Alan Reeve, European business manager for voice at Azlan, once described how resellers can sell more convergence technology to SMEs using the following words: "Selger en router er en ting - det er i grunnen et passivt objekt at De former; selge IP telephony er enda et."
In order to help understand how SMEs might perceive those words, I've translated them into Norwegian.
Because SMEs speak a different language from the IT industry - plain English - and few IT firms bother to translate their messages for them, vendors and resellers more often than not fail to sell technology to small businesses. So how can convergence be sold to SMEs more skillfully?
For years the IT industry has used a number of approaches to sell to SMEs, the most common of which is bullying: "SMEs that ignore data mining techniques are dicing with death" is a typical example. Most of these words fell on deaf ears.
SMEs did eventually adopt IT, but only because they thought it would make a statement about their business - like having headed note paper. By the time IT had become a requirement for SMEs, it was a commodity - something you could buy from, say, Dixons or some direct-selling retailer for the most competitive price.
In other words, the SME market has always been a tough market for vendors to make money out of, and an even tougher one for resellers to sell into.
SMEs don't make decisions quickly, and being small, they don't generally place large orders. So the margin on each sale barely justifies the amount of effort that goes into it.
Having said that, the corporate market has been done to death, while there are unexploited opportunities still in the SME sector. The sheer number of SMEs means that vendors have to engage the channel in exploiting this market since they could never achieve coverage on their own.
Unlike previous generations of IT, convergence technology is too complex for any SME to consider buying off the shelf. Better still, companies are used to having to employ experts to install their voice communications.
There is usually one person at each company who becomes a de facto IT manager, just because they know the right end of a screwdriver. But that's not so where phone systems are concerned. They're just too important.
So there is an untapped market for convergence among customers who are happy to source their technology from a reseller. And because of the nature of the market it is unlikely that vendors will snub their resellers and try dealing with customers directly. There is just too much hand-holding that needs to be done. So convergence isn't going to be a commodity market for a few years yet.
The icing on the cake is that vendors are desperate to exploit this market and so are chucking co-op marketing funds at any reseller that can come up with new ideas on selling convergence.
There is a willing market and plenty of help on offer, and although it's not quite an open goal, it's damn near it. Vendors can feed the ball of opportunity through to the resellers with some efficiency. It just depends how good the communications industry is at communicating.
The secret lies in talking to the audience in their own terms, says Bob Jones, managing director of vendor Equiinet, which sells VPN and cache solutions to SMEs, despite the fact that many SMEs have no idea what those terms mean.
"Many SMEs do not even know what to ask for. They're oblivious to the new converged technologies available and what they could do for their business," says Jones. Tackling this problem requires resellers to get back to fundamentals.
"Ask yourself when was the last time they bought a phone system? Where do they go looking now and where can they source the information to help them make an informed decision?"
Take estate agents as an example. Few are adopting technology that takes advantage of combining voice and data over the same network. This is because the benefits haven't been explained in terms that mean anything to them.
"They want to know how it will make them more profitable, either by slashing their costs or helping them make more sales. If you talk to them about unified messaging over a virtual private network, you might as well be talking double-Dutch," says Jones.
Resellers should hone their message to be as simple as possible. Any marketing literature aimed at end-users should grab their attention instantly.
The problem with marketing technology, though, is that all kinds of hideous acronyms are used to describe it. Like cockney rhyming slang and other secret languages, these have the effect of ostracising outsiders.
Besides, acronyms have a jarring effect on the eye when they appear frequently on a page of text. As do the raNDom appEAranCES of chARacters IN uPPer case, a cherished practise in the IT industry, but one scorned by the rest of society.
Add in the jargon and the nonsensical marketing phrases and you have, in the parlance of IT marketing pamphlets, "a world-class de-motivisational tool fit for the 21st century".
Selling convergence is all about getting back to basics. Sell the benefits in terms your audience understands. Don't mention the technology, and stop padding out your marketing material with meaningless buzzwords and catch phrases.
Remember, if it doesn't aid someone's understanding, it detracts. That is Jones's message, but how good is he at this himself?
Jones would describe the benefits of computer telephony integration (CTI) to an estate agent by asking an imaginary SME: "Would it be useful to know who is calling you and to be able to automatically pull up their details on your PC screen?
"By integrating your database with your telephone system and registering all appropriate contact numbers - mobile, work, home - all clients who ring in can be recognised and their records will automatically appear on your screen."
Makes perfect sense to me. But will this message strike a chord with a real-life technophobic estate agent? Will they instantly recognise the benefits of CTI? "I don't get that at all," said Peter Snelson at estate agency Bullman Booth.
Jones explains to Snelson: "Anybody in the office can see a record of all the most recent conversations, viewings and the status of sales. So anyone can help a client, even if people mostly deal with a single point of contact at their estate agents.
