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.

Competitive Telecom Marketing

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here on Fridays for a while. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

Welcome to the new world of competitive targeted marketing; a world where you put each of your current customers and potential new customers into a bucket that best describes them. This may sound complicated, but competitive targeted marketing fits easily into budgets because you just manipulate the buckets one by one. What this means is that if you can afford to market to only one bucket of customers this month, you do that.  If you can afford several buckets, then you can market to more. In order to market to all of your buckets over time you have to generate a viable telecom marketing plan.

The first step in this process is to get your customers into the various buckets. To do that you need to put yourself in your customers’ place and examine the choices every customer has sitting at home at the end of your lines. What are they evaluating each month? Since you don’t know what your customers are thinking this becomes a series of riddles as you try to get into the customer’s mindset. And you should have a solution for every riddle. If you can’t answer the riddles posed by some of your products you should be using that product yourself to see it from a customer perspective.

Here are some of those riddles, meaning the questions that your customers are probably asking:

  • How much will this cost?
  • Can I rely on their customer service?
  • What’s best for me – a local provider versus not so local?
  • Programming choices?
  • Who has the channels I love?
  • Are telephone services limited to cell only?
  • How critical is 911?
  • How is reception on the various carriers in your area?
  • What Internet speeds do I need?

As you answer these riddles from a customer perspective you have your matrix!  Now, how do you shape the marketing messaging to compete against your competitors? In order to figure out how to shape your marketing messaging, you must ask yourselves questions about your products.

For example, let’s evaluate your Internet product. How competitive are the speeds? Usually, speed is where telecom companies can be very competitive. What service has greater reliability during a storm? Which service in your area is back in service quicker after a storm? Reliability is an area that is hard to beat in telecom companies. Ask yourself the hard questions and evaluate your product honestly compared to the competition.

Telecoms own the information channels, but most of us don’t think that way. We derive messaging from the fact that we open the information channels back up quicker when you need it. Still haven’t found your marketing edge? Examine some other aspects.

  • Are there unique ideas for pricing that fit local niche markets?
  • Can you undercut the competition by bundling?
  • Packaging? Buy the fastest Internet and get phone for free?
  • Are there areas you can serve that can’t get Internet any other way, but can get video and phone other places?
  • There are lists available of phone or Internet customers by competitor as well as satellite lists. You can buy those lists and then you can mail just those specific customers with a compelling offer. Show them how you can compete!

Once you form your matrix you can put each of your customers and potential customers into a bucket. You then decide what product you are going to offer them at which compelling price and how are you going to tell them what you have to offer by which medium.

Telecommunications Enters a New Marketing Era!

Today’s guest blog is written by Mindy Jeffries the President of Stealth Marketing. She will be writing a series of blogs that will appear here on Fridays for a while. If you want to contact Mindy you can call her at 314 880-5570. Tell her you saw her here!

In this blog post, my intent is to examine the history of telecommunications marketing so we can all have an appreciation of the work we have today, the products and the marketing solutions in the fast paced environment we find ourselves. From the day I started in 1978 until today, one thing is certain and that is change. So this post will provide solutions and ideas on how to make that change fun and manageable.

Cable started as a technical product that solved a problem for people in places that could not get the new invention called ‘television’.  The cable industry solved a need. Today those needs are rarely present with products that telecommunications companies market. So, what started as a technical-needs-based product became more of an everyday consumer product, and a story had to be told in an effective and compelling manner which would help new consumers choose which product fit their needs the best. This is when it got a lot more fun for marketers.  But wait, telecom companies had no marketers!

Telecom began to get more competitive and a need emerged to tell the ‘how are we different?’ story in an increasingly compelling way. Competitors came in on the television side, on the phone side, and on the Internet side. All of a sudden, telecom companies had competitors emerging at every door.

In the early days of cable television we told the story through products. HBO, ESPN, and other similar companies would help pay for the marketing. Our competitors started marketing with those same brand names. Cruel. Products became ubiquitous, available through all competitors. Those premium product offerings were no longer a differentiator.

Of course, a few other things happened in the world of marketing in the last 30 years. A truckload of marketing options started to become available to us. The marketing industry was introduced to new technology, new research entities, new methods, new philosophies, etc. In the end, that yielded options, more than one way to skin a cat. More marketing options means more places to spend your money with a lot of variation in response rates to different audiences with different marketing methods.  Sophisticated, targeted, analytical marketing became very important.

