Why unified communications could be the answer to your telephony needs

Unified Communications

Unified communications? What is that, another buzzphrase?

In a sense, yes, but perhaps in this case that's apt. Often, the significance of a buzzphrase is conveyed less by the words themselves than by all the activity that surrounds them. Similarly, Unified Communications - UC for short is about extending communication functions beyond the traditional telephone network and into the rest of your technology suite. In practical terms, we're talking things like a CRM product being able to pop up a customer's contact history on your screen before you've even answered their call.

Clever but do we need it? Our supplier is singing the praises of UC, when we were just planning to buy new phones.

A UC approach can open up possibilities that you might not have considered. Part of the promise is "Business Process Integration" (BPI): designing a communications system to fit the way you do things. Maybe your incoming calls need to transfer to a video call at a certain point: a UC platform could set this up as soon as the call starts, ready for a seamless handover. Another handy feature is presence management, which ensures someone is at the end of the line before you put a call through. Not every business needs such capabilities, but if you rely on customer dialogue then they can be very valuable.

The examples you've mentioned all sound like standalone services. In what sense is this unified?

Well spotted. The term UC has been around a few years, and originally applied to things such as combined infrastructure and PBX deployment projects. These days it's a more general label for getting things to interoperate, mostly on the end-user's device. An iPad with a Salesforce account and a copy of Outlook can still be counted as UC.

We're already using Slack, Skype and so on for free is UC something we need to invest in?

You can achieve a lot with a set of quasi-free tools and a switched-on workforce. But the only real unifying part of such a system is the person who takes care of keeping accounts up to date, and so forth: make sure you have a plan in place for the day they leave.

You'll also miss out on the custom "BPI" stuff we mentioned above. This can often be the most expensive part of a UC project, but then this is where most of the value is added.

Our people like to use their own devices and work from home. Can UC work for us?

Presence management ought to be perfect for home workers: they can let their phone report on their whereabouts, rather than continually checking in with the office.

As for BYOD and roaming, the truly mobile generation tends to take UC for granted. Just be warned, no-one wants to be tied to a clunky app: there's an expectation that all the unification will be done up in the cloud, and accessed via a lightweight mobile front-end. UC solutions don't unanimously conform to this expectation. Investigate before you invest.

We do a lot of engagement with customers on social media. Can UC help here at all?

Quite possibly. For example, you might post a link that launches Skype on the user's device to call your sales line, and use UC technologies to handle the calls. The risk here is that the social media platform isn't obliged to forewarn you of changes that could disrupt your plans and break your processes. You might be better off engaging with the strange world of web e-commerce APIs here, rather than UC.

What if our UC solution goes down? Will we lose all our communications channels at once?

Some providers might suggest that, because their services are hosted in the cloud, there's no need for a Plan B. They may even believe it but you shouldn't. Backup phone numbers, backup routing of existing numbers, local failover of cloud services (so the office can function even if remote workers can't). These are all business continuity measures you'll want to have ready for when the Bad Thing happens.