While unified communications (UC) is just one element of digital transformation (DX), it is a very important one, because it is the ‘glue’ that enables intuitive and friction-free collaboration both internally and externally. Without that unification, DX can end up being a set of fragmented processes and tools, yet when combined effectively DX and UC have the power to put users at the heart of any situation, with the ability to operate seamlessly across devices, networks and even apps. Imagine a scenario where a sales manager is having an online chat with a customer, then transfers it to a desktop-based video call, adds in a colleague, then document share, and then — realizing he or she needs to leave the office — transfers that whole conversation to a smartphone.
What people mean by UC can vary, but for to my mind, it combines multiple enterprise communication channels, such as voice, video, messaging, voicemail and content sharing, with integration and access across channels, networks, systems, devices and business apps. As is so often the case with business technology, the range of options can create confusion, and there can be a big gap between theory and success in practice, but first let’s look at the potential advantages.
UC simplifies and streamlines the modern workplace, creating a single digital environment where employees have everything they need to connect, work and share with each other, as well as look after customers. These days, UC is typically cloud-based by necessity (it would be very expensive for a SME to replicate using just using on-premise equipment), so other benefits include moving away from more traditional CapEx investments options towards OpEx, with fewer set-up costs. With the rate of change in the market long term, ROI on large projects is becoming increasingly challenging.
When combined with AI and smart analytics, many processes can become automated and better decision-making made, all of which can contribute to a better customer experience (CX). A further benefit is improved productivity: less time is wasted trying to find the right tool, service or person who can help solve a problem or answer a query.
However, perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for UC as an enabler for DX right now is how it contributes to the modernization of the workplace. In 2020 adoption of cloud-based UC is being driven not just by DX, but also people needing to adopt far more flexible ways of working. As we all know, organizations across the world have had to rapidly make the shift towards workforces that are remote and home-based. People need easy access to the digital business tools they need to perform well, wherever they are located. When done well, UC can even make it easier to integrate new team members, enabling them to integrate more easily into the workplace, without having to physically meet with their colleagues.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the advantages of UC is with some example scenarios. A customer could use click-to-chat, and then an AI bot can then ask a few questions to best route the query. Assuming that it is a query that needs ‘human’ interaction, a live phone or video call is initiated with the most appropriate agent (and if he or she is not available, routed to a colleague or to a generic helpdesk). If need be, the contact center agent can set up real-time screen sharing, or invite in a more technical colleague, even in another country, and whether or not they are at their desk. With the customer’s permission, the session can be recorded, and then that information is used for compliance purposes or agent training.
Other example could be interactive brainstorming across a team, integrating not just video-conferencing and virtual whiteboards but adding in live sentiment voting, connecting to task tracking and content review apps. That then drives the associated Agile processes and Sprints. UC services are helping customers of all sizes in this compelling environment to be adventurous and find new ways of working that help well save their businesses.
What to look for
While the concept of UC is relatively easy to understand, knowing how to choose and implement the right solution can be harder to achieve. Requirements will vary according to each situation, but there are a few fundamentals to bear in mind.
Ease-of-purchase, adoption and use – business models should be flexible and without vendor lock-in. A good cloud-based UC platform should be simple to integrate with the end user’s working environment, and have an intuitive interface. UC should fit around users, not dictate a new way of working, or involve lots of training.
Nor does there have to be a choice between an off-the-shelf UC solution or a customizable one: platforms are available that can work without any tailoring, and include integrations with popular collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack.
If required, open API approach can then be used to add in further integrations, or custom-built ones. Integrations should run from the front-end through to the back-end, for a truly integrated and productive UC experience. For instance, a contact center using UC should integrate with all customer-facing services, as well as BSS/OSS (business support systems and operational support systems). Business models should be flexible and without proprietary vendor lock-in.
Independent and not telephony-centric – efficient UC requires a model that moves away from telephony at the center. Instead, the user should be at the heart of the UC environment, with everything else — voice, video, data and other communications channels, networks, apps and devices — acting as the ‘spokes’ of the wheel that revolve around each user. With the latest generation of UC technology, those users can launch a video call from multiple starting points, such as a calendar, the last email or online chat within a group of people, a contact list or CRM system.
The idea of ‘presence’ has evolved a great deal during the past year, and today is far more than just ‘status’, enabling users to have far more flexible and sophisticated control over the reachability (or unreachability). For instance, users can set their reachability beginning of each day, week or month according to their meeting schedules