The problem became: how do we effectively differentiate in a quickly emerging telecom world . . . how do we tell our story, what is the target market, who is the target demo and what is the best way to place that communication? How do we utilize all of these marketing innovations? Those are the questions we will answer over the next few weeks. Hopefully these blogs will explain the process behind the curtain and I hope to show you the processes and strategies behind effective marketing.

Customer Portal

I have talked in other blog posts how I believe that the successful residential service provider in the future is going to have a choice to make between being what I call a dumb pipe provider or a full service provider. And there are merits to both approaches.

But should you elect to take the service provider approach you will be selling many smaller and niche products to your customers instead of the handful of major products you sell today. It may be a decade until voice and cable TV become 100% commoditized, but every year there will be fewer and fewer customers buying those traditional products.

One of the tools that service providers are going to need for selling multiple services to customers is a customer portal. This is a website that allows customers to see a menu of what is available to them. Last week I wrote a blog entry about upselling your current products to your customers as a way to immediately affect bottom line and a well-designed portal is a great tool for enabling that process.

Here is what I envision as the perfect customer portal:

  • The ability for a customer to see what services they are already buying today.
  • An easy-to-use menu that shows what else is available, categorized to make it easy for a customer to browse your products.
  • Product descriptions that explain the benefits of each available product.
  • Ideally, a video or demo for more complex products showing how they works.
  • The ability to offer sales specials as a customer browses to entice them to try the product.
  • A tie-in to your provisioning system so that the customer can buy, or even just try the product as they shop.

There are a number of customer portals in the telecom world today and I have yet to see one that works in this ideal way. Just last week I went in and changed several things on my AT&T Wireless bill. I found a lower cost voice package and the portal let me easily change plans. But in doing to it deleted my text messaging plan and decided I desired to pay 25 cents per text message. That took a call to fix. And I wanted to delete a feature that gave me lower cost international calling and that also took a phone call to fix. There is nobody bigger than AT&T and they don’t have their portal figured out correctly. But what they did have was a lot better than nothing because it enabled me to familiarize myself with their various plans so I could decide what I wanted, without having to involve a person in that process. I was glad to have the portal, and I just wished I didn’t have to make two phone calls to finally complete what I wanted to change.

Some of the better portals I have seen are from the major cable companies. They often offer so many different programming packages that having them all explained on a portal is a great way for a customer to shop without tying up a customer service representative. But from what I can see, none of them yet give customers the ability to change products without talking to a live person before it is finished.

I think a lot of companies hesitate to build a portal because they don’t want to commit the resources needed to build the ideal one. But there is no reason to wait since even the largest carriers haven’t perfected the customer portal yet. There is nothing stopping you from starting your portal now to let your customers see the wide range of your existing products. Every one of my clients has a number of products that they barely sell. I believe that there are a lot more customers who would buy products like unified messaging if they understood what it could do for them and if they knew that you offered it. Think of building a portal as a way of communicating with your customers.

If you are going to start a portal or improve an existing one you should consider including some of the following functions:

  • Let customers check their bill on-line.
  • Let customers make a credit card or bank debit payment.
  • Let customers change product parameters like their Internet bandwidth.
  • Make it easy for customers to order Pay-per-view events.
  • Let’s customers place a tentative order even if that just prompts you to call them back.

So I recommend that you create a portal today that does some of these functions. There is probably not going to be some magic program available that is going to let you create the perfect customer portal all at once. Rather, this is likely to be an ongoing process. Because of that, do what you can for now, but do so in such a way that you are prepared to evolve your portal into a powerful tool for you and your customers.

Finally, I would note that there is an additional set of functions that are sometimes referred to as a customer portal. On smart switches you can build a web interface so that customers with advanced voice features can maintain the settings for those products. While this is certainly a portal function, this is more of an operational function and not a marketing function.

Long Distance Fraud Again – Really?

I’ve been helping clients get into and stay in the long distance business since the 80’s when long distance was a new line of business for many telcos. I remember when the industry was new that it was a challenge. If you were a rural LEC you had to convince the RBOC who owned the regional tandem switch to help you set up a trunk group to get to a long distance company. And they were reluctant and slow to respond. So a company had to fight to get into the long distance business.

