THE PEOPLE WHO sell VoIP equipment could learn a lot from a recent survey of college and university VoIP use and the respondents perceptions of the technology and of the equipment vendors.
ACUTA, the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, conducted the survey among a third of its entire membership (some 770 institutions and nearly 2,000 individual members). It has both good and bad news for vendors, but lets be honest, its mostly bad.
How bad? Well, 92 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement: Vendors frequently over-hype the benefits of VoIP. Fortyeight percent agreed strongly, and 44 percent agreed somewhat. Thats pretty serious skepticism for the words that are coming out of vendors mouths.
To a large extent, the college people feel this way because vendors are failing to focus on how VoIP applications can address three key areas: improving student recruiting, the learning process and fund-raising capabilities. These are the highimpact areas. The efficiencies of a converged network, the unified messaging, the improved emergency notification these are all fine benefits for vendors to tout, but they arent getting to the core needs of higher education institutions.
Personally, I have asked my vendors how VoIP can help Providence College address those key needs, and all I get are blank stares. They may come up with a few anecdotes and show me one-page articles about how other colleges have implemented it and seen benefits, but they cant provide an answer that would help me convince my college administrators that VoIP would be worth the investment campus-wide.
Despite the skewering of vendors in general, the ACUTA members surveyed had quite a different outlook in response to a companion question about their vendors.
Presented with the statement vendors with whom we have a good history and large installed base have influenced our choices, 52 percent of respondents agreed. (Fifteen percent agreed strongly and 37 percent agreed somewhat.) If anything shows the value of a good relationship with a customer, this does. While the generic VoIP vendor may be scorned by the survey group, their own trusted vendor is a different story.
Also, 76 percent agreed with the statement I feel more optimistic about the prospects for VoIP today than I did three years ago, so there is clearly a positive trend of which vendors may be able to take advantage.
When it comes to the benefits of VoIP, there is also a positive outlook. Of those surveyed, 68 percent said they anticipated VoIP would make moves, adds and changes less expensive; 75 percent said it should make staff, faculty and students more mobile and flexible; 74 percent anticipate easier deployment of integrated multimedia applications; and 67 percent believe it would bring improved integration with third-party application servers.
The technology-savvy ACUTA members surveyed also were asked about individual applications and how beneficial they would be on campus. Overwhelmingly, they see the utility of these applications. Among the most popular, with at least three-fourths of respondents giving them high marks for their value, were unified messaging, desktop video and video conferencing, emergency notification, voice over wireless, IP-based security cameras, directory services and voice mail.
Of course, there is a big difference between the campus technology people seeing the value of VoIP and convincing the universitys administration to spend money on it. Our dollars are scarce, so if we invest in a technology, it has to have a real payoff. We need our vendors to show us how this technology will help us make money for our school or at least save significant amounts by creating a more efficient school.
We all can agree that VoIP is the way of the future, but as customers, we need to live in the present. The survey showed that four out of five ACUTA members said that despite its benefits, VoIP itself just isnt compelling enough to prompt them to take action now to implement it. An identical percentage said that for them, VoIP represents the unnecessary replacement of equipment that is working well otherwise.
In time, though, that equipment will need replacing, and ACUTA members recognize that. Sixty percent of those surveyed agreed that the phasing out of the traditional phone products and services is compelling them to look at VoIP. Having to move to VoIP isnt the same as wanting to, however, and that is where vendors can make a difference.
The impediments to VoIP deployment tend to be financial and in some cases technical. It isnt just a reluctance to change or an attempt to avoid staff retraining. Vendors who want to sell colleges and universities on VoIP will have to convince their potential customers that the investment will bring a return on investment, and as quickly as possible.
With only one out of five survey respondents believing that VoIP will yield cost savings over a given five-year period, three out of five seeing a lack of interest by campus customer groups, and four out of five doubting they could get the administrations financial support for the migration, vendors work is clearly cut out for them.
Here are four tips courtesy of the ACUTA members survey comments:
Carmine Piscopo is the 2006-2007 president of ACUTA. He is an RCDD (Registered Communications Distribution Designer) and a telecommunications manager at Providence College, Providence, R.I. To purchase a copy of the VoIP survey, call +1 859 278 3338 or visit ACUTA online at www.acuta.org.
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