Mix and Match?

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Charles Holland from hosted telephony services provider VoiceHost and Thomas Holyfield and John Bennett of end point vendor snom team up to look at what could happen when you mix and match devices in a telecoms as a service deployment.

There has been a noticeable maturing of the hosted VoIP market, many of the reliability issues and delays in deployment in early installations are no longer haunting resellers. Service providers like VoiceHost and vendors like snom have been learning to build and deploy reliable and high quality hosted VoIP solutions that maintain satisfied customers.

In this maturing world it is the sad case that some resellers still persist is relearning the lessons from the past and subjecting their customers to poor quality and service delays. When resellers sell PBX systems and calls and lines they know services are for the most part homologous so items can be mixed and matched, with VoIP services this is simply not the case.

Resellers want to ‘Mix and Match’ for a variety of reasons, a primary one is the greater margin they can secure. They need to meet price expectations and to be competitive, and experience says that ‘Mix and Match’ is good for the bottom line. This demonstrates an awareness of upfront costs but a lack of understanding of ROI and lifetime costs.

Even when components comply with common standards there are differences in implementation that mean that the overall performance is not always optimum. ‘Mix and Match’ means when there is a problem it is more difficult to troubleshoot and identify the corrective action. Thomas Holyfield Technical Support Manager from VoiceHost Ltd explained it like this, “You always have issues in mixed environments that have components that are not tested together. From a technical point of view, these are usually blips in performance but they can seriously affect the overall solution. Support leads times expand exponentially because staff are not familiar with the components. We can almost guarantee that if a reseller puts in a system using components we don’t recommend at some point it won’t work.”

Mixed environments also mean less confidence in rolling out new versions or software patches. Platforms change over time as new enhancements are added and if a reseller is not using recommended equipment then the support team is unable to test prior to the system going live. The possibility of adverse reaction increases. “We don’t automatically update just because a new version of firmware is released. We only roll it out once we are confident there will be no degradation in service,” explains Holyfield.

Technically and financially it makes sense to use one service provider and their recommended mix of devices. It ensures a single point of contact for support and service and an overall system guarantee, resellers can sell the service with confidence.

VoiceHost believe this is an education issue. “One of the areas where we see this the most is with the handset itself,” explained Charles Holland, Sales Manager of VoiceHost, “customers see prices online and believe a handset from one manufacturer is just like a handset from another. This simply isn’t the case. A high quality handset such as the snom 710 will retail around £99 and will have about a 5-year replacement cycle, which is effectively costing the customer less than £2/month. Buying a cheaper handset might look like an immediate £30-£40 saving but the quality will affect performance and its life cycle may be as little as a couple of years. Quality or performance issues cause dissatisfaction and replacement can disrupt the entire network. The message is simple. Pay the small premium for a quality product and your customers will be happier. Our resellers are recommended to use specific devices,” explained Holland, “We take a firm stand against certain non-approved products.”

A service provider has daily access to a wide variety of vendors, they know if a product has build or support issues, they are aware of the expected product life. When you look at how quickly a device is going to need to be replaced a lower cost is often not a saving. The service is likely to degrade over time, problems can take a long time to solve, and customers unhappy because the reseller saved a tenner on a router or handset.

Expectation for seamless product interoperability is a panacea. It would be brilliant, but it is not realistic. Different manufactures have different goals, not all manufactures want to give easy access to other suppliers. Sometimes it is only once installs have gone wrong, and then been resolved at a high cost, that the reseller will recognise that Hosted VoIP today does not provide a platform for ‘Mix and Match.’

‘Mix and Match’ is unlikely in the foreseeable future, but help to reduce costs and extend reseller margins for hosted VoIP is already here in the form of remote provisioning. Travelling to customer sites is time consuming and incurrs travel costs. Remote provisioning speeds up time to upgrade or to fix issues improving customer satisfaction. The same capability typically provides remote management and debugging which reduces down time.

“What is really exciting is that we can send out a preconfigured phone system including the router, switch and phones, and all that needs to be done on site is to plug it in,” explained Holland. “We are diagnosing faults faster than ever before and setting up new extensions in a matter of minutes. System changes take the same amount of time, from a web browser in an office hundreds of miles away.”

Remote provisioning and management can make the difference between the service provider being profitable and not.