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Why your MSP should be using a VoIP solution to handle your calls

Voice-Over-IPAs an IT Consultant, Solution Provider or Managed Service Provider (MSP) you’re probably familiar with being interrupted, distracted and (let’s face it) irritated by telephone calls.

Whether you are trying to get on with fixing a technical issue for one client when another client rings to ask a “quick question”, or whether you’re trying to get your invoicing done when a salesmen calls to try to sell you his wares, if not managed then the telephone can be a terrible productivity killer.

Do you eat your own dog food when it comes to VoIP?

You’re probably also familiar with the phrase “Eat your own Dog food?”.

Personally, I much prefer the phrase “Drink your own Champagne!” (who eats Dog food apart from Dogs?) but either way, in the world of IT Solution Providers it refers to the practice of selling a product or service to a client that you don’t actually use yourself.

With some few exceptions, it’s always good practice to be using the products and services you sell to clients. Doing so sends a big message to them that says “The system I’d like to see you using is so good, we use it ourselves!”.

Most Managed Service Providers (MSP’s) I encounter either sell or re-sell Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) solutions (See “Should your MSP be selling VoIP services?”) but I’m surprised by the number of smaller MSP’s and sole IT Consultants who still use a Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) or worse, rely on their mobile phone.

For MSP’s who have clients who receive any type of client calls, using a VoIP solution gives you much more flexibility over how and when you answer calls – and this flexibility can mean increased productivity (you get more stuff done) and greater profits (you earn more money).

On-Site vs Cloud PBX

The type of VoIP system you choose is a straight choice between installing hardware on-site in your office or home office, or forgoing the hardware and utilising the Cloud.

There are still plenty of hardware based on-site Private Branch Exchanges (or a PBX – essentially a telephone exchange in a box) out there, ranging from the tools that can be installed on a basic PC or server running under Windows, to more traditional “PBX in a box” solutions that is a hardware “black box” that you plug an Ethernet cable directly into and use a web-browser or client admin app to setup and maintain.

You might also consider a Virtual PBX for small businesses – essentially a PBX hosted in the Cloud. The benefits with the Cloud approach to a PBX is typically lower up-front costs – as there is no hardware to purchase – reduced maintenance and often, a much less steep learning curve to setting up the system as you’d like.

Advantages of VoIP

Whether you choose an on-site or cloud VoIP PBX, once you’re setup then you can take advantage of the flexibility of VoIP and this can mean

  • Forwarding calls on a conditional basis – such as utilising a call answering service when you are busy, or re-directing to a mobile phone when you’re working out of the office
  • Reducing call costs – programming different “routes” for calls, such as using one call provider for free local calls, another for cheap calls to mobile phones, and another for cheap International calls – don’t worry who you are calling, just program the system, dial the number and know your call will be routed via the cheapest option
  • Virtual Numbers – have clients in a different City or different country? Why not offer them a local number that easily redirects to your office.
  • Call Recording – VoIP offers the ability to record calls easily, so you can refer back to them in the future.

Conclusion

If you are an IT Consultant or Managed Service Provider and you are still relying on POTS or your mobile ‘phones to manage your incoming calls – I’d suggest you are making life difficult for yourself! You will probably be noticing the effect in reduced productivity that being interrupted by a constant stream of telephone calls brings.

By implementing a VoIP solution, you’re utilising technology that gives you flexibility to take calls how and when you want to, and enables you to suggest similar solutions to your clients in the confidence that you know the solution is good enough for them – because you use it yourself.

 

photo credit: Per Olof Forsberg via photopin cc

Should your MSP be selling VoIP services?

VoIP HandsetIn my last blog post, I looked at the question of whether your MSP should be selling Telecoms Services such as Mobile Phone handsets and contracts, Analogue lines and Mobile Broadband. The answer to that question was… maybe, but probably not. Go and read the article for the pro’s and con’s!

As promised, let’s now take a look at Voice-over-IP services (VoIP) and whether as an MSP you should be adding these services to your portfolio of client offerings.

As with adding any service to your portfolio, the first question to ask yourself is “Will I spreading myself too thin?”. Whilst VoIP is based over traditional networks, switches and Routers familiar to most IT solution providers, it’s still an acquired skill to implement a successful VoIP system. Unlike other IT systems where an outage is tolerated and almost expected, in contrast end users have been educated to expect to pick up a telephone handset and for it to work 100% of the time. Any support ticket you receive for a VoIP handset issue needs to be resolved very quickly indeed.

