Although we're well-immersed into the throes of global pandemic life, the business impact and challenges of social distancing are still being realized. In this Making Connections podcast episode, Mitel CMO Dave Silke and Joe Rittenhouse, President of Business Development for Converged Technology Professionals, a Mitel partner, get candid about how businesses are coping and what adjustments need to be made to better serve these customers and their industries.

Here's a transcription of the video:

David Silke: So welcome to the Mitel CMO Chatcast. Joe Rittenhouse is with us today from Converged Technology Professionals, in beautiful Colorado. Joe, How are you today?

Joe Rittenhouse: Good. How are you? Thanks for having me.

Dave 1:55: Very good. I love the T-shirt, or maybe it's a vest. You were with us last year. I remember it well, what a great event.

Joe 2:07: Yes, it's unfortunate we weren't able to do it again. But, it was an unbelievable event. It's an interesting time for sure. We were probably just coming up on that time frame to do the the next series, I think.

Dave 2:20: Yes, it would have been this week, actually. I know the guys in MLB, and ourselves, were devastated that it couldn't happen. We understood why it couldn't happen, but we were all sad because it was a unique experience. So, tell us a little bit about Converged, and the people that you surround yourself with, as well as a little bit about yourself to kick it off.

Joe 2:50: We're a technologies integrator, and in the telephony world we're considered a VAR. We've been a partner with Mitel for a long time, since about 2007. We've grown through the years, and we specialize in the mid-market enterprise space. We're diversified with staff, and "work from home" has been a model for us for a while now. So, the recent changes really didn't impact us too much, as we leverage the technologies that we sell. We've been prepared for some of the strategic "work from home" initiatives that we've had. So, the team that's here is comprised of, what we consider, some of the best professionals in the IT space. They've come from a variety of different backgrounds, and we're diversified across the entire country. From a talent perspective, we're looking to continue our talent expansion across a diverse platform, and across multiple multiple states. We're not singular, as far as the locations that we have previously had HQ brick and mortar locations, which were primarily through the Midwest. We're constantly looking to expand and grow, and really take advantage of the opportunity that's here in this market; which is hopefully saving customers money, and increasing productivity. Right now, that is music to a lot of people's ears.

Dave 4:13: I'm gonna ask you about some of the challenges your customers are dealing with. Before I do that, for your own workforce, was it a fairly seamless transition? Did everybody just start working remotely? And do you think they will be coming back into any office environment anytime soon?

Joe 4:31: Yeah, I think it's the challenge that everybody's seeing, and we're seeing it across the customers themselves. We have had some different discussions. We were obviously privy to some information that's not public, as to what some of our customer's plans are. I think we're mirroring our things across the larger organizations, as more of a practical and cautious approach. We were in the process of downsizing the offices already, because of the "work at home" technology we already had. We only had one office left, which is our headquarters out of Crystal Lake. We'll still continue to have that office for vendor, and client meetings, if they choose to come in. But, I think the problem is that our customers aren't ready for us to come on site, and they prefer that we don't. We're taking the approach that once the local legislative branches decide that it's safe, we can come on back. But for us, the transition to working from home was already there. Just for me living in Colorado, for instance, it doesn't really matter where I work. It really is a "work from anywhere" approach. I think, as you know, in the Mitel team, this is something that we've been preparing for, and trying to preach to the customers beforehand. This just accelerated that digital transformation a little bit faster than everybody was ready for, I think, but it was already on the horizon. At Converged, we adapted really quickly, and honestly, so did a lot of our customers. It was a pretty easy transition

Dave 6:00: You're living in Colorado, which probably has a reputation for being free, and certainly not indoor type environment, because of your beautiful state. Did that lend itself to making the situation any easier, because that sense freedom and joy, of not being held in one place, was there already?