But over time it got easier and fairly routine and most rural telephone companies added long distance as a product line. It worked pretty well until the time in the early 90’s when calling cards became the rage and customers all wanted them. With a calling card a customer could make a long distance call from any other phone and bill it to their own home phone number.

So companies in the long distance business started giving out calling cards, and eventually they gave a calling card to every customer. This generated a lot of new traffic, and since this was back in the day when it still was not unusual to pay 10¢ to 15¢ per minute for long distance it also drove a lot of new revenue. But within a few years after calling cards were introduced calling card fraud followed. Calling card fraud was pretty straight forward. There were people who would try to find a valid calling card number that they would then send to places like the Middle East where street vendors would hawk cheap minutes. And dozens or even hundreds of people would use the calling card until somebody figured out that fraud was going on and cut off the card.

When the fraud first started the losses got huge because nobody was looking for it. But over time the carriers that sold the long distance began monitoring for unusual usage and policies were established such as making the cards only good for domestic calling, and over time the big calling card fraud got under control, but never quite stopped.

Over the years since then I have run across cases of fraud, but it has been a random thing here and there and not widespread like the calling card fraud had once been. The companies that sold wholesale long distance got more sophisticated and monitored usage closely and for the most part the industry stopped worrying about fraud.

But recently I have seen cases of significant fraud happening again to my clients. Within recent months I have had two clients hit for over $25,000 in fraud in a single month, which in both cases was as much as they had been paying for wholesale long distance for most of a year. So for these companies this was a really big deal and it effectively doubled their cost of buying long distance for the year.

And both of these companies were buying long distance from ‘big name’ carriers and not from some small VoIP provider. I must tell you that I was surprised. Not surprised that fraud could still happen, but surprised that the big company selling the long distance did not have a fraud monitoring process in place to stop it. It’s not that hard to monitor for fraud at the large carrier level. If they process the long distance in real-time it is not hard to set some flags to look for unusual usage. When my clients decided to buy wholesale long distance from these vendors they were assured that those carriers had fraud monitoring. It turns out to not to be true.

The fraud in both of these cases was allowed due to faulty connections between my clients and their customer. In one case if was my client’s own connection that was not secure. They had installed an IAD (Integrated Access Device) at a business customer in order to supply voice and data from their fiber connection. The IAD was not properly configured and had very weak passwords and was not configured to only accept commands from my client.

The second case was similar in that another client had a connection to a customer PBX. And of course, being a full service provider, they made the connection for the customer to his PBX. As it turns out there was a backdoor connection available into the PBX into the internet, which means that the PBX could have a connection from somewhere other than my client.

Neither of those problems automatically leads to fraud, but there is a new set of bad guys in the world. They use computer worms to test against millions of phone numbers looking for phone numbers connected to PBXs or IADs. Once they find such a device they use normal hacking techniques like cracking easy passwords to gain access to the device. They then sell calling in the same way as was done in the old days of calling card fraud. In one of these cases the calling went to the Middle East and in the other went to INTELSAT calling to satellite phones – both very expensive calling. My suspicion is that these bad guys are not selling these minutes on the street like in the past, but instead hawking cheap minutes to International VoIP minute sellers who have no idea where these minutes come from.

Certainly my clients had some liability in their loss since they contributed to the customer connection being made in an insecure manner. But they also ought to be able to rely on their underlying long distance provider to protect them against a flurry of suspicious calls. The biggest worry about this new kind of fraud is that it pumps a large volume of calling to expensive places in a short period of time. So it can cost a telco a large amount of money in a hurry.

So my caution to companies that sell long distance is to beware. It has been a while since fraud was of this level of concern, but it’s back again. There are two steps you can take to protect yourself. First, make absolutely certain that the company you are buying long distance from has good fraud detection and policies. You want a carrier who will not only find the fraud but who will cut off the calling before they even contact you. But second, the responsibility rests with you to use good network practices to make sure it is hard for somebody to hack the connections to your customers. If you want to know more about how to protect yourself contact Derrel Duplechin of CCG at (337) 654-7490.

