Top 3 unified communications vendors ranked by SMBs

Ease of installation, effortless integration, trouble-free management, and straight forward and competitive pricing. These are what small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) shopping for a unified communications (UC) system say they are looking for.

And when it comes to fitting the bill, SMBs prefer ShoreTel Inc., Cisco, and Interactive Intelligence, over other UC providers, according to a report recently released by technology research firm Gartner Inc.

Unified communications is a term used to describe the integration of real-time communication services such as Internet Protocol telephony, video conferencing, instant messaging (IM), voice mail and other services.

The report titled: MarketScope for Unified Communications for the SMB Market, North America, delved into the ability of companies offering voice capability, conferencing, messaging and presences and IM products to generate significant interest in the 20 to 499-employee market segment. The UC providers were judged on areas such as: market understanding; marketing strategy; sales strategy; product and service quality; overall business viability; and customer experience.

Respondents were asked to rate the vendors as:

Strong positive – Existing customers will continue with planned investment or potential customers will consider their vendor as a strong choice.

Positive – Existing customer will continue planned investments and potential customers will consider this vendor as a viable choice.

Promising – Existing customer will consider the short and long-term impact of possible changes in status and potential customers will keep tabs on this vendor as it evolves and matures.

Caution – Vendor faces challenges in one or more areas. Existing customer understands these challenges and is developing plans based on risk tolerance and business impact. Potential customers are taking the vendor’s challenges as part of due diligence.

Strong Negative – Vendor has difficulty responding to problems in multiple areas. Existing customers are using risk mitigation plans and contingency options, potential customers consider this vendor only for tactical investment with short-term and rapid payback.

ShoreTel was the only UC vendor that scored a Strong Positive rating. Cisco and Interactive Intelligence received a Positive rating.

Eight other companies were rated as Promising. These were Alacatel-Lucent, Avaya, Microsoft, Mitel, NEC, Siemens Enterprise Communications, and Toshiba.

The UC market remains a relatively young and very competitive market populated by a large number of vendors offering a wide variety of products, according to Megan Marek Fernandez, principal analyst for networking and communication with Gartner and co-author of the report.

“ShoreTel received very high ratings from customers because of their system’s ease of use and ease of management,” she told ITBusiness.ca.

A large number of UC customers in the SMB space do not have the IT personnel or expertise to handle complex integration, system management and operation, she explained.

“These buyers are looking for systems that are easy to install, configure, use and manage. They want something that does not increase demands on an already limited IT staff,” she said.

While UC offerings vary from vendor to vendor and different companies will require different feature sets, Fernadez said, there are functionalities that appear to be in demand in the SMB market.

Desired UC feature sets include:

  • Telephony (a core functionality of UC)
  • Audio Conferencing
  • Web conferencing
  • Video conferencing
  • IM / presence

Fernandez also had the following tips for SMB operators considering a UC system:

  • Seek partner and vendor references: Partner references will enable buyers to gain a better understanding of the partner’s skill sets and expertise in UC implementations. Vendor references will also help buyers obtain first hand insight into the solutions unique capabilities and potential limitations such as things that might not come up during the sales cycle.
  • Conduct a network analysis to determine the underlying costs associated with getting your network up to speed to support the unified communications environment.
  • Determine all costs associated such as: user licenses fees; ongoing tech support; installation and integration cost. This is necessary to avoid any surprises.
  • Demo the solutions and get a feel for the user and management interfaces. Are the interfaces consistent across applications?

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, read his blogs on ITBusiness.ca Blogs, email nestor at narellano@itworldcanada.com and join the ITBusiness.ca Facebook Page

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