Joe 6:27: Yeah, I think we're starting to see it. We even have some customers that have been impacted negatively from it, that are in the health fitness arena, and are seeing sales dropping off. Especially in a post-Covid environment, people are taking to their mental health, their physical health, and their wellness. Instead of lunch breaks, you see a lot of people out on walks. I'm sure just in your own neighborhood, you're seeing a lot of people walking more than usual. I know my sales team likes to pace a lot. They'll go on a four mile hike on a long demo, and chime in where they need to. The environment is changing, and we're all starting to appreciate new things: better weather, mental health, mental awareness, and productivity, even while you're still outside. The reality is, you don't need to be connected to the PC all the time. There are now mobility applications, for video and other similar integrations. For the most part, it really doesn't matter where you work. I think that a lot of people are starting to change locations and saying, "Why am I paying these taxes, when I can be just as efficient in other places?" You're seeing the corporations start to really look at where they're spending their money, and they are thinking, "Do we want to continue to spend on these brick and mortar, and downsizing locations, while still keeping staff?"

Dave 7:48: We've talked about Mitel, about the hybrid worker in the hybrid workplace; which is just another description for what you've described. This means you're not bound to any office. You're not bound to any environment. You're just bound to the things that you need to get done, but those things can be done anywhere. It's going to be really interesting to see how that balance is maintained over a period of time. Joe, tell me a little bit about the clients that you're working with, and the initial challenges that they went through. Talk to us about where you see them now, in terms of recovery, as well as some of the longer term ideas to think about, like communications and IT.

Joe 8:35: It's been a mixed bag, and we're seeing it every day. When this first started, it was minute by minute, hour by hour. Then it started to go day by day, week by week, now month by month. Now we're starting to finally pick our heads up, and look into the future, as far as what the next quarter will look like. Looking even further down the road, what's it going to be during Q1 of 2021? What will that new future look like after we've pushed through all this stuff? We've seen a mixed bag of organizations, and how they reacted. I would say that what we saw helped us as a value added reseller, within our base. This was similar to what you guys saw too, as an international organization, a larger organization. You saw things trending in Europe, that weren't good, before they were really big news here statewide. We started making preparations pretty early. That allowed us to reach out to the state side organizations, that don't have global footprints to say, "Hey, we're seeing this internationally. This is this is coming, and this is what they're dealing with. Here's how we should prepare." A lot of people took heed of that advice, and started to put plans in action. When their leadership team came, they were prepared; they had a plan. Maybe it wasn't fully vetted, but they at least had a plan. Then on the flip side, there were a lot of organizations that were just a little bit slow to respond, and it really created a fire drill. Everybody was trying to evaluate thinking, "Oh my gosh, how do we do this?" For us, that was a big challenge. I think the organizations that were ahead of the curve, continue to stay ahead of the curve. Now they're focused on some other aspects like, continuity, and what businesses will be like post-Covid. They're looking at all of these different things. It's important to make sure that it's not interpreted the wrong way: what is considered essential personnel. It's not necessarily whether or not you're worthy of your job. What is considered essential personnel is somebody that has to go back to the office: HR, finance, front office, etc. If we can show that we can function and work from home, what's the point of bringing people back in to the office? Working from home can actually protect the business, and protect our staff. That's where I see a lot of that concentration right now. When we go back to work, Who is actually going to go back to work? If you're one of those key staff personnel, we're starting to see rotations of shifts. So, you might be back to work for two weeks, and your your peer may be out of work for two weeks. Your peer is still working from home, but they're not going to physically go into the office. Then you have contingency plans: if you were to get ill, or show signs of the virus. We're seeing a lot of this kind stuff happening within businesses. We're seeing a lot of customers who aren't publicly stating it, but they're not returning to the office for the remainder of 2020. They're also putting contingency plans for complete operations to be remote into 2021. So, we've just seen a variety of things that have come from this. I think the one thing that's important at this point, is to make sure that businesses have the infrastructure in place to support these changes long term. Some of the biggest challenges that they're seeing is with bandwidth, which is something that most people never really thought about. Then, from HR perspective, How do you Skype, and how do you manage what a home user can use as bandwidth? Do you provide the bandwidth? There's just a variety of different challenges that are coming from from this, and we're seeing a bunch of businesses react differently. But, the ones that were laggards, that were slow to respond, have come around, and really emphasize the need for work from home. Now, they've heavily invested in it. I think for the most part, everybody's past initial that bump. Now it's ongoing, and people are thinking about the future state. What will this look like? How do we use these tools? What tools are we realizing have gaps in our portfolio?