A Look into my Crystal Ball

Technology of the FutureI have spent quite a bit of time recently reading futurist books and articles that think about the most likely future. I’ve done this to the point where my wife asked me if I am unhappy with the present! After chuckling, I told her that I am happy now. But thinking about the future is a worthwhile effort when one is engaged in a technology-based industry. Everything I have read tells me that selling to residences is going to change a lot over the next few decades. And I believe that those who understand where the trends are taking us can begin preparing for that future today.

So what will the future residential customer want from a telecom company? Everything I have read tells me that traditional telephone service and cable TV service as we know it today will not be around. Voice will have become a total commodity. You will probably be able to put a phone in your house if you insist, but it will be an IP device and very few people will still have a traditional telephone.

Within twenty years voice will be a commodity for cellular service also and the cell phones we carry today will also be a thing of the past. There will be devices far smarter than our ‘smart’ phones. Many of these devices will be somehow integrated into our body and will be far more sophisticated than the first generation of Google glass. I am not enough of a futurist to predict the specific technology that will win the battle, but we will not be carrying around a device whose primary purpose is to talk to people.

Cable TV is headed down the same path and there will no longer be a subscription to hundreds of channels for a high price. Video will be available ubiquitously on any device you want to watch it on. People will subscribe to the programming they want and will not pay for what they don’t want.

But people will still want bandwidth at their homes – lots of bandwidth. As we move towards the Internet of Everything, where multitudes of devices will include cheap chips and will be networked together to make our lives easier, the average house will want a lot of bandwidth.

And there will be two kinds of bandwidth providers – dumb pipe providers and service providers. There are already dumb pipe providers today. I live in the country and I get my Internet access through a wireless link from a nearby tower. And that wireless link is all that my ISP sells. They don’t offer any other services over that link and I doubt I would buy them if they did. I have my smart phone to give me everything else.

Many of today’s networks will morph over time to become dumb pipe providers. They will raise the price of bandwidth until it is high enough to compensate them for their network. They will have much smaller staffs than today who will be needed just to install and maintain the network.

But there will be another kind of provider that I call a full-service provider. They will also deliver a bandwidth pipe to the house, but they will also provide a host of services. And mostly these services are going to look like a future version of today’s Geek Squad. These companies will send technicians into people’s houses to help them make everything work together. When there is an Internet of everything it is going to get complicated. People who are not very technological are going to want lots of help to customize the many options to get just what they want. And so when a technicians visits he might be asked to help a customer get a medical monitor working right, find some programming they had trouble locating, fiddle with the controls for the lighting, and put a different personality on the home AI. The service-oriented provider will build customer loyalty and will be perceived as something very different from the dumb pipe provider.

There is a lesson today from envisioning this future. Far too many service providers today sell products that they treat as commodities, and once they sell them they rarely talk to their customers unless there is a problem. Technology has already gotten complicated for the average household and I think there is already a market for sending technicians into homes to make things work together better. I have clients who do this and they say that changing to a service model is the best change they ever made. They generally sell something new every time a technician visits somebody’s home. But the vast majority of the telecom companies I know look a lot more like the dumb pipe provider. They may sell telephone and cable TV on their data pipes, but what are they going to be left with when those products turn into a commodities and then disappear into the cloud?

Give the Customers What They Want

I have a friend Danny who is a CPA and he is doing something that I think is brilliant. He has taken over the accounting practice from his 72 year-old father and he also has a number of other older accountants who help him during tax season. (And I don’t use the term “older” accountant nonchalantly, being one of them myself).

For several years he has tried to force the older accountants into learning new tax and accounting software and they have resisted vehemently. Their arguments are that they had multiple years of tax returns from their clients in older legacy programs and they also were just not interested in learning yet another new program. In fact, his father told him that if he was forced to learn a new system he would just stop helping him. And the clients all love his father.

And so my friend Danny did a brilliant thing. He went out and set up his own private cloud network. He put all of the new software into the cloud that he and most of the staff use, but he also sent the various older legacy software that the older accountants wanted to use into the cloud. And he chose to use a cloud so that anybody could work with any of the software packages from anywhere.

He would have preferred to do this with an existing cloud computing service, but none of them were interested in helping him set up the legacy software, some so old that they are DOS systems. There are a number of cloud services that support new accounting software. In fact, one of the major selling points of most of the cloud service providers is that a customer will never again have to worry about having software that is out of date and the cloud providers tout how they will introduce every update from the software provider when it becomes available.

