Which One is the Customer Again?

by Dave Michels

It has been a blur of conferences and ideas, and I haven’t been able to do a proper post. But don’t interpret lack of posts as lack of deep profound thoughts.

But I did want to take a moment to talk about the customer for a bit. You know who I’m talking about don’t you? Assuming you do, then you are brilliant and I can’t wait to hear who it is. Because this whole customer thing is a slippery concept. And Alice, when I find who the customer is… it’s POW, right to the moon.

It came up a bit at the UC Summit. I haven’t done a post about the UC Summit, but this year’s event was great (my third). The UC Summit is a channel focused event – so we don’t let customers in the door. Or do we? Because there was a lot of selling going on. It seems that many of the vendors consider dealers to be either customers or prospects. It makes perfect sense since dealers actually buy and then resell the product. It is the dealer that pays the dough and most vendors give the dealers (not the end users) the warranty (odd really). But dealers really aren’t the customer – customers don’t understand half of this telecom/UC stuff we talk about all day – many can’t even transfer a call. The dealer needs to unload this stuff  – thus the name reseller. Actually, they don’t just resell it – they add value by teaching them to transfer calls – thus the name VAR. Sometimes they add so much value that it even constitutes a solution, thus the name Solution Provider. It’s all perfectly clear. Except for who the customer is.

To make matters worse, the UC Summit also has consultants. Consultants are just like VARs in that they pitch customers great ideas and strategies. The difference is that when things don’t work, consultants get paid more and VARs lose their shirt. I resorted to an old strategy to figure out who the customer might be at the UC Summit. I opted to stay in the bar to see who picked up the tab. I tried it all three nights, but don’t recall the outcome.

By the way, my favorite session at the UC Summit was the Vendor Overview (and this is the session that got the most feedback). Marty Parker, Blair Pleasant, and I put together a handful of bullets for each major UC vendor: strengths, opportunities, and what’s new. It was a collaborative project (we even used collaborative technologies to prepare). We presented it in this fashion; Blair covered strengths (she is the positive one), Marty covered opportunities (he’s the consultant), and I covered what’s new (I’m the critic). It was just a about 5 minutes a vendor, but an hour flew by pretty quickly. By the way, each one (just like the kids in Lake Wobegon) was above average (though we really nailed this one UC poser that everyone loves to hate). I think the session was so popular because resellers don’t often get objective information on the competitors.

So once the reseller finds someone to resell to, we have a customer right? Not really. Because the reseller probably found the IT department. IT departments then have their own customers sometimes referred to as hostages. Some are rebelling and returning their fully paid and supported Blackberry so they can use their iPhone and get their (emotional) support from Siri. Of course, IT does have some customers, entire business units even. Some of them still use phones. Take Customer Service – they might have a call center solution, er contact center, er customer experience opportunity. These supervisors must be a customer? Or is it the Agents? Perhaps it is the people actually calling to request better music on hold? Shirley, one of these must be the customer. (Yes, and don’t call me).

I next headed over to NEC Advantage filled with Channel and Consultant partners. They call their product 3C, which must be Channel, Consultant, and Customers. But the customers weren’t there. NEC customers were to show up for a different event the following week conveniently at the same place. NEC wanted to impress their customers so didn’t invite me to stick around. 3C evidently stands for Communications, Collaboration, and Cloud – but you’ll never get anyone to admit it. NEC Advantage was a first class event. It was a thinking event – lots of great ideas and access to all the product managers and executives. I put everyone into a deep thought stupor on my keynote about the New Normal. Spoiler alert: the old normal was better.

