Voice over IP (VoIP) can potentially give your clients more features than traditional, TDM-based phone systems, and experts predict it's just a matter of time before VoIP entirely replaces traditional phone lines. If you're a systems integrator (SI) looking to expand into voice, providing VoIP services could be a great way to add to your portfolio and generate new leads with existing clients.
Since VoIP sits on a standard local area network (LAN) -- and in many cases will use your client's existing LAN -- several SIs say it's a natural step for companies who already build and maintain network infrastructures. If your client has requested a network assessment, take a look at their TDM-based phone system and see if it's time to start planning a migration to VoIP.
The cross-selling works the other direction too. Because VoIP requires a robust LAN, many vendors require you to assess and often upgrade your client's network as the first step to providing VoIP services.
"As everybody in our business knows, an assessment not only provides a great service to a client, but it's also a paid sales call," said Eric Nelson, director of Alteritech Inc., an SI and managed service provider (MSP) in Vienna, Va. "If you find things that are wrong -- well, now you get to fix them," he said.
Although VoIP is profitable in itself, the ability to deepen your relationship with a client is itself a big revenue generator, said Alan Bratton, president and CEO of Paranet Solutions LLC, a systems integrator (SI) in Plano, Texas.
The ability to tie various communications media together -- known as unified communications (UC) -- also provides a good cross-selling possibility, said Henry Dewing, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. A good place to start is by providing video capabilities so end users can videoconference from their desks, he said. UC can also connect with email and fax, allowing users to see all of their messages from Outlook.
Providing VoIP services does require extra knowledge about the systems, of course, and you may have to shore up your support staff. People are used to "five nines" -- 99.999% -- of uptime with phones, and while they may tolerate email occasionally going down for half an hour, phones always have to be up.
Many VoIP systems provide the ability to failover to a traditional, TDM-based system for emergencies, but you may still have to work on your support staff's culture to instill a sense of urgency in them.
"Data guys typically have this 'sometime soon' attitude," Nelson said. But with VoIP, "you better be jumping all over that, because that's someone's voice system; that's money out the door," he said.
If you don't have the resources to invest in providing VoIP services yourself, you may want to partner with a hosted "Voice as a Service" vendor. Installing a hosted VoIP system is much easier than putting all of the infrastructure on premise; typically the vendor supplies a router that all of the phones connect to and which then talks directly with the vendor, Nelson said.
That model works well for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that can't afford an on-premise solution, he said. It also fits the MSP business model, since you can remotely monitor the system. Nelson said most channel members don't actually build out their own hosting centers, since those are expensive and require a skill set many MSPs don't have.
Alteritech deploys both on-premise and hosted VoIP for its customers, but you can also work exclusively on the hosted model. New York-based SI Lloyd Group offers VoIP through M5 Networks Inc., a hosted VoIP vendor.
"As a small business, there's only so many things you can tackle. Technology is constantly changing, it's constantly evolving," Brian David, Lloyd Group's vice president of business development, said. Lloyd Group decided to focus on its core competency as an IT consulting firm and have M5 handle the specifics of providing VoIP services, David said.
M5 takes care of most of the network analysis to see how the infrastructure needs to be upgraded. Lloyd Group then fixes up the network and installs the router that connects with M5's backend.
But although the hosted model can fit an SMB's needs, it doesn't scale well enough for larger companies. Aside from just the response time of your support staff, on-premise VoIP puts unique demands on your client's network infrastructure. In our next installment, we'll take a look at some of the challenges you may face in deploying a VoIP system and how to address them.