Jargon's Impact on Business VoIP Adoption
IndustryView | 2014
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is an infamously jargon-heavy technology—so we wanted to determine how the technical language of IP-based communications impacts business adoption and utilization of VoIP solutions. We surveyed separate groups of respondents, asking the same questions about the communications technologies they’ve used and are planning to use in both "jargon" and "plain English" phrasings, to determine whether response rates would differ.
Businesses that are new to VoIP must contend with an imposing lexicon of acronyms designating protocols, network architectures, applications and functions. Moreover, businesses can’t merely outsource the task of learning what these acronyms mean to a consultant or an IT team. Many service providers and software vendors use these terms to describe their solutions—meaning business decision-makers need to know them in order to make an informed software purchase.
However, a number of VoIP providers are bucking this trend, instead communicating with business decision-makers in the language of business value. This language uses acronyms with which they are very familiar: namely ROI (return on investment) and TCO (total cost of ownership).
The FCC recently reported that business adoption of VoIP has lagged behind consumer adoption. This discrepancy may be due in part to the complex technical language in which business VoIP solutions are often described. Consumer solutions, on the other hand, are simpler: they don’t need to support more than a handful of users, so less complex language is thus required to describe them.
Chris Sterbenc, vice president of sales at FreedomVoice (a cloud-based phone system provider focusing on small businesses), notes that the overall business adoption rate has started to rise thanks to improvements in Internet service.
"If you speak the language of business owners, then conversations about phone system purchases are very simple," he says. "But if you bring in the technical terms, you’ll just confuse people or scare them.”
In order to establish a point of comparison for our questions about IP voice communications, we first wanted to see whether the widespread adoption of email had made the technical terms involved more familiar to consumers than the imposing language of VoIP. After all, when email was still an emerging technology, it was commonly discussed in much more complicated language.
For example, consider Eudora’s description of its pioneering email server software from 1997: A “standards-based Internet messaging server seamlessly [supporting] both Internet Messaging Access Protocol (IMAP4) and Post Office Protocol (POP3) clients for transparent migration and co-existence.”
With this in mind, we asked one group of respondents, “Have you ever sent an email?” We then asked a separate group of respondents, “Have you ever used an application based on the SMTP standard to transmit ASCII characters over a data connection to another IP endpoint?”
When we phrased the question in the technical language more commonly used to describe email in the 1990s, only 11 percent of our sample responded that they had sent one. When we used plain-English phrasing, however, affirmative responses rocketed up to 77 percent.
We also asked respondents about their use of client applications, such as Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft Outlook, to download email.
We phrased the technical version of this question as, “Have you ever used a client based on the IMAP or POP protocols to retrieve electronic messages from a repository on a shared server?” For the plain English version, we asked, “Have you ever used an email program like Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird to access your email?”
The results for this question differed in interesting ways from our other question concerning email usage:
The widely understood phrases “electronic messages” and “shared server” seemed to clue in a greater number of respondents as to what we were asking: 19 percent replied “yes” to the technical phrasing of the question, while 50 percent said the same when we asked the question in plain English.
However, we still found that many respondents answered, “I don’t know” to the “jargon” phrasing. Thus, even the technical language of a communications technology as well established as email has failed to become familiar to most users.
This problem is only exacerbated when it comes to IP voice communications, particularly because of the complex networking issues involved with successfully transmitting voice streams—which become even more complex as companies grow.
Some organizations may not expand to the scale where voice networking becomes particularly tricky. Tim Titus, chief technical officer and founder of PathSolutions (a vendor of software for root-cause voice network troubleshooting), notes that this typically happens when organizations grow above 100 employees.
“They get to the point where they realize that their networks are unwieldy and they need more information,” Titus says.
When businesses reach this size, they must contend not only with complex networking problems, but also complex networking solutions—which are described in complex language.
Unlike many telecommunications acronyms, the term “VoIP” has gained widespread acceptance. Ron Kinkade, director of marketing at Voxox (a company offering virtual and hosted PBX service, among other solutions), notes that when he recently surveyed business decision-makers about phone system terminology, “VoIP phone system” was the most widely recognized term.
