply drawing the routing out by hand gives you great insight into what it is like to be a caller trying to reach your company, areas for improvement, and an idea as to the problems you might want to address with a new system.
  3. Survey Users. Ask employees of all stripes to list their favorite features and biggest gripes with the system. Focus on power users like people in sales, operators, receptionists, customer service personnel, mobile workers and anyone else who tends to be a heavy phone user – they will complain (or thank you) the loudest when the new system is in.
  4. Talk to IT about disaster recovery. Living in Los Angeles means being prepared for anything. Be it earthquakes, fires, flash floods, mudslides, civil disturbances, or a mountain lion on the loose, there are plenty of reasons to have a good backup plan in place. Find out what your IT department is doing for backup, so you can easily integrate the telephone system solution into whatever else the company is doing to protect its data and critical services.
  5. Talk to management about management. Who is running this thing? Know up front who is in charge of the phone system so you can gauge the amount of time they have available and technical expertise. While every vendor says their phone system or hosted service is easy – plug and play! just point and click! – even the easiest looking systems are installed by professional technicians and engineers.
  6. Figure out what you are spending. This includes not just monthly phone bills, but internet bills, maintenance or repair bills, software assurance and upgrade programs, and associated services from IT companies and maybe even your internal support costs for the system. We usually end up saving our customers money overall when we get a big picture view of what they are spending on communicating, because we can tailor solutions, payment plans and managed service contracts towards your financial goals from the start.
  7. Talk to management about their goals. I saved the most important step for last because it is better to approach managers with your homework done and without biasing your results from your user surveys. At this point, you are the phone system expert. Provide candid feedback on your findings – knowing how the system is used and what users find important are invaluable to the person in the company that might know the least about the phone system they are about to invest in.

And now the fun part starts – start calling vendors! If your professional contacts and partners can’t recommend anyone, a good place to start is business.com. This will allow you to see demonstrations and get budgetary pricing quickly, so you can determine if the project is even realistic at this stage.

Good luck, and don’t hesitate to call Extenda (800) 640-2411 or email us at sales@teamextenda.com.

Mitel On a Roll

Mitel new 2014 corporate logo

Mitel new 2014 corporate logo

Mitel’s new logo reflecting a role as a communications software developer, versus a telephone system manufacturer

As both of my regular readers know, once upon a time I worked as a stock analyst. While I no longer pick individual stocks, I still read the financial news religiously. Our very own Mitel Networks (MITL) has been prominent in the news, and not just for being one of the best VoIP telephone system manufacturers available to businesses throughout greater Los Angeles. It appears that abandoned bids for competitors aside, (which we commented on as well), Mitel is also doing pretty well financially of late.

Seeking Alpha’s Jarrod W. Jacinth wrote in Feb of 2013 that he was buying Mitel. His argument was that the company was a bargain at a price-to-earnings ratio of 4.42 at the time, given even fairly modest annual growth of 15% coming out of a restructuring. He used the Graham Number and found that even that very conservative measure determined that Mitel was undervalued. So from a value perspective, this is a fantastic stock. To give non-finance people some perspective, a P/E of 10 means that, with the profits generated today, you could buy the stock at today’s price in 10 years (assuming you are looking at annual earnings). The average P/E of the S&P 500 stocks as of Jan. 1, 2013 was 17 – Mitel looks pretty cheap at first glance.

Jacinth hypothesized that Mitel’s low stock price came from their debt load. In 2013, Mitel owed $313M with operating cash flow just shy of $39M. If we look at coverage ratios of operating income-to-total-debt, we get 0.12 ($39/$313). In the industry, Avaya in 2014 earned $197M in operating income on $6,023 of debt, for a ratio of 0.03. Shoretel for the year ending June 2014 earned $36M in operating cash flows on $47M in debt in 2013, for a ratio of 0.76. To their credit, they paid down 30M in debt through a combination of stock sales and operating cash flows, though like Avaya, the company continues to lose money on a net income basis. Cisco earned $12.3B in operating income for the year ending 6/30/2014, on $35.8B in liabilities, for a ratio of 0.34.

