VoIPowering Your Office: Being an Elite VoIP Consultant

The current abundance of reliable VoIP software tools creates a business opportunity for those who understand them.

 By Carla Schroder
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In part 1 we took a new look at the new, very improved Trixbox. Part 2 discussed some of the business opportunities as an independent Trixbox or PBXtra reseller. Today we're going to take a look at some strategies for selling these beasts to actual customers.

Meelyuns of black boxes
The VoIP space is like a modern gold rush. There are more devices and service providers than anyone could ever count. A sizable number of them aren't worth the effort of crossing the street to slap for being annoying and incompetent. The barrier to entry is very low for an independent consultant: All you need is to say "I am your amazing, independent VoIP consultant." VoIP service providers need to invest a bit more, but not all that much. Just throw up a Website, buy some bulk minutes from a big-name vendor, and you're in business.

Hardware vendors are proliferating like ants at a picnic because the software development is done for them, and thus we have zillions of "instant PBXs-in-a-box" to choose from. Digium has done the heavy lifting with Asterisk, and everyone in the world is taking advantage. Trixbox and SipX are also repackaged in various forms. And why not? That's the whole point of open-source software development—everyone contributes, everyone benefits. (Assuming, of course, that everyone honors the software licenses and doesn't try to scam on all that excellent open source code.)

So these conditions present some challenges for the wannabe freelancer. Here you come, all fresh-faced and shiny, chock full of skills and good intentions, and what happens? Your customers have already been seduced into purchasing something overpriced and under-featured, or they are so overwhelmed by the idea of even trying to make a decision they are hiding in the supply closet and won't come out.

Leave the Geek at home
I think independent computer consultants are the finest people on earth. There are a lot of excellent service providers and hardware vendors, but they all have the same goal—they want to sell only their stuff. A knowledgeable independent knows how to pick and choose, and how to make all the pieces fit together in the way that is best for the customer. With VoIP this is an extra-crucial skill because the VoIP marketplace is so chaotic and confusing, and over-full of businesses that aren't going to survive very long.

However, having elite skills and a superior product are only two of the lesser requirements for building a successful business. People make purchasing decisions based on all kinds of daffy criteria. They like promises of simplicity, or they like boxes that blink and buzz. They like certain colors and brand names. They like "inducements" (you can say "bribes" or "kickbacks" if you prefer), and they like familiarity even if it's inferior junk. So here you are with all of your smarts, trying to be heard in all of this craziness—what do you do?

Rule #1 is Leave The Geek At Home. Another way to say this is "offer a solution, don't sell a box." Nobody wants to hear you ramble on and on about detailed technical specs or spouting bales of jargon. What they want is for you to listen and to ask intelligent questions to help them figure out what they need. With Asterisk, Trixbox, PBXtra, and SipX, rattling off a giant feature list is sure death. Most people are scared of technology and would rather beat it with sticks than believe they can actually learn something about it. Even knowledgeable customers are going to appreciate your speaking in plain language and addressing real-world concerns, rather than smothering them in tides of mysterious acronyms.

You will need patience, because people love to spend more time complaining about computers than figuring out what their needs are. (I got so tired of it I made a rule—No Complaining About Computers.) The more you listen and the smarter questions you ask, the more you will learn about what is really important to the customer. Then you are in the excellent position of being able to speak to their specific needs.

This is especially important for the VoIP space because you're faced with a high degree of integration. There is no such thing as a plug-and-play, set-it-and-forget-it iPBX. You'll probably be advising a number of changes: network interfaces, routers and switches, the type of Internet connectivity to use, endpoints, proxies, load-balancing, and all kinds of fun things. So they need to see you as a caring, informed technician who is doing your best for them, and not some crazed salesdroid who just wants to sell them everything in the world. Most businesspeople have the mindset that they only need to buy something once. That's why they have decades-old staplers and scissors, and the same cabinets and furniture used by their beloved founders, and cry like babies everytime they have to upgrade their computers.

Show, don't tell
My personal Rule #2 is Talk Least, Show Most. Build yourself a sleek, attractive demo unit that you can have up and running in a couple of minutes. Let the customer push the buttons. Do you like sitting and listening to some dull person yak on endlessly about stuff you aren't interested in? Neither do your customers. Give them shiny toys to play with. This captures their interest, and even better lets them see for themselves that your iPBX is not a scary wizard's instrument, but an everyday tool that anyone can use. Make yourself so skilled that you can implement instant customizations on the spot—this wows them every time.

The open-source world has given us first-class iPBX and networking software that runs on almost every hardware platform, and the VoIP space is growing like crazy. Add a dose of people skills, and you'll find a lot of good opportunities.

Asterisk and Trixbox articles archive
Visit the Backgrounders archives for our SipX series

This article was originally published on Jul 5, 2007
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