Jan
15

Valley Business Solutions – why becoming an MSP is a Good Idea

My last post began a case study exploration of Valley Business Solutions (VBS), an ADTRAN customer based in Tennessee. Normally the focus of a case study is about how a vendor solved a particular problem for a customer, but my research indicates something bigger going on. There was a case study element in that post, but I want discuss more about how ProCloud provided a transformational opportunity for VBS, and why this serves as a great model for other channel partners to consider.

This also speaks to where ADTRAN is having success and how the broader communications environment continues to evolve. While UC may have been the starting point for how vendors and channels jointly explore new directions, both parties have to follow the wind. Ultimately, the end customer determines this, but many have little of sense of direction. This is where channels truly add value, as they are the middleman between vendors and businesses.

Why being an MSP is good for VBS

Valley Business Solutions knows what’s best for its customers – at least in terms of communications technology, and for a variety of reasons, they have determined that the Managed Services Provider path is the way forward. This is not an easy decision to make, and I’ll explore that further in my next post. For now, the idea is to determine the best way to remain relevant with as many customers as possible. To some extent, VBS has based this on customer input, but this can also lead to some dangerous assumptions.

Part of knowing your customer is knowing that they don’t always know best. Most of VBS’s customers are SMBs with limited technical expertise, and their scope of understanding will define their thinking. VBS has learned that a key way to add value is to re-frame technology needs around business problems, and this has allowed them to have success with ProCloud managed WiFi services. Businesses don’t generally come to channel partners asking for UC, and they may not even come asking for WiFi solutions. They just know that wireless growth is out of control but don’t really know how to address it.

This is where channel partners like VBS add value. They know the customer well, including their understanding of these problems. Since they are well-versed in what ProCloud can provide, they can introduce new ideas and capabilities that show how the customer can get on top of these wireless issues. This approach is known as consultative selling, and VBS recognized they needed to work this way, not just to keep customers happy but also to stay ahead of their competitors.

By adopting this model, VBS moves away from the legacy model of selling hardware and adding little value. The customer relationship is still paramount, but with all the disruption coming from both the cloud and mobility, there was little room for growth by sticking with that legacy model. This means that the core value proposition is based less now on the physical products and more on the applications they enable and how those applications impact the business.

That’s the new value proposition that has led VBS to becoming an MSP. With this model, they are free to frame ADTRAN’s technology in terms of business solutions and outcomes. Their value now comes from the trust based a strong/long customer relationship, and from that, an ability to understand what customers truly need – rather than what they think they need. I’ll provide specific examples in my next post along with the business model benefits for being an MSP.

Why being an MSP is good for ADTRAN

This path is also good business for ADTRAN, and that needs to be part of the analysis. Of course, this result applies to any vendor, and hopefully you’ll see this isn’t just about ADTRAN and ProCloud. Vendors face the same business issues as channels, and being on the same page is key for survival. ADTRAN acquired BlueSocket and developed ProCloud to stay current with the mobility and cloud trends, and to make these work, they must have the right channel partners. Other vendors have made similar moves for the same reasons, so this shift isn’t specific to ADTRAN.

The MSP business model isn’t as capital intensive as selling hardware, but ADTRAN knows this is where the growth lies. When channel partners embrace MSP, they get a nice re-set with their customers and that positions them to drive new revenues as new applications enter the ProCloud sphere. This is a model that works well on a few levels for end customers, and will filter back to the vendor because they now have an engaged user base around which to develop new applications and grow the business. There’s definitely a virtuous circle at work here, and the best way to get it is for both vendors and channel partners to be aligned with meeting customer needs.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://connect.adtran.com/valley-business-solutions-why-becoming-an-msp-is-a-good-idea/

Jan
08

ADTRAN Case Study – Transitioning from Products to Managed Services

Welcome to 2015, and I look forward to helping you keep on the pulse of Unified Communications. In keeping with a new year, it’s time to change things up with a different focus. For the next couple of posts, I’m going to feature a case study about an ADTRAN customer, Valley Business Solutions. I recently spoke at length with their GM, Alex Dizon, and this yielded several takeaways that are very much on trend for the UC and collaboration space.

