Jarich: The problems network vendors face when selling convergence

Peter Jarich Current AnalysisBack at the end of August, I had the pleasure of presenting at a customer's executive development program. Execs from across the company were spending a week on strategic planning. I was there to help kick the week off by providing an "outsider" view of the market--trends, market drivers, competitive landscape. Big picture stuff. 

I ended the session with a discussion of the challenges facing the vendor. In part, I wanted to deliver more value than just reiterating the market realities we're all familiar with: IP and mobile data traffic is on the rise; operators are struggling with monetization; vendors are increasingly tasked with being everything to everyone. In part, I've always felt that the implications beyond the trends are always more interesting. As I moved through my slide deck, the audience was filled with a standard mixture of nods, disagreement and ambivalence. Then I got to my final point.

"Convergence," I argued, has evolved from an interesting concept to something that's essentially expected in both the service and network layers. Yet, as much as infrastructure vendors might be able to explain the convergence value proposition, selling it is another matter. Convergence, after all, implies products and services that stretch beyond any one business unit within an operator while purchase decisions are still mostly made by those individual units. 

At this point, the room lit up. What had been a handful of nods became a much broader set of agreement. You could almost tell that there were specific stories, or anecdotes behind each nod.

I've spent the last few weeks asking myself why the challenge of selling convergence resonated so well. It's not an issue endemic to any one vendor. Instead, a handful of realities seem to elevate it above the standard challenges of fierce competition, new technologies and evolving market demands.

Universal Appeal: The classic examples of sales complicated by operator business silos include IMS being sold as an unified--fixed and mobile--service architecture or convergent fixed-mobile billing solutions. In each case, the fact that fixed and mobile business decisions are often made in a vacuum makes it hard to get "buy-in" for the broader value proposition.

The convergence value proposition, however, stretches beyond sophisticated, new service models. Consider a multi-standard base station sold and an operator with distinct 2G, 3G, LTE infrastrcutre divisions. Consider a converged packet core and transport platform going up against an operator that makes these decisions from a distinct viewpoints. Consider AT&T's decision to split its IP and optical Domains despite the convergence of IP and optical networking. It's tempting to look at operators as cohesive entities; any vendor selling new technologies or products into them, however, must understand that this isn't always the case.

Beyond Technology: Telecom vendors are in the business of selling technology.  That's obviously not all they do, but where they spend substantial time on innovations they feel meet specific operator needs, it's only natural to proudly market and sell solutions based on this innovation.  None of this matters, however, if an operator's organizational structure makes it nearly impossible to execute on those innovations. The frustration of dealing with service provider inertia that cannot be overcome with R&D budgets or even end-user know-how is understandably acute.

Thought Leadership: Let's return to technology marketing. It's not always about the latest and greatest widget. Take Cisco's Visual Networking Index or Ericsson's vision of a future with 50 billion connected devices. Neither campaign is about specific products. Instead, they are about thought leadership--about painting the companies as visionaries who have a handle on where the market is going and what their customers really need (whether or not the customers know it). Thought leadership, in turn, puts vendors in a position to sell at an executive level above any narrow network or service silos.  Cultivating this type of image is something vendors take seriously, and with good reason. Beyond architecting solutions that can be sold on a convergent or standalone basis, thought leadership is one of the best ways of executing on their convergence strategies. 

Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.