Real life: When good VOIP vendors go bad

The story you are about to read is true. Well, mostly true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty, although the guilty are somewhat less deserving of anonymity.

This is the tale of two voice-over-IP (VOIP) vendors that have taken very different approaches toward a common customer over the years and how those approaches worked out for them in the end.

It all started ...

It begins late in the year 2000 with a midsize company I'll call "Acme Retail Distribution." Like most companies, Acme had separate data and voice infrastructures and had settled on vendors of choice for each area. Acme's voice network was provided almost entirely by one of the largest time division multiplex voice technology companies in the world. You would surely know its real name, but we'll call it the Old TDM Guys company, or simply OTG. On the data side, Acme had a routing and switching infrastructure provided entirely by a different company that we'll call R&S.

The people at OTG approached Acme about trying out some new VOIP technology that promised to integrate with Acme's private branch exchanges (PBX) and give them VOIP capabilities. The OTG product was designed to provide virtual trunks via IP that would allow Acme to move its interoffice voice traffic over to its data network. The potential savings from uninstalling all those voice tie lines was rather appealing, and Acme was very interested in pursuing the matter.

Thanks, but ...

R&S found out that Acme was interested in VOIP and decided to introduce its own new VOIP products to Acme representatives. However, Acme's people were very loyal to OTG on the voice side, and they told R&S that they weren't interested in the company's voice technology at this time. R&S took the news in stride. In fact, Acme needed to make some network changes to accommodate VOIP traffic, and R&S was there every step of the way with expertise guiding the network design. The pilot ultimately failed because of a problem in OTG's product that was not fixable at the time. However, the pilot would never have even got off the ground if it hadn't been for help from R&S, and Acme knew it.

Fast-forward to the year 2004. VOIP was maturing and becoming more mainstream, and Acme decided to revisit the project. The company had a lot of financial incentive to make it work as long as the technology was reliable. OTG had introduced products based on newer technology that supposedly didn't suffer from the problem that had plagued the original pilot. Acme tried to work closely with OTG to verify that its new products did indeed solve the earlier problem. However, due to some inflexibility in OTG's customer-support policies, the relationship with Acme deteriorated to the point that Acme decided to open up the project to other VOIP vendors.

Acme continued to involve OTG in the project but also invited responses to a request for proposals from other vendors, including R&S. The differences between OTG and R&S became more evident as the project progressed. R&S did everything it could to provide assistance to Acme: Its staffers answered every question, provided all the requested documentation and brought in numerous experts to consult on network design and configuration. On the other hand, OTG's inflexible customer-support policies and general support procedures continued to be an impediment to Acme.

They wept and wailed

In the end, Acme decided that the response from R&S met its requirements and was the best fit for its environment. As you might imagine, this did not sit well with OTG. The company's representatives wept and wailed and dumped truckloads of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) upon the Acme voice and data staff, but to no avail.

When it became clear that Acme's decision was final, OTG just disappeared. It didn't contact anyone at Acme for months, even though Acme still had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of OTG products in their network and continued to buy OTG PBXs, phones, software and service contracts.

The project progressed over the next several months as details were finalized. The proposal was made, budgets were approved, and orders were placed. Just days before equipment from R&S was to arrive at Acme's offices, OTG contacted Acme out of the blue, wanting to have a meeting under the guise of healing past issues and building a new relationship. Acme people were told that an uber-vice president from OTG wanted to meet with them personally.

It turns out that the executive was really just attempting to swoop in at the last minute and steal the deal from R&S. Her primary tactic was to pile on the FUD. In a roundabout way, she even questioned the competence of Acme's staff and leadership, going so far as to say that the project was definitely going to fail and that Acme should give her a call when it does. As you might imagine, Acme was not receptive to this approach.

More FUD

A few days later, a vice president at Acme received a follow-up e-mail from the uber-vice president at OTG. In that e-mail, the woman from OTG once again unloaded mounds of FUD upon the Acme VP. She even hinted that OTG was going to become significantly less friendly toward Acme in the future.

Later that day, Acme received an e-mail from its account manager at OTG stating that OTG was withdrawing local support for Acme and that Acme should not expect anything from OTG beyond what was specified in any existing support contracts. In effect, OTG was gathering up its marbles and going home, despite the fact that Acme was still their customer and would continue to be for several years.

Now, we've seen two different approaches toward Acme. R&S chose to be flexible and accommodating toward Acme even when it knew it had lost the original VOIP deal to OTG. R&S knew that it needed to cultivate its relationship with Acme in order to put itself in a position to win future business.

OTG, on the other hand, didn't do a very good job reacting to the changes in customer expectations with regard to customer service and support. The company blindly held to its old support-distribution models that required customers to seek help from a reseller first. That sort of support arrangement used to work well because everyone else was doing the same thing. However, in a rapidly changing marketplace that is beginning to place more emphasis on support quality, those old monolithic approaches to customer interaction and support are starting to show their age.

The market is overflowing with players -- such as Cisco Systems Inc., Avaya Inc., Nortel Networks Corp., Alcatel, ShoreTel Inc., 3Com Corp. and Mitel Networks Corp. -- and they each have something different to bring to the table with regard to technology. But I feel customer service and support is a key differentiator that is becoming increasingly important.

Sure, customers are interested in the technology, and they want to pick the best systems for their needs. But what they really want is a business partner, someone who's going to be with them side by side for years to come. They want to know that they've got the support of a company they can trust, an ally to guide them as this new technology continues to evolve and mature.

You've read about the different approaches taken by OTG and R&S. If you were a customer, which company would you want to do business with? If you're a vendor, which approach would you rather emulate?

Adapt or die

The times, they are a-changing, and support models change right along with them. If the incumbent vendors can't adapt to the higher customer support expectations set by the newer entrants in the field, they're going to end up on the same dusty shelf as the TDM PBXs they used to sell.

John Neiberger is the senior data/voice systems analyst at a regional financial institution in Colorado. He was an operations supervisor at a branch office before changing careers and transferring into the network services group, where he has been for seven years.

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