My posts here are typically written for business decision makers, but VBS is a VAR, so they represent the seller’s side of the coin. The channel sits in the middle between vendors and end customers, and they face their own set of challenges with the ever-changing UC landscape. While vendors struggle to develop UC solutions that resonate with the needs of businesses, channels struggle to find the right business model for selling UC. While my analysis of VBS is specific to ADTRAN’s offerings, the dynamics are industry-based, and apply equally well to every other UC vendor, channel partners and ultimately, end customer.

Before continuing, I should also explain that although ADTRAN offers various flavors of UC, VBS partners with them primarily for ProCloud so they can become an MSP – Managed Services Provider. This isn’t really much different from offering hosted UC to end customers, and in VBS’s case, the focus is on providing WiFi connectivity. They could just as well be supporting NetVanta UC, and that in itself is an important storyline to follow.

What does the customer really want?

Ultimately, both vendors and channels depend on meeting customer needs for success, and that’s a key reason why I’m doing this case study analysis. There will certainly be cases where end customers know what UC is, and after careful consideration, have determined this is what they need. Other times, however, the vendor or channel is selling a variation of UC, but the customer doesn’t think of it that way. In other words, they are buying a solution, not a technology.

A recurring theme of my blog here is that UC is a moving target, and this really is both a strength and a weakness. As a vendor, ADTRAN is happy to sell NetVanta UC all day long, but if the VAR is having success selling WiFi as a managed service hosted by ProCloud, that’s fine too. The main thing is to drive adoption of hosted or managed services, as this represents one of the best growth opportunities right now for both vendors and channel partners.

In that regard, this case study is a very real example of how everyone in this business needs to adapt. UC can be defined in many ways, and while VBS’s customers may not be deploying a formal UC solution per se, they are certainly using elements that fall under the UC umbrella. The end customer doesn’t really care if you call it UC or managed WiFi to drive all their productivity applications. What really matters is meeting the customer’s needs rather than trying to make them fit into a UC box.

This is just one way vendors are adapting. Just because you can offer UC doesn’t mean the end customer is ready to buy it. VBS has learned that the key to staying competitive in today’s market is to focus on solving business problems instead of selling technology. If NetVanta UC truly is the best solution for the customer, that will be their recommendation. More often than not, however, there are other ADTRAN offerings tangential to UC that speak best to what the customer needs.

The bigger picture

A more important driver for adaptation is the cloud, and this is where the case study becomes more instructive. Aside from selling solutions, both vendors and channels need to be selling simplicity and great user experiences. This is a far cry from the legacy days of selling hardware-based phone systems tied to capital budget cycles. VBS started out in this business, but soon realized the limits of being an equipment dealer. They saw that the future was going to be in applications with little opportunity to add value to phone systems.

Furthermore, with legacy telephony going into decline, VBS knew it needed to shift from a capital-intensive business model to one built around recurring revenues from value-added services. This transition took the company from being an undifferentiated dealer to a value-added reseller, and with that, their current focus on selling solutions is easier to understand.

From there, the link to the cloud is really a short hop, and that’s where both ADTRAN and VBS have adapted quite successfully. The cloud presents new opportunities for everyone, but only if you’re ready. Clearly, many of VBS’s competitors are not ready, and I’ll explore the implications of that as this series continues in my next post.

Permanent link to this article: http://connect.adtran.com/adtran-case-study-transitioning-from-products-to-managed-services/

Dec
30

Will UC be about Process or Outcomes in 2015?

In my last post, I talked about whether UC is disruptive or being disrupted. Both are going on, but these days it seems more like the latter. UC can certainly be disruptive – in a good way – by integrating many widely-used applications into a common interface. That’s the UC that most of us understand and are still striving for in the workplace. Many of the initial technology challenges that have held back growth have been addressed, but are still a factor, and UC remains a long way from being simple plug and play.