"Less time is lost, fewer sales are lost and the whole deal goes through more quickly."
This time Snelson understood the benefits. CTI, however, is an old technology. We've had 15 years to practise explaining how it works. How long will it take to explain something infinitely more complicated - such as voice over IP (VoIP)?
According to a panel of experts at the Supercomm 2004 conference in Chicago, end-users are not impressed with VoIP. The panel concluded that IBM, Cisco and all the other providers of VoIP equipment must come up with better applications before VoIP really takes off with end-users.
One way to get small companies interested in convergence is to appeal to their inferiority complex. They may not see the technical advantages of having a digital PBX, but no estate agent could resist the temptation to boast about having their own call centre. That really makes an SME seem like a major corporation.
In other words, don't sell the convergence of voice and data: sell the kudos of pretending you're a big player.
"One real growth area is the contact centre," says Tim Webb, general manager of Toshiba's business communications division. "They started off being very expensive, and only big banks could afford them. But now any business can front itself with a contact centre.
"If you're talking estate agents, they could make great economies of scale by linking all the branch offices together and configuring all the support people into one group so that all the talent in each area is pooled."
Another great status symbol that convergence bestows on SMEs is the conference call. Again, these are regarded as the domain of massive corporations. Any aspirational estate agent or small firm of solicitors will want to boast of having conference-calling facilities.
"But should you sell this aspect of convergence on the grounds of its status or its ability to save endless to-ing and fro-ing between, say, an estate agent, client, surveyor and solicitor?
"Small companies would appreciate anything that helps them waste less time," says Dave Dyer, marketing manager for Siemens. He advises the channel to concentrate on stressing the time savings that are achievable though convergence.
"You can set up your voice message system to prompt your customer so they can receive pre-recorded answers to standard questions. This can automate hundreds of time-consuming calls each week. You can use audio conferencing to set up meetings without the need to travel.
"The time saving benefits are obvious and can speed up decision-making between solicitors, surveyors, land registry, builders and vendors, freeing up hours to spend on more valuable activities and also providing enhanced levels of customer service.
"And convergence means that IT can be employed to screen voice calls. In estate agents' terms, that means time wasters - like people who phone an estate agent just to see how much their house is worth - and information gatherers can be identified and screened out," says Dyer.
Paul Manyweathers, managing director of ASC Telecom, a Siemens reseller, also believes the message should be made as simple as possible.
"Customers want simple, cost-effective solutions that work, hence our success in selling converging solutions through business propositions.
"Most of our customers that implemented converged solutions were not in the market for purchasing a new phone system; it was the compelling business case that did the selling for us," he says.
But once you strip away the mystique, won't end-users wonder why they are paying so much money for this technology?
Stefan Vekeman, global business area manager for SMEs at Ericsson Enterprise, believes that the price of IP telephony is putting SMEs off.
"The reason for this rather slow migration towards IP technology is the proven, unique reliability and performance of today's traditional PBX solutions. Pricing is also a major factor. Lots of traditional PBXs are equipped with digital phones, complemented by a huge amount of analogue terminals.
"The major advantage for the SMEs is that they are cheaper than equivalent IP terminals."
So what are Ericsson's big ideas for helping its channel sell convergence? Under the heading BusinessPhone Solutions, it wants to impress onto SMEs that a fully featured PBX with integrated voice messaging will be the key to their future prosperity. Unfortunately, Ericsson hasn't yet worked out how to simplify its message.
"In the main site," begins one written explanation, "the integrated Call Centre functionality of the BusinessPhone..." The F word (functionality) will cause any sensible person to stop listening, which is a shame because Ericsson has some interesting technology.
The company's other big idea for SMEs - Mobile Extensions - could be a winner because it harnesses the power of the mobile phones that SMEs have already invested in heavily. If only Ericsson could find a way of expressing it more clearly.
Some companies claim to have cracked the problem of communicating the benefits of convergence to SMEs. Tim Wells, marketing manager at Aastra Telecom, has made a commendable effort. Sadly, Aastra's Guide to Voice Over IP confused our test audience before they had opened the cover.
"What the hell is voice over IP?" asked Peter Nelson of estate agent Bullman Booth.
A shame really, because there is still a massive opportunity to sell convergence to SMEs. But there needs to be a lot more preparation.
"We're going to keep on working to make this market come alive for our channel," says Trevor Evans, marketing manager at Alcatel. "We've got the products, now we just need to make people understand them."
There could be a fair way to go, though.
Aastra Telecom (0870) 300 7345
Alcatel (01628) 428 608
ASC Telecom (01732) 784 320
Azlan (0118) 989 7700
Ericsson Enterprise (0161) 869 1931
Equiinet (01793) 603 700
Siemens (0845) 795 9245
Toshiba (07785) 928 887
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