Dave 12:22: Joe, I hope you don't mind, but I was looking at your LinkedIn profile before we spoke, and Converge talks a lot about partnership. "Even your words and your handshake mean everything" is a is a quote that you actually have up there, which I quite like. The reason I bring that up is that the the partnership approach from Converge is very, very strong. As you have a conversation with any of your customers, is it possible to be programmatic at the moment, in terms of "Hey, this is a guide to help you through from A to Z.", or are you finding that every single circumstance is is unique? You've mentioned some of the challenges, and there must be similar challenges that you're coming up with repeatedly, that must really add value back into the conversations that you're having with a customer.

Joe 13:16: Yes, I think that handshake, and your word is key. This is something that we pride ourselves on, that we've developed, and it goes with our vendors, and it also goes with our clients. What we're starting to see is, with that attitude, there comes a level of trust, transparency and sharing. Although we can't share strategies, brands and names that we have, we can talk about large organizations, and different things that we're seeing across our portfolio. We can also discuss best practices; and best practices are coming out every day. We're sharing that as a value added reseller to show that every customer at this point, and everybody in IT, finance, really every position within an organization, is feeling like they're on an island. They're thinking, "How are we going to figure this out? My situation is unique, and boy, trying to navigate all this is really, really difficult." The reality is, to your point, there's a lot of similarities. Yes, your business may be different. Yes, it may be a different vertical. But, we're all dealing with similar things and underlying technology, and questioning, "How do we do this?" We're seeing pains and holes in our portfolio, and a DR strategy that we never really had. We weren't planning for this. We weren't advising customers for this. It is what it is, just accept it. But you're not really on that island, and some of the things that we're sharing is what we're seeing for best practices. A large portion of this comes from our larger enterprise, but they're building internal teams. They may have a coronavirus taskforce team that's specifically focused around HR benefits and constantly asking customers, "How can we help this?" There are technology gaps that aren't focused from IT, that might be focused from the sales team or centered around the context of our team. They have different divisions, working multiple platforms, and trying to understand, "Where are the holes? Where are these things?", and then getting back with IT as a holistic approach to figure it out. In pre-Covid, I would say those were probably some of the challenges that IT had. They were really disconnected from every part of the business. I think what this has shown everybody is the value of IT, the infrastructure, how to spend your money properly, and how to have the right tools in place. I think the benefit from this is what we've seen as the best practices. The businesses holistically are looking at, ways fix everybody in a multitude of ways, as well as the right tool to overlay. These together help ensure the company is making a strategic decision. Everybody's getting a vote, more so than before. The strategic tasks are something that's been really helping the people that have been successful.

Dave 15:50: It's really interesting to hear you speak about how the IT decision has completely changed. It's become more realistic, in relation to HR, marketing, sales, you name it. This has changed the way you are looking after the total worker, in the total workplace, and everything that goes in with that. Have you seen the the ecosystem change in relation to; and there's two parts to this question; other companies decisions? Secondly then, the IT ecosystem that addresses those changes that are needed to be made; has that become more encompassing, in terms of the environment that you have to live and operate and work in? This brings everything together.

Joe 16:43: Yeah, we're seeing a lot of that come together. The ecosystem itself is trying to understand what the platforms are, and finding the roadmap to integrate some things, develop API's, and start to connect dots for efficiencies. There's not many organizations that we work with that haven't had some sort of financial impact or significant downturn. We have some customers, there on the flip side, that have seen a financial windfall, but that's not the norm. So I think the challenges that they're seeing is trying to figure out how to improve efficiencies with furloughs and layoffs. That goes to your point of the ecosystem: How do you drive all this together, and potentially have one pane of glass to make things efficient, and more seamless? I think that's a key driver. I think that the conversation of getting people to work remote, at this point, stealing a comment I saw from one of my peers, "is that's kind of the table stakes." That's the easy stuff. We're past that. Now it's the long term strategy. To your point, it's the ecosystem, and figuring out how all these things communicate, and how we keep them from being siloed repositories. So, I think that's really where the focus is. There's been a huge downturn in staffing across IT, and across multiple levels, and were trying to figure out how we can be resilient. How do we get our key personnel to be efficient? Then understanding that this is the platform that we have to make this decision on. I think there's a lot of stress upon the IT team, and the organizations that we work with, to make sure that they make the right decision; because a costly decision, with everything that's on the line right now, could be the difference of making it out of this or not.

Dave 18:20: And, Joe, so you're talking about the ecosystem that your customer has to rebuild, and there's these changes in the technology ecosystem. From Converge point of view, Have you had to change your approach? Are you having to bring a different skill set, a different discussion into that? Because previously, you probably would have led it from an IT communications point of view, versus a human point of view, or the hybrid work point of view, while trying to figure out all of these "space, safety, go back to work" type issues. Have you had to bring that to the table?

Joe 18:56: Yeah, I think that part of it, is just bringing some of the best practices. For example, How are you dealing with this? And here's the experience that we're seeing. Here's some organizations that we see that are actually being effective, and where we're seeing progress. These are some of the best practices that we would suggest you employ. In some cases, it's even just connecting the dots, saying, "This peer is more than willing to help you," because I think everybody's got a spirit of, "Let's just try to get everybody back, and let's try to get through this." So I think you're seeing an openness of communication and sharing of best practices, where before was a trade of secrets. Everybody's trying to help each other in a genuine, humanity effort of trying to keep jobs. Our approaches changed pretty significantly. We've looked at how we do our engineering, and how we do our tickets, and how we do our support; more of a consultant practice, which we're already on the progress of. But, I think what we're learning is holistically, we have to make sure that we're getting more people at a table, and this is not just an IT conversation. So that means hiring experts that can speak to a level of certainty of what's going on in HR. Some other experiences, such as hiring people outside the industry to come in and talk to the people in the different departments about what's happening, and be more of an advisory role to the holistic approach of, how do we improve the business? So it's not just the focus on tools and functionality. It's, it's mental health, and mental awareness of what's going on. How do we make your end users happy, so they can deal with the customers in a happier fashion? Customer support is a hot topic, and understanding where your revenues come from, and how do we focus this stuff, has really been the focus on where we've adapted. So I think we were always a consultant practice, but while everybody got kind of force fed digital transformation, we got force fed quick adaptation to understand that we have to understand your business from every angle, and it's no longer a technology purchase.

Dave 20:54: You got forced into a human transformation project, in addition to the digital transformation project all at the same time. It's fascinating to listen to, how a VAR like yourselves has to think about the human side, the mental side, the balance side. Consultancy just takes on a completely different level. It was quite interesting that we were all heading towards this world of automation and thinking, "Don't worry about everything because it'll be all automated." Digital transformation has kind of swung that back, where, of course, you'd have a dependency on that, and that will happen. But you also have a massive dependency, now, on the interaction with people to help each other through this.

Joe 21:43: In the other aspect, everybody's learning as we go. Again, it's day to day, week to week, month to month, but it's how your human interactions have changed and how the brands that you interact with have changed, especially in the retail space, no one can go to a retail store. So how are your behaviors changing and the way that you transacted? As you realize that a lot of people are coming to the reality of, "Sometimes I prefer not to talk to people, and I prefer to do things this way., and I may prefer not to go out." So human behavior is changing too. I think that's what's really shaping the course for the future of contact center, is that in an organization before where contact center wasn't huge, every customer that deals with a business to consumer interaction, and even business to business, needs to take a hard look at, Where's your revenue coming in? How are you interacting with your with your clients?

Dave 22:35: We probably have to face a balance in the contact experience world of AI plus EI. When I talk about the AI piece, I'm referring to how you make that process seamless. The emotional intelligence that we bring into the conversation, and the experience as well, will be absolutely critical, because people will want to interface, and you may not be able to do it in person anymore. But there's always going to be a desire for that human connection. It'll be fascinating to see how that gets drawn out.

Joe 23:08: I agree. I think that's the big focus of where everybody's at now. We talked about ecosystem, the contact center, and then, How are you collecting that data? How do you evaluate that data? What's a good way to really interpret it and quickly and efficiently? Things are changing rapidly, so data is your friend. But if your data is messy, it's your enemy. So, everybody's starting to learn to make sure that you have a cohesive plan of how all of these things come together. And then, How do we interpret the data to make the right business decision? The customer experience is huge, and so the agent experience.

Dave 23:47: Tell me, just the last couple of minutes, and I really appreciate your time because I promised it to be 15 minutes, but it's been a fascinating conversation, so thank you. Is it possible to predict it may take 12, 18, or 24 months, in terms of, not just your business, but what you provide for the customers and clients to get through this challenge. What do they think of that? Is there any crystal ball out there or any guidance that you can give?

Joe 24:12: Yeah, I think what we're seeing now is: we are past the triage. Like I said, those were the table stakes, those were pretty easy. The customers were pretty well prepared pretty far down the line. I mean, from a Mitel solution to be able to deploy that stuff and get that done. You guys will see, and we're working on some pieces together, there's a lot of notable brands that we were really quick to just dispatch, and get everybody working from home. So that's the easy part. Now the longer conversation is to say, "What does this look like for the future in the next six to eight months?" We're seeing a lot of people in a holding pattern, and doing their due diligence, and trying to understand What is the ecosystem that we need? and What are some of the primary business challenges that we have? So, we see a lot of businesses that give the impression that they're in a holding pattern, but the reality is, they're just trying to absorb as much information as they possibly can, to try to make sure that they make the right decision. The decisions now, not as if they weren't scrutinized before, but there's a lot more at stake here. So I think we see a little bit of a slowdown in the scrutiny of whether work at home works. We're seeing more of a scrutiny on, Is this the right ecosystem? Is this the right platform for us for the future? And I think come, November, December timeframe, as we start to get through some of this stuff and things start to reopen, you're going to see a mass adoption of a lot of cloud technologies. We're already seeing it, you guys are seeing it too. But I think it's going to it's going to come pretty hard and fast. So, I think now is the time to do the research, make sure that you're partnered with the right people, make sure you're partnered with the right vendors, and that you have the right tools. Also, those vendors and those partners should be sharing the best practices, because I think, to the comment earlier, there's a lot of people who just feel that they're on an island. The reality is, we're all dealing with very similar things. Yes, your business is different. Yes, you're unique and special, but at the end of the day, the business challenges that we have are very similar. And so when we talk through them, it just gives a level of ease and comfort. And so I think that's the value of a value added reseller, or partner. I think the partners that are strong, have really seen that their commitment to their customers has been there, and the customers have really valued it. So I think it's just really relying on your partner, and understanding what's going on the street is going to be really valuable across the next 6-8 date months.

Dave 26:38: I think it's a follow up conversation we have to have in October or November, to see how that is beginning to play out. I just have one final question for you. I was fascinated by the number I saw on the LinkedIn: 119.5. Now as an Irishman, I know it, but you talk about one of your unique experiences, just in a minute or so. Tell everybody, 119.5—what does it mean?

Joe 27:10: It's the exact time it takes to pour a perfect pint of the most delicious beer, in the place of the Earth. So, I too am a citizen of Ireland and, I really enjoy our Guinness. So, I'm excited to have another one at a pub soon. But, 119.5 seconds is the time it takes to pour a perfect pint, and if you're ever over that way, taking that Guinness tour is one of the coolest things we've ever done.

Dave 27:38: My office is right above a pub called Sherry's, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to actually go downstairs and sit there, for the nearly two minutes and enjoy that. You can sit right beside me and we can do it together. Okay, great. I'd love to. Joe, thanks for your time. I really, really appreciate it. And I look forward to, if you're up for it, a follow up conversation, maybe later on in the fall.

Joe 28:06: Yeah, I look forward to it, and I appreciate all the help, and the partnership, and everything that we're doing together. So if there's anything we can help with, we'd appreciate it. It's really been an important part of where we're at, and where our customers are at, is that relationship with Mitel, and where you guys are going with that ecosystem. So we really appreciate the partnership and the opportunity.

Dave 28:25: Okay, thank you, Joe. Thanks, everybody. Thanks.

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