Accountant upstairs ↑

Accountant upstairs ↑ (Photo credit: jah~)ems. 

And the cloud providers are completely missing the point. Real life people don’t want software that is always up to date. My worst nightmare is to log onto a cloud server with a project with a deadline and find out that the program I use every day has changed and that I will have to spend hours figuring out the differences. People don’t mind upgrading software over time and we have all migrated through the many versions of Microsoft Office. But people are creatures of habit and our relationship with software has become almost intimate. Danny’s father is a perfect example. He won’t use anything newer than Office 2007. And this is his right – he paid for it and it still works. Upgrading software you use every day can be unnerving at best and traumatic at worst and is always a bit disruptive.

And so the cloud providers have some big lessons to learn if they really want to be successful with the average customer. The cloud providers have chosen to stress the benefits of always having the most recent version of software. And from an operational perspective this makes sense for them. They only have to maintain one version of the software which makes it easier on them in a number of ways. But this doesn’t make sense from the perspective of what their customers want.

In the telecom business we have a long history of offering a handful of standard products to businesses. And from the perspective of the telcos this makes sense for the same reasons that the cloud providers want to push one version of software – it’s easier on the telco in terms of staff training, operations and billing. Selling standard products is what Ma Bell did for a century.

I would argue that selling only ‘standard’ products is not in the long-term best interest of a telco. If your company only sells standard products then you have turned those products into a commodity. In a competitive world, customers have no reason to be loyal to you if they can get that same commodity from somebody else for less. But if you are willing to listen to your customers and give them a custom product that they want, then you have created a loyal customer who is likely to stay with you for a long time. I don’t think most telecom providers add in the cost of churn when looking at profit margins. It is worth spending more up front to get a customer who will stay with you than to sell standard products to customers who will always be price shopping.

Hosted IP Centrex Service

In a few other blogs I have referred to IP Centrex as a new service for businesses, so I thought I ought to explain the service. Hosted IP Centrex service uses data-centric phone sets to replaces key system, PBX system or existing Centrex service. The IP Centrex phones can be controlled by a softswitch or by connecting an IP PBX to a legacy switch.

A number of CCG’s clients are having success selling IP Centrex to business customers. The product includes the best features of a large PBX plus many additional “value added” services that are only available through IP based phone service. The product can be integrated with a subscriber’s computer systems to provide such features as dialing from Outlook, common databases for all employees, etc.

There is a wide range of phone sets available that include a screen that allows a caller to manage their calling. The product requires a customer to buy new IP handsets and many of my clients lease sets as part of the price.

This product has a large potential market since it can be tailored for the very small or very large business. It is easy for the carrier or the subscriber to customize features for each phone or for the whole system.

There are a number of benefits of this product to both the carrier and to subscribers. Some of the biggest advantages:

Benefits to the Carrier

  1. Can be sold to any business subscriber regardless of what service they had before. It’s a good replacement for B1’s, trunks or traditional Centrex.
  2. Subscribers become stickier to the extent you can get them hooked on custom features not available elsewhere.
  3. Allows a carrier to sell service outside your traditional footprint. You just need to find businesses that have a decent high-speed data connection. This also means you can sell voice services to all branches of a customer’s business and not just to those in your footprint.
  4. It promotes the Company’s data products and is easily bundled with data.
  5. The product has a lot of pricing flexibility and can be sold to compete with multiple B1’s or traditional Centrex. You should be able to profitably beat the price of any traditional phone product.

Benefits to Business Subscribers

  1. The Subscribers get a telephone system that equals the features of a high-end PBX.
  2. The Subscriber no longer needs to buy or maintain a PBX. The customer can buy the IP phones or lease them from you.
  3. Subscribers can portray a unified professional image to the public. Employees at remote locations can be integrated into the telephone system. And small companies can act like bigger companies by the use of the various features. Remote employees can be made to feel like a part of the Company.
  4. Subscribers can tailor the phone system and each phone to meet their needs. There are hundreds of features available including many that were not available on analog systems.
  5. Subscribers can easily manage the features available on each set using the Subscriber portal that allows for easy and immediate changes to the features on any or all phones.
  6. Phones are portable and an employee can quickly move their phone from desk to desk or office to office and keep the same extension, voice mail and features.
  7. Phones can be programmed to be nomadic (portable, but not mobile). This means that an employee can take the phone out of the office and work at home or in a hotel as if they were in the office.  All features and functions of the phone remain unchanged.

