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Leading Simplicity Apple – ShoreTel

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Leading Simplicity Apple – ShoreTel


(Original Post July 2011)

Are you an Apple fan? If so, you will probably be a fan of ShoreTel too.

I’ve been reading a lot about Steve Jobs and the philosophy he has “Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication”. Many of us see Apple as it is today, the leader in technology, the most profitable company in America, but it wasn’t always this way. When he returned to Apple in 1997, they were in a death spiral. He assessed the company in this way, “When we got to the company a year ago, there were 15 product platforms and a zillion variants of each one, I couldn’t figure it out myself. How are we going to recommend these products to others when we don’t know what products to recommend to our friends?” His solution was to cut the multiple platforms down to two consumer and two professional products. He believed if they only had four they could put their A-team on every single one of them, and they could turn out products every nine months instead of every eighteen. By the end of 1988 he had cut the total products they offered from 350 to 10. This vision lead to one of the most successful financial decades in U.S. business history, and allowed Apple to leapfrog the competition creating easy to use products that stunned reviewers and brought joy to customers around the world.

Jobs relentlessly focuses on the customer experience, and says no to anything he believes will compromise an elegant experience. The most obvious examples are the iPhone and iPad. The most common reviews of the iPhone were “simple” and “uncluttered”. He revolutionized the smartphone industry by eliminating a physical keyboard, allowing the design and interface to be aesthetically pleasing with a with a sparse design. He broke the technology barrier with a product that geeks and grandmothers alike could both appreciate and understand.

In the case of the iPad, a blogger handed the device to his 2 1/2 year old and posted the video on YouTube, immediately going viral. Within seconds the little girl took right to it, scrolling and clicking through icons, enlarged the screen and lauched a movie. This same device has changed my life, the way I work, consume media and opens up opportunities for productivity that were not possible before it.

What does all of this have to do with phone systems? The majority of my work life is consumed with educating clients on technology associated with VoIP phone systems, and training end users how to incorporate this new technology into their daily routine. People don’t like change as a rule, and unless technology is easy to use, it will mostly be ignored. It’s hard not to get caught up in feature wars during the sales process; we show our features, the competition shows theirs, the customer ends up compiling a spreadsheet to keep score. The problem is, it’s not the features that matter in the end, it’s the user experience. There are five major players in the IP phone system market, and for the most part, everyone has the same features. The key factor is how easy is it for the non technical user to learn, and how intuitive is it? If customers are able to take to it like the 2 year old, they will continue to use it and incorporate it into their day, becoming more productive. If it gets in the way or is harder than what they currently are doing they will ignore it. Currently RIM (Blackberry) is running ads touting how their tablets run Adobe flash and have true multitasking, they are focused on features. Does the public care? Heck no, the iPad doesn’t have those features but the user experience is awesome, iPad is the tablet market. As it turns out, Jobs was right about Flash in a mobile environment, it causes more problems than it’s worth, killing the user experience, so he left it out and opted for HTML 5.

The equivalent in VoIP phone systems is the desktop software, it’s what makes or breaks the user experience. The knowledge based worker is already using the computer and it makes sense to migrate the intelligence from a telephone to software with many more capabilities. We all have desktop software, and when customers look at 5 presentations, they all kind of run together and it’s hard to discern the difference. A lot of times the customer may not know what they are getting until it is live on their system. The truth is that ShoreTel’s Communicator software is the best in breed because it is so easy for people to use, the learning curve is minimal. There is a reason for this, ShoreTel is the only system that was purpose built with IP in mind from day one. The competition either purchased multiple companies and package it as a single solution or bolted on IP technology to legacy equipment. Both have major limitations and they show up in the end user interface.

It reminds me of the iPhone compared to Blackberry’s attempt at a phone with a touchscreen. Both had a touchscreen, but Blackberry’s phone was an utter failure because there was a terrible user experience. The problem facing businesses, the next IP phone system should be with you for at least 10 years, if you make the wrong decision you have to live with it. People that tried a cell phone that didn’t work can easily switch with minimal penalty.

Here are some examples of ShoreTel’s simplicity in design leading to better customer experiences:

ShoreTel Communicator syncs with Outlook/MAC contacts upon installation, provides presence information and simplifies common tasks like transferring and conferencing callers. It easily works with 3rd party software and is open for custom API integration. I got the idea for this blog post while watching my customers reactions when I showed them all that their new phone software could do. There were lots of Oohs and Ahhs, and this is so cool. I thought to myself, this is the same reaction people have when they pick up their first Apple product.

ShoreTel has one product for every customer, its enterprise level system and software. I have a customer that is a one man shop (yes, he saw value and paid a premium for a business phone system) and a major plastics manufacturer with 33 locations and hundreds of users, they both have the same product. Like Apple, this makes it easy for ShoreTel to focus on what customers request for future releases instead of worrying about how to make features work with numerous platforms.

A simple example is the process of upgrading the software on the enterprise phone system. Our process takes about 30 minutes and is handled remotely, no matter how many locations are active. The competition has to have technicians onsite to take apart server farms and a multi-locations operation can take weeks and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Ours is included as part of Partner Support the customer gets from Clear Choice Telephones. It’s easy to see why we offer the lowest Total Cost of Ownership when you take these factors into account.

Finally, administration is extremely easy, it’s browser based and there is a single interface for the entire phone system for all locations. The competition has multiple modules for different parts of the system, and the need to login multiple portals for different locations adding complexity.

I fell in love with ShoreTel when we started selling it over four years ago. I fell in love with the iPad when it first came out. Both companies have raving fans, I’m convinced it has to do with elegant design coupled with brilliant simplicity!