|Issue:||North America 2006|
|Topic:||Evangelists and late adopters – the small business telecom revolution|
|Author:||James F. Geiger|
|Title:||President and CEO|
Jim Geiger is the Founder, President and CEO of Cbeyond Communications, a leader in the emerging bundled local voice and broadband services carrier market. Prior to founding Cbeyond, Mr Geiger was Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Intermedia Communications, an integrated communications provider, where he was in charge of Digex, Intermedia’s web-hosting organization. Mr Geiger was a founding principal of FiberNet, a metropolitan area network provider, and held various sales and marketing management positions at Frontier Communications, Inc. He began his career at Price Waterhouse. Mr Geiger has served as the Chairman of the Association for Local Telecommunications Services (ALTS) and currently serves on the Board of Directors for Comptel/ASCENT. He is a member of the Marist School Board of Directors in Atlanta and of the Board of Directors of Hands on Network, a national volunteer organization that promotes civic engagement in communities. In 2005, Mr Geiger was named “Telecom Professional of the Year” by the Atlanta Telecom Professionals Association. Jim Geiger received his Bachelor’s Degree in public accounting and pre-law from Clarkson University.
Smaller businesses, long ignored by major telecom service providers, are the target for emerging telecom service providers. By taking advantage of the powerful services and low costs made possible by IP, the new service providers have been able to provide smaller businesses with the sort of services that only big companies could afford in the past. Since small businesses typically do not have much in-house technical expertise, service providers must help these clients both choose and implement the new services.
It used to be that small and midsized businesses were largely ignored by the telecommunications industry — by both equipment vendors and service providers. Businesses with four to 200 employees were typically late adopters of telecom technology and those who wanted to keep pace with the communications capabilities of big businesses faced daunting challenges in dealing with big telco service providers or educating themselves on what was available. Why did this happen? After all, small and midsized businesses are the drivers of innovation as well as economic and jobs growth in the United States. If anything, these entrepreneurial businesses have the most to gain from the telecom revolution, and they can best leverage it to make the most significant positive impact on society. They also have the most to lose from not keeping pace with telecom technology, for in an era of rapid globalization every business, large and small, is subject to international competition. As Intel’s former President Andy Grove likes to say, ‘There are no hiding places anymore.’ Times have changed and entrepreneurial telecom service providers have recognized the importance of the small business telecom customer to the economy and to the bottom line, and have begun to focus on their needs and potential. These days, ‘Big Business’ communications tools are readily available for small and midsized entrepreneurial businesses. Affordability and simplicity There has never been a question that smaller, entrepreneur driven businesses wanted to be included in the telecom revolution. The market demand was always there but two issues have always held them back – affordability and complexity. Previously, small businesses could not take advantage of the large economies of scale that big businesses enjoyed and, so, faced daunting initial investments in trying to upgrade their telecom services. Many services were simply out of their budget range and large telecom service providers had little interest in serving them. The advent of Internet Protocol-based telecommunications services, particularly Voice over IP, has changed the playing field. VoIP makes bundles of telecom services affordable to small and midsized businesses, and opens the door for more advanced services. While IP-based technologies have been critical in making telecom more broadly affordable, the sheer variety of telecom services now available can sometimes be intimidating to small businesses. Carriers play an important role here in educating and guiding the market, and all relationships between telecom service providers and small businesses must be consultative in nature. Small businesses often feel ‘IT constrained’ and look to the service provider to help bring many of the technology pieces together by putting together customized packages and performing implementation tasks handled internally by larger companies. They cannot afford million-dollar trials of technology, and telecom service providers who focus on bringing advanced technologies to this market must learn how to package, distribute and support it. Once the small business has made the commitment to deploy new services, they will continue to rely on managed services provided by the carrier to monitor and maintain the network. Generally speaking, most telecom service providers are not set up to look after small business users and the market has been underserved. It’s all about focus. The entrepreneurial telecom companies, relatively recent competitors to the long-established incumbent carriers, treat the small business as their core market, not just as one segment among many. In addition to a face-to-face consultative relationship with the small business, service providers must leverage other support channels, particularly Web-based support options. Online, anytime, account tools – so simple an innovation technically – are incredibly important in serving the small business market. Since managers in entrepreneurial companies typically wear