The Value of VoIP

by Dave Michels

Forbes Magazine ran an article with the same title. It is so odd reading about telecom in mainstream press. Every reference to something technical is immediately followed with a definition. For us professionals, we can’t write or read this way largely because we can’t agree on any of these things. For example:

“Rao purchased a “Voice over IP” phone system, including software from Cisco (which routes the calls and plays nicely with her existing Windows operating system), as well as phone units for each user. With VoIP (the “IP” stands for Internet Protocol), calls travel over data networks like the Internet, rather than via traditional phone lines that are expensive to maintain.
Total cost of the installation: $12,000.”

The bolded sections seem contentious in professional circles. Is Cisco the most Microsoft friendly solution, and small business systems like this one frequently use standard analog trunks which by no means are more expensive to maintain. I find these puff pieces frustrating, as there are so many interpretations and so few facts. The article did spell out the motivation for upgrading to VoIP:

“Remote employees couldn’t connect; traveling employees couldn’t be reached and customers got busy signals (remember those?). When people did get through, many couldn’t get routed to the right person to help them.”

These are all terrible problems that deserve immediate attention, but I must point out that VoIP has nothing to do with any of these problems. VoIP refers to a protocol, and protocols do what they are told to do; at least mostly. The protocol used has absolutely no impact on busy signals (capacity), call routing (finding the right person), or in reaching people while they are traveling. Now, obviously there are some high-end UC capabilities that can make a difference that may indeed be associated with a new VoIP platform – but not likely at 12,000 Cisco-Bucks (I wish the article stated the size of the phone system).

Now it does indeed seem that teleworking, a true VoIP application, was implemented. The article states:

“…two employees who work from home. They have handsets that plug right into their home computers, connecting them to the company phone system through their own broadband connections. Now calls to the main number are sluiced to their home phones; if not answered, they bounce back to a live person or voicemail, without callers knowing.”

I found this odd. I am a big fan of teleworking and can rattle off many reasons why it is probably the single most important phone system feature this decade. If I were asked to rattle off some benefits of teleworking, they would include productivity, employee satisfaction, employee retention, reduced carbon emissions, flexibility in workforce fit, etc. At some point, maybe on page three, I would come up with the ability to bounce calls to voice mail. Of course, I would have actually said “Sluiced back to voicemail”.

Further, to clarify a point above, this type of teleworking does require IP phones and does indeed use the Internet. However, the desk phones back at world headquarters do not need to be IP. I am somewhat alone in my crusade for the digital phone, but the fact is they do all the same things for a lot less money. I am a VoIP (systems) proponent, but don’t see much value in VoIP phones. Back to Forbes for some sizzle now:

“It gets cooler still. The voicemail system navigates callers through a simple automated directory. Any messages get converted into sound files that can be e-mailed, forwarded or saved.”

Unified messaging has been around so long that I forget it still impresses people. The real interesting stuff now involves speech to text and text to SMS which aren’t mentioned. Even for small business, basic unified messaging (I hope it wasn’t simple SMTP forwarding – that’s for the birds) is a bit passé in 2009.

Here comes the finale:

“When we’re dealing with big customers, we have to appear to be bigger,” she says. “We need to look professional. We need to be accessible. We wouldn’t be able to survive if we didn’t make this investment.”

The article indicates the company had a very old phone system, the business was growing, and busy signals were a problem. I totally agree and support that a new phone system was very logical. Only two points concern me. One, they have to appear to be bigger; and two that VoIP was critical to their survival. I hear the first point all the time, companies want to appear bigger. But appearing big is easy. Just don’t appear small. Appearing small is a main number and extensions, no direct dial numbers. That’s about it. SIP trunks allow direct dial numbers on very small phone systems. Appearing big is actually a bad thing – appearing big is endless auto attendants, long queues for service, and voice mail hell. Big companies actually strive to appear smaller; go figure.

The second point is VoIP is a technology not a solution. Claiming that VoIP was for survival cheats Darwin. Survival in a competitive world, during a recession requires getting more done with less. Sophisticated voice applications that can quite literally transform a business is what Forbes should be focusing on. The topic should not be about VoIP, but about voice capability enhancements, customer satisfaction improvements, customer retention, reduced costs, reducing the amount of time to make decisions. VoIP is a (wonderful) technology, it is right up there with FM and radial tires. It is not a solution in itself. The title for this post and more importantly for that article is very misleading. There is no value in VoIP. The value is in streamlined cost effective reliable communications.