VoIP can therefore be a chore to support and troubleshoot, but there’s a school of thought (which includes myself) that says even if you don’t offer VoIP services – your client will probably end up acquiring a VoIP system at some point which you will end up supporting. So you’ve got a straight choice – either get skilled at installing and supporting VoIP yourself, or create a Strategic Alliance partnership with a trusted partner company who specialises in it.

The third option is a mixture of the two. When I owned an MSP, we typically sold VoIP systems with ten handsets and less – specifically because the complexity was low and the expectations of the client were not unreasonable. Any system above ten handsets and we’d often partner with a specialised Telecoms business who could deliver the service.

Eat Your Own Dog Food

In terms of delivering VoIP services, there’s a phrase I’m fond of – “Eat Your Own Dog Food”. Simply put, if you’re going to be delivering a service or technology to a client, make sure you use it yourself in-house. Once you’ve researched the VoIP system you’re going to install for your clients, deploy it to your own office. The advantages are that you become familiar with the technology and service, it’s pro’s and con’s, and you can set your clients expectations accordingly. This is especially important for VoIP – as selling a VoIP service is all about setting your clients expectations early on.

Understanding why the client wants VoIP

From your perspective, you need to understand why the client is interested in a VoIP solution. Alarm bells should be ringing if the reason the client is interested in VoIP purely based on reducing costs. VoIP systems typically have a lower up-front cost and cheaper on-going costs than their old Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) predecessors – but many clients assume VoIP equals free. That’s definitely not the case, as whilst call costs can be cheaper, you still need reliable Broadband (and often a dedicated Broadband line for VoIP alone) and VoIP handsets cost money too.

It’s important to help educate the client to the trade offs involved with a VoIP system vs. a traditional POTs system too. Don’t over promise. VoIP is cheaper, but will experience downtime at some point – whether it’s Broadband failure or another issue. Many clients are happy to factor this in based on the additional flexibility and feature set VoIP offers, such as Site to Site calls, call forwarding and call recording. But be sure to have this conversation up front with a client.

Location, Location, Location

Location is also hugely important to VoIP. If your client is located in a Broadband dark-spot – and don’t automatically assume given a central location that they’ll have good Broadband as many industrial parks and City Centre locations have poor Broadband – then VoIP may not be a cost effective option for your client. Always do a site survey for Broadband before hand and be prepared to walk away from a deal if Broadband is poor – you’ll be setting yourself up for lots of headaches supporting a VoIP system with poor Broadband otherwise.

After all this, if the client decides VoIP is for them – offer them a trial of the service. Plug a handset or two in on-site and let the client use it in anger for a month or more. You’ll soon know whether they’re a good fit for VoIP or not based on how they react to using the handset.

When it comes to deployment, planning is everything. Do an audit of the existing telephone numbers and extensions in use, and plan well in advance for migration of DDI’s and other numbers. This is where a good VoIP service provider can make your life easy, or an incredibly frustrating experience.

Finding a VoIP provider

Finding a VoIP service provider is key to your success. A good partner will offer you training, help you standardise your installation for multiple successful deployments, and train you and your staff with Best Practice advice – as well as offering timely Technical support as needed. It’s typically best to work with a VoIP provider local to your region – so if you’re UK based, don’t work with a US provider, and visa versa. Do your research – ask around for your peers opinions and experiences of VoIP providers. There are an awful lot out there, but not all VoIP providers are the same.

Conclusion

In conclusion, VoIP can be a great addition to your service portfolio – but only if you research and understand the market before you enter it. Failure to do so will see you bemoaning VoIP as an unprofitable service and a drain on your service desk.

But done well, VoIP services adds value to your MSP business by allowing you to offer a very useful service to your clients, increasing your “stickiness” with them and giving them another reason to work with you. It’s also an additional revenue stream, just don’t expect to get rich from VoIP alone – margins are typically thin – so don’t give up the IT business just yet!

 

Huge thanks to Craig Sharp of Birmingham based Abussi for all the help and education he provided to both me and the rest of the AMITPRO group and which subsequently inspired this blog post! Abussi are an experienced and premier supply of VoIP in the UK – so if you’re looking for a partner to work with on VoIP, look no further!

Should your MSP be selling Telecoms services?

