Many networking channel partners have put up the investment to understand and sell hardware components for unified communications (UC). But most are still lacking in crucial software integration and development skills. What's more, some are even missing services skills that make selling UC really profitable. The answer for solution providers seeking to upgrade skills may be in building an ecosystem of partners, distributors and vendors for a profitable solution.
Unified communications is more than just IP telephony or advanced VoIP services
As a reseller, you may have already successfully upgraded your client's network and bandwidth requirements to support VoIP, perhaps also integrating email, voicemail, video, IM and presence. Security considerations have been evaluated and deployed to address the new touch points to the network, and your client is pleased with the upgrades and ready to move forward into the next phases of UC. But does your organization possess the appropriate skills and service offerings to bring UC to life?
According to Nora Freedman, IDC's senior analyst of Unified Communications Infrastructure, UC is defined as an infrastructure platform that consolidates directory, routing and management of communications across a growing set of applications, including advanced IP telephony calling and management; Web-, audio- and video-conferencing; instant messaging; and pervasive presence and awareness -- all accessible through desktop and mobile devices. These functions must also be available to business applications developers for integration.
By this definition, most channel partners have just touched the tip of the UC iceberg by addressing network and security upgrades and moving customers into IP-based communications. While network, voice and security upgrades can be very profitable, this should be just the beginning of the conversation with your customers.
Integration of communications into business applications and processes
For UC to reach its full potential and demonstrate true value to the end customer, communications must become embedded within business process applications. This can also be called Communications Enabled Business Process (CEBP). A core theme that continues to resound loudly is that communications will ultimately become a software story, and as such, today's resellers must continue to invest in growing their skill sets and align with the appropriate suppliers.
The transformation of communications into a software based offer is a multi-phased migration. The first stage of this transformation is almost complete with the migration from traditional PBX to IP-based communications. Many VARs have successfully made this skills upgrade and have grown their networking and IP-based practice areas. Most suppliers in the networking and communications community have helped drive this initiative, with increased training and education as well as careful mining of their partner bases.
Moving forward with UC solutions, hardware-centric partners will need to examine how they plan to approach UC on the desktop. Microsoft OCS and Office Communicator and IBM Lotus Sametime provide an essential component for bringing UC to the desktop by incorporating click-to-call, conferencing, instant messaging and presence, advanced rules, and window pops, which are all core elements for UC on the desktop.
Moving beyond the desktop and increasing a layer of complexity to the integration of communications into business process applications such ERP and CRM suites will require a whole new level of software integration expertise. There are many partners for whom this is the sole focus, but for most hardware-oriented networking and telephony resellers, this is uncharted territory.
For UC to be fully realized, partners must continue to invest in software expertise, including enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA) skills, among others. Once communications become integral to the business process, business transformation can be achieved by driving increased productivity, collaboration, customer service and simplification, and streamlining business processes.
Partnering with partners
Some resellers have attained these necessary software skills through organic growth and have invested heavily in training and hiring qualified talent. Other resellers have acquired these skills through the acquisition of software-focused resellers.
For those that haven't become software experts, partnering with software-focused resellers may be the answer. Suppliers including Cisco and Avaya are encouraging partners to form alliances with each other and share skill sets. That's because many hardware suppliers find it difficult and costly to continually invest in training, education and growth of this aspect of their channel, especially since most have already funded heavy investments in training for UC network components.
Services and selling skills
Services are one of the most important aspects for successfully deploying UC. Network consulting and integration services (NCIS) have long been considered a cornerstone for network deployments and moving into VoIP, IPT and UC upgrades, but they will require advanced UC technical and selling skill sets.
Some partners are poised to capture this revenue; others will need to partner, acquire, resell or leverage resources from supplier partners. Currently, Cisco and Avaya offer certifications for partners to offer advanced services to support UC deployments. Partners would do well to invest in this aspect of their business as revenue derived from services can be the most profitable aspect of a UC deployment. Services training that partners should be leveraging from suppliers are design, configuration, implementation, support, maintenance, monitoring and even increased sales acumen.
As partners and suppliers come to an understanding of what each will bring to a UC solution, the final frontier will be translating these skills into business needs for the customer. This can be the most complex portion of the transformation for the channel. The channel will once again need to bring new business and professional services skill sets to the equation; and suppliers, distributors and other ecosystem partners will all need to help bring this to the end customer. UC is a complex suite of hardware, software and services that needs to be communicated clearly and managed expertly in order to succeed. Those partners who understand this complex equation of products, services and business skills will truly succeed.