The range of choice for businesses looking for a unified communications (UC) provider has never been greater. A few years ago, ‘unified communications’ was mainly restricted to sending voice as data and saving a small fortune on phone bills. Naturally, this remains a compelling feature of UC but the platforms available now do so much more. With all the choice on the market though this can create confusion for even the savviest of decision makers, so where to start in and what to look for?
Three main options
Broadly speaking, UC solutions fall into three main camps. Firstly, there are the more ‘traditional’ providers of UC which as stated, base their offerings around voice over IP (VoIP). Users simply make calls via a VoIP enabled desktop phone and the business makes considerable savings versus paying the likes of BT for landline minutes and by replacing legacy TDM lines into their offices with IP based SIP connections. It’s a familiar environment for the user and no extra training is required.
Secondly, there are web-based offerings like Google Hangouts, WebEx, Citrix ‘go to meeting’ and most recently, Amazon Chime. Think of them as being like Apple FaceTime but for the enterprise. These are mainly geared towards pre-arranged meetings and users receive a diary invite via email which typically contains a web link and dial in number. Employees turn up at the appointed time and off they go. Using the web link usually means users require a headset to access voice functions but they’ll also get access to on-screen video and presentations. Being able to see and interact with colleagues and customers can make this an immersive experience. However, services like this are an ‘add on’ to what firms have already – they’ll still need to pay a telephony provider (no matter whether that be TDM or a VoIP provider) and maintain the associated equipment.
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Finally, there are providers that combine the benefits of the first two categories and apply an even greater level of functionality using the cloud. One of the key things to look for is ‘PSTN’ calling. What this means is that a phone number is assigned to a user and enables them to make and receive phone calls via the UC platform. Effectively this means an end to the desktop phone and associated bills. Instead, all collaboration – whether this is virtual meetings, instant messages, phone, or video calls between colleagues – takes place via UC. The app it uses can be installed on whatever device the user chooses. Some solutions – such as Skype for Business – often come bundled with other useful business software too. In this case, this includes the full Microsoft Office suite, Yammer, 1TB of OneDrive storage, an Exchange mailbox and voicemail integration with Outlook – all for around £30 per user per month.
Consolidate but integrate
When making a choice it naturally comes down to the individual needs of a business. Some small businesses, for instance, may find that if they just want to try UC and see if it works for their employees that using the ‘free’ features provided by the likes of Google Hangouts might be a good starter. However, it is important to look at all the communications tools that a firm is already using and build a complete picture. Add up the separate conference services, mobile, fixed lines, and business software packages that the company uses. Separate services can increase costs and can also be inefficient and disjointed for employees to use. Firms might find that consolidating as much of this as possible into one can cut costs but also ensure their employees are equipped with new ways of working.
However, in looking for consolidation, it’s equally important to seek integration. Cloud solutions are relatively new, and therefore in most cases, not everything comes ‘out of the box’ – features that firms have got used to such as call routeing, call queuing and voice recording often need third party solutions or expertise to work in the cloud. Similarly, most organisations still have some legacy technology such as fax and franking machines plus security and door entry systems which are based on analogue connectivity. Firms need to consider that non-IP system such as these will be around for a while yet and any UC plan needs to take account of this fact and devise workarounds to ensure everything is integrated as possible.
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The importance of SLAs and training
Two other business considerations remain – training and service level agreements. UC technology cannot be a ‘top down’ decision and user ‘buy in’ is important, so employees understand how the new technology benefits them and how to use it. This isn’t normally too difficult given the flexibility it can enable in their working life, but without training, it can’t just be assumed.
Finally, firms need to remember service level agreements. In the traditional world of telephony, this was easier to understand – with the system usually based on the premise and SLA’s on PSTN connectivity where firms would be compensated if their supplier suffered a service outage. But in the cloud-based world where the Internet may be involved and many more suppliers in the end to end supply chain, companies need to understand what redress they have to that supplier in the event their vital UC solution doesn’t work as planned.
So, there are plenty of considerations that any firm needs to take on board. However, with the amount of choice on the market means there will invariably be a UC solution (or solutions) which will suit their needs.