Are Telephone Features Still a Product?

English: Original Caller Identification receiv...

English: Original Caller Identification receiver installed at Boeing/PEC facility in Huntsville Alabama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just read another blog that asked why businesses bother paying for voice mail any longer. And it got me to thinking. Why are companies still offering and charging a lot for telephone features in general?

Let’s face it, traditional TDM voice is dying. It may take a few decades for people like my mother to give up her home phone but, but residential voice is going to continue to shrink and shrink until it becomes a pretty marginal product. Don’t get me wrong about the need to still offer voice – 60% of homes and most businesses still have voice – so a full-service carrier needs to have a voice product.

But a lot of homes only carry a phone line to have a 911 phone or to be able to fax. And more and more businesses are going mobile instead of pouring big dollars into fixed phone systems.

What no longer makes sense is to have a large pile of very expensive features and options that people must add to basic telephone service. You are going to drive your voice customers away even faster than they are already leaving if you are still selling voice mail and caller ID as expensive additives to a voice line.

The blog I read asks why any businessman even bothers to use voice mail today, and it’s a great question. The people who know you can always find you some other way to reach you like text or email. I know for myself that the very last and worst way to find me is to leave me a voice mail. And when I get somebody else’s voice mail I rarely leave a message any more, but instead hang up and send them an email or sometimes a text (I am slow with my thumbs). And so voice mail is turning into the way that you communicate with strangers. Unless you are a salesperson, you are not going to find this all that useful.

The cell phone companies have it right. They don’t even offer features and everything they have is included in the basic phone. Granted they have convinced people to pay a huge dollar premium for mobility, but the line they sell you includes all the features. And with smart phones people can easily customize their calling all they want by adding phone apps.

I have been advising for over a decade for my clients to include most features automatically in their base product. Telephone carriers are competing against cell phones or the cable company, both of which give away most features.  The goal today with a voice product is to keep your customers as long as possible – not to nickel and dime them to death with features prices from $1 to $5 each per month. So look at your product line in terms of being customer friendly and competitive – and stop thinking that features are a way to make money.

There might be one feature package that might still make sense as a standalone product – a robust unified messaging platform. But this can’t just be glorified voice mail or nobody is going to pay extra for it. It needs to include the whole suite of tools that make voice usable across all platforms – follow-me service, voice to text, text to voice.

And rather than charge extra for features for your business customers you should be offering them IP Centrex that has all of the traditional features plus all of the features of cell phones built-in. If you can’t give your customers a business line that will do everything they want they will eventually bypass you in favor of somebody who will give them what they want. Note that there are now a few dozen companies that are selling IP Centrex lines over any web connection. So you cannot count on keeping your business customers just because they have always used you.

Smart Upgrades

Every network faces periodic upgrades of electronics or key components. We have found that cutovers are the time when any network is the most vulnerable.

There are tried and true processes that can be used to minimize the chance or duration of network outages during upgrades. The following is a list of steps that we recommend for any network upgrade that puts customer service at risk. Following these steps is never a promise of 100% safety, but we have never seen a company that upgrades in this methodical and planned manner have major problems.

  1. Have a Project Manager for the Upgrade. It is vital to have one person in charge of the upgrade. They can get assistance in planning and doing the upgrade, but they need to be the one ready and authorized to react if things don’t go as planned.
  2. Develop a Checklist. You should develop a step-by-step checklist of everything to consider for the upgrade. Make sure that you understand every piece of equipment and software that will be affected by the upgrade. And then, most importantly, develop a step-by-step list of the steps required to perform the upgrade.
  3. Break the Upgrade into Manageable Steps.  If possible, the upgrade should be done in stages where progress can be measured and tested as each step progresses.
  4. Establish a Baseline / Establish a Go-Back Process. By this we mean that you need to completely understand the current network configuration, in detail. You need to know the exact settings of every piece of equipment. And once you understand the current network configuration develop a go-back process. This would be the steps needed to get the network back to the original configuration if something goes wrong during the upgrade. Ideally the go-back would be something really fast and we sometimes have seen this programmed such that it can be done in minutes.
  5. Understand the Traffic Flow (and then monitor during the cutover). During the upgrade process you might not get the same kind of alarms that you normally would expect. Also, changing traffic patterns due to the cutover can skew traditional measurements if you are rearranging the network. So it’s vital to understand your traffic flow before the upgrade. Then, have somebody monitor the traffic during the cutover since this might be the only way you will know that you have knocked customers out of service.
  6. Make Sure you have Vendor Support. For a major upgrade you should consider having a vendor representative on site. Otherwise, make sure ahead of time that somebody will be able to help you if you run into unexpected problems. I have seen clients schedule an upgrade over a holiday, not thinking that the needed expertise at the vendor is probably not going to be available.
  7. Pre-test Every Component before the Cut. Definitely test any new equipment before you introduce it into the network to make sure that it is operating properly. For complicated upgrades you ought to consider setting up a test lab where you can test the new equipment against components that will remain in the network for interoperability.
  8. Take Every Upgrade Seriously. I often see companies follow most of the above steps for major upgrades only to see them knock out their network for some simple upgrade like introducing new cards or something they thought was a simple upgrade. Any change that can knock down your network might knock down your network, so take every upgrade seriously.
  9. Define What Success Looks Like. You should establish the needed tests ahead of time that will let you check that every aspect of the network is working as planned. You don’t want to do an upgrade that is almost right only to find that you have created future problems. So establish a detailed test plan.

If you have questions about upgrades or want help developing an upgrade plan contact Derrel Duplechin of CCG at (337) 654-7490.