many hats, and managing telecom services is often an add-on responsibility, they need an easy way to manage such tasks as moves, adds and changes, that make few demands upon their schedule. No slave to technology Without IT staff on hand to evaluate and select telecom technologies, and with large telcos often indifferent to their needs, small businesses used to feel that the technology was driving them and not the other way around. By means of a consultative relationship with the carrier, and taking full advantage of online support tools, entrepreneurial businesses now feel the technology is working for them. They can take the available technology and match it to their way of doing business. One of the most important ways that small businesses feel empowered is their new ability to use telecom services to forge partnerships with the service provider and with other enterprises. By partnering with the telecom provider, small businesses can rely on the larger infrastructure of the carrier. For example, large email attachments, or ‘Whale Mail’ can be stored on the telecom provider’s server while a notification is sent to the business for downloading, rather than swamping the limited resources available on the customer premises. The migration of small entrepreneurial businesses throughout the world to advanced telecommunications services also opens up enormous opportunities for partnerships among relatively small companies which can join forces to become formidable in the market. Big company executives have noted that their biggest fear these days is not direct competition from another big company, but the fear of a designer in Los Angeles hooking up with a manufacturer in Bombay. Telecommunications has changed the competitive landscape and made this possible. Common experience One of the most important factors for small businesses is gaining a feeling that they are in control of the technology. Users want to feel that all of the assorted services they employ are securely under their control. Since small businesses are tightly integrated operationally themselves, they also seek a common experience with all their telecom services and want to become as productive with them as possible. Providing a satisfying common user experience allows the carrier to build trust with the enterprise as well as provide an operational synergy that includes both facilities-based and non-facilities-based telecom services. For example, entrepreneurial telecom providers can bundle mobile services with their facilities-based land line services via a Mobile Virtual Network Operator arrangement. Providing a common user experience across all services makes it easier for the carrier to introduce new communications tools and easier to bundle services. For example, entrepreneurial telecom service providers can easily pool the minutes of capacity not used by the individual services they provide, so their small business clients can maximize usage and not waste money on underused services. This creative flexibility is a key aspect of being a managed services provider and in marketing to the small business. Small business users are eager to adopt productivity enhancing tools that enable them instantly to access and share important information. By leveraging telecom technologies such as 800 numbers and email domains they can project a stronger image to their markets and ‘box above their weight class’ in global competition. As emerging technologies continue to drive better and more efficient business solutions, small businesses can level the playing field. Onward the revolution The small business telecom revolution has gone through several phases in a very short period of time. Not that long ago, small enterprises had different providers for each class of service – one for their local access service, one for their long-distance service, etc. – and many were still using dial up. When e-commerce emerged as an important competitive factor, they began to demand broadband service, but without breaking the budget. And then came mobile. As entrepreneurial telecom companies began to provide a common user experience across all of these services, entrepreneurial companies finally began to feel like the technology was working for them. Now, telecom providers are helping small business close the technology gap between big and small businesses even further by introducing sophisticated security services, T-1 lines, secure backup, collaborative solutions and business applications. One of the most important developments coming on the telecom scene is IP PBX technology. In just the past year, sales of inexpensive IP PBXs began outselling conventional PBXs. These new, IP-based phone systems give small businesses the ability to have DID (direct inward dial) numbers; a feature that was once only available to medium and large enterprises. Now every employee can have their own phone number, opening the door for small businesses to access more advanced applications such as unified messaging and ‘one number’ services. Just as IP technologies have made affordability, simplicity and a common user experience possible for small business telecom users, so too do they open up the prospects for all sorts of exciting next-generation services and applications. As entrepreneurial telecom providers continue to champion small businesses by bringing them the best of big business communications tools at affordable prices, small businesses are in turn becoming evangelists for leveraging the full potential of IP-based telecom networks in global competition. Telecommunications is without question the most significant technological development in modern society, lengthening our reach while shrinking our world. Now, entrepreneurial telecom service providers have empowered small and midsized enterprises to reach their full potential.