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How Consultants Add Value During Discovery

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The ramifications of replacing a business phone system can't be underestimated.

Enterprise telephony systems are no longer "plain old telephone service." Today's unified communications solutions present a vast array of features, configurations and requirements. So how can a business be confident that its specific needs will be met by a particular product suite?

A typical UC deployment involves three phases: discovery, technology acquisition and implementation. Staying focused on the strategic business need throughout the entire process is essential. Many businesses find that working with a telecommunications consultant insures that Phase One - the requirements discovery - is thorough, objective and complete.

"We bring order to a chaotic process," says independent consultant Jim O'Gorman, principal of Communications Engineering LLC. "Many times, a client will say, 'We've been working on this for six months and we're no further along.'"

That's not surprising, as most organizations don't have a strong telephony side to their IT group. Often, the move to a new communications platform is prompted by the end of life support to a 15 or 20-year-old system. IT may not have viewed communications as a core technology; it's "the phone system." Unless someone in IT gained UC experience somewhere else, there is no process in place to define the problems, look at potential solutions, reach out to potential vendors, get a system configuration and quote, make a decision and manage the implementation.

"Most clients have a high-level gut feel about what they want, but they really don't know how to translate the business need into a technology that can best serve them," says IDG contributor Steve Leaden, "A good consultant is a subject matter expert, steeped in the industry's history, products, trends and players."

That expertise extends beyond technology, deep into network and business processes.

"The consultant will always have the view that the UC decision-making process must reflect what will be needed five, ten years out," says InTech Chief Strategist Ernie Holling. "We provide a third-party perspective and can gently question how they've done their processes in the past. We can challenge how they're done and clarify how strategically they should be done in the future."

Leaden adds, "But it never starts with the technology." Instead, a consultant guides the discovery process by diving deep into operational detail.

"For example, doing a call center analysis we'll want to observe agents, supervisors, tech administration and leadership to hear all their views," says O'Gorman. "In discovery you need to have a firm understanding of the client goals, situations, and obstacles to get an idea of how to solve the problem."

"This is our proposal to clients," says J.R. Simmons, president of COMgroup, Inc. "Tell me what you deal with. What communications issues hold you up? Sometimes we find solutions to problems that have nothing to do with technology."

Indeed, during the discovery phase consultants often identify operational shifts that improve critical functions. They'll recommend performance indexing, call flow changes and staffing changes to make better use of human resources. And very often they can help a business apply their current technology better, for example, overhauling an IVR to use what they have in a different way. And their experience gives them the confidence to recommend that a business might need to reformulate their goals.

O'Gorman comments, "A consultant has the benefit of the wealth of past experience to float what might work."

Very often "what might work" does include a major investment in today's unified communications solutions. But consultants do not have an answer "presold" in mind. That's a key difference between a consultant and a vendor partner or sales rep.

"A sales person asks questions with an end point in mind, to justify their sale. They ask questions to tee up their solution as the answer," says Simmons. "But consultants are not there to convince a client, but to learn. The answer could be one of several technology solutions."

While their role is different than a channel partners', consultants consider VARs to be a key component of a good discovery. After reviewing the business needs, a consultant will reference a baseline of other clients from the same vertical, and will bring to the table the channel partners that can handle the client's specific size, geography and range of needed services, from VoIP and contact center capability to data networking and cabling infrastructure.

Consultants also depend on their channel partners to vet product suite integration. A consultant may identify a potential workflow but be unclear how existing and future solutions will play together. Features work differently between solutions. Maybe LinkSys is embedded, providing a completely different view of collaboration, or a 30-year old solution still works for the client, or the company plans to change and upgrade technology frequently.

"Partners are a resource, not a quote machine," says Simmons. "They help recommend the solutions."

And channel partners are pivotal when it comes to cost containment. While part of the discovery process is identifying, vetting and solving the client's needs, an equally important part is delivering on cost avoidance and driving the project's ROI. "There will be roadblocks when a client has to spend millions of dollars," says Leaden. "How do they justify that expense?"
A CP helps this phase of the discovery with their knowledge and expertise gleaned from years of deployment and integration experience. For example, they might introduce SIP trunking, or provide a solution that can lower maintenance costs, or introduce hardware leasing or a hosted cloud option to take the bite out of capital expenses. And they can give a deep look at present and future values, using tools like ShoreTel's "Total Cost of Ownership" model.

The project discovery phase can take weeks, sometimes much longer with a global operation, but it is time well invested. Ultimately the consultant delivers a strategic report with comprehensive recommendations for the next steps of technology acquisition.

With proper focus and process, the consultant, channel partner and client build a solution's foundation for decades to come. "The goal is to marry all the facets of the engagement so it always looks in a strategic direction," says Holling. "We have systems we installed 20 years ago. They worked then and they still work now."
Good planning takes care of the future.

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Did you miss the first two blogs in this series?  Here are links to: "9 Ways Telecommunications Consultants Benefit Channel Partners" and "Consultants and Channel Partners: Best Practices for Client Satisfaction"

Our sources for this blog, members of ShoreTel's Consultant Liaison Program Advisory Board:

Ernie Holling is President and Chief Strategist of InTech, which he founded in 1986. He specializes in providing crisis intervention at the enterprise level and in developing technology strategy for complex, multi-site/vendor environments and contact centers. He is a member of the Project Manager Institute, the Telecommunications Industry Association, the Utilities Telecommunications Council, and is a past vice president of the board of directors for the Society of Telecommunications Consultants.

James O'Gorman has background in both common carrier and private consulting and is the principal of Communications Engineering LLC. He has been an independent telecommunications consultant since 1980, providing consulting advice to legal, financial, publishing, health care, entertainment, governmental and educational institutions. He plays a key role in the design, selection, and project management of state-of-the-art telecommunications systems and infrastructures. He is a Past President of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants.

J.R. Simmons is President and Principal Consultant of COMgroup, Inc., with 37 years of experience in the telecommunications systems industry, including 28 years as a consultant providing planning, design, analysis, and implementation management skills. Current projects include strategic planning, data networking design, systems analysis, IP telephony, and call centers. J.R. was elected to the board of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants in 2011 and to the Executive Board of the STC in 2012.

Stephen Leaden is founder and President of Leaden Associates, Inc., an independent consulting firm providing specialized support to enterprises in VoIP, unified communications, contact centers, converged networks, and cloud-based architectures. A past president of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants, he's been in the telecommunications field over 30 years and is a frequent speaker at national trade shows, a contributing expert for UC Strategies.com, and a contributor to IDG and The Voice Report.