Customer dialogue key to successful inventions: Mitel CTO

As commercials for voice over IP start to flood prime-time television, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the hype. Focusing on how IP convergence can add business value is the tricky part.

To sustain this focus, Mitel Networks Inc. says it’s encouraging greater customer interaction.

The Ottawa-based company recently opened its Western Canada Solutions Showcase facility in Burnaby, B.C., and one of the main reasons for doing so was to promote dialogue, says Jim Davies, chief technology officer for Mitel.

Davies says it’s the dialogue – learning from customers about their businesses needs – that gives direction to his company’s inventions. “There’s a huge amount of invention going on in this business and I can’t think of a case when I’ve engaged a customer and didn’t learn something.”

He says the Solutions Showcase centre is really about fostering dialogue that extends beyond technology to a discussion of business goals.

According to the Mitel CTO, it’s imperative to both understand a customer’s needs and be able to engage businesses in real-world situations they can relate to.

“The key is the people.”

The Mitel staff at the Solutions Showcase understand the technology side, but more importantly have the ability to engage customers in discussions about their business, says Davies. “Having a place where we can talk over business value with customers and partners is central to our business focus.”

It’s about showing people what business process improvements are possible, he says.

According to the Mitel executive, most businesses don’t understand how they can benefit from VoIP and associated products. “Because a lot of the stuff is really new, it’s not like you can [easily get help] on how to do this.”

On the one hand, he says, customers know VoIP is happening, they see lots of data on this technology and its impact on business process. “But when you talk to them about it, well less than half of businesses actually have a clue about any tangible benefit.”

Davies says he devotes around half his time to interacting with customers because he sees value in identifying with the customer’s business requirements. “Because I’m responsible for the direction we take our company, it’s not good enough to know why people are buying our products.”

You really have to understand where people are going with their businesses, the Mitel executive says. “And the only way I know that is to go on sales calls with customers who are leaders,” he says.

“They know their business and if you can get across what the technology can do in terms that human beings can understand, who aren’t techno-geeks like myself, it’s amazing what comes out.”

Davies says keeping it simple invariably leads the customer down the road of, “Oh, I get it.” But dealing with large enterprise customers requires a higher level of engagement, he says, as enterprise companies tend to buy into a company, not a product.

Davies concedes that creative inventors can come up with some useless products, but adds that Mitel has developed an in-house method to measure the business value of its inventions.

“Rapid prototyping is the best way to check these things out,” he says, citing the example of unified messaging, where a user’s e-mail and voice mail messages are visible on one screen.

“When you first look at unified messaging, you think, ‘Wow, isn’t that a good idea?’ So we did a quick prototype and I started using it. Well, after about a week, I asked to be taken off the trial.”

Davies says he’s often on the road and not at his desk, and didn’t realize how the initial product would affect him until he actually started using it.

“When I called in to see if I had any important messages, I got Silicon Valley saying I had 255 messages and did I want to walk through them. This was absolutely horrible. It’s a great experience on the desktop, but it’s so bad on a cell phone I just didn’t want this anymore.”

He notes that technology inventors sometimes draw boundaries to get their products out the door as soon as possible, instead of waiting three years. “You have to be really careful you don’t draw an artificial line.”

Davies says Mitel set new parameters for the product and took it back to the drawing board. By integrating voice recognition technology into the product, the user now has greater control over which messages can be accessed.

“Now what you can do on the phone is play any messages from [only a specified caller]. So all of sudden, from an absolutely horrid experience, I was right back on it and loved it.”

When it comes to convergence, says Davies, the industry has a great deal to offer. It’s not just IP convergence of datacom and telecom. Application convergence is also coming in. “A decade may be too long, but in six or seven years I think it’ll be all worked out in terms of a set of what the industry offers.”

As an example of application convergence, Davies says, Mitel will be releasing a contact centre product in March built on Microsoft Live Communication Server.

“What Microsoft has done is take this idea of presence and built it into Active Directory. So now we have this idea of whether people are available or not in the company.

“What Mitel did was take advantage of that presence information and what we exposed to the call centre agent is the presence of people in the broader organization, based on skill levels.”

The call centre agent already can see which other agents are available, says Davies, but the new offering will allow the agent to bring in an expert. “That way, you’ll have a much better chance of achieving that first-call resolution.”

Davies says the success of IP-converged applications rests on two factors. One is focusing on what the business will gain from the product and the second is partial business process change, as opposed to changing everything at once.

“Just change the part of your business where this makes sense,” says Davies. “And as time goes on and you focus on your second-level business cases, you’ll know more about what the product is doing for you. And once you know more about it, you’ll invent new ideas.”

Related links:

Cisco exec talks telephony

How to manage IP phone installations

Self-assessment key to VoIP