Telcos

Wait while I put on my phone guy hat


Being the computer guy for a small to medium business has a lot of perks.  One of them is the sense of community and the low-pressure atmosphere.  It's easy to get to know everybody in the company as I work on their computers.  For the most part, life in an SMB is laid-back without a lot of rush or urgency to get things done. Oh, don't get me wrong. There are days when I am overwhelmed with too many demands on my time but for the most part, it's an easy gig.

One of the things that has always bugged me about small business is the tendency of the owners to dump responsibility for anything with a power plug onto the computer guy.  I draw the line when it comes to copy machines but yes, I support FAX machines, cell phones, PDAs, voice mail and also the phone system.  I even buy the toner. My philosophy on FAX machines is to just replace them when they break.  It's not going to be that easy when the phone system breaks.

The first thing that will probably go is the voice mail system.  If you can believe it, we are still running an old Active Voice Replay Plus running on an early Pentium from 1997.  If that machine fails it will be a bit traumatic but for the most part, it will be an easy fix.  Just replace the computer, reinstall the software and have the original phone vendor that sold it to us come out and re-program everything to talk nice.  That's what phone vendors are for, right?

But when the phone system itself goes out, there is going to be some serious stuff hitting the fan.  No business can work without a phone system.  If you think people get upset when the Internet goes down, you just wait until they can't get calls.  Oh sure, cell phones will do in a pinch but that 800 number is the lifeline of the business.  I have tried several times to get management to upgrade to something more current, but the attitude is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

So I have tried to be prepared with some contingency plans, like transferring the 800 number to an outside service or to another location, but eventually it's going to come down to "how quick can you get a new phone system in here?"  That's not a position I want to be in.  I have obtained quotes on new equipment and looked into off-site hosting.  It will be great to get a system that can support VoIP and Unified Messaging but can we afford to wait until it breaks to do that?

Do you have any advice for me?  I've played the fear card and the 'let's budget for this now' card with management.  Neither has worked.  Have you been in a similar situation and had success in getting management to spring for a $50,000 phone system when the current system works just fine?  If so, how did you do it?

22 comments
godzilla_for_you
godzilla_for_you

Try to make sure you have some sort of documentation stating exactly whats going on, that way if it comes back to you when it does falter, you can show how you tried to help. Upper management wont be able to label you the "inept" one.

Lost In The Sauce
Lost In The Sauce

too funny i'm in the same Position now even worse off for me i just got the job of IT Support but Inherited just about everyone else's job

einbar
einbar

Dear Tim. I was happy to read that you are using Active Voice system for your Voicemail. Many of our customers have approached Active Voice in recent years to help them migrate their messaging systems from plain Voice mail to Unified messaging and unified communications. We will be very happy to work with you and strategize the migration to Unified Communications based on your needs, budget and goals. Our strategy is to help our customers move into Unified Communications in a gradual approach, demonstrating ROI to management from the very first minute. Unified messaging from that perspective is one of the easiest from all UC applications, to demonstrate to the business decision makers the business impact and hi return on investment. I am sure , that like many of our customers, you will find our approach very compelling and I can assure you that you will not have to request a 50,000$ budget. Once you will prove the value of UC to the organization and the impact on the bottom line, it will be much easier for you to move forward with your broader UC implementation strategy. I will be very happy to personally speak with you and work together to find the right solution for your organization. I am very passionate about the SMB market and believe that for SMB customers the business impact of Unified messaging and UC is the greatest. Looking forward to speaking with you. einbar@activevoice.com

