Unified communications (UC) is something that’s currently generating a lot of buzz in the corporate world. Partly because it promises significant cost savings and even competitive advantage through new UC powered business processes. Interest is also growing because many enterprises are not entirely sure what UC entails. Confusion has arisen because the definition varies depending on who you ask and what they are selling. It’s also becoming trendy for vendors to add the word ‘unified’ to their offerings, rather like supermarkets add ‘low in fat’ to everything from apples to washing powder.
UC is all about tying together the different channels of business communication that normally exist in silos. For example, telephone, email, IM, video/ audio conferencing etc. It may also integrate mobility and the Web to support remote and mobile workers. The main potential benefits are cost savings and improved productivity both in terms of how individual workers do their jobs, and in how the company relates to customers, suppliers and partners.
Often the degree of cost savings depends on how bad things were before moving to UC. Organisations spread over a number of geographic locations with islands of communication and aging PBX systems tend to do well in moving to a unified IP Network, often the first step towards UC. They gain from lower cost of ownership and simplified management and lower cost VoIP calls and also improved communications between sites and with customers and suppliers etc. Savings reported over a traditional PBX are typically between four and forty per cent depending on the scale of project and commitment.
However, there are many routes to acquiring a UC system. Some organisations start with a bottom-up approach based on a unified IP network and VoIP, while others prefer to maintain their investment in existing PBXs and layer collaborative UC applications on top of their existing infrastructure. Whatever route is taken there needs to be a firm strategic commitment and the network needs to have the capacity to handle the resulting increase in traffic.
One of the most powerful features is ‘presence’ and is really what can elevate a UC solution from just being a disparate collection of communications tools. In its basic form, presence informs you whether someone is available to communicate. While not everyone may rejoice at the idea of having their ‘presence’ made widely known, the benefits definitely outweigh any perceived inconvenience and users can normally set rules for who is allowed to contact them and when to restrict their availability.
In its richer varieties, presence can also give information on a person’s role, preferred channel of communication, most cost effective means to contact them eg VoIP vs mobile etc. This helps users quickly connect with the right person while avoiding telephone tag. It can also enhance and speed collaboration. Conversations can quickly be escalated from, say, email to IM to a video conference using a drag and drop interface and webcam. Thus workers spend their time communicating or collaborating more effectively rather than wasting time trying manage the technology or tracking down the right person to speak to.
Organisations with more ambitious goals than just cost savings, such as seeking to gain competitive advantage through creating innovative new UC enabled business processes, gain extra benefits. These benefits may be difficult to quantify precisely in monetary terms but can be substantial and include productivity and efficiency gains which may also draw companies closer to their customers, partners and suppliers.
For example, in the banking sector, presence-enabled desk top video conferencing has been used effectively in remote branches to improve customer service, increase sales and make better use of advice from scarce financial experts. Centrally located experts are conferenced-in to sales conversations between staff and customers to offer expert advice and to authorise the sale of specialist financial products. Additionally, they also use the opportunity to cross and up sell other products.
Customers benefit through rapid service and access to expert opinion when normally they would have to make an appointment to see a financial expert. The bank benefits through gaining satisfied customers and an increase in sales. They also make optimal use of their financial experts while reducing their travel expenses as they no longer need to visit remote branches to dispense their much sought after advice—and no longer leaving a trail of messy carbon footprints behind them.
What’s the bottom line? Firms in the financial sector that have reported most improvement through the strategic adoption of UC have claimed an expected increase in profit as high as seven percent. If we consider that a modest increase in profit of only half a percent would be worth $6.1m, on average, to a financial company in the global top 2000 we see that UC has a lot to commend it. It's not just the financial sector that stands to benefit. These types of gains are being made across a broad range of industries, not to be sneezed at in these days of increasing economic slow down.