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Are Big UC Vendors Missing SMB Opportunities?

Most of the discussion surrounding unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) deals with the needs of large enterprises. Most of the companies that sell UC&C products (Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Avaya, and so on) cater to those large accounts. That's not to say that equipment or software from those companies doesn't find its way into SMB accounts, as well, but the UC marketing initiatives seem to be targeted at the big-ticket sales.

Is it possible that vendors are leaving potential customers on the table? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29% of private-sector jobs are at small (one to 49 employees), 27% at medium (50 to 499 employees) and 45% at large (500-plus employees) firms. That means 56% of private-sector employees are working in small and midsize companies. (Note: A lot of us put the border between "medium" and "large" at 1,000 employees, but the data I found used 500 as the cutoff.) Then there are large numbers of small and midsize organizations in the public sector, such as school districts and local government.

The fact is, SMBs need to communicate and collaborate just like the big guys. With less bureaucracy tying them down, they can often move on technology initiatives a lot faster. And small size doesn't preclude technical sophistication. For instance, a friend of mine owns an accounting business. He got rid of all of his paper documents and went fully to scanned images several years ago, and it allowed him to double the size of his practice. Surely there are enough tech-savvy business owners ready to leverage UC to help them grow.

Of course, I understand there are challenges in selling to this market. First, UC&C is typically considered a "strategic IT investment." SMBs don't invest much in the way of "strategic IT." What they buy is stuff that meets immediate needs and demonstrates a near-term, measurable ROI.

There's also the channel issue. Many of the sales people selling small-business telephone systems (sometimes called key systems) generally aren't tuned into this UC thing. They're still selling phone calls and voice mail.

One factor that could alter this equation is the move to cloud-based services. Once the platform is in the cloud, all of the UC&C capabilities are available to everyone. On the customer side, cloud services provide a lower capital cost than a premises deployment, which could put some UC&C services within range of SMB budgets.

UC&C vendors need to recognize the opportunities in the SMB market, and capitalize on them. That means getting the channel up to snuff first and foremost, such as by putting financial incentives in place for salespeople to offer a whole UC&C package rather than stop at the basic voice.

However, that's only one part of the effort. The vendors need sales and marketing materials to help educate potential customers about what UC is and how it can improve their operations. It's likely that many small and midsize businesses won't be looking to integrate core applications with UC, but they can certainly benefit from enhanced communication and collaboration.

IF the UC&C vendors and traditional PBX/key system suppliers don't step up to this market, SMB customers have the option of cobbling together other collaboration and communication services, such Google Docs, Box and Skype. Unified communications vendors might be wise to investigate the SMB market before free online options crowd them out.