“‘VoIP’ has become mainstream,” he says. “Consumers think that ‘VoIP’ just means ‘voice communications.’”
Other common terms in the VoIP market, however, prove more problematic.
“Most business owners think that SIP [session initiation protocol] is something you do with a cappuccino,” says John Macario, vice president of marketing at Edgewater Networks (a vendor of enterprise session border controllers: devices that manage the borders between businesses’ and service providers’ networks).
To explore this, we asked consumers, “Have you used a client based on the SIP standard to initiate a communications session with streaming audio and/or video between IP endpoints?” For the plain English version of this question, we simply asked, “Have you ever used Skype or similar software to make a phone call or video call over the Internet?”
Only a handful of respondents (7 percent) answered “yes” to the technical version of this question. However, 49 percent of our sample said the same about experience with “Skype or similar software.” These findings indicate that common industry terms such as “client,” “SIP,” “communications sessions” and “IP” can all too quickly become confusing to users of VoIP technology, not to mention those who are just beginning to learn about it.
Despite this widespread confusion, these terms can be quite important in certain business contexts.
“The use of technical language entirely depends upon the audience,” Titus notes, explaining that C-suite executives tend to be attracted to the language of business value, whereas networking teams might want to see exact language describing how the solution will work.
However, this all depends on your team. Even managed service providers (MSPs), staffed with IT professionals who help small businesses with problems on their local area networks (LANs, which can be defined in this context as wireless or hard-wired office computer networks), can be intimidated by the technical language of voice networking.
"Even networking engineers working for MSPs—though they’re very technically oriented—are freaked out when you throw voice into the mix; it’s a different animal," Sterbenc says.
"This is because the tolerances for the common issues you have in a really busy network environment are much smaller for voice applications [i.e. they quit working properly when available bandwidth drops]. Thus, a lot of MSPs don’t feel that they have the expertise to rapidly identify and resolve issues when they pop up.”
If even IT consultants can have trouble with technical language, is there any hope that businesses will be able to understand the descriptions of VoIP solutions they may be considering purchasing?
The Internet is obviously the first place businesses turn to when researching IP phone systems, so we attempted to determine just how common technical language is on Web pages describing VoIP solutions for potential buyers. While jargon is inevitable in instruction manuals and support forums, it’s much easier to avoid in descriptions of VoIP solutions, since these can easily be phrased in terms of the business value they provide.
“Smaller businesses—those with less than 100 employees—think about their phone systems in business terms,” Macario explains. “When they think about switching to VoIP service, they’re making a business decision based on business needs, and a service provider needs to speak in business language rather than technical language.”
To learn how VoIP vendors use jargon, we took a sample of 50 websites of SIP trunking services, hosted PBX services, IP PBX software, IP PBX appliances and session border controllers.
We searched for the occurrence of technical terms in product descriptions and data sheets, ignoring their occurrence in support forums and documents. (See the Methodology section at the end of this report for a list of the terms we tracked.)
Only 20 percent of the websites we surveyed contained three or fewer of the technical terms we tracked in their descriptions of products and services. Conversely, 38 percent of these sites contained eight or more technical terms. Moreover, the list of jargon we tracked represents only some of the more common technical terms in IP communications; dozens of other terms frequently appear in product literature.
Clearly, jargon is widespread amongst VoIP vendors. But does its use actually impact purchasing decisions?
One seemingly innocuous technical phrase to those familiar with modern IP PBXs is “find me/follow me,” which describes a VoIP system’s ability to forward calls from desk phones to mobile devices. So we decided to ask our sample about it.
The jargon phrasing was, “Would you prefer to purchase an IP PBX system for business use that offers the find me/follow me feature over one that doesn't?” For the plain English version, we asked, “Would you prefer to purchase a business phone system that forwards desk phone calls to your cell phone when you're out of the office over one that doesn't?”
These two versions of the same question had a very different impact on respondents’ preferences:
The chart above clearly indicates that a much smaller group of respondents wanted this functionality when it was described using jargon. But by using a straightforward definition that explained what this function actually does, we allowed respondents to reach a decision much more easily—and bumped up the affirmative response rate from 8 to 23 percent as a result.