More recently (last week), David Zanoni wrote that the turnaround at Mitel is under way. He notes that cloud services are growing by double digits, driving recurring revenue ever higher. A year after the Jacinth article, the debt picture is looking even better. For the most recent quarter ending 10/31/2013, operating income was $54.6M, up 40%, and debt is down to $288M, putting the coverage ratio now at 18%. Most importantly, Mitel has had some time to integrate the large purchase of Aastra further into its operations and can start to reap the benefits.

Mitel and Aastra have merged

Mitel and Aastra, combining like Voltron

As an investor, despite the recent run-up in Mitel’s stock price, I would think that Mitel’s stock has room to keep going up, assuming it can keep up the pace it has established. As the revenue mix shifts to recurring revenue from the cloud business, the company will throw off more cash which can be used to get the debt burden down further and continue investing in new technology. Mitel has a strong position and can continue to reap the benefits and scale of the Aastra merger, such as cheaper unit handset manufacturing costs and sales of Mitel software into Aastra customers. Of course, this is all just guessing – past performance is no guarantee of future results, and you should do your own homework before buying a stock.

For companies considering Mitel, the recent financial results should make you feel at ease. Mitel is on a roll, and every indication is that the company has a lot of momentum heading into the US economic recovery. Unlike competitors such as Shoretel and Avaya, it is able to maintain profitable growth while investing in the future and paying down debt, no easy trick. Unlike the Cisco behemoth, Mitel will return your call if you have under 200 seats.

The Quietest Industry

It is ironic that an industry built around the human voice has so little said about it. I am thankful for sites like No Jitter, Daily Cloud, and Network World. There are scant resources for even finding comparative tests that are helpful for companies making a big decision. I had never even seen the NY Times cover telephone systems until the phone hacking article saw phone system hacking hit the mainstream media.

Of course, you can turn to the tech community, but you will find that telecom is an IT backwater. Sites like spiceworks and stackoverflow are amazing, fantastic resources that do not quite focus on telecom enough to be useful all the time for help and comparisons, and you never know if the person posting is a shill for a brand or not. Communities like reddit are similarly hit or miss, and written from perspectives that may not be your own. For example, the complaint about the type of RAID a Zultys system runs may be fascinating to sysadmins but perhaps not so important for a small business looking to get some cool new desktop integration features with their phone system.

One concern buyers of telecom equipment should have is in the use of industry consultant reports. Some have noted that some consultants, after receiving funding from an industry group, produce reports that further the interests of said group or are ‘astroturf’ support groups. Some writers describe a web of contributions and partnerships (not just in the USA, but overseas too) in a cottage industry of big telecom players like AT&T and Verizon supporting certain industry research groups which churn out reports favoring policies big telecom players like, which are in turn handed to Congressmen who receive donations from big telecom players and promote these special interests in Congress via bills and votes.

Industry awards might not be much help either. In this award ceremony, there was a tie between Citrix and Microsoft for Best Small Business Application Virtualization Software Providers – not much help if you are choosing between the two leading providers, who happen to be Citrix and Microsoft, at least at the time this was released.

In the end, outside of asking various reps a lot of questions, you are going to embark on a lonely journey in telecom research. Our advice is to see demos, ask for references, and even go on site visits to customers that have the systems you are considering purchasing. Don’t be shy about asking to try a trial or hosted version of the product you are looking at, there is no substitute for direct experience with a product. And take independent, 3rd party reviews with a grain of salt. There is big money in telecom and not a lot of press coverage, which leads to a lot of raised eyebrows when reports and reviews are tossed around.

Mitel UCC v3 Released

Microsoft Lync is better with Mitel

Mitel’s seamless, classy integration into your Microsoft Lync environment

It is official, June 30 is the release date for the new version of Mitel’s UCC suite of applications, UCC v3.0.  This is a big release by Mitel standards with a lot of changes. We are excited about a few key elements.

As previously noted, Hyper-V support is here, as is VMware vSphere v5.5 support. This is a great solution for companies that are used to the way our competitors deploy their phone systems and applications: with a menagerie of servers or multiple virtual applications to manage and keep running.  This solution consolidates messaging, user deployment and unified communications applications, as well as off-site TeleWorking and security, to a single virtual instance.

Speaking of user deployment, the UCC v3 allows for a simple user rollout by linking to Active Directory.  This greatly speeds up deployments and makes it simple to manage your Mitel system.