info
info

I was just in this situation not so long ago. The phone system was a 1 year project that became a 6 month project to a 3 month project to a "You need to get this thing bought, installed and operational inside of two weeks." I actually managed to come close to doing just that. I'm in the same boat as you, as I've had a wide variety of IT experience from programming to copier/printer repair, but the key issue is time. When things are going well, you're laughing. When a few things go south, or you're in the middle of an expansion phase (as we are) you start working 60+ hour weeks continuously. You need a system that is relatively simple to set up and manage, easily supported, and somewhat powerful. Our existing system was a Nortel Meridian with the usual attachments for 8 main lines, and we didn't even really use the full feature set of THAT. We looked at VoIP PBX replacements from every vendor around, and settled on a 3Com NBX V3000, but at that level, they all seemed pretty close to the same... Asterix is a bit too time-consuming at this level, so it was rejected. This may sound unethical, but you need to break the phone system for a short time to get the point across. Before you all go screaming at me, analog phone systems HARDLY EVER BREAK. They're much more robust than Digital systems, and tend to 'wear down' over the long term, so the performance loss is hardly noticed. In my case, our phone system had some 'non-standard' elements which were giving out, which needed the expedited repair. If done right, IT is invisible, until a diseaster strikes.

lcave
lcave

You are preaching to the choir. I just changed fusers in two different printers. Get a contract for that phone system!!!

Old Man on the Mountain
Old Man on the Mountain

In caring about their business and fulfilling your duty as their IT expert, you can now release any thought of it and step back. Your responsibility ends with ensuring they have been made aware of the risk to their bottom line. Although their stance may be unreasonable, it is reasonable for them to make the fiscal call. Like many of us, your situation is similar to mine on many an occasion. I remained highly agitated until I made the above principal firm in my thinking. Given that my recommendation affects someone else's finances, I am committed to allowing them to decline my solution. This all hinges, of course, on their reaction when your prediction comes to pass. If they take it in stride and move forward with your plan, that's their right. If they consistently blame you or require you to react quickly which in turn impacts other customers you have and/or your life excessively, you should consider terminating your relationship with them to avoid unnecessary discomfort. I would also suggest you add an additional charge to your contract in the event these situations occur. That will further alert them in writing of the seriousness of not following your advice.

lwarnk
lwarnk

Sorry you're wearing the phone guy hat, it is a necessary evil. Here are some ways to prove you need the new system now: Obtain your Customer Service Record for local & long distance. If you inherited the telecom portion of your job from someone else, chances are there are some dedicated trunk lines that are no longer in use that incur monthly charges. You can begin justifying the cost of the new phone system by cleaning up unused trunk lines. Even the older phone systems have a to measure how many phone calls are traveling over trunk lines by day/week/month? If possible, find out what your peak call times are (10 AM to 2PM, for example) and ask management to calculate the amount of dollars lost if the system goes south. As you mentioned, the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' maxim is employed until dial tone is dead. As for the new system, VoIP is only as good as the QoS of the network facilitating it. Obtain bids from those who recognize that and repeat after me: No one touches my cable unless they are certified!

modell
modell

I am not sure of your infrastructure but if you are a small business I would assume that there are not that many employees. Why not go with a cheaper phone system like an Avaya IP Office or Cisco EC500? You can get these systems for about 10k and that includes support. In some cases the voice mail can even be kept on the device and you do not need an additional system for vm?

DelphiniumEve
DelphiniumEve

So...is there any service contract attached to the 'old' equipment? Back a few years ago, our service contract tripled in price. I made the business case that for the money, we could get something new and much more reliable. Also, the firm had just installed Cat5 since all the old cable was rotten/corroded (chemical plant). I stated we could least to own including service contract for what the service contract on the old system was going to cost. Also, handsets were no longer available for the old system other than rebuilt and ridiculously expensive. Now, if they want to keep the old system because it is 'free' other than your service... Ask them how much money would it cost them to be down for a week...how much in lost sales and productivity? This is part of any BC/DR scenario to justify costs of backup or hot swappable systems. It is great to get the broad range of experience, but it is also exasperating in small firms since they do not care but to make money for the owner. Long term plans are usually not part of the plans.

