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Avoid These Pitfalls When Responding to an RFP By Melissa Swartz

Many organizations use a Request for Proposal (RFP) process for procuring goods and services. As an independent consultant, I have written many RFPs and evaluated even more responses (see "Do You Really Need an RFP? Because It's Really a Pain..."). The process offers a mechanism for providing large amounts of information that, when done properly, helps the buyers to evaluate and compare options. It is, in effect, a job interview.

Responding to an RFP can require a significant amount of effort from a vendor; sadly, we see proposals in response to RFPs that guarantee immediate elimination from consideration. Here are some of the biggest mistakes to avoid when responding to an RFP:

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Contract Negotiation Tips from a Non-Legal Perspective By Melissa Swartz

Many managers rate managing and negotiating contracts on the same level as getting a root canal or walking barefoot over hot embers. I don't remember meeting anyone who has said "Contracts--my favorite thing!" But they are a definite fact of life, so here are a few thoughts on things to be aware of when dealing with contracts.

Part 1: Managing Existing Contracts
You should have a way of tracking your existing contracts so that you are not caught by surprise when they expire. Contracts for services can have murky start dates. Sometimes they are based on when the vendor countersigns the contract; other times they may begin when service is delivered or when it is first billed. Often, vendors can't produce a copy of your contract, so if you don't have a copy of the countersigned document, the contract expiration date can't always be determined. Sometimes vendors tell customers what the expiration date is, but when pressed for documentation they have no way to prove the accuracy of their assertions.

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Contract Negotiation Tips from a Non-Legal Perspective Part 2: Negotiating New Contracts By Melissa Swartz

Selecting a new product or service and its supplier can be a long process: A lot of information is exchanged, items are negotiated, and promises are made. The agreement is finalized through a contract, and this is a time where there is a relatively high risk that these customizations may be lost.

Almost every contract contains a phrase that says, in effect, "The only language that is legally binding is contained within this agreement. Previous discussions, writings, and promises are void." If you sign the vendor's standard contract, without making changes, you may give up a lot of leverage and a lot of previous effort.

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Which System is the Best? By Melissa Swartz

As a consultant, I am often asked, "Which system is the best?"

That's kind of like asking "Which automobile is the best?" The answer, of course, depends on what you need it to do. Do you need great gas mileage, or to carry a lot of stuff (covered or uncovered?), or hold a lot of people? Will you be driving off-road? Do you need speed? The list goes on.

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Hidden Costs of UC Solutions By Melissa Swartz

Any organization that is considering a change in technology takes into account the cost of the new solution in comparison to the cost of the current solution. It is easy to identify the costs associated with the new technology (either the upfront purchase cost or the monthly cost of the service). But there are other costs that are often not recognized up front. Here are some areas that you should consider when deploying a new solution:

Communications technology goes way beyond the desk phone.
As you deploy new capabilities, you may be supporting mobile devices--both phones and tablets. You may have to provide resources to address security issues and support for these devices, as well as the billing for them. Unified messaging (voice mails in email) can impact the storage of your email application. In addition, voice mail messages that reside in email could become part of legal discovery and must be addressed by a message retention policy. New applications such as presence must be supported, which may involve additional training for users. Collaboration tools such as conferencing and document sharing must be managed and supported like any other resource. Video is moving to the individual devices such as desktops and tablets; as this traffic increases, it could impact LAN capacity.

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Hosted Services - Dangerous Waters Ahead? By Melissa Swartz

The growth predictions and enthusiasm of today's hosted services marketplace reminds me of the CLEC (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier) environment in the late 1990s. New companies were springing up everywhere, offering local and long distance services as a result of the deregulation mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The legislation had the goal "... to let anyone enter any communications business -- to let any communications business compete in any market against any other."

New offerings hit the market, and the landscape became cluttered as new and existing companies competed for customers. Many companies began putting fiber in the ground and hardware in Central Offices to build their own networks. Sound familiar? Today I did a Google search on "Hosted VOIP" and there were over 9 million results.

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Navigating Upcoming Changes in the Telco Environment By Melissa Swartz

It's easy to complain about the phone companies. And it's ironic that, as "communications" companies, it's so darn hard to communicate with them.

In all fairness, they are struggling to address changes in technology and in behavior while still meeting their obligations to make a profit for their shareholders. Networks are migrating away from copper to fiber, from wired to wireless, and from circuit switching to packet (IP) switching. ILECs (Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers) are caught between requirements to support legacy networks and the need to invest in new technology.

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Hidden Problems with Project Management: Is Your Project in Jeopardy? By Melissa Swartz

Many times, the project plan created by the vendor’s project managers is not complete in scope. It does not address all of the tasks required of all the involved parties.

When I work on a project that involves replacement of an existing telephony system, the equipment vendor typically assigns a project manager to the installation. In most proposals, there is a section that covers the installation process and how the vendor's project manager will ensure that the system is installed successfully. Rainbows and butterflies will abound.

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Should the Mitel Purchase Offer Impact My Consideration of a ShoreTel System? By Melissa swartz

What impact do the ongoing Mitel/ShoreTel acquisition developments have on an organization’s communications systems procurement?

I'm working on a project in which the client will be acquiring a new UC system. It's done the due diligence and narrowed the field to three contenders, one of which is ShoreTel. Last Monday it hears the news that Mitel made an offer to buy ShoreTel and even though the company's board has since refused the bid, the looming question remains: What impact does this news have for organizations that are considering the purchase of a ShoreTel system?

