UC (Unified Communications) and the Small Business – Q&A Style

The following article is derived from a recent interview with Phone.com EVP and CTO Alon Cohen on the topic of unified communications.

Q: To clarify any confusion that may be out there, could you first give us a good definition of Unified Communications or UC?

UC has a somewhat elusive definition. There are always new things and new applications that we wish were integrated and unified within our existing set of communication tools that have not yet been integrated or made to work seamlessly with one another.

For one company, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system integrated with their phone system is sufficient, yet for another, audio, video, phone, E-mail, voicemail, and fax may not be sufficient without presence (the ability to know when someone is online and available). So, in fact, the definition changes from one organization to another, and probably changes during the life cycle of the business. 

Q: What are the actual components of UC and how would you break it down?

This depends on your definition of UC. I would say the basics are Presence, Video, Voice, Chat (Instant Messaging), Screen Sharing, Fax, E-mail, Voicemail, and other real-time collaboration tools. A SIP Trunk can be used to connect the voice calls to the world eliminating the need for traditional landline phone circuits and hence we incorporate that function under the UC umbrella and as a needed component for some implementations.

Q: What are the drivers behind UC?

The most common driver is work force efficiency and convenience. People want to work efficiently and effortlessly, and this includes access to other people in an efficient easy to use way. Employees can do more and better work with better tools. UC is such a productivity tool.

Q: What problems does UC solve? What are the ultimate business benefits?

A small business using UC can solve problems such as accessing corporate data from anywhere and from multiple devices. For a larger business, UC can solve data fragmentation issues where people use different systems to share different forms of data. UC enables large organizations to reduce employee-training time by using one common unified system. It helps to achieve better communications between co-workers and serves to simplify IT operations.

Q: Give us a real world example, perhaps one of your customers.  What led them to make the move to unified communications and how did UC change their business for the better?

Phone.com delivers an excellent solution for small businesses that do not wish to invest the money to buy systems such as Microsoft Lync or Avaya. We provide small businesses with built-in unification of voice, fax, and SMS, and we eliminate the need for SIP Trunks or traditional landline phone services which are not required for hosted telephony solutions. Phone.com also supports one-to-one video within the organization.

Phone.com customers can start at very low entry cost, move the service anywhere as they grow (since it is all hosted), and grow to any level their business needs dictate.

Q: Can you give us a sense of the market demand for UC?   How big of an issue is UC for global business today? Nice to have or got to have?

Given the way technology is evolving and businesses are adapting, some level of UC is already essential no matter the size of the organization. The worldwide market is growing about 17% yearly, and is today estimated to be around $63 Billion! The SIP Trunk portion of UC jumped 83% from 2011 to 2012. By 2018, researchers are forecasting that the global UC marketplace will approach $256 Billion!

Q: In that case, what are some of the challenges organizations face when implementing UC?

Organizations that have not updated their systems for some time or created elaborate integrations using old PBXs will find that they need to move to more open solutions and may need to invest more money in order to effectively transition to UC.

Also, organizations that do not have high speed Internet will need to update their networks. Companies that do so see increased work force efficiency and, in many cases, a reduction in communication costs, regardless of whether or not they implement UC.

Q: Who do you include in the planning when rolling out UC? What roles or departments are included and who takes the lead?

A large organization needs to involve the Information Technology (IT), Telephony, and Information Systems Security people. Secondly, you need to identify who would most benefit from implementation of UC in the organization such as sales, engineering, field support, or other similar groups, and then ensure that they are included in the planning so that their needs are met.

The Inclusion of IT security personnel is important to better understand the potential risks and exposure and the proper ways to mitigate the new threats that emerge as the organizational connectivity is expanded.

Q: Can UC be implemented in stages?  If so what are the typical steps taken?

The shortest path to a UC system is a hosted solution. A hosted solution removes significant number of potential problems because it has already been designed as an integrated alternative. Voice, Fax and E-mail services are the simplest ways to unify your services from companies such as Phone.com.

Q: When implementing UC what are the “gotchas,” the typical mistakes or missteps organizations may take along the way?

The biggest mistake is to assume that people will use all the features without proper training. If you do not spend the time to train people on how to use Video Conferencing effectively, they may continue to buy expensive airline tickets and experience non-productive travel time that could have been reduced or eliminated altogether.

