Friday, December 5, 2008

Hosted IP Telephony: No Pain; No Gain

Retailers of hosted IP telephony (hosted PBX) services to small and medium-sized businesses have a problem, and it isn't the economy or other competitors.  The big problem is that most users are fairly satisfied with their current phone solutions. 

"Most users do not have problems with their current phone system," Andy Randall, MetaSwitch VP, notes. And that is a big barrier to adoption of hosted IP telephony. If there is no problem, there is no reason to buy an alternative solution.  

Essentially, the problem is that, in many cases, there is no current "problem" to fix. The "problem" essentially be created, though. If a potential customer finds out that they are "overpaying" by quite some amount for their voice and broadband access services, that becomes a problem. 

So one essential requirement here is to "create" a big enough problem that hosted IP telephony solves. Keep in mind that most smaller businesses essentially can compare any new solution to what they already are paying. And that metric typically boils down to a cost per employee per month. 

Randall  thinks providers of hosted PBX services to small and medium-sized businesses need to price at about $30 to $60 per employee per station to disrupt the value-price relationship now offered by current voice-plus-data services already bought by SMBs. 

The reason is that most SMBs today are spending from $29 to $125 per employee per month for voice and data access. At about 15 stations, hosted IP telephony generally costs $$56 to $106 per employee per month. At that rate, a new hosted IP telephony offer does not save SMBs money. And though new features are important, the biggest single objection to a sale is going to remain that the new solution, despite its benefits, does not save money. 

Since users expect hosted IP solutions to save them money, retail providers are trying to push a boulder uphill. "Where's the business driver?" Randall rhetorically asks. If a premises doesn't save an SMB money, and neither does a hosted PBX solution, there is no great incentive to change. "Disruption requires moving lower than $56 to $106, per employee, per month, for the total broadband access and voice offer, Randall argues. 

IP trunking also will be important for SMBs that really do not want to replace their current desk phones for new IP models. In part, SIP trunking can be a stealth adoption strategy. "Some people will keep their PBX for a few years," Randall says. "So sell the IP trunk today and then sell hosted voice later when the customer is ready to replace the TDM sets."

For 15 employees, a hosted IP telephony solution, plus the broadband, possibly costs $86 per employee per month, Randall says. The problem there is that it is tough to show savings from switching. And for any technology, whatsoever, the key is that the proposed new solution has to offer enough value to offset the pain level of the current solution.

The "problem" hosted IP telephony is supposed to fix is not generally perceived by the potential customer to be a "problem."  For most SMBs, the phone system they have works. There is not an obvious "crisis" that the hosted IP telephony solution can solve. 

And despite what most technologists tend to think, people don't change behaviors and adopt new technology because something about the solution is "10 times better" on some technical measure. What has to happen is that the pain a potential customer currently is experiencing can be alleviated by changing. 

At current pricing levels, lots of potential customers will not be persuaded to change because the level of pain is not so high. "The main competitor any retailer of hosted IP business voice faces is 'business as usual,' not some other competitor in the market," Randall says. 



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