DelphiniumEve
DelphiniumEve

So...is there any service contract attached to the 'old' equipment? Back a few years ago, our service contract tripled in price. I made the business case that for the money, we could get something new and much more reliable. Also, the firm had just installed Cat5 since all the old cable was rotten/corroded (chemical plant). I stated we could least to own including service contract for what the service contract on the old system was going to cost. Also, handsets were no longer available for the old system other than rebuilt and ridiculously expensive. Now, if they want to keep the old system because it is 'free' other than your service... Ask them how much money would it cost them to be down for a week...how much in lost sales and productivity? This is part of any BC/DR scenario to justify costs of backup or hot swappable systems. It is great to get the broad range of experience, but it is also exasperating in small firms since they do not care but to make money for the owner. Long term plans are usually not part of the plans.

DelphiniumEve
DelphiniumEve

So...is there any service contract attached to the 'old' equipment? Back a few years ago, our service contract tripled in price. I made the business case that for the money, we could get something new and much more reliable. Also, the firm had just installed Cat5 since all the old cable was rotten (chemical plant). I stated we could least to own including service contract for what the service contract on the old system was going to cost. Also, handsets were no longer available for the old system other than rebuilt and ridiculously expensive. Now, if they want to keep the old system because it is 'free' other than your service... Ask them how much money would it cost them to be down for a week...how much in lost sales and productivity? This is part of any BC/DR scenario to justify costs of backup or hot swappable systems. It is great to get the broad range of experience, but it is also exasperating in small firms since they do not care but to make money for the owner. Long term plans are usually not part of the plans.

donut
donut

All I can say is you covered your a** by warning them about this. If management is going to be that stubborn, there may be nothing you can do. Just tell them that when they're without phones for a week not to come crying to you, since you'll be buried in PBX guts and CAT6 cabling all week. Ironically, this guilt tactic sometimes works. Remind them that laughing in the face of danger usually gets your proverbial teeth knocked out. -Launchpad_72

bsparker
bsparker

We just replaced a 8 year old televantage server that has been a Pain in the A.. with a new Cisco CUC6.0 business edition. what finally made management budge on upgrading even though I have been telling them for two years this thing is going to die, is well it died, luckily I was able to patch it back up into working order long enough to configure the new system. I feel your pain when talking to management sometimes it takes a smile and a "I told you so" to finally get them to listen to you :)

grouper
grouper

VMWare that voicemailbox while you can.. Try and grab a backup image or something and then try to find a spare it can run on.. That's probably a safe contingency plan for the voicemail. As far as the phone system goes, we have a couple backup POTS lines that our phone system failsover to, i'm not sure if thats the same with every system. Like you, I run a small IT shop, a school actually with a good number of workstations and these people seem to think that if it has a plug, it's my responsibility. I draw the line with the copy machine but I decided to take on the fax machines and printers because I have a good maintenance agreement that takes care of the machines and consumables. The way I view it too, the reason why they want IT to take over phones is simply because we're adept to managing technical challenges and the people that originally managed the phone systems had no technical background. You would not believe the holy mess I inherited when I started here simply because they had a fundraiser managing and selecting equipment and vendors for a phone system...

jcs23576
jcs23576

Asterisk from Digium. Check it out, Depending on your phone system you might be able to start integrating it in slowly. I've used an asterisk PBX on my previous job and loved it

AV .
AV .

Well Tim, you're not going to believe this, but I have the same old DOS based Replay Plus running on an old Pentium 75 system. I know I don't have to tell you that I'm the IT person at a small business. I can't believe its hanging on (knock on wood). I am the only support for the system right now. Our phone dealer no longer has anyone that can support it. Like you, I've tried every angle I could think of to get them to purchase a new system, but its a big ticket item for a small business and it gets turned down every year because the system still works, dammit. Here's something to try. Is there any way your phone dealer would let you lease or pilot one of their newer systems for a short time for a couple of key users? You need to get some positive feedback from them to help you show there is a business need for it. Keep playing the fear card, too. Its not like you're lying. AV