Purchasing expensive customer premises-based telephone equipment (CPE) can also be problematic. What happens if your organization outgrows what you have purchased much faster than expected, or if that major project you were expecting did not materialize and now you are left with a huge phone system that is not needed?

Cloud-based solutions offer much greater flexibility and allow businesses to experience UC without heavy long-term investments. Also, you need to ensure that you have high-speed connectivity to the Internet. T1 is a dinosaur.

Q: For organizational roles that run and manage UC, is there any reorganization or training typically needed?  In other words how does this impact the IT, telecom staff and others?

This is a very important question. Traditional telecom managers understood circuit switched environments very well. They understand the need for real-time, effective communications. IT managers have been accustomed to managing databases. These two worlds are coming together and both skill sets are required. One specific concept IT people need to learn about is SIP security. Next is SIP trunking (if they invest in CPE), and last is how to implement Quality of Service (QOS) on their networks.

Q: When investing in UC, do firms typically reach to the outside for help with implementation and the selection of vendors?  Or can most swing this with the regular staff

I find that companies start the research internally. However, some vendors including Phone.com have agents that have gained significant experience in helping companies make the jump from traditional telecom to UC. Using resources that understand the jargon of telecom and how to translate the organization needs to the UC feature set is important and helpful in many cases. Reaching out to those resources can save time and prevent mistakes.

Q: Can you offer several best practices for a successful implementation?

  • Define your current and future business needs and how these will relate to a unified communications environment.
  • Look for a cloud solution as an alternative to an expensive and potentially risky capital expenditure.
  • Look for open systems that have integration points like Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that will allow for integration with other business systems and services.
  • Invest in as much connectivity as you can afford – you will need it!
  • Do not underestimate security.

Q: According to Wikipedia, “UC is not necessarily a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user-interface and user-experience across multiple devices and media-types. Considering that, tell us about the vendor landscape when it comes to UC. Who are the big players and what products or services do they provide?  Is there a way to one stop shop when it comes to UC or must there be a number of vendors/providers in the mix?

Tells us a bit about your firm and the products and services offered?

The most comprehensive system, if you are a Microsoft fan, is Lync. The presence information is threaded throughout the different systems components like calendar, e-mail, and so on. It is available in both hosted and on-site models.

There are Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) systems, such as Mitel, Shoretel, and Avaya. Those systems are expensive. Most CPE vendors will integrate a few systems and services from other vendors. Components like Session Border Controllers (SBC) i.e the firewall for VoIP from AudioCodes or InGate, and SIP Trunks from various service providers are common.

However, for small businesses, Phone.com is really ideal. It is all hosted with the basic functionality and low cost that a small company requires. Although Phone.com does not currently provide all of the functionality described under UC, we have the important features that small businesses need today.

Q: In general, how can organizations make good choices when selecting vendors and service providers? What would you recommend the selection process include?

Here are my recommendations.

  • Make sure the system covers your important requirements.
  • Ensure that the system can scale with the business – both up and down.
  • Make sure your vendor has the best customer support that is available 24 X 7, 365 days a year!

Did I mention that Phone.com just won the NYER Customer Support Award in NY? As you can imagine, when you use a hosted solution, the vendor’s customer support is your lifeline when something goes wrong!

Conclusion

Organizations are keen to get a good return on investment when they implement technology solutions. What kind of ROI can be expected with UC?

The ROI depends on the stage your company is at in terms of new technology adoption.

In the past week, I have seen ROI variations from 1 year to 1 month. It also depends on your current cost structure. The main investment in a hosted UC solution is the endpoints such as the IP-phones.

Q: What concluding take-away advice would you offer organizations looking to implement UC?

  • Do not wait. There are significant cost savings to be gained and business process improvements to be experienced!
  • Try a hosted solution rather than investing in large, uncertain capital expenditures for hardware and services.
  • Upgrade your Internet connection (T1 is considered a dinosaur).
  • Upgrade your security awareness.
  • Make sure your vendor has good customer support, and an excellent track record. Customer support personnel based in the USA are preferred as they more easily understand your problems and are less likely to have language or cultural challenges.