We wrote much of the material below in 2008 for a whitepaper, but things haven’t changed much. That’s why I want to give some advice to small companies that want to choose a hosted Unified Communications service; hopefully they will make a better choice.
The key is to always ask the service provider before taking any purchase decision. There is no perfect software or perfect solution, but the vendor must be aware of that and he must know how to get closer to perfection. Enjoy the following questions and do not hesitate to ask them before choosing a hosted service. Although they look quite simple, you might be surprised about what kind of answers you will get.
How is your UC service able to fit into my company’s processes?
The solution must be able to morph seamlessly when company processes change; the end-user should not massively adjust processes to follow the system. Solutions that try to impose a workflow should be regarded with skepticism. Remember, you are not looking for an ERP.
I have a small business. Do you have a scaled down version of your service?
This is a tricky question. Most vendors will say Yes, but this is not the answer to expect. Small companies gain their competitive advantage from efficient processes and they require outstanding tools to organize their communications. You need the best industry can provide, not scaled down versions. Well, you might need something different, but this is more training. 🙂
How many communication flows does your solution integrate?
A unified communications system should be able to offer at least voice, video, instant messaging, fax, web integration and email groupware. Even if you do not need all these now, you might want to have them in the future. It is impossible to have an excellent system that delivers all these functionalities; in most cases, third party integrations are desired.
How standard compliant is your solution?
Traditional PBX systems were locked into proprietary standards, increasing costs and decreasing interoperability. Don’t ink the same deal again. There is nothing wrong for the product to have a closed source, but it is wrong to use proprietary standards. It’s a great starting point that your provider uses SIP, but this is just the beginning, you should always ask specific questions like what phone terminals are formally supported.
What is your software update policy?
One of the greatest assets of software systems is the capacity to continuously improve. Check for the vendor’s claims and past records.
What does cloud mean for you?
Even for many service providers, the cloud is just hype, but it helps them sell better. Service providers must be able to provision resources in real-time and to infinitely scale. While the provisioning part is not so complicated, the scalability is. Don’t get tricked that you do not need scalability because only ten people in your company will use the service. You must assume that you made the right choice and you picked the correct vendor. If this vendor is so successful, he might have lots of problems scaling, which leads to your downtime.
How do you address security threats?
A common answer is ‘We never had any security issue’. This answer is stupid, they didn’t have any security issue because their service is not popular and thus not interesting to attackers, it’s not related to the process. Any software running in the cloud is exposed to many security threats and it’s totally different from desktop software. Service providers must have a proactive approach to security and use software from companies with a significant experience in this area.
What is your vision for the next three years?
Do not expect to get detailed information, but the vendor must be able to communicate a coherent vision for the next period. It is important to be able to understand the vendor’s perception about the industry. Avoid visions like ‘Relax, we will do everything that big guys do’.
What are your plans for mobile agents?
Over the next years, smart phones will get many of the features notebooks have today. The revolution has just begun. Is the vendor prepared to deliver functionality and interoperability with these devices?
Why should our business use your solution?
Software companies and in many cases providers usually assume that it is enough to offer more features than competition to make everyone want their product. Recent history taught industry an important lesson. Innovation can lead to simplicity and this can gain the customer.
What availability can you guarantee for the system?
The availability of the system depends on underlying technology. The software platform should deliver at least 99.9% availability on standard hardware. The vendor must offer it. Some vendors will advertise 99.999% or even 99.9999% uptime. This is crap for many reasons, just search a little on the Internet, there are many research papers that explain what’s required to get there. I saw many companies that advertised such uptime apologizing for their one day outage that happened due to a terrific human mistake that will not happen again. 🙂 The truth is that complicated systems need highly trained service engineers and even these ones make mistakes. Don’t look for overcomplicated things. Just choose a company with a good uptime record that is not afraid to pay you for downtime.
What are the hidden costs behind your service?
There are many companies that offer a very competitive price for the product; unfortunately, a lot of features are paid premium. There should be very clear at signup which features are included and what kind of support they provide by default. There is usually a little effort to get used with a product, so it’s not good to receive based news after several weeks of service.
I hope that this was useful. All questions above are in random order, not based on importance.
If you think this was useful, let me know and I will continue, there are also some important questions the service provider should ask the software vendor before deploying a particular platform.