A Buyer’s Market for Communications Networks

It is getting easier for small businesses to cherry-pick telecom services and plans that suit their needs.

There is a fresh sense of flexibility and à la carte options among the communications services available to small businesses. The rigid plans and offerings of yesteryear have given way to voice, data and video messaging that can be tailored to fit businesses. Providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, CenturyLink and Vonage want to make their case as the best option to keep small businesses connected.

Anne Chow, president of national business for AT&T Business, says small business customers require constant connections anywhere, anytime. “Business is no longer conducted only in an office,” she says. “It’s mobile, and it’s fast.” Vernon Irvin, senior vice president for small to medium-sized businesses with CenturyLink, concurs that connectivity is a top priority regardless of the company. “So much business today is centered on the Internet economy,” he says, a notion reinforced by the example set by Amazon.

In some ways, there is little difference in what small businesses want compared with the big guys, says Kim Green-Kerr, vice president and general manager for small and medium business with Sprint. “Small businesses have the same communications and mobility needs as a large enterprise or medium sized businesses,” she says. A company’s main office, field staff, technicians and route drivers all need to be connected. “When they can communicate better, they can better serve their clients.”

The demands small businesses have for voice, and especially data, have increased as more software, apps, mobile services, and access to the Internet are needed for transactions with customers, says Irvin. CenturyLink has seen small business users increase their bandwidth needs from 10–20Mbps for voice and data to the 50–100Mbps range. Some small businesses have landlines with voice over IP services to power desktop applications over the phones, he says. That includes instant messaging, video conferencing and connections to mobile devices. “They want to always be on, so if a call comes in they won’t to miss it,” Irvin says.

Vonage’s Brian Gilman, vice president of product marketing, says that naturally, there are different levels of complexity that each small business customer looks for. Some just want basic voice and mobility capabilities, and with the right app they can tie their phones and messaging together.

“The unified communications market is starting to come into play,” he says, referring to the combination of different types of messaging and communications into one place. Small businesses, like their larger counterparts, have needs for collaboration – via Web, video, or voice conferencing – among their staff. They also want the ability to integrate business software, such as Salesforce, into their communications, he says.

Figuring out what each business needs, however, means service providers must find what their aspirations are, says Mike McCuen, senior director of small business sales for Comcast Business. “We want to know what their present day is like, what their future is, who their competitors are and how technology can achieve their goals.”

Most providers can put together bundles and package deals that bring together services small businesses need – typically for a lower rate. Chow says AT&T offers the entire range of communications with mobile, data, voice and TV. “We offer bundles to make these options simple and cost-effective for every small business owner,” she adds.

AT&T’s options include individual products as well as bundles of solutions, which Chow says can help cut costs. The bundles can include wireless plans, high-speed Internet, voice services, DIRECTV, cloud services, remote round-the-clock IT tech support, and security solutions. “The packages provide a much lower cost, compared to à la carte rates,” she says. “Our prepackaged bundles represent the most frequently purchased options, or our customers can build their own.”

CenturyLink, Irvin says, offers bundled services, including security options that can help small businesses meet their compliance needs. He says his company also offers backup solutions, for continuous communications, and Wi-Fi for employees and visiting customers.

For Sprint, pricing is based on business needs, Green-Kerr says. Some businesses need more data and want to optimize workforce management by going to electronic forms versus paper. Sprint’s accounts team is trained to listen to small business challenges, she says, such as the need to cut costs, increase productivity, or do route optimization.

There are two different main solutions offered by Sprint. The unlimited plan takes the worry out of usage, Green-Kerr says, by using a regular flat fee that is consistent month to month. The Mobility-as-a-Service plan combines the equipment and service into a one-cost-per-user lease. The business picks a device and wireless plan that fulfills its wants rather than pays for more than it needs. “It does not have the capital outlay upfront,” she says. Because the devices are leased on a 12-month basis, a business can also receive upgrades in technologies as they are released.

Vonage’s pricing is per user, says Gilman, with different tiers based on levels of complexity. Naturally, costs increase as more services are added beyond basic voice, such as integration with software and collaboration features.

As important as it is to offer service, providers also need to keep their business customers updated on the latest software and hardware. Gilman says having a cloud-based service allows Vonage to push new features out to customers as part of its standard package. Even if nonstandard offerings become available, Vonage can reach out and alert customers that an update is available to them.

CenturyLink likewise reaches out to its business customers when upgrades become available, such as letting them know a higher speed data connection exists. Upgrades are also available through bundles, he says.

There may come a time when a small business wants to switch services, perhaps to take advantage of a signup offer, even though they are still mid-contract with their current provider. Providers such as Vonage also offer number porting for seamless transition. Sprint offers buyout options if a business wants to sign up for service, but has an outstanding balance with another carrier. Obviously, the communications providers want to keep all of their customers, but they also have ways to make the transition simple.

Irvin says CenturyLink will make sure that phone numbers get ported with little hassle. CenturyLink does offer a few incentives though to try and retain that business. The company has over-the-top and mobile solutions that can be offered on top of a competitor’s broadband connectivity, he says. “We don’t want to lose customers; we want to keep them happy,” he says. “But this is a buyers’ world for sure. These days, there is no need to be stuck in long contracts.”

That freedom for the customer means providers must be more competitive about their services – and that is not a bad thing. “Our market is hyper competitive,” McCuen says. “It drives innovation and growth.” That includes a service Comcast Business offers called VoiceEdge, which is a cloud-based, virtual private branch exchange that lets business switch calls around without disconnecting their customers.

For instance, a small business with more than one location, such as a pizzeria chain, might have customers who call the wrong location by mistake. If they tell the customer to hang up and dial the correct number, they run the risk of losing that business. “If that handshake is lost, how does that business owner know that customer will call back?” McCuen asks. VoiceEdge lets the pizzeria transfer the call without dropping the customer from the line.

The drive to compete is pushing more innovations that are on the way. Unified communications is becoming more ubiquitous, Gilman says, and new combinations of technology are coming. Next generation software and embedded technologies include putting voice into other applications, he says. “The communications market as a whole is starting to look at how customers view communications,” Gilman continues. “That is where new engagement and solutions will come from.”

AT&T is also fast at working creating more services that speak to companies of all sizes, Chow says. “We may call them ‘small’ businesses, but they’re anything but small,” she says. “That’s why we are diligent about keeping our small business customers on the cutting edge.” This includes, she says, AT&T’s 5G trials in select cities across country, giving a glimpse of new standards in connectivity to come.

Some new communications technology is being driven by regulatory needs, according to Green-Kerr. Starting in December, trucking and other companies will need to have federally mandated electronic logging devices in place to record the hours their vehicles are actively in use and share the data, she says. The intent, for safety purposes, is to track how long drivers are behind the wheel. Companies that do not comply will risk being fined and, eventually, their vehicles will be barred from the road, she says. That could turn into a rush to find a communications provider, such as Sprint, who can equip these businesses to meet federal compliance standards. “People are going to wait until the last minute,” Green-Kerr says.


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