Partners, Pick up the Phone -- Customers Are Standing By

Small business telephony woes can mean big business for Microsoft partners. That was one of the key messages underlying Microsoft's third annual Small Business Summit, an intensive four-day affair held in late March. More than 200,000 small business owners and executives participated in the event, which was held only online in recognition of its intended audience's limited time and travel budgets.

The summit -- like all of Microsoft's small business initiatives -- was aimed at organizations with a maximum of 50 employees.

"That's typically the break point where a company would move up to having official internal IT support," Cindy Bates, Microsoft's general manager for U.S. Small Business, explained in an interview before the event. Microsoft's small business products are aimed squarely at companies that simply aren't yet large enough to justify-or afford-such resources.

Coming Soon: VoIP
The main product headline for this year's summit was the announcement that Microsoft will soon add voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) capability to its Response Point telephone system for small businesses. Company officials said the VoIP capability-yet another facet of Microsoft's Software as a Service strategy -- will be released as a free feature update sometime this summer.

Bates expects that capability to be especially attractive to small businesses looking to save money, particularly in the current economic climate. The company cites data from Access Markets International Partners Inc., a New York City-based research and consulting firm, indicating that companies with 10 to 19 employees can cut telephone costs by, on average, $8,000 per year with a VoIP telephone system.

Those savings, combined with the message that the system can be installed without hiring an outside IT or telephony specialist, make Response Point a natural for partners targeting small businesses, according to Senior Product Manager Ben Brauer.

"Telephony is usually a specialized skill set, and most Small Business Specialists don't have a technical telephony background -- but [with Response Point] they really don't need one," Brauer said in an interview before the summit. "It's easy for a partner to explain the product to a small business owner who might not have a technology background, and from there it's easier to talk to them about the rest of the Microsoft technologies that their business might need."

Growing with the Company
Partners can also emphasize the product's scalability-an important factor for growing businesses. As they add employees, companies can also add new VoIP phone numbers in a matter of minutes, Brauer said, as compared with the typical wait of day or weeks for traditional systems.

One final selling point for partners, in Brauer's view: "About 10 [percent] to 15 percent of all small businesses move their offices every year, and when they do, they give up their [standard] phone systems because they're just too expensive to move," he said. That's not the case with Internet-based systems, which, he explained, can typically be easily reinstalled in a new location without outside help.

As of March, Microsoft had provided Response Point training to about 1,200 resellers, with plans to train up to 600 more. The company's running a nationwide series of live training events through early June, with courses being offered in San Francisco; Waltham, Mass.; Chicago; Denver; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Minneapolis; Atlanta; and Memphis, Tenn. For details or to register, click here.

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