Multimedia capabilities have also been extended to the smartphone, with peer to peer video available via the Mitel smartphone app. I expect personal grooming to be improved across all of my customer base once video calling becomes a standard part of business communications.

Integrations across the enterprise are expanded with this release as well.  Lync deployments will benefit from enhanced Mitel integration.  Google, Office 365 and Salesforce users will also find that there are a number of enhancements on the Mitel platform for their use, including calendar integration with presence, email integration, as well as click-to-call, presence and IM integrations. We see more and more adoption of these platforms and less traditional integration to on-site CRM software.

With the initial UCC release, Mitel did a great job of fixing the most irritating part of their platform for vendors and customers: their licensing.  The old alphabet soup of confusing licenses and license dependencies was poured into the trash, and replaced with 3 super simple license bundles: Entry, Standard and Premium. Now, a 4th tier (Basic) has been added, for users that just want a phone, while Entry users can see coworker presence on the bundled PC and web app. Right out of the gate, customers with a single UCC Standard or Premium license get a 10-port conference bridge license at no charge, too.  This makes it very difficult for Shoretel, Cisco, Avaya and NEC to compete. Each of these manufacturers needs to add an external server or, in Avaya’s case, a sorta-virtual-sorta-dedicated-server-image, to provide secure dial-in conferencing. But then again, these manufacturers really are in love with the miniature server farm model.

Solving Conference Calling

  1. Cold Fusion.
  2. CO2 emissions.
  3. Conference Calling.

Three of the most intractable challenges of modern science that also start with the letter “C”. For decades, humankind has struggled to fight energy dependence on fossil fuels and radioactive waste products, reverse global warming and the destruction of the only habitable planet we know of, and to get three people on a phone call at the same time.

We can all sleep a little easier now, as Mitel’s UC solution for conferencing has cracked the business collaboration code.  Mitel’s MiVoice Conference Phone makes three- or even four-way calling  dead simple. Just touch an icon, and dial a number to make a call.  Then, touch a second icon, dial a number, and the call is automatically joined.  If you want a fourth person on the call, well, repeat the process. No feature codes, no complicated sequence of events, no secret handshakes, combination of button presses or whispered passwords.

Did I mention it runs on Android, features incredible quality 22kHz Wideband Audio, integrates with a built-in browser to web applications, hosts native apps such as Dropbox, OpenOffice for Microsoft Office doc integration, WebEx, and Join.Me, supports an HDMI video output for presentations, has USB connectivity for connecting your PC, features 16 microphones with a 12′ 360-degree audio pickup radius, and of course provides amazing Mitel Unified Communications connectivity?

 

Mitel MiVoice Conference telephone

Mitel MiVoice Conference unit for innovative, enhanced audio, web and video conferences.

Mitel MiVoice Business 7.0 (Mitel 3300, MCD) Released

The newest release of the Mitel MiVoice Business – variously known as the Mitel 3300 and Mitel Communications Director, or MCD – promises to have a lot of great enhancements for customers enrolled in ExtendaCare or that are enrolled in Mitel Software Assurance (SWA).

Hyper-V Support.

While we don’t have a release date as of yet for the Hyper-V support (this feature is coming with a future v7 SP1 release), the news that Mitel is supporting Microsoft Hyper-V for their flagship voice platform this year is huge news.  Mitel has been VMware-only since 2010, establishing an early lead in this space.  However, many of our small and medium sized business customers are taking advantage of Microsoft’s very inexpensive Hyper-V platform instead of VMware products.  This move will undoubtedly help Mitel compete against Microsoft Lync and create a bigger gap with competitors in this segment of the market such as Avaya, Cisco and Shoretel that are still stuck selling company-branded hardware to customers.

VMWare Lead Extended.

Mitel is extending its lead in virtualized voice with VMWare, a technology Mitel pioneered.  While vSphere/vCloud v5.5 support was introduced with MiVoice Business v6 SP2, now the Small Business package that combines the base call control, MiCollab server and Mitel Border Gateway in a single .ova file has seen its capacity expanded to 250 users, up from 150 users.  In addition, the full size Mitel MiVoice Business can support 5,000 users on a single instance, up from 2,500.  VMware Site Recovery Manager is now supported for scenarios in which a data center instance fails, requiring a failover to a backup data center of the phone system and all of the UC applications.  Temporary call control can be handled by a local gateway so there is no interruption to telephone call handling.

