Is Unified Communications worth it?

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Content Copyright © 2008 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

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.