Helping small firms think big

25 Jan 2006

In one of the most significant shifts in the technology sector traditional communications companies are growing their expertise and product portfolios to reach further into the IT infrastructure of their business customers. A side effect of converging technologies that blur the boundaries between IT and telecoms, it has created new opportunities for companies such as Eircom, particularly in the SME space.

More opportunities may be there but selling to SMEs is still a challenge, albeit one that is evolving, according to Andrew Fordham, Eircom’s head of business marketing (pictured). “It’s got simpler and harder,” he says. “Simpler because SMEs are much more professional than they were 10 to 15 years ago. This professionalism comes though in their IT strategy as far as security and networking are concerned.

“It has got harder,” he continues, “because SMEs are much more demanding than they used to be. Part of this is because it goes hand-in-hand with their increased professionalism, but it’s also because there’s a new emphasis on costs. Lots of businesses have spent money on new systems that they thought would last for years but they ended up having to scrap them and start again.”

A more savvy approach and an understandable desire to see a return on investment are not the whole story. Fordham believes that it’s still only a small minority of SMEs that have an IT strategy that is linked to their customer care and their business plan in general. And there is plenty of other evidence that suggests there is still a good deal of work to be done.

Fordham quotes Gartner research that says 40pc of business-critical information isn’t backed up at night by SMEs. Such business processes are perceived as opportunities for Eircom and its Total ICT division, although Fordham is quick to make clear where its ambitions start and stop.

“We are not encroaching on Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft in the IT space. We are their partners in this, we’re not in the business of inventing new software,” he says. The opportunity for Eircom lies in is a natural extension of what it already does, as he explains.
“Small firms are looking for someone to sit in front of them to give them a degree of confidence and help them integrate different things. They want one supplier that can give them value for money, and one person to speak to for service resolution issues rather than getting passed around different people.”

He sums up: “The logic is simple. We have account managers walking in and out of businesses every day. While they’re in there why wouldn’t they offer a more comprehensive suite of products, particularly as we’re moving away from being a traditional fixed-line company to one that delivers broadband services.”

He argues that the scale of Eircom, the number of customers it deals with and the number of service queries it’s used to handling, have established the firm as a trusted supplier to thousands of businesses. Selling on IT services becomes a natural next step.

A key area will be security. “The visibility around security is a lot greater than it used to be thanks to the publicity surrounding viruses,” says Fordham. “People are much more aware and it’s taken a lot more seriously, but it’s still early days.”

Eircom’s security offerings will be layered to meet the customer needs ranging from a simple level, supplying a home worker with an antivirus solution, for example, to online backup for small firms that use a server to deliver critical information. “ will come into your computer, every day or month, depending on what you want and automatically backup your data,” explains Fordham.

More sophisticated offerings will become available as the market demands, according to Fordham. He stresses that while there is a growing interest around data hosting and internet protocol (IP) networks from the SME community it’s still very small. “We do a lot more hosting for them than we used to and there are a very small number of SMEs with multiple sites that need network solutions but it is growing.” As a sign of things to come, however, he did confirm that Eircom will launch a scaled down version of it corporate voice over IP offering in the coming months.

By Ian Campbell