Listen to Michael Flanter Sr. describe Todd Sharp, and you’ll think he’s talking about an old crony.
“We had had business dealings with him, and we didn’t hate him too much,” said Flanter.
Not hardly. In fact, Flanter, president and founder of 30-employee, Atlanta-based hospitality product distributor Springfield, and Sharp, director at systems integrator Engage, are about as close as two people in their positions could be. Flanter and his son Michael Flanter Jr., vice president at Springfield, rely on Sharp to keep their eyes open to new ways to solve business problems and to find ways to make new technology available to a company as tiny as Springfield.
“We didn’t want just a hired gun. We wanted someone who is more involved in what we’re doing on a daily basis,” said the elder Flanter. “We have a lot of confidence in [Sharp’s] knowledge of technology and how we do business.”
So, when it became apparent in spring 2005 to both father and son that their legacy PBX-based phone system needed to be replaced, they naturally looked to Sharp for a recommendation. They may have gotten more than they bargained for.
That’s because Engage, Sharp’s employer, was, at the time, implementing an advanced VOIP (voice over IP)-based telecommunications system in its own operations. Siemens Communications’ HiPath OpenScape software suite features presence-aware capabilities to boost employee productivity. OpenScape provides a view of all users and their devices (voice, instant messaging, e-mail or video), so any user can instantly discover the best way to reach a colleague.
Sharp said he believed OpenScape would be perfect for the Flanters, who were looking to grow their business to serve more of the 200,000 hotels, motels, resorts and condos that make up Springfield’s potential customer pool. Sharp said he had been impressed with OpenScape since meeting with Siemens representatives at their Atlanta office in late 2005 to evaluate the product for use internally at Engage.
“They blew our doors off. The other products we evaluated didn’t have the ability to integrate IP communication into legacy systems. OpenScape does. You can integrate with any switch out there,” Sharp said.
Sharp noted that he was especially delighted when the Siemens representatives used the OpenScape system themselves to find technical personnel ready and able to answer Sharp’s questions.
“They started reaching out virtually to answer our questions. Any time you can use the technology to prove the benefits, it’s greatand that’s just what they did,” said Sharp.
Engage made the decision to implement OpenScape in its own operations in early spring 2005. But now, seeing Springfield’s plight with its old phone system, Sharp began to wonder if there was some way Springfield could afford to access this type of technology.
Sharp said he persuaded the Flanters to delay their buying decision while Engage finished its own implementation. Then Sharp began creating a product that would offer OpenScape as a hosted service, as part of Engage’s CRM (customer relationship management) product or as a stand-alone. The service would cost between $60 and $100 per user per month based on features, pay as you go, with the ability to ramp up or cut back at any time.
Embedding HiPath OpenScape into a hosted service offering tailored to SMB (small and midsize business) needs was a powerful idea, according to Grace Tiscareno-Sato, global marketing manager for Siemens, in Boca Raton, Fla.
“Most smaller organizations like Springfield don’t have all the infrastructure, such as [Microsoft’s] Microsoft Exchange, they need to support advanced IP communications,” said Tiscareno-Sato. But voice is still the primary way people love to communicate and interact. For companies that have not yet been able to justify investing in infrastructure, renting the equipment and applications in a hosted model makes perfect sense.
The hosted model puts the benefits of presence-aware software within reach for SMBs.
“They can immediately see how to communicate amongst themselves,” Tiscareno-Sato said. “They can make sure they don’t miss the critical calls from customers. They can route calls from work to home to cell phone and back again. It gives the ability to take out the lag time when you’re waiting around for someone to call you back. It gives customers the ability to make faster business decisions,” she said.
And Sharp said he believed offering a hosted version of OpenScape filled a pressing need for Engage customers.
“What was missing was a way for customers to have real-time collaboration so that they could improve workflow and productivity,” Sharp said. “This is something our customers have been asking us for: technology allowing people to reach each other regardless of where they are [and,] as a result, increasing productivity.”
Next Page: A few bumps along the way.
So, Sharp and his colleagues at Engage worked with Siemens to offer its HiPath OpenScape technology as a hosted service. This arrangement was a welcome option for Siemens, according to Tiscareno-Sato, as it got a new venue for selling its telecom technology. Sharp said hosted OpenScape and related business could contribute more than $1 million in incremental revenue to Engage this year by increasing the company’s ability to serve customers across new lines of business while supporting the expansion of Engage’s customer base.
In summer 2005, though it was getting harder and harder to find parts or technicians able to service their phone system, the Flanters said they decided to table the purchase of a new PBX until Engage could get its OpenScape service ready for market. Sharp took the younger Flanter to Siemens to see the OpenScape demo that he said had made such an impression on him.
The elder Flanter said he didn’t want to know all the ins and outs of the presence-aware communication. All he knew, he said, was that no Springfield competitor would have a similar system, according to Sharp. And that was good enough for him.
“This system had tremendous capabilities. Whether or not we use specific ones is a lot less important than the system overall,” said the elder Flanter. In short, he said he trusted Engage to steer him right.
In July 2005, Engage conducted a pilot of its OpenScape VOIP service for Springfield. Not surprisingly, since this was Engage’s first client outing with the service, there were some problems.
For example, because of signaling mismatches, the Caller ID function did not initially work properly. That was a problem because the system couldn’t tell who was on the other line, so it didn’t know what priority to give the call. (Users can set the system so they don’t miss calls from key contacts.) Engage personnel had to work extensively with the system and their own technical environment to straighten out the problem, though it still crops up occasionally.
“We did not anticipate some of the call flow issues that come up when you’re hosting multiple tenants on the same box,” said Sharp. At the time, Engage was running its own system along with Springfield’s.
Technology was not the only issue. Another snafu was the lack of training on the VOIP LED phones. Though the Siemens OptiPoint 420 models look like regular phones, they have an LED display and function differently from conventional phones. Springfield users were a bit stymied by the phonesat least at first.
Springfield cut over to the OpenScape hosted PBX service in December 2005. The Flanters said they expect it will be some time before the users figure out how to exploit the system’s full power. But the elder Flanter said he does not have any doubts about taking state-of-the-art VOIP telecom capability into his small company.
“In today’s business climate, you have to get outside the box or else that box is going to crumble on you,” the elder Flanter said. “When we can use something no one else has, we have the opportunity to pick up some speed. It’s a little scary, but you have to go for it now and then.”
Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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