NEC said their customers want hosted services, so they are making one. Cloud services often, even commonly, get sold directly to customers via agents. Some solutions go thru resellers, but most plays – including NECs  – are agent based. So now who’s the customer? NEC was working pretty hard selling their agent cloud solution to the resellers. I think it resonated because NEC is worked hard to make a Channel friendly Cloud (that’s 2C). Of course, no two dealers can agree on what constitutes channel friendly. Evidently, NEC still thinks the channel is its customer, but since the 3C Cloud will be based on all NEC technology (servers and software) – one could argue NEC is the customer. That makes sense since NEC bought 3C technology back when it was called Spheri—, um the brand that must not be named. Let’s just say that 3C is a bold convergence of NEC’s UC capabilities. Put that in your Leaf and charge it (oh, NEC already did). As the premises vendors jump into the cloud, the cloud is going to change. It will take a few iterations, but NEC showed a glimpse of how premises and cloud can be an “and” instead of an “or.”

Perhaps the answer lies in the clouds – so I turned to BroadSoft which just had their first analyst briefing. The CEO kicked off the event with a very clear message: the real opportunity for BroadSoft is to focus on the end user, and deliver a unique seamless experience for end users. Finally, a clear concept of customer. Of course the “end user” was never mentioned again during the entire event. All I heard was “Service Provider.” BroadSoft has “21 of the top 30 Service Providers” hustling hosted voice, SIP trunks and a variety of other services. BroadSoft only sells to Service Providers (don’t tell Aastra), so they can in-turn sell the channel on becoming agents to sell to end users. BroadSoft thinks the cloud is the future and echoes Horace Greeley’s famous words “Go North young man.” The cloud does seem in vogue.

BroadSoft knows their customers want to buy licenses (BroadWorks) because they are, after all, service providers and quite capable of running reliable data centers. The Service Provider then resells these licenses in the form of services to their end users that don’t want to run all this complicated software. Nothing like a simple business model, and I do mean nothing like it because BroadSoft also offers services to these service providers so they don’t have to run everything in their data centers. BroadSoft’s services called BroadCloud now run in five data centers around the world and provides advanced UC features to BroadSoft Service Providers. It’s an important and growing part of their business. I should also mention BroadTouch which is end user client software that resellers can buy and rebrand, to give away. I’m not sure who the customer is there either.

Broadsoft isn’t alone in thinking the cloud is what customers want. ADTRAN also held an Analyst briefing and shared similar cloud projections. ADTRAN loves the cloud because as bandwidth continues to increase, their customers (service providers and enterprises) keep buying ADTRAN products. ADTRAN does sell premises based UC, but isn’t bothered if that business moves to hosted as long as it still involves ADTRAN routers, switches, and Wi-Fi. That last one is what ADTRAN is most excited about. ADTRAN acquired Blue Socket in December of last year. Blue Socket makes a highly scalable cloud managed Wi-Fi solution which is exactly what the BYO Doctor ordered. ADTRAN actually brought customers to the event, and they reported that their customers were very happy with the technology. ADTRAN is another example of a premises company that is getting excited about the cloud, and I would not bet against their track record.

I need to get back to my customer, I put him on hold when I started to write this post. He called to ask me about my TalkingPointz Research report on Aastra which is taking way too long because of all these distractions. The good news is it is progressing just fine. It’s focused on the MX-ONE which is en mycket imponerande telefonsystem (If you don’t speak Swedish, that translates to the Solidus eCare Contact Center solution is one of the best kept secrets in the industry). The forecast calls for a bright BluStar. Also, in the works is a TalkingPointz Research report on Digium’s Switchvox which is one of the most misunderstood compelling SMB solutions on the market today. I thought I was an expert, but there is much more to it than I realized. Plus, it now has a cloud offering via a partnership with VocalCloud.

Light blogging ahead: Mitel event coming up next week (I will be moderating the CxO session – if you have any really tough lawn mower questions let me know). Mitel’s theme this year is the Voice of the Customer – it’s a business partner event. Then comes Alcatel-Lucent – finally the truth about Genesys. Immediately followed by Google IO – I always find something interesting with Google (but is it true?).

Of course, I am also blogging daily at CIOCollaborationNetwork.com