Among small business owners, Aastra Telecom may not be at top of mind when it comes to acquiring a new phone system. Best known for its enterprise-scale communications solutions, the publicly held global firm might seem a bit removed from the needs of the SMB market.
With its latest offering, though, Aastra is out to prove that its work in the SMB community deserves serious attention. The company recently announced the launch of AastraLink RP, a Microsoft Response Point phone system designed specifically for small businesses that have up to 50 employees.
Straight off the bat, the Microsoft name ought to be reassuring to SMBs nervous about entering the world of VoIP. Aastra is one of just three companies Microsoft has certified to run its Response Point telephony software, a phone system distinguished by its ease of use and deployment, along with a highly evolved voice-recognition system. (The other certified solutions are D-Link's VoiceCenter and Syspine's Digital Operator Phone System.)
"The Microsoft brand is very helpful, and the innovation of Reponse Point is very helpful," said Yves Laliberte, senior vice president for sales at Aastra. SMBs may be wooed for instance by the promise of future integration with Microsoft products. "That is quite significant, given that so many small businesses already use Microsoft infrastructure."
With the Response Point software as the PBX's foundation, Aastras system naturally shares a broad feature set with competitor Syspine. Both boast a voice-enabled user interface, advanced call routing, built-in voicemail, automated receptionist, and contact integration with Microsoft Office Outlook.
The differences are in the hardware implementations of the two systems. For example, Syspine offers only its IP310 phone with its Response Point solution. Aastra has three phone options: The entry level 6751i RP, the full featured 6753i RP, and the advanced 6757i CT RP, which comes with the ever-so-tempting cordless handset. Given the firms existing sales of cordless phones, "we know small business does care about mobility," said Laliberte.
In putting together its package, Aastra has put special focus on scalability. While the company targets its product at businesses of 10 to 15 people, Microsoft says Response Point can handle up to 50 users. This means an overall solution had better be able to scale up as SMB clients strive toward that higher mark.
To that end, Aastras ports can accommodate a gateway that supports four analog lines. Five of these in turn can be daisy-chained together to create a system capable of supporting 20 analog lines, "which for most small businesses would certainly meet or exceed their needs," Laliberte said.
Surely scalability is going to be an issue for most growing businesses. As Laliberte puts it, SMBs are eager to know that todays investment will still fulfill tomorrows needs.
As to the size of that investment, Aastras starter system bundles up a base station, gateway, and three phones and sells for $2,400 with additional phones ranging from $139 up to $399. By comparison, Syspines offering of a four-line DOS (Digital Operator System)-50 control unit and four phones sells for about $2,500 with additional phones priced at around $165 each.
Scalability is just one factor, however. Aastra designers were equally concerned with the deployment process, which they have stripped to the bare minimum. "You open the box and pull out the one-page installation manual, and by the end of reading that small piece of documentation, you are up and running," Laliberte said.
The user interface is no more complicated. It takes just a few mouse clicks to move contacts into speed dial or voice recognition, for example. "If you are used to cutting and pasting on the web today, you can do this without any training," Laliberte said.
Aastra is an old hand in the telecom world. Founded in 1983, the company has been publicly traded since 1996 and has been profitable every quarter since then. Its running at about $900 million in sales with some 2,400 people on the payroll.
That doesnt make this new effort a walk in the park, though. Laliberte readily admits to the challenges facing an SMB market launch.
"In order to succeed in the SMB space you need the right channel partner," he said. Small business owners have dozens of questions about networking and pricing and daily use, "so they need advisors they can trust and who are competent in this converged space."
The Microsoft tie-in helps here, with Aastra salespeople launching their efforts among authorized Microsoft VARs who have already expressed an interest in telephony. Aastras own VARs likewise are among those to be targeted early in the game.
At the same time, Aastra is doing what it can to help the small-business owners themselves get up to speed. The company conducts training among SMBs, distributes literature, organizes webinar training, and takes part in ongoing industry dialogue.
"Part of being successful in VoIP and in SMB in particular is to have a certain part of your job as an evangelist," Laliberte said.