Another hold-back, of course, has been user adoption, which I have written extensively about in previous posts here. Since UC doesn’t solve any obvious problems, it has to be brought to end users, and more to the point, sold to them. This is not something they are organically asking for, and IT cannot assume they’ll discover UC on their own. In this regard, UC’s disruptive nature has more to do with the vendors and how it has become core to their business and even their salvation as we move into the post-PBX era.

This type of disruption, however, is coming as much from outside the core of usual suspects as from inside. Last post I touched on this briefly, with the idea being that the UC value proposition has not evolved as fast as other trends around it. As a result, we are now seeing other approaches that have everything to do with the cloud, mobility and social business, and little if nothing to do with telephony.  These offerings don’t even necessarily call themselves UC, signaling a major shift in focus from process to outcomes.

What to expect in 2015

As the year closes, decision makers need to look ahead to what these trends mean for UC in 2015. If you’re in that mode now, here are three things to consider not just for what vendors are doing, but also for where they can really add value to your business.

  1. The cloud keeps simplifying technology issues

As more UC elements become cloud-based, the conventional challenges around connectivity and interoperability become less problematic. Both UC and the cloud continue to mature around standards-based technologies, making it easier for businesses to go down this path. SIP trunking provides affordable, high capacity bandwidth to support immersive collaboration without the limitations of legacy connectivity. WebRTC continues to develop, making it easier than ever for UC to be screen-centric, at the desk or in mobile settings.

This amplifies the broader trend of hosting UC applications in the cloud, and moving beyond the complexities of integrating with a phone system. All of these trends point to less need for UC vendors to focus on the process of communicating and the challenges of making all these applications work together.

  1. UC will become even more affordable

This is a logical extension of the above, as cloud economics continue to improve. UC has largely moved from hardware to software, but the cloud takes things one step further in terms of the cost. Networks are virtualizing everywhere, as both enterprises and carriers are following this path to reduce operating costs. They are also doing it to be more flexible and agile for competitive purposes, but economics is the main driver.

All of this is good news for businesses, and you can expect the cost curve to continue its downward trend in 2015. We have already reached the point where voice can be near-free, and video is no longer a luxury for only the most robust networks. Add to this the falling cost of UC-friendly endpoints, and the barrier to adoption becomes pretty nominal. Smart devices are almost ubiquitous now, and even the desktop is becoming quite inexpensive. With the cloud hosting almost everything, employees will need little more than a dumb screen on their desks, and that’s exactly what Google has in mind with Chromebook and Chromebox.

Add to this an intensely competitive marketplace, where you’ll have lots of suitors for UC. I’m not saying to go with the lowest possible price, but there is a lot at stake for these vendors, and you need to be sure they can address both process and outcome.

  1. Outcome-focused UC means more choices

If you believe that the process of delivering great communications solutions is well handled now by UC vendors, then you’ll need to make sure the outcomes they are touting are what you need. You’ll need to look at UC very differently this way, but it should be expected, since that’s where the vendors are going in 2015.

In short, this means that UC’s value proposition will be built around the end user experience, especially Millennials. The emphasis will have more to do with collaboration and teamwork rather than person-to-person communications, taking the offering well beyond the conventional telephony that UC has been built on. What matters most here will be mobility, video, content sharing, and a more social aspect around how work gets done. With so much of this being in the cloud, collaboration very much becomes an on-demand environment where communications applications are embedded in everyday workflows.

As such, UC becomes a means to an end – outcomes – rather than the thing itself. That has, in turn, given rise to new players who will compete with the UC vendors you already know. The pillars of UC in 2015 will be different, and if you want to be leading edge, you’ll have more options to choose from. If you’re willing to get up to speed on this, the payoff could be faster and greater than what you may have had in mind with a more conventional path to UC. In that sense, are you prepared to be disruptive?

Permanent link to this article: http://connect.adtran.com/will-uc-be-about-process-or-outcomes-in-2015/

Dec
17

Is Today’s UC Space being Disruptive, Disrupted, or Both?