Macario, who regularly surveys business decision-makers about switching from traditional phone service to VoIP service, reports similar findings. When he asked decision-makers what kind of phone system they were currently using, without defining the different types of phone systems, a striking 40 percent of his sample replied, “I don’t know.” Now, to avoid this problem, he has switched to providing “usage-based definitions” in his surveys, similar to the ones we used in ours.
We next wanted to determine whether respondents’ answers would be affected if our question used jargon to explain the business value of a technical term. So we asked about switching from landline service to SIP trunking, while also explaining the benefits of the latter technology.
For the jargon phrasing, we asked, “Would you ever replace your business's PRI trunks with a SIP trunk to originate and terminate local and long-distance calls at lower rates?” For the plain English version, we asked, “Would you ever replace your business's landline with a special Internet-based phone service to make local and long-distance calls at lower rates?”
Even when respondents understood that SIP trunking would somehow save them money on their phone bills, they were still far less likely to consider the service when we employed a technical rather than a functional definition. Moreover, 35 percent of our sample responded “I don’t know” to the technical version, whereas only 18 percent replied in this way to the plain English version.
While the language of business value can have quite an impact on purchasing decisions, our findings show that this impact can be weakened considerably by the addition of technical terms.
There are a number of aspects of VoIP solutions that smaller businesses need to pay attention to, aside from the workings of the technology involved.
“When evaluating solutions, consumers need to look beyond lists of impressive references; they also need to consider press coverage, awards and reviews,” Kinkade says. This information can be just as crucial as lists of features and functions when a business is calculating ROI, since use cases for VoIP technology vary widely from business to business.
Sterbenc adds that at the end of the day, “customers are looking for a commitment to uptime reliability.” In other words, they want to ensure that the phones literally keep ringing.
Reviews, in particular, may be a better indicator of reliability than product descriptions. Product descriptions won’t reference the kinds of networking problems that can derail VoIP deployments, while users will certainly mention these kinds of issues when writing reviews of VoIP solutions. That said, some companies can’t avoid the necessity of familiarizing themselves with the technical language that describes how these problems occur.
Macario identifies one market segment in particular that absolutely needs to know the language of voice networking: “Larger companies with multiple locations don’t just need SIP trunks to feed into a PBX; they also need SIP trunks to connect location ‘a’ to location ‘b.’ Anyone who has the latter requirement does need to understand the technical language and the protocols involved.”
This principle doesn’t apply, however, to smaller businesses with just one location. These businesses frequently aren’t in the position to need to understand complex services such as SIP trunking.
In fact, Macario adds that, “In the last study I did, 33 percent of the companies we surveyed with less than 50 employees said they didn’t manage IT at all—they didn’t have anyone on staff, they didn’t outsource it, but just hoped that the technology would work.”
Such companies will need to look for a provider that speaks their language. Ultimately, the same basic rule of thumb applies to choosing a VoIP phone system as to all other business IT purchases.
As Kinkade puts it: “If you don’t really feel that you understand what a company is selling you or whether [it’s] the right fit for you—then [it’s] not.”
To find the data in this report, we conducted a one-day online survey of five questions, and gathered 3,901 responses from random consumers within the United States. We worded the questions in both plain English and jargon phrasings to discover how technical language would impact response rates.
For our study of jargon use on websites for VoIP software and services, we tracked the appearance of the following 10 terms in product descriptions (but not in support sections or product literature such as instruction manuals): “IP PBX” (Internet protocol private branch exchange), “MPLS” (multiprotocol label switching), “find me/follow me,” “SIP trunking,” “LAN/WAN” (local area network/wide area network), “CTI” (computer telephony integration), “distributed architecture,” “virtualization/virtual server,” “redundancy” and “automatic call distribution.” (For definitions of these terms, see our plain English guide to VoIP.)
Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent partner vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Interview sources are chosen for their expertise on the subject matter, and software choices are selected based on popularity and relevance.
Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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