“Dumb Pipe” versus Full-Service Provider

Broadband and cable TV companies have been looking at their long-term strategy and they are going to have to decide if they are going to be what we at CCG call either a “dumb pipe” provider or a full-service provider.

A “dumb pipe” provider is a broadband company that sells a very fast Internet connection as its primary product and not much of anything else. A perfect example of this is what Google is doing in Kansas City. Google is selling a 1 Gbps Internet connection there for $70 per month. That is far more speed than is possible from the competition, but it is also more expensive. The only other product available from Google is one cable TV package that is bundled with the data for $120. Google only offers one other data package for low-income homes. Google doesn’t offer different size cable packages. They don’t offer voice. They don’t offer security, or cloud services or any of the panoply of new services that can be provided over fiber.

In my opinion Google has looked into the future and they believe that most of the other services that they could be selling will be available to customers over the very fast Internet connection that Google is selling them. One of the primary advantages to Google of the dumb pipe strategy is that they have a very simple product mix to sell. Fewer products means less staff needed to market, sell, provision and support customers.

The downside to the dumb pipe provider is that they will have a much lower average revenue per user (ARPU) than the full service provider. But both types of providers have a very similar cost of the network. And this is at the heart of the discussion that many of my clients are having about the long-term trends in the industry.

Most providers in the industry today are full-service providers. They support the full residential triple-play, have multiple options for cable TV, have multiple options for voice. They also sell a wide range of other products and their marketing strategy is aimed at getting the highest ARPU from customers they can.

But the full-service providers are worried when they look at some of the trends in the industry. They have already seen a lot of voice customers drop off the network. They are starting to see cable customers leave the network and they look ten years down the road and see a very different cable market. And so full-service providers are faced with figuring out how to go from where they are today to where they think they must be in the future.

I am starting to see evidence of the shift in the strategy of full-service providers. In the last year I have seen data prices being increased all over the country for the first time. And this is not because the cost of providing data is growing, because the margins on data have grown steadily each year over the last decade and are still growing. I think the service  providers have embarked on a long-term upward shift in data prices so that they will be getting more revenue from the one product that is likely to survive into the future.

The companies with the biggest dilemma are these just entering the market for the first time. Do they make the leap straight to being a dumb pipe provider, like Google, or do they become a full-service provider and enjoy the remaining years of high ARPU before voice and cable TV losses pull those numbers downward? It is a hard decision and a conversation I am now having with every new service provider.

What Business Customers Want

A significant percentage of CCG’s clients sell telecommunications services to businesses. When I ask them what they think businesses are now looking for from a telecommunications provider, I most often get the responses listed below.

Interestingly, saving money is not on this list. While most of my clients sell at competitive prices, they say that business customers value a reliable network much more than they do a lower price. Since phones and computers are often now tied together using IP, a network outage effectively can completely cripple a business if they lose both phone and the Internet.

Single service provider. Ideally, most small to medium businesses would like one service provider to take care of everything from data, phones, IT, computers, etc.

Reliable network. They want to be served by a reliable network, with reliability measured in terms of outages. This is often why a new network owner in a town will see slow sales to businesses for a few years until the local market perceives that their network as reliable.

Faster data speeds. While faster download speeds are always important, many businesses also covet fast upload speeds.

Employee mobility. Businesses want the ability for employees to be able to work from home or on the road.

Off-site data storage. Businesses want key data stored offsite to avoid catastrophic data losses. They feel safer if they know the company who is storing their data.

Fast provisioning and changes in services. Businesses want to be able to change things on the fly, be that moving an employee to a different office, changing the features on a given phone or computer, or increasing data speeds.

Physical security and surveillance. Businesses want next generation security systems with features like biometric access, motion detectors and hidden surveillance cameras.

Redundant connections. More and more businesses want physically redundant data connections since their businesses are more reliant on the Internet to be profitable.

Moving to the cloud. Lately businesses have been asking about cloud services since they hear it is a way to eliminate or reduce their IT functions and let outside parties take care of updates, security, etc.

Unified communications.  Businesses want phone calls and data to get to them over multiple devices across multiple networks.