I’m asking this question for a good reason, and if you’ve been following UC over the past few months, you’ll know why. Having worked closely with the vendor community, I have seen UC evolve on a company-specific basis as well as overall for the broader ecosystem. This space has gone through some distinct phases, and the focus that’s shaping up right now is a very different type of value proposition.

Initially, UC was developed by legacy phone vendors, primarily as a successor to the IP PBX. They had already made the transition from legacy PBX systems to IP-based systems, but that really only served to keep them current with VoIP. At that time, communications was still telephony-centric, and businesses had little reason to question the need for a capitalized phone system. Perhaps more importantly, they had little reason to question the need for a standalone phone system; after all, telephony was still king, and the IP PBX was an important pillar for IT’s sphere of influence.

This brief time capsule is important because it goes a long way to explain the roots of UC, but also why it took the shape it did. As I’ll soon explain, if UC was being invented today, it would look a lot different. While UC vendors and IT buyers were good with the above status quo, other things were going on around it, that aside from being bigger, were moving a lot faster. Without going into detail, just think about the cloud, mobile broadband and social media. I will explore each of these in future posts, but the main point is that the initial value proposition of UC was not keeping pace with the changing needs of businesses.

Up to the cloud and out to your mobile device

UC’s more recent evolution mirrors the path all forms of technology are taking, namely a shift from hardware to software. Even though UC is still dominated by vendors that are either rooted in telecom or are major players in the telecom space, none consider themselves hardware companies any longer. They are very deliberate in explaining that they are either now a software company or cloud-based company. Furthermore, they are no longer in the business of providing UC hardware or even software. Rather, they are now in the business of providing collaboration solutions, or enabling communication experiences, or driving closer engagement between employees and customers.

Everyone is now focused on the outcomes, as that’s where they believe the value really lies now. Those outcomes, of course, are not IT’s concern, and this reflects how UC has now become a business investment, not a technology investment. Just as the phone system has become less relevant in the overall communications ecosystem, so too has IT in terms who owns UC and whose interest it is ultimately serving.

Initially, UC was completely within the realm of IT, as this was really just an extension of the IP PBX relationship – same vendors, same channel partners, same operational team to manage it, etc. Outside of IT nobody really understood the UC concept, but when the benefits were clearly articulated, the business case was pretty strong. Along the way, however, IT had its share of challenges deploying UC, as well as driving end user adoption. No matter how user-friendly vendors make UC out to be, it is still complex to deploy, especially since many businesses have multi-vendor environments with older systems that don’t integrate that easily.

As IT was struggling along this path, everything else just kept moving faster. Business couldn’t move to the cloud fast enough, and vendors have desperately been trying to follow suit. With 4G/LTE coming along, the same transition is happening in the mobile world. Younger people have had mobile broadband their entire adult life, and this is simply just the way they do everything now. I’ll continue exploring this in future posts, but basically, the work modes that UC was built for are being super-ceded now by something new and potentially very different.

Where to go from here?

At the heart of this is the speed of change, and that’s not going away any time soon. The major UC players are large companies, and they can only change so quickly. So far, only one of these companies has attempted a complete makeover with the sole purpose of serving this new world, but it’s too early to tell if they will be successful. The rest are trying to do the right things – changing as quickly as they can, and focusing on where value appears to be residing. At least that’s how it looks to me – for now.

The UC vendors we’re all familiar with are facing new waves of competition, and the space has never been more disruptive – and disrupted. There’s a lot at stake here, with many factors to consider regarding why and how these changes are happening. If you’re wondering about this as much as I am, then you’ll want to stick with me over the next few posts. As we do that, what do you think – is UC being disruptive or disrupted?

 

Permanent link to this article: http://connect.adtran.com/is-todays-uc-space-being-disruptive-disrupted-or-both/

Dec
10

Managing UC when all your Employees are Tech-Savvy

I’m continuing the thread from my last post which set the stage for this analysis. As noted there, my focus is on scenarios where most all your employees are quite tech-savvy, perhaps more so than IT. That poses challenges for both groups, and I’ve already addressed the former. Now it’s time to review what this challenge looks like to IT.

