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What VoIP Can Learn From Car Dealers

My wife and I recently bought a minivan. It was time. The old car was impractical and unreliable (but damn if it wasn't fast). But the process of buying was almost enough to make me want to walk.

According to a new report from telecom research and consulting firm Savatar, it wasn't unlike being small or medium business (SMB) owner shopping for a VoIP system.

And believe it or not, there are some things that VoIP sellers could learn from the much-maligned brethren.

C'mon Down!

Say what you want about car dealers' cheesy TV ads, direct mailings and holiday circulars (Washington and Lincoln stood for nothing if not for a good deal on an SUV), but when it's time to buy, you know where to go. For us, it's a stretch of highway south of Boston where every car maker on the planet is represented.

We enter a dealership and are beset by a sales pack, most of whom spend their commission checks on white strips and hair gel. We're paired with the one grandfatherly type (think Jack Lemmon's Shelley Levene in "Glengarry Glen Ross.")

After the obligatory patter, we head for a test drive.

"Can't go wrong with this one Mr. Haley. May I call you Colin?"

"No."

Compare this experience with an SMB executive looking for VoIP service.

According to Savatar's report, many SMBs have also done their homework. Seventy percent are familiar with VoIP and almost as many are interested in signing up. They want a test drive, but can't find the dealership.

When asked who they think of for business VoIP the results aren't encouraging: 25 percent said nontraditional telecoms (like Vonage); 14 percent said traditional telecoms (like Verizon); 13 percent cable companies (like Comcast) -- which tied with 'no one."

During a presentation at Fall 2005 VON, Savatar's John Macario said Vonage has only recently started targeting business customers; Verizon and its fellow Baby Bells should score a lot higher on name recognition; and Comcast and other cable companies are still testing business offerings.

Faced with such confusion, you'd think the providers would make it easier to access VoIP information. But when SMB executives go online to find product information, they have to click so many times they risk carpal tunnel.

Sometimes they end up at the general broadband information page; sometimes they are directed to a press release. Of the 800 calls Savatar made to VoIP providers, some sales people didn't even know their company offered the service.

Getting to Yes

After the test drive, we sit down to crunch numbers. Safety is a factor and we want rear air bags.

"You'll have to upgrade to the next level for those," the salesman says. "But you'll also get the DVD player, GPS navigation and real faux-wood dashboard trim."

"How much more is the next level?" I ask.

"Four-thousand," comes the reply.

"Goodbye," I say.

"Wait, I think I can throw in the roof rack," he said, now sounding like William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard from "Fargo."

Here the car salesman and VoIP salesman sound alike -- and that's not a good thing. While the execs want information on total cost of VoIP ownership, salespeople are pitching unneeded bells and whistles.

To make matters worse, SMBs don't get the A-team salespeople, but rather the B or C teams. One salesman who visited Savatar's office left the meeting with a legal pad full of questions he should have known the answers to. Another problem is that telecom sales teams can't sell across product lines.

Taken together, the VoIP industry's tactics are a wonderful way to get people who are on the verge of buying to say, "Forget it."

We didn't have a choice when it came to transportation; our car was falling apart mile-by-mile. But the 1.8 million SMBs in this country do have a choice for communications.

VoIP is the wave of the future, but that future will be far off unless VoIP providers get into gear.