Telephone HandsetI was involved in an interesting round-table at my local User Group, AMITPRO, last month. The subject was Telecommunications and the question was – should I as an MSP be selling Telecoms services to my clients?

There are three types of Telecoms services that will be familiar to most IT Solution Providers and MSP’s.

  • POTS – Plain old Telephone systems
  • VoIP – Voice-over-IP
  • Mobile – Mobile Telephony, such as Mobile Phones and Mobile Broadband

POTS vs VoIP

The market for POTS is virtually non-existent. Nowadays, almost all multi-line business telephone systems (or PABX) run VoIP, at least internally, and analogue and ISDN lines are typically only used for external calls. There’s still an opportunity for MSP’s to provide these lines, but typically the margins are slim and best the MSP will end up with a small referral fee or tiny cut of on-going revenue. You could re-sell CLS (Carrier Line Select) services, where you help your client reduce their Telephone call bill by routing all externals calls via a cheap call provider, and I’ve seen some MSP’s make good margins out of this, but typically the POTS market is one you’re best off making referrals to trusted 3rd Parties who can better handle the work.

VoIP is the reason POTS is dying a death. It’s a solution that sits on top of existing LAN and Broadband Internet infrastructures, and it typically has a low cost of entry. VoIP is also typically associated with “free calls” by clients. That’s true to a certain degree – think Skype – but it sets a dangerous level of expectation that you need to be aware of. VoIP as a business telecoms solution certainly isn’t free.

Mobile Telephony

Finally there is Mobile Telephony. Everyone has a mobile phone, and mobile Broadband such as USB Dongles are now very popular. There are some great deals out there from the likes of O2 and Three – and IT Distributors such as Ingram Micro and Computer 2000 offer a mobile re-seller service for MSP’s which allows you to sell clients a handset along with an eighteen-month, two or three year deal, and receive a commission as a result – so why shouldn’t you, as an MSP, get a slice of those deals?

Well, the reason you shouldn’t re-sell mobile services, in my experience, is that it’s a major headache for very little return.

For mobile Broadband, the margins are too slim. With deals on the high street selling USB dongles with a 1GB allowance for £5/a month, where are you going to make your money?

For mobile phones, the advent of the consumerisation of IT and “Bring Your Own Device” (or BYOD) means that nowadays most people see a mobile phone, even for use in business, as a personal statement and want to choose from a myriad of available devices accordingly. This makes it very difficult for you as a an MSP to offer a small selection of handsets that you’re familiar with and more importantly, can be competitive on price with. The amount of time you’ll spend with your client deciding on the handset they want, and then trying to find the right price – only for them them to come back and say they can get a better deal on the high street – wipes out any profit you make. You could delegate this client work to an admin assistant to deal with, rather than an engineer, but the results will likely still be the same. By all means try it yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

So eliminating POTS and Mobile Telecoms, leaves us with VoIP.

Next, we’ll take a look at VoIP to see the pro’s and con’s of selling it as a solution to your clients.

*** Updated – 3rd February, 2012.

I’ve had some interesting feedback on my post, most notably from some of the larger SMB focused MSP’s who say they *are* making good margins out of POTS and Mobile Telecoms.

One such MSP said they’d done the following deals (quoted with their permission):-

“· A 20 handset mobile deal could make us £4-6k profit if it’s out of contract (they aren’t always unfortunately).

· A recent 100 handset VOIP deal gave us £20k commission (we don’t win a lot of these but the margins are nice for little work).

· Typically we’re seeing 10% of a customers spend on their landline bills and saving them money (this is a relatively east win, but it as a competitive market).

We end up providing support for the VOIP systems and the mobiles, especially BES Blackberry devices etc… so we thought we may as well make some cash from them and also improve the customer “stickiness”. We knew we didn’t have the skills in-house so we created this new business as a joint venture between ourselves and a local mobile reseller, it really is one of the best things we’ve done in the last two years.

I just wanted to give you another side to it.”

Really interesting feedback which I’m grateful to receive, and I’ve included it here as I believe it confirms that for a small MSP to make a profit in the Telecoms space, you need to be working with either larger clients or larger volumes, and to partner with somebody who can deliver the services cost effectively where you are unable to.

I think that for the majority of smaller MSP’s who typically work with smaller clients who don’t have corporate mobile contracts, the margins aren’t worth the effort required and they’d be better off focusing on their core competencies.

The point about ending up supporting VOIP systems and mobiles is a really important one though, and the focus on my next blog post! See you then!

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