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Evaluating Internet Dependence By Melissa Swartz

Our office building is comprised mostly of small businesses. Recently, I encountered two employees of the insurance company across the hall wandering aimlessly in the hallway with lost expressions on their faces. As soon as they saw me, they eagerly inquired, "Is your Internet working?" Ours was, theirs was not. They said they weren't able to do any work when their Internet was down, and they remained in the hallway apparently hoping that somehow the connection would magically be repaired.

This week, I was on a three hour flight on a plane without Wi-Fi. A lady sitting in my row complained that she was unable to get any work done on the plane due to the lack of an Internet connection.

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Demos -- How to Win the Deal By Melissa Swartz

As consultants, we see a lot of demonstrations as we work with our clients to find the best solution for their needs. Most of these are not at an Executive Briefing Center; they are done "out in the field". Typically the system is presented at a location that is local for the client by people whose jobs are not centered solely on system demonstrations.

Here is a true story of three demonstrations that were given to our client. The client had a committee of 8 people (a combination of IT staff and business users) who were tasked with making the decision. After issuing an RFP and evaluating responses, they had narrowed the field down to the top three contenders who were asked to present their systems. Each company was provided with the same agenda outlining the topics that the committee wanted to cover, along with a time frame for each topic indicating the relative importance to the committee.

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Don't Get Lost in Demo Daze By Melissa Swartz

In my No Jitter post last week, I talked about the importance of the product demonstration from the vendor perspective, explaining how a demo can make, or break, a deal. Today I'm flipping the table, taking a look at the production demonstration from the enterprise perspective.

As part of a product selection process, many organizations ask top contenders to demonstrate their systems. Should you happen to attend such a demonstration for communications technology, do you know for what you need to look? It's best to be prepared so as not to get lost in any fluff.

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Is the RFP Process a Waste of Time? By Melissa Swartz

recent article by Kevin Kieller took a look at problems that can emerge with an RFP (Request for Proposal) that is not well thought out in advance. He advises that before issuing an RFP, organizations should make some key decisions and have specific requirements agreed upon.

This is excellent advice.

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8 Tips to Ramp Up User Training By Melissa Swartz

I was recently on a call with a client and an industry analyst, and the client asked if end user training would be necessary when the new communications technology system was implemented. To my surprise, the analyst said, "No." The theory was essentially that the new system should have a user interface that is easy to use and, like a smart phone, users should be able to figure out how to use it on their own, without training.

While I certainly agree that systems should be easy to use, I think that the smart phone analogy is faulty. Smart phones are an individual tool; they are not necessarily part of an eco-system. Yes, you can install apps that increase interaction with a selected group of your BFFs, but that doesn't make it the equivalent of a corporate communication system.

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Privacy and How to Lose It By Melissa Swartz

I live in Kansas City, which was the first city selected by Google to roll out the Google Fiber service that offers Gigabit Internet connections and TV for (often) less than what other providers charged for 15MB Internet and TV. I have seen Google Fiber signs in front of many residential houses during the deployment, and now they have a small business offering.

One of the big local news stories this week is AT&T's announcement that it will be offering its new U-verse with GigaPower service, with features and pricing that are quite similar to the Google offerings.

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Does the Cloud Services Deployment Model Need to Change? By Melissa Swartz

As I attend industry events, I hear many companies saying that their cloud businesses are growing fast and often account for significant revenues. Yet out in the real world I've seen the struggles that user organizations go through when deploying these services.

Many of those opting for cloud services are small to mid-market organizations. Often they don't have a lot of internal expertise (which is one of the reasons that they are going to the cloud in the first place). They love the idea of simple and quick deployments, with cloud providers taking on the heavy lifting afterwards.

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Number Porting Insanity By Melissa Swartz

I have been working on several projects lately, large and small, that involved porting of numbers from one carrier to another. The process is highly regulated, and there are time frames for each step of the process. It should all be very predictable and well defined.

But it's not.

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Mind the Gap: Technology Upgrades By Melissa Swartz

If you've ever taken a trip around London on the Tube, you might recall that at subway stops, a recorded voice tells passengers "mind the gap" when the doors open, to remind everyone to step over the gap between the train and the platform. (It makes me wonder how many people stepped into the gap before the voice reminder was there.) Because the recording plays at every stop, for me during my travels, the voice reminder eventually became background noise, and I was no longer consciously aware of hearing it.

In a similar way, I think that many professionals in our industry have become so accustomed to new technology that companies create, sell, and deliver, that we don't recognize that there is a gap between what is normal for us communications folk, and what is normal for "everyday people."

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Communicating with Communications Companies is Absurd By Melissa Swartz

It's no secret that some of the largest companies in the communications industry don't really communicate very well with their customers. Here are a couple of examples that fall under the heading of "You can't make this stuff up":

And then there's this chat conversation with a different company, which has been edited for brevity:

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Going UCaaS: How to Choose the Right Option for You By Melissa Swartz

We are all hearing that the cloud is the future, and unified communications as a service (UCaaS) is certainly a high growth area. If you have done your research, see the value of the cloud for your unique enterprise, and are thus considering moving your business communications to the cloud, how do you get there? The market is flooded with options -- how do you decide? How do you narrow down the choices to a more manageable select few?

The answer depends, in part, on why you are moving to the cloud in the first place. There are several reasons that organizations often make this decision:

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