To reiterate, I’m building this analysis around the generational shift that most businesses are experiencing. This shift is giving rise to challenges in cases where the workforce is heavy on Millennials, and IT is largely rooted in the pre-Internet era. When it comes to deploying UC, my research points to two implications that IT needs to address. I’ll cover one now and the second in my next post.

IT implication #1 – how to make UC relevant for end users?

This challenge applies to all employees, but when they’re at the high end of the geek scale, it’s particularly important to read your audience correctly. When IT has to look up to them for the leading edge trends, this becomes very hard to do, as you don’t want to risk looking out-of-touch. Today’s trends change more often and more quickly than IT is accustomed to, and the real challenge comes from the fact that trends related to UC will likely be driven from the consumer world rather than your end.

When end users are leading the way in terms of adopting new communications applications, it becomes difficult for either IT or UC vendors to establish a leadership role. Since UC vendors are in business to make money, it’s important to understand that you’re up against pretty stiff competition. I’m not talking about the ever-broadening world of UC vendors; rather, I’m talking about the even broader universe of free applications end users can pick and choose from in the cloud.

At the heart of this lies the simple reality that only vendors think in terms of UC. Tech savvy employees are very adept at seeking out applications on their own that help them be more productive, but they don’t call that UC. Aside from the fact that they’re not coming to IT for help, they think about collaboration in personal terms with a consumer-based mindset. In other words, they take a self-serve approach of searching online for things like free conferencing tools, file sharing platforms, call recording applications, etc. Ultimately, they’re doing UC, but on their terms without IT’s involvement.

When things go this far, you have a real uphill battle to make UC relevant for them. On this plane, IT will always be a follower, and you won’t be seen in the right light. For these employees, IT’s value is little more than providing reliable network connectivity so they can work they way they want to work. For IT people steeped the legacy world, this is very much the tail wagging the dog and you have to change the rules of engagement. Here are two things you can do.

1.  Listen and learn

You might need to flip the teacher/student script a bit here, but it’s the best way to discover what will make UC relevant to them. Your assumptions about tech laggards won’t apply here, and if they’re not adopting UC the way you want them to, it’s time to start fresh and find out directly from them. Think of this as being a fact-finding mission, and you could do this one-on-one with hand-picked tech mavens, or in a group setting where you can gauge their collective feedback.

A good starting point is to have them tell you in their own words what collaboration means to them, as well as how they go about both finding and using the right tools. Until you know their frame of reference, it won’t be possible to position UC as a better way to go. Once you establish this common ground, it will be much easier to then engage them with UC so they can see first-hand why this should be their core platform for collaboration.

2.  Make sure you have the right vendor

Not all UC vendors are created equal, and for the above scenario, you need to make sure the solution speaks to how this audience actually works. Vendors are trying very hard to refresh their UC offerings to reflect the changing nature of work, and if your environment is full of leading edge end users, this choice is critical. After all, we’ve already established that your pre-Internet worldview will always keep you one step behind the pack, so you need all the help you can get.

This problem will largely go away as Millennials move up the IT ranks, but if that’s not your reality, the UC vendors and their channel partners will be your best allies. They are living these challenges every day, and some are better than others at addressing the needs of these types of end users. By now you should know this means not being telephony-centric, but it also means being highly end-user centric, and this speaks to the self-serve expectations noted earlier.

You’ll know you have the right vendor when your hand-picked tech mavens try it out and conclude this is a better way to collaborate. This means these two ideas go hand-in-hand. Aside from directly involving some end users in learning how they view collaboration, you also do the same with them helping evaluate the best solution. Now you’ve got end users invested in UC from the start, and that will go a long way to driving broader adoption with their peers.

This may not be the way you’re used to working, but if that’s not working, you need a better plan. My message here is that you don’t have to be on the same level technology-wise with these particular employees to get a great result – it’s just working smart in a different way, and that’s exactly what they’ll do once they start embracing UC.

 

Permanent link to this article: http://connect.adtran.com/managing-uc-when-all-your-employees-are-tech-savvy/

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