Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) posted a thought provoking article about collaboration in his Human Infrastructure magazine (which you should be reading). He talks about the death of IP Telephony and the rise of asynchronous communications methods like Slack. He’s got a very interesting point of view. I just happen to disagree with a few of his assertions.
IP Telephony Is Only Mostly Dead
Greg’s stance that IP Telephony is dead is a bit pointed to say the least. He is correct that the market isn’t growing. It is also true that a great number of new workers entering the workforce prefer to use their smartphones for communications, especially the asynchronous kind. However, desk phones are a huge part of corporate communications going forward.
IT shops have a stilted and bizarre world view. If you have a workforce that has to be mobile, whether it be for making service calls or going to customer sites for visits, you have a disproportionately large number of mobile users for sure. But what about organizations that don’t have large mobile populations? What about financial firms or law offices or hospitals? What about retail organizations? These businesses have specific needs for communications, especially with external customers and users.
Imagine if your pharmacy replaced their phone with a chat system? How about your doctor’s office throwing out their PBX and going to an email-only system? How would you feel about that? A couple of you might cheer because they finally “get it”. But a large number of people, especially more traditional non-technical folks, would switch providers or move their business elsewhere. That’s because some organizations rely on voice communications. For every millennial dumping their office phone to use a mobile device there is still someone they need to call on the other end.
We’re not even talking about the important infrastructure that still needs a lot of specialized communications gear. Fax machines are still a huge part of healthcare and legal work. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems are still crucial to handle call volumes for things like support lines. These functions can’t be replaced on mobile devices easily. You can fake IVRs and call queuing with the right setup, but faxing things to a mobile device isn’t possible.
Yes, services do exist to capture fax information as a TIFF or JPG and email it to the destination. But for healthcare and legal, this breaks confidentiality clauses and other important legal structures. The area around secure faxing via email is still a bit murky, and most of the searches you can do for the topic revolve around companies trying to tell you that it’s acceptable and okay to use (as long as you use their product).
IP Telephony isn’t far removed from buggy whip manufacturers. The oft-cited example of a cottage industry has relevance here. At some point after the introduction of the automobile, buggy whip growth slowed and eventually halted. But they didn’t go away permanently. The market did contract and still exists to this day. It’s not as big as the 13,000-strong market it once was, but it does exist today to meet a need that people still have. Likewise, IP Telephony will still have solutions to meet needs for specific customers. Perhaps we’ll contract down to two or three providers at some point in the future, but it will never really go away.
I’ll Have My People IM Your People
Contacting people is an exercise today. There are so many ways to reach someone via various communications that you have to spend time figuring out how to reach them. Direct message, Text message, Phone call, Voice Mail, Email, and smoke signals are all valid communications forms. It is true that a lot of these communications are moving toward asynchronous methods. But as mentioned above, a lot of customer-facing businesses are still voice-only.
Sales is one of these areas that is driven by sound. The best way to sell something to someone is to do it face-to-face. But a phone call is a close second. Sales works because you can use your voice to influence buyers. You can share their elation and allay their fears. You can be soothing or exciting or any range of emotion in between. That’s something you don’t get through the cold text of instant messaging or email.
It’s also much harder to ignore phone calls. Sure, you can send read receipts with emails but these are rarely implemented and even more rarely used correctly in my experience. Phone calls alert people about intent. Even ignoring or delaying them means being send to a voice mail box or to another phone in the department where your call can be dealt with. The synchronous nature of the communication means there has to be a connection with someone. You can’t just launch bytes of text into the ether and hope it gets where it’s supposed to go.
It is true that these voice communications happen via mobile numbers more often than not in this day and age. But corporations still prefer those calls to go through some kind of enterprise voice system. Those systems can track communications and be audited. Records can be subpoenaed for legal reasons without needing to involve carriers.
It’s much easier for call centers to track productivity via phone logs than seeing who is on the phone. If you’ve ever worked in a corporate call center, you know there are metrics for everything you do on the phone. Average call time, average wait time, amount of non-call time, and so on. Each of these metrics can be tracked via a desk phone with a headset, not so with a mobile phone and an app.
I live on my mobile phone. I send emails and social media updates. I talk in Slack and Skype and other instant messaging platforms. But I still get on the phone at least three times a week to talk to someone. Most of those calls take place on a conference bridge. That’s because people want to hear someone’s voice. It’s still comforting and important to listen to someone.
Doing away with IP Telephony sounds like an interesting strategy for small businesses and startups. It’s a cost-reduction method that has benefits in the short term. But as companies grow and change they will soon find that having a centralized voice system to control and manipulate calls is a necessity. Given the changes in voice technology in the last few years, I highly expect that “centralized” voice will eventually be a pay-per-seat cloud leased model with specific executives and support personnel using traditional phones while non-critical employees have no voice communications device or choose to use their personal mobile device.
IP Telephony isn’t dead. It’s not even dying. But it’s well past the age where it needs to consider retirement and a long and fulfilling life concentrating on specific people instead of trying to make everyone happy.