Mobile Phone Integration (“Twinning”) Got Better.

Mitel now lets us group up to 4 devices together for simultaneous ringing and handoff.  This means a user could have a deskphone, a mobile phone app, and a softphone put into a single dynamic extension number.  Callers can just dial a single number and the user is able to juggle calls between devices, handoff calls between devices without putting the call on hold, and provide an easy, seamless way for clients to get in touch.

Call Center Improvements.

As you may know, Mitel is making a big push into the contact center and call center.  They have overhauled improved silent monitoring, coaching, barge-in and steal features on the MiVoice Business v7, making it easy for supervisors to, well, supervise.  In addition, the MiVoice Business is now shipping with the ‘Enhanced Ring Group’ option for assigning ACD-type routing of any type to a collection of Mitel phones, SIP phones, outside devices, analog phones and pretty much anything you can think of.

Other Enhancements

As usual with a large release, there were a lot of small changes that nonetheless with delight someone.

  1. Stream music on hold from your network to your phone system
  2. Simplify phone deployment for phones that are for hotdesk users
  3. Simplified user service configuration for faster moves, adds and changes
  4. Enhancements to very large systems (>10,000 users)
  5. Alarms on backup failure and longer error logs
  6. Multiple keymap templates per telephone
  7. Faster configuration automation for new installs

Overall, we are pleased with the upgrade and hoping to see SP1 soon so we can start talking to all those Hyper-V shops that have been left out in the cold by nearly all of the major telecom equipment manufacturers.

In Memorium: Inter-Tel Axxess

May 30 is the end of the line for the Axxess system.  We have hundreds of customers that are still using the system, and have tried to reach out to as many organizations as we could since production stopped in 2011.

We address what all this means to customers here so this post is just my musings on what made this such a great system.

Basically, this system was years and years ahead of its time.  Built on a common, open programming language (C++) instead of the oddball proprietary code of the competition made a world of difference when it came to desktop and software integration with the phone system.

This led naturally to the Open Architecture Interface (OAI).  This interface would be called an API today, and shows that Inter-Tel had an amazing vision for the product that continues today in the Mitel MiVoice Office (former Mitel 5000 and Inter-Tel 5200/5400/5600). Inter-Tel was able to build up an exciting ecosystem of partner companies that could use the OAI to communicate with the Axxess.  A whole ecosystem flourished years ahead of the App Store and Google Play.

The Mitel MiVoice Office is backwards compatible with Axxess and even predecessor Axxent telephones from 1991 without shortchanging users on features or capabilities. It is amazing that some of my customers have had the same phones on their desk for 20 years across three different systems with three entirely different architectures.

One reason that Mitel and Inter-Tel were a good cultural fit was shown throughout this Axxess sunsetting process.  The MiVoice Office was made compatible with all this old stuff from the Axxess, including computer telephony integration software and old IP phones that were more like beta versions given how unreliable they were at the time. I am shocked that they are as committed to their customers as they are, when all of the competition discards systems regularly and mercilessly, leaving their customers in the lurch.

One thing that my technicians at least miss with the Axxess are the hot-swappable cards.  You could be pretty rough on the system and yank out components without turning anything off or otherwise disrupting operations.  VoIP systems have fewer hardware components and generally are far more reliable, but they certainly do not like to have physical components changed out while the power is on.

I think a lot of competing systems today, such as the Shoretel system, actually owe a great deal to the Axxess’ innovative architecture.  The primary advantage they had competing against the Axxess (besides a world-beating marketing department that ran circles around dear sweet Inter-Tel) was processor redundancy.  The new systems used an IP architecture while the Axxess relied on a TDM backplane – so there were several points of failure that IP-based systems just would never have.  However, if you took all of the ShoreGear boxes and stuck them in a chassis instead of an equipment rack, you would basically have a late model Axxess, with T1 cards, IP cards that supported fixed numbers of stations, and analog cards for FXS and FXO ports (think fax machines and traditional phone lines).  In fact, both systems share a weakness that continues to this day: voicemail and call control (on the Axxess 512 and ATM, at least) that runs on a Windows server with all the attendant headaches and vulnerabilities as well as familiarity and popularity that entailed.