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Cloud communications - what is it and why do you need it?

We look at the future of communication and the cloud-based options available

Compelling communication is a crucial part of any enterprise, allowing a continuous flow of information between staff, suppliers and customers alike, and helping working relationships in the process.

Whatever of the size of your enterprise, effective business communication is important for growth, aligning everyone to business goals, and decreasing mistakes while keeping everyone informed.

To spread information around your enterprise, the options for pre-COVID-style in-person meetings are unfortunately very rare these days, so the importance of cloud communications (voice, email, chat and video) has become even more evident.

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With the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a notable increase in organisations transitioning towards the cloud to enable business continuity as their workforces were compelled to stay at home. And with this trend of remote working here to stay, cloud communications have been pivotal in providing staff with the tools and applications to sustain productivity.

Being able to bring people together globally in this way has helped organisations across all industries, with information shared instantaneously allowing faster decision making.

This brand-new way of managing communication online has meant there has been no hardware to install, or phone lines to connect, and no legacy infrastructure to integrate, bringing great cost savings. And it also means that, without having to swap between devices and applications, it permits scalability.

What is cloud communications?

"Cloud communications" is a term that covers a multitude of things. Broadly speaking, it's any voice and data service where the whole of its processes - the software, switching, and storage - are hosted remotely by a third party, which is to say in the cloud.

Under this umbrella, there are numerous offerings with varying levels of comprehensiveness (or intricacies, if you prefer) - from basic chat platforms to unified communications as a service (UCaaS).

What is VoIP?

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP as it's more commonly known, is one of the oldest forms of cloud communications.

VoIP does what it says on the tin: It lets users make telephone calls over the internet, rather than using traditional phone lines.

There are numerous benefits to VoIP - initially, it removed the need for trunking and simplified the installation of phones on desks. In some cases, VoIP services also use "soft phones" - handsets with no fixed number associated with them. Instead, users enter a pin at the beginning of the working day to associate the phone to them.

This has now diverged further, with apps that allow business calls to come to a user's personal smartphone, without them having to give out their personal phone number. Generally, these apps can be turned to busy during meetings or outside work hours and if the user is on long-term leave, such parental leave or a sabbatical, the app can be temporarily deleted.

Similarly, if the individual leaves the company, they won't be receiving unwanted or potentially sensitive calls, as their mobile number will remain private.

What are chat clients?

Chat clients are another form of cloud communications but are based on text rather than voice.

Commonly known as live chat in business, these hosted services are particularly useful in frontline customer services where they can be used to help answer less complex queries. They can also be combined with chatbots - a type of AI that can answer the most straightforward questions, such as those you may find in an FAQ. This frees up customer service operatives to deal with more complicated situations that require a human touch, whether that's also via chat or over the phone.

Another use of chat clients is for internal communications. Products like Microsoft Teams and Slack enable employees to collaborate with each other in dedicated channels set by the business, as well as instant messaging between two individuals or a small group. There are even options to create private external rooms to allow people from outside of the core business to collaborate on a project.

Some chat clients, such as Skype, also include voice and video calling. While these aren't a full unified communications service (as laid out below), they may be suitable for some organisations' needs as a halfway house between the two.

What is Unified Communications as a Service?

One of the most comprehensive forms of cloud communications can be found in Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS). This offering draws together a wide range of services, which would have normally been independent from each other. This includes SMS, MMS messaging, chat clients, and voice telephony as well as its trimmings such as call recording or voicemail.

It’s worth browsing a variety of product options as some of them allow integration with other cloud-based platforms, like Microsoft 365 or Salesforce, where users can make the most of additional features like incoming call notifications or one-click dialling.

Be aware, however, that some UCaaS products will offer more features than others. Some will include greater functionality, while others might target call centres, or specialise in services for small businesses and so on. It’s really worth carrying out your independent research to explore which offering is the best for your business. However, as there isn’t any physical infrastructure that needs to be installed, it’s always fairly easy to change to a different provider than the one you first chose if you’re not enjoying the service as much as you thought you would.

The good news is that there are various channel organisations that provide UCaaS services. It’s definitely worth your time to explore the options provided by any resellers who already do business with you and see what they can provide you with.

How much does cloud communications cost?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the cost of these services depends on the features offered by the service. For example, simple Plain VoIP can usually be sourced from your current communications business, like Virgin Media Business or BT Business, as long as you’re willing to pay a small extra fee. This is particularly true for anyone running a small business.

On the other hand, a broader, beefed up, UCaaS offering will tend to fetch a higher price, no matter how big your business is, solely because it has more functionality and features to offer to buyers.

There will be additional factors which could affect the price, including how many seats you’ll need, any deals that are being offered, and what kind of service level you’re going for, such as  99.99999% uptime in contrast to 80% uptime, or working hours only vs 24-hour customer service. As you’ve probably guessed by now, it’s worth carrying out your own research and seeing what the best offer or deal is available to you as well as what you’re able to negotiate.

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