A Disconnect Between SMBs, VoIP

BOSTON — Voice over IP service providers big and small are in a full-court press to lure small and medium businesses (SMBs) to IP telephony.

Some of the most recent moves include Qwest teaming with Microsoft and Vonage partnering with TowerStream with services for the 1.8 million SMBs.

“A lot of people are trying to reach this market and they’re trying lots of things,” John Macario, president and CEO of Savatar, a consulting and research firm. “Right now it’s like a bad date — they aren’t speaking the same language.”

In a survey of 300 SMB decision-makers released at the Fall 2005 Voice Over Net (VON) show here, Savatar found there’s interest in VoIP, but also a lot of confusion.

When asked which type of provider comes to mind for business VoIP, answers were all over the map: nontraditional telecoms, 25 percent; equipment vendors, 17 percent; traditional telecoms, 14 percent; cable companies, 13 percent; no one in particular, 13 percent; ISPs, 10 percent; resellers, 7 percent; other, 2 percent.

Macario said the responses aren’t encouraging for traditional telecoms such as Verizon , which should hold an advantage because they already have name recognition and count many SMBs as voice or data customers. Instead, they scored 1 percent better than “no one” in the survey results.

Macario was also surprised by the cable companies’ percentage, since most large cable companies don’t even offer a business VoIP product yet (although several are testing beta versions).

The good news, if there is any, is that the race for SMBs’ business is wide open. To spur adoption, VoIP sellers need to change their sales and marketing tactics.

“Every customer contact point is broken,” Macario said.

The business VoIP pages are buried deep within providers’ Web sites, many call center representatives don’t know their employer offers the service and sales forces are poorly prepared and are delivering the wrong sales pitch.

SMB executives want to sit down and try out the VoIP product. Salespeople are also making the mistake of rambling on about advanced bells and whistles that customers don’t need.

Savatar has reviewed virtually every business VoIP offering on the market and said that the feature-sets are remarkably similar.

Inking an SMB to basic VoIP and data service will give providers the opportunity to sell additional services in the future such as Web hosting, Macario said. Sales staffers should also be focusing on the total cost of ownership for a single network for voice and data compared to separate systems, he said.

Macario’s survey echoed a previous speakers comments. Mark Spencer, president of Digium/Asterisk, said the lesson of Skype is that the users and market value “low-cost, high-performance and ease of use” in VoIP products.

“The SMB market is aware of and interested in VoIP products, but they don’t know where to turn for answers,” Macario said.

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