There are many qualities to look for in a VAR. The most important is the VAR's breadth of experience, because of all the elements that have to come together in a UC system (network, hardware, software, integration, training and so on). If you work in a large organization with multiple locations across the country (or around the world), you must choose a VAR with the resources to support geographical diversity.
IP PBX providers that offer UC systems will typically have an extensive line-up of distributors trained in the providers' core voice, voicemail and contact center offerings. You may want to augment the distributors' knowledge with a VAR that has experience with unified messaging, video conferencing and, most importantly, integrated applications.
As I noted in an earlier blog, a lot of the value of UC comes from the ability to embed communications capabilities inside of other applications, so that users can initiate voice calls, texts, emails or even conferences directly from the screens they are working in. A company that has been selling PBXes for 20 years can make your phones ring predictably, but application integration calls for a whole different set of expertise.
A UC deployment is a long-term initiative, so it's important to look beyond your immediate requirements. Typically, individual user productivity and collaboration tools--what we refer to as UC for user productivity or UC-U--are the initial targets in a UC deployment. Those deployments add IM, presence, softphones and enhanced collaboration tools, but are still fairly close to traditional "telephony."
However, if phase two or three of the project involves getting into communications-enabled business processes or embedded communications interfaces, you must evaluate the VAR's capabilities in those areas from the start; changing VARs mid-project will leave a steep learning curve for whomever has to take over.
Of course, if you are looking at a UC solution like Microsoft's Lync or IBM's Sametime, now your concern switches to the VAR's voice capabilities. In the case of Lync, Microsoft's partners will typically be software-oriented and may or may not have any experience in telephony. Microsoft has a partner locator called Pinpoint that lets you view the certifications of all of its partners. Look for those with "communications" as a competency, particularly as a "gold" competency. As we all know, having a competency means you passed the test, so don't leave it at that. Question them about the number and complexity of the Lync telephony projects they've worked on and talk to some of their customers to see how they fared.
IBM is a different kettle of fish, as it doesn't provide telephony capabilities in Sametime per se. Rather, IBM supports a capability called Sametime Unified Telephony (SUT), in which it offers a set of APIs allowing Sametime to interface to any number of IP or even TDM PBX systems. Given IBM's rather limited base of SUT installations, finding an experienced partner may be a challenge.
In any case, you must think through the process all the way to the users. UC is not a "fire and forget" technology. Users need to be shown how UC capabilities can fit into their work lives, and they need to be trained in how UC tools operate. Given that most companies deal with limited IT resources, you'll likely be leaning on the VAR to assist in all phases of the UC project. So in picking your VAR, remember what the old knight said to Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade: "Choose wisely."
Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst.