Unified communications is essentially the strategy of treating allcommunications as data and processing them through the same network. Thus landlines are replaced by VoIP communications, fax machines by electronic fax gateways and answering services with a number which follows employees.
This typically generates a reduction in support costs, not only because it means that only one set of infrastructure has to supported, but also because it means that internal phone calls can be taken out of the public telephone network and made for free over the corporate network. While costs benefits always go down well, unified communications have numerous benefits which would make the strategy valuable even if it carried a cost.
The next major benefit could be termed constant presence. To begin with, even though unified communications allows for sophisticated call-handling features, including the ability to access voicemail from diverse locations, it helps to render them unnecessary by making it easier to connect with the relevant person in the first place.
Although traditional landlines can manage a certain degree of call forwarding, they require a specific number to be input as part of the process, for example a landline could be forwarded to a mobile or to a specific phone in another location. The problem comes when people are continually moving from place to place. Call forwarding to mobiles can be both expensive and inconvenient, as the quality of the call can be weak.
Call forwarding from one landline to another can be more effective in terms of call quality, but more of a challenge in terms of logistics. The person moving to another location has to know in advance what number they can use. With unified communications, each employee has their own number which follows them from place to place. They can either be equipped with wireless phones or else just log in to any available desk phone to work as usual.
Secondly all communication forms can be accessed across a variety of devices. Unified communications is tailor-made for today's world of smartphones and tablets, as it essentially makes communications platform neutral. In other words because all forms of communication are treated as data, they can be accessed by all devices which can process data. Hence a tablet can pick up an electronic fax as easily as it can pick up an electronic mail.
It also means that costs can be reduced still further by encouraging staff to maximize their use of internet technologies in preference to traditional voice and mobile data networks. For example, many smartphones now support VoIP applications (such as Skype), which mean that users can make calls for free (or at extremely attractive rates) anywhere they can pick up a Wi-Fi connection. This can create substantial savings.
Constant connection and the cloud
Thirdly a result of these first two points is that it becomes easier for staff to stay connected both to customers and to each other. Instead of having to rely on established communications channels such as phone, e-mail and personal visits, employees can use instant messengers for quick questions needing urgent answers or video conferencing with customers and colleagues in other offices.
Unified communications also sits very well with the modern trend towards cloud computing and a holistic approach towards service provision. It means that communications systems can be integrated with other key systems, for example CRM software.
This means, for example, that as soon as a customer contacts a call centre, their details can be on screen ready for the agent. It also means that agents calling out can do so with a mouse-click instead of having to look up and dial a full telephone number into a standard phone. While these may seem like trivial advantages, in high volume environments such as call-centres, each of these few seconds saved can add up to a substantial improvement in service at the end of a day
Even in lower-volume environments, streamlining communications has multiple benefits. In addition to relieving staff of the annoyance of being interrupted by fat-fingered dialling mistakes, it removes the frustration of having to chase down employees via multiple channels (call to landline, call to mobile, visit to desk, e-mail).
Using unified communications, staff can choose to dial one number and have it route to that employee wherever they might be, or message them through their channel of choice, knowing that the message can be picked up from anywhere.
It can also be used to help encourage (potential) customers to make contact with a company. Using traditional phones, customers surfing the net have to find their landline or mobile (which they may already be using to access the site meaning that they have to exit it to make the call), note down the number and dial it. Experienced salespeople know that the more steps there are between the customer and the sale, the harder it is to close it as the customer can drop out at any point. Using unified communications, by contrast, customers can click a call button from the website itself and speak directly to a sales representative or support agent.
Security and liability
A final advantage of unified communications is that it gives organisations full control over their security policies. Regardless of whether or not an organisation can be held legally liable in the event of any data-security breaches on the part of a third party working for them, no organisation wants to have to tell employees or customers that their data could have been compromised and no organisation wants to have to deal with the reputational damage that a data-security breach could cause.
All organisations should already have effective IT security policies in place, which can simply be extended to cover the additional data traffic caused by a move to unified communications. This is in sharp contrast to traditional landline and mobile networks. It should also be noted that it is usually far quicker and easier to implement changes to IP-based networks in line with changing security needs (and regulatory requirements) than it is to implement changes to large scale PBX telephone networks.
Businesses of all sizes
A 2012 survey found that 76% of the business, government, healthcare and education organisations that had fully implemented unified communications and tracked ROI saw huge rewards. However, it’s not just large organisations that can benefit from the technology, it also has plenty of advantages, monetary or otherwise to the SME.
This is because the feature of unified communications have become accessible to businesses of all sizes, thanks to its widely available features. SMEs can adopt as many or as few features as they like and as the technology is fully scalable, it means that the UC package that they choose can grow with the business.
Preparing to implement unified communications
Whatever the size of the business, preparation is key to the success of implementation, as it is with most aspects of business. Firstly, it’s necessary to envisage what impact it will have on the company and its customers and how communication will be improved.
· Auditing – look at what applications you currently use and decide if they can be integrated or upgraded
· Vendors – the market is growing and adapting quickly, so look for newer but trusted technologies and ask vendors to explain just what it can do for you. Can you get everything you need from one vendor, or will you have to use several? If the latter is the case, are the applications on offer interoperable?
· Security – especially important if you keep customer records, make sure that the UC solution addresses this, especially with regard to employees working outside of the office
Whilst it’s true that there are some vendors that supply interoperable applications, this is something that is becoming more complex rather than less. With this in mind, it’s really better if you can go through one vendor that supplies all of the products and services that you need, rather than several, as this can get messy.
However, if you really must use more than one vendor, then consider also using a MSP (Managed Service Provider). These are companies that offer IT services such as VoIP, VPNs, managed firewalls and network servers and can reduce the costs associated with hardware and software.
MSPs are perfect for SMEs as they can manage a range of technology services, often at a fraction of the cost of installing an onsite network.
Mobility, communication and the cloud have all conspired to ensure that today’s IT infrastructures are powerful and cost-effective whilst offering unrivalled communications that increase productivity across the board, make for a happier and flexible workforce and increase company profitability.
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