Unified Communications (UC) is an umbrella term that covers the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging, presence information, telephony (including IP telephony) and video conferencing. It isn’t a term that I had heard until recently, despite the fact that I have been writing about the technologies that UC encompasses over the years. I think that’s because UC is generally pitched as a system for larger enterprises, although smaller companies and groups can benefit from it as well. So what is UC and how could it help you?
“One of the problems in today’s marketplace is how loosely people are using the term,” says Louis Hayner, Chief Sales Officer for Alteva, a provider offering interconnected hosted voice and messaging services with the Microsoft Communication Services product suite.
“‘True UC’ means bringing certain types of different technologies together to create one communications platform – instant messenger, email, workflow applications, CRM, procurement, and even programs like Salesforce.com or Microsoft Exchange.” In short, Hayner says UC combines voice communications (IP phone) and office communications (instant messenger, video conferencing, desktop sharing, telepresence, etc.) and can include additional systems such as CRM.
While Alteva is an enterprise-level solution, another example of a UC provider is Onebox, a suite of services including phone, fax, email, conference calling, calendar and web sharing under a single platform. Its all-in-one virtual phone solution also features an auto-attendant, professional greetings, voicemail, online faxing, and conference calling to manage all business communications both internally and externally.
There are many people and entities who can benefit from UC, says Bill Threlkeld, Senior Manager of Public Relations at j2 Global Communications, Inc., the parent company of Onebox, including:
- Companies with a mobile workforce that require workers to be away from the office but still be connected. UC solutions like Onebox or Alteva let workers receive calls to their business line at any phone they designate, such as their mobile, their home office, a remote worksite, etc.
- Entrepreneurs and SMBs that don’t want to make a significant investments in hardware like PBX systems, fax machines, and other machines but still require the functionality of these tools.
- Companies with a virtual office structure with workers who work at home or from satellite offices that still need to maintain the perception of an “under one roof” image to the outside world.
The benefits of the different parts of UC can be increased by bringing them together into a more cohesive package including cost savings and seamless technology with less “cobbling together” of different systems. UC can increase day-to-day productivity for teams, putting different communication tools at the ready, usually via a consolidated dashboard for easier access. UC systems can be easier for team members to adopt because there aren’t multiple, separate software packages to train them on to bring them up to speed. UC can also present a more unified front to vendors and clients and anyone outside the internal team.
A system like Alteva’s lets you choose from various levels of UC packages or go a la carte. If you only have a need for hosted VoIP, for example, you can buy that first then later add other features as needed.
Hayner says there are multiple benefits to Alteva’s service (most of which also apply to other UC providers):
- Business continuity. You get direct access to redirect calls or relocate your entire business in the event of a storm or disaster.
- Mitigation of technology obsolescence. You have immediate access to new features and functionality without costly upgrades, no maintenance fees, no costly moves, adds or changes.
- Scalability. You can easily add and remove users as your business expands and contracts so the system fits your business needs.
- Consolidation. Instead of keeping track of multiple vendors, you deal with a single vendor with one bill to pay.
- Improving employee efficiency and customer satisfaction. Your salespeople, remote workers and mobile executives can do business from any location and never miss a call or message.
According to Hayner, there are several things you should keep in mind when shopping around for a UC solution.
“At the very least you should expect some integration between your phone system and your messaging (email) platform,” says Hayner. “Expect that your provider can offer the ability to provide voicemail, fax, email, text messaging, voice communications and calendaring in one synchronized platform.”
Also, make sure that as you evaluate UC, find out if it integrates with your CRM. Can you integrate your phone status with your IM status? When you play a voicemail in your email, does it change the status of that voicemail on your phone system?
“There are many solutions that really just pass data off and forget about it. They aren’t really unified, they’re just integrated,” says Hayner.
Threlkeld recommends checking a provider’s history of reliability, financial stability and customer support. Also make sure their services are scalable. You may also want to check for month-to-month plans if you aren’t ready to make a long-term commitment.
How have you cobbled together your communications tools or have you gone the UC route?