Monday, April 25, 2005

VOIP: Results first, success later

This is my first chance to blog about the VOIP conference I participated in last Tuesday (April 19). The Voice Over Internet Canada (which apparently cannot be called VON Canada because of the pre-existing rights of the Victorian Order of Nurses!) conference took place at the Metro Toronto Conference Centre, and seemed as much about building the industry as selling product.

Of course, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is still very new. If not for the insane (and very recent) success of Skype, the free long-distance VOIP service, almost nobody outside the industry would have heard of VOIP. But it’s coming: a lot of smart people are finding new applications that will transform the way we use the phone.

By now, most people know that VOIP means you can avoid long-distance rates (or at least, the telcos’ still-usurious per-minute charges) by placing your calls over the Net. “Cheap long distance” in fact, is all VOIP means to most businesses buyers. But the people on my panel (who spoke on applications for small business) believe that innovative new applications are coming fast.

VOIP can give you a truly mobile virtual presence. People in far-flung offices (and folks working in home-based business networks) can share one professional-looking phone system. Travelers can retrieve calls from anywhere. Unified messaging – e-mail and voice mail – will become everyday reality. You can integrate your customer relationship databases. And the greatest applications are those we don’t even comprehend yet.

One panelist, Alec Saunders, president of Iotum, a startup VOIP applications developer in Ottawa, made a good case for VOIP in small business. What do small businesses want, he asks? Image. Personal Touch. Value. Immediacy. All of which are now being addressed by VOIP products. (Sorry. I should have said “solutions.”)

Another point he might have added: all entrepreneurs are looking for control. Control over their environment, control over their time. Iotum’s application software will provide control by offering “contextual call routing”: your VOIP system will know what calls you want, and when. (Depending on the settings you set, for instance, your banker’s calls could shoot right through to you, or get flipped into voice mail. Your choice.)

So why isn't VOIP ready for prime time? No panelist had success stories or case studies to offer of how VOIP has helped businesses – because the customers aren’t there yet. As one audience member said to me afterward, the success of this sector depends on how long it for customers to appear on panels such as these, rather than just vendors.

The next morning, I delivered my Communicating For Results seminar for Enterprise Toronto. As I blogged the other day, one of my key points is that business people, marketers and leaders alike, need to tell more stories: attention-getting, trust-enhancing, business-building stories.

Chicken and eggish as it sounds, VOIP will take off when there are stories to tell. Results first, success later.

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