unskinnybob
unskinnybob

That's what I've seen work. Management and users are notorious for short term memory loss of traumatic tech events. Sure, when the network is down, or the email server keeps going offline, or you hear constant static and impedance noise over the analog phones, you would be threatened with bodily harm if things don't get fixed. But for some reason, users tend to associate IT personnel with this magical ability of solving problems comprehensively. They're actually conditioned to believe that on the merit of your previous accomplishment of reining them back in from the depths of hell, this next crisis should be fixed as well, regardless of the size of the meatballs you're sweating. I've found that the best way to engage senior management is to address issues from a business and profit margin perspective. Pull IT out of the back of office as a business overhead and place it at the front as a revenue generator. Draw a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and ROI (Return of Investment) based on any new technology you plan to implement. Advise them on the strides the newer system will be able to accomplish over the previous one. This usually gets the job done

longshotsa
longshotsa

Active voice was on an old pentium that used four ISA cards for their voice cards. They weren't modems but dual line voice cards. When ours ditched last year we looked for a modern equivelent for the mother board and couldn't find anything near the specs with more that two slots. Our situation is kind of opposite of yours. Mgmnt's solution is to throw more money at it. I suggested using an Asterisk system for voicemail that would allow us to migrate slowly to VOIP as needed. This was shot down in favor of a $12,000 add on to our already full Mitel system. This month we are adding a cage and 4 more cards for another $15,000 minus phones. Adding more lines to asterisk would have been the cost of the phones alone and possibly another ethernet switch which we have coming anyway. Don't wait to replace the Voicemail. Proprietary cards and antiquated hardware aren't easy to find. However, if your looking for replacement parts, I do have four cards that I'm not using!

nathanstrimling
nathanstrimling

I had a similar situation where I needed to upgrade an existing phone system to the tune of a little over $22,000 that was not in the budget. The system had not been upgraded in some time and was behind on software/hardware so portions of it were running on NT 4.0 and DOS and we were having a capacity issue. I tried a different approach to this project as my request was seen as just another I.T. expenditure from "The Black Hole" of I.T. and not a priority that year due to lack of assigned budget. I went to the V.P. of Business Development and discussed the risks of not upgrading and how some recent issues were related to the old versions of software/hardware. I also outlined the new features and benefits of the upgrade - better/easier management of the phones, flexibility, etc. Working with the Business Development department we built a business case for the upgrade and I had them present it to Senior Management as something strategic to the business, something that they wanted/needed to have. The expenditure was approved and I was able to have the upgrades installed. Another benefit of this method is that it was not just my decision should there have been issues with the project. It was a group effort, with input from the affected stakeholders/business units, and full disclosure of the benefits and risk. If there were issues they had a say in the decision to proceed and accept the risk. This buy-in is invaluable to the success of a project and acceptance of the changes, including any time needed for re-training of staff to use the new features. Essentially if you can manage to have your constituents make the case for technology improvent/expenditures you can focus on the proper implementation and management instead of selling the project and need.

NaughtyMonkey
NaughtyMonkey

being the only IT in a small company you wear many different hats. Luckily when I cam on board 2 years ago, they already had plans to replace their phone system. It was the same one they had installed when they opened the office in 1986. 286 DOS VM server in a Comdial system. There were only 2 companies in the area who knew how to work on it. Just finished having it replaced last September for $28,000. We didn't get all the bells and whistles, but it was a giant leap forward in technology and flexibility. The only thing you can do is show a return on the investment or have them realize that when it does go down for good, they could be without phones for weeks while a vendor quotes a system, orders the parts, and configures it for your organization. Unless you just take the first thing you can to get it in the fastest. Of course you may get something not right for your company at all.

kpdriscoll
kpdriscoll

You could mess with Asterisk and do your own PBX, but from the sounds of it, you've extended your traditional IT role as far as you'd care to. In that case, make them aware of your limitations and the cost of a new system, so that they're not surprised when the time comes. As a precaution though, I'd keep a spare old Pentium around that can replace your existing system in the case of hardware failure. Clone the hard-drive of your current system to the stand-by system just mentioned so that in the case of a crash, you can at least get up and operational. Also, consider the voicemail separate from the phone system itself. Consider whether you can back-up your voicemail as another recovery helper.

computechdan
computechdan

as this fella said u should have a backup computer ready to go, and it should be service tested