When Is an IP PBX not an IP PBX?

When it's a hybrid system like TalkSwitch's small business phone solution. One highly distributed corporate customer bought into that flexibility.

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Aug 6, 2009
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When small business IP PBX maker TalkSwitch announced recently that 43 owners of MaidPro franchises in the U.S. had chosen TalkSwitch phone systems, it sounded like another big win for IP telephony, a signal that the technology was finally trickling down to even very small, low-tech businesses.

And so it was—in some ways—but that’s not the entire story.

MaidPro is a residential cleaning franchisor with owner-operators in over 100 locations, mainly in the U.S., but also in Canada. Two years ago, it signed a preferred vendor agreement with TalkSwitch under which it committed to strongly recommend TalkSwitch products to its franchisees, even incorporating phone system selection in new-owner training.

As a result, more than a third of MaidPro franchises have now installed the preferred vendor’s products. This was a big win for TalkSwitch, but for VoIP?

Well, TalkSwitch is an IP vendor, but its technology supports both POTS and SIP trunk connections and IP and analog phone sets, and can seamlessly integrate any combination of analog and/or IP phone sets and POTS and/or SIP trunks. It’s one of the company’s key differentiators.

Some TalkSwitch systems are in fact sold with no IP channels—i.e. with only analog/POTS functionality—but even they can be upgraded at relatively low cost to support IP, and the price delta between IP-capable and analog/POTS-only products is less than 20 percent .

Still, most MaidPro owners—about 90 percent of them—are using their TalkSwitch PBXs today as traditional phone systems, with POTS trunks in, and analog phones. The recommended package does include the IP option, but analog phone sets still prevail.

The TalkSwitch technology agnosticism was a big part of why MaidPro chose the company, says Jeff Wechsler, MaidPro’s vice president of strategy, research & development and technology. Other vendors either did IP well and POTS integration was an afterthought, or mainly did POTS, and IP was a bolt-on.

"The beauty of TalkSwitch is that it handles both seamlessly in one unit with the same hardware and software," Wechsler says. "When we started looking around, we realized TalkSwitch did this [integration] better than others."

It was important because, while Wechsler sees IP as the telephony wave of the future, and his company had some applications for VoIP right away, he is not 100 percent comfortable with the technology right now—on a couple of counts.

Most of his concerns revolve around VoIP in the wide area. He worries that providers still can’t offer the same level of quality assurance traditional telephone companies do. Whether or not this is true is not the point. Wechsler, and presumably other decision makers, see a greater likelihood of sub-standard connections with VoIP, and they worry that poor call quality could damage customer relationships.

"The bottom line is, we’re a customer service company," he says. "Being able to build trust before we’ve even met with customers in person is crucial. And subtle things like the quality of the phone call—whether there’s echo or feedback or digitized sound—are important."

In other words, there’s a fear factor.

It accounts for another reason Wechsler is uncomfortable pushing IP on owners. Most are not very technology savvy. VoIP providers, he says, are different enough from telephone companies in terms of how they present themselves and operate, that owners are likely to be intimidated by the prospect of switching to unknown technology.

TalkSwitch itself doesn’t even push SIP trunks, or phones, when selling to MaidPro owners, although it has partnerships with a number of VoIP providers and can deliver an all-IP solution to customers who want it. The reasons, says channel sales manager Chris Howard, have to do with "simplicity of implementation."

"With analog phones, you just plug them in and they work," Howard points out. "You don’t have to worry about configuring the IP phones, or the local network possibly going down, or you’re not sure if the wiring was done for Cat-3 cabling."

All this being said, IP technology does play a crucial if minor role at MaidPro even today. Some of the larger owners have multiple locations, with TalkSwitch PBXs in each. Even if they use POTS lines locally and analog phones, the technology allows them to set up a virtual system with IP connections between locations so that calls to one location can spill over to another in busy periods.

And more than a few owners route calls from prospective new customers to MaidPro’s corporate contact center rather than handling the calls themselves. Some use auto attendants to do this, some use human-assisted transfer. Either way, most are transferring the calls over SIP trunks to save costs and/or make managing transfers easier.

MaidPro also chose the TalkSwitch IP technology partly because it sees a possibility—remote for now, Wechsler says—that it will want to centralize PBX services at some point in the future, either at headquarters or in regional centers.

It doesn’t in fact use TalkSwitch or any VoIP at its headquarters, but if it ever made sense for business reasons to centralize voice services, the company has the option to do it by switching to TalkSwitch itself and "daisy-chaining" existing infrastructure in owners’ facilities. "That is one of the things we liked about TalkSwitch," he says.

In the meantime, despite Wechsler’s misgivings about VoIP services, more and more owners are choosing IP from the get-go, Howard says. "In the last six or seven months, with the last few sales we’ve done, they’ve opted to go with IP dial tone for the cost savings."

One fairly large franchisee that moved offices recently and bought a new system chose IP dial tone—but still analog phones—and as a result is saving about 50 percent on monthly phone bills.

"It’s interesting to see how market share for VoIP is increasing," Howard says. "Just in the last year, small businesses are slowly starting to adopt it."

He adds, however, that despite the cost savings available with VoIP, very small business owners—and many if not most MaidPro owners qualify as very small—will likely not feel enormous pressure to switch away from analog/POTS systems that are working satisfactorily.

Eventually, though, Wechsler sees his and owners’ concerns about IP telephony evaporating. "We’ll get to a point where we end up entirely IP," he predicts. "And we’re a lot closer to that point now than we were two year ago."

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com/.

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