Selling unified messaging has always presented problems for resellers. For one, there is a credibility issue surrounding the technology, which has tended to promise more than it delivers.
Second, there is the matter of demand. To many potential buyers, unified messaging sounds like an interesting but unnecessary solution.
And last, but by no means least, there is the fact that in selling converged solutions, you open yourself up to a whole world of competition in the form of powerful and well-resourced companies such as BT, Cable & Wireless (C&W) and Nortel, backed by their own well-drilled and long-established third-party channels.
"Resellers should be careful when selling unified messaging to a client," explained Simon Edwards, director of strategy at InterVoice-Brite, which develops, supplies and manages messaging applications for fixed and mobile phone operators.
He added that, although unified messaging is sometimes touted as a killer app, most people take this with a pinch of salt. It is a foolhardy reseller, he warned, that attacks the market head-on.
"Resellers should consider unified messaging as a big construction project and focus on providing small sections of it," he said. "They could provide distinct features for specific markets, such as voice-enabled email.
"A key role here would be in opening the corporate email system to the emerging services offered by operators. Corporate security protection currently hinders the useful elements of unified messaging. This is the area that resellers should look to attack."
This note of caution is echoed by Mark Hollingsworth, managing director of Tobit Software, who suggested that unified messaging is being held back partly because it is associated with the general convergence market, which is evolving very slowly.
One step at a time
"It is important not to oversell convergence. A lot of the vendors got that wrong in the early days," he explained. "They are now realising that you can't press the convergence pill onto a market that is not ready to swallow it. You have to take it one step at a time, and unified messaging is one rung on the ladder."
He added that unified messaging is a way of delivering a simple, cost-effective solution that delivers benefits quickly and sets the end-user on the road to full convergence.
"That said, in a lot of cases users won't need to take convergence any further for years," he pointed out. "Unified messaging will bring all messaging functionality together so that users can send and receive voicemail, email, SMS and faxes at any time and on almost any device.
"Unified messaging is an opportunity in its own right and, as it is not dependent on the physical convergence of data and voice networks, it is one that resellers can take straight away."
Hollingsworth believes that unified messaging can be a more straightforward and logical sell-on than many resellers imagine.
"Resellers can sell our unified messaging solutions to existing customers as well as to new ones," he said. "Customers can see the benefits very quickly and, if they want to start small by just adding a networked fax facility for example, they can.
"You would be surprised at how many customers want to start with simple functionality before moving on to add SMS, email and voice integration. If you sell networking, you can, and should, sell unified messaging."
Many Tobit resellers are selling unified fax and email, with voicemail playing a smaller role, largely because they have come from a data networking background.
"More are now seeing the merit of selling SMS as well, however, and this is a good way for resellers to seed sales of personal digital assistants and other remote-access devices," said Hollingsworth.
"In our unified messaging products, we can proactively send messages onto the user with SMS or straightforward IP across the internet. In other words, unified messaging can be an enabler for businesses to become more mobile and flexible."
As a route to the small to medium sized enterprise (SME) sector, that most elusive of markets, the potential of unified messaging should not be ignored.
"There are scores of ways in which SMEs can save time and money by integrating unified messaging with accounting and contact-management software, and this is another excellent way for resellers to add value by selling unified messaging solutions," explained Hollingsworth.
Some vendors approach the issue of convergence technology, and unified messaging in particular, from a telephony rather than a data perspective. Nortel is, naturally enough, one such operation.
Chantal Smith, Nortel's senior executive for unified messaging, explained that the company's strategy derives from its voicemail product line. "Our Callpilot unified messaging solution is an extension of Meridian Mail, and therefore uses the same commands, requiring no retraining," she said.
Like Tobit, Nortel is also trying to take unified messaging into the SME space with its Business Communications Manager (BCM) product.
According to Smith, resellers of data networking solutions have a great opportunity to work with Nortel. She explained that the company has traditionally sold unified messaging solutions through a telephony channel, consisting of companies such as BT and C&W.
More recently, it has been experimenting with a data networking channel in the form of a distribution arrangement with Azlan.
Smith maintained that this part of Nortel's channel is becoming increasingly important. "If you had asked me a couple of year ago whether I expected Nortel to sell a lot more unified messaging products through the data channel, I would have said no. That has changed with solutions such as BCM, which resellers can sell easily," she said.
Of course, there is more to selling unified messaging than merely signing up to a vendor's channel. Resellers will look for an angle into the market that is both easy and potentially lucrative, but this is unlikely to involve a pure product sell. Happily, unified messaging comes complete with various value-add possibilities.
Jeff Brainard, senior technology consultant at vendor Mirapoint, suggested that training is one such opportunity.
"Resellers can take advantage by educating customers on solutions for enabling wireless access and unified messaging-type services. There is a lot of confusion surrounding these technologies," he said.
"This gives resellers an opportunity to really partner with their customers and help them evolve their business IT infrastructure to offer these next-generation messaging services."
