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8 Questions to Ask Your Solution Provider Before You Buy

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Most people didn’t get into business because they loved managing technology. That’s why most owners of small and midsize businesses rely on solution providers and value-added resellers (VARs) to be their right hand when it comes to implementing and supporting all kinds of IT systems. By teaming with a solution provider, you can spend more time focusing on your customers and less time on the details of IT.

But not all channel partners are created equal. Some have expertise in particular industries, such as healthcare or banking, savvy business consulting skills, or are well-schooled in technology, such as networking or business applications.

You need to find a partner that has the expertise that your business requires as well as the right chemistry to ensure a successful relationship. Here are eight questions to ask when choosing a solution provider to support your move to unified communications (UC)

 1. How should we measure the TCO of UC?
A decision to move to UC should begin with a clear definition of your organization’s expectations. How will UC impact your relationships with customers and partners? How do you expect that it will make your employees more productive by making it easier to communicate? Two metrics — return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) — are commonly discussed. Both ROI and TCO metrics have value, but their practical use comes at different stages in the purchase process. ROI should be used to justify the business case and secure the budget. You should use the TCO metric to help determine which vendor’s product you should purchase. Talk to your solutions provider about which UC system best fits your needs and provides the most value for your budget. Keep in mind that with today’s rapid refresh cycles for technology, you may want to consider the TCO over three to five years, rather than five to seven years.

 2. Should I deploy UC on-premise or in the cloud? Most UC systems are deployed on-premises today, but hosted UC solutions are gaining in popularity, especially for small and midsize businesses with multiple office locations. With a cloud service, you can deploy UC quickly and get back to running your business. A cloud solution lets you shift the investment from a capital expense to an operational expense, which can be advantageous from a cash flow perspective or, depending on your industry, may help your organization qualify for government subsidies, such as E-Rate. Most companies own their own phone system, which gives them the total control they’re accustomed to and allows them to leverage their existing investment in IT infrastructure and staff. But organizations such as healthcare or government agencies that need to meet stringent requirements for business continuity or privacy generally prefer on-premises UC. Businesses that need to integrate voice, video, instant messaging, presence awareness or other UC capabilities into their applications may also opt for on-premises UC, which typically allows for tighter integration than hosted systems.

 3. What’s the best way to compare UC vendors?
Ask your solution provider for their perspective on how to compare different vendors’ solutions. For instance, is the UC solution highly complex to install and use, or is it simple? Other considerations in choosing the UC system include the architecture, reliability, the initial capital investment, the need for upgrades, and energy consumption. With the rise of the bring-your-own device movement, be sure to understand how smartphones and tablets can be integrated into the UC system.

 4. How can the solution provider customize the UC system for your business?
Many organizations want to integrate UC capabilities into their business processes to further increase ease of use and worker productivity. Will the solution integrate UC capabilities into Salesforce.com, Microsoft Dynamics or other application?

 5. Will the solution provider conduct a network assessment to ensure a quality VoIP deployment?
Your solution provider should conduct an assessment of your network infrastructure to ensure that it can successfully carry IP voice and video. The network should be monitored for several days to identify any changes that are necessary to make the infrastructure VoIP-ready. This assessment should identify that the appropriate LAN and WAN protocols and standards are supported and that the infrastructure has the performance and capacity to deliver toll-quality voice. If you are planning to deploy IP voice over a wireless LAN (WLAN), make sure that it has enough capacity and coverage, and can support quality of service for voice and video. The WLAN that worked fine to provide Wi-Fi for visitors and conference rooms is unlikely to stand up to the everyday use of voice and video.

 6. What kind of support and service does the solution provider offer?
If your organization has multiple locations, ask the solution provider how they will support your business where they do not have a local presence. Many solution providers have affiliate relationships with resellers in other locations that they can leverage. Or they may rely on remote management tools and travel when necessary.

 7. What investments has the solution provider made in selling and supporting their UC product lines?
Understand why the solution provider chose to carry particular UC vendor (or vendors), and what investments they have made in selling and supporting those UC solutions. Is the solution provider’s staff certified to install and support the phone system you want to purchase?

 8. Do you have reference customers for a similar deployment?
The solution provider should be able to provide proof of satisfied customers who are using the same solution, including case studies and peer references.