The possibilities open to resellers include educating customers on the value of unified messaging and wireless services for increasing productivity in enterprises, and improving revenue and customer retention in service provider situations, according to Brainard.
"Complexity is inherent in most unified messaging deployments, and an experienced value-added reseller could help a customer integrate and deploy a total solution," he explained. "Depending on the size and scope of the effort, these integration projects can have sizeable revenue associated with them for resellers."
Brainard also advocates a managed hosting approach. "There is a significant opportunity for a reseller to position unified messaging solutions in addition to, or as part of, a larger networking equipment sale," he said.
"Typically, there are components in a unified messaging solution that include networking equipment, as well as messaging software and hardware components.
"A reseller could be very effective in delivering a targeted bundled solution perhaps even including integration work, to a customer wanting to deploy unified messaging."
One of the biggest unified messaging names in the UK is Inclarity, which provides what the firm's chief executive, Ahal Besorai, calls unified communications on a hosted basis.
"This means that resellers will not be providing any installation services, but are selling a service based on a per-user-per-month model," he said. "There is a lot of business there if they can adapt their selling technique to be more service oriented. They will need fewer engineers and more salespeople."
Another company which prefers to talk more about unified communications than unified messaging is Teamphone.
Karen Page, the company's marketing communications manager, said: "We believe that resellers need to look to unified communications rather than unified messaging for the real opportunities and benefits.
"Unified communications presents a stronger business case and offers greater revenue opportunities through the inclusion of telephony services.
"More and more resellers, service providers and network providers are looking to unified communications as a way to add value to their services, to reduce churn and increase revenue. However, the business model must be right for the services to be successful."
John Wood, sales and marketing manager at C3, said call it whatever you like but never forget that convergence and unified messaging must always be sold as a business benefit and not a technology.
"Almost half of UK businesses believe that the key benefit of convergence is cost-cutting, according to recent research. This puts the onus on resellers to provide applications that can deliver quantifiable business benefits," he explained.
"While unified messaging is considered 'nice to have', the problem for resellers has always been proving the business case.
"In difficult economic times, self-service applications such as interactive voice response, the setting up of virtual call centre agents using cost-cutting voice over IP technology, and services that save money by delivering the same content through multiple channels are often much easier to sell."
There seem to be numerous lessons to be learned before approaching unified messaging. Perhaps the most important is that, although it presents significant challenges, many of which are deep-rooted and historic, resellers should not necessarily shy away from the technology.
Another conclusion is that, while resellers may find themselves in unfamiliar territory with the voice side of the solution, not to mention in competition with a whole new set of third parties, they may find themselves sought out by voice-oriented vendors precisely because of their data credentials.
There is no way that an operation like Nortel or BT is qualified to take its solutions direct into the enterprise space or the SME part of its target market, and its voice channel can manage only part of the task.
Of course, getting noticed as an aspiring unified messaging reseller is bound to be a challenge, but unified messaging is a growth market in an otherwise unpromising economic climate for both the voice and data industries.
Resellers that have any credentials that could enable vendors to expand their user base can expect the process to be easier than they might have assumed.
THE DISTRIBUTOR'S MESSAGE
Manny Pinon, sales and marketing director at Norwood Adam, a specialist distributor in the convergence space, said: "Intrinsically, unified messaging and convergence are inter-linked, particularly with the emergence of IP.
"A lot of unified messaging applications are IP-oriented and obviously Voice over IP is a hot button right now.
"The real area for focus is the application tie-up: getting unified messaging integrated fully onto Outlook so that faxes, emails and voicemails can be seen on your desktop and similarly, if you are in the car, you can respond to your emails.
"Another SME attraction at this end is the application service provider model, because it outsources the Exchange function for small businesses and integrates their communications, creating the perception and feel of a large company."
Pinon explained that there is a huge potential for value-add, because of the way unified messaging can take the reseller into Microsoft products.
"It looks at areas of computer telephony integration, screen popping and call logging systems, as well as avenues into Messenger-style applications such as work and document sharing," he said.
"You could even develop the sale right into video conferencing. The major network vendors offer a unified messaging solution off the back of main system sales, so Ericsson has 'one box', Alcatel has a solution and so on, but outside these, I would say the big players include Captaris or the likes of TopCall."
- Selling unified messaging is a big challenge for the data networking reseller. A piecemeal approach is the best strategy.
- Unified messaging is as much a telephony solution as a data one, but this should not deter data-oriented resellers. Some telephony vendors are developing data channels.
- Resellers targeting SMEs may find unified messaging a good solution for this arena.
- Unified messaging should be a services-led sell, which demands the presentation of a good business case.
- Resellers should not be put off by unified messaging's indifferent reputation as a sellable solution. It is a growth market in difficult times.
Inclarity 0800 698 0000
InterVoice-Brite 01223 423 366
Mirapoint 01442 416 535
Nortel 020 8920 4618
Teamphone 020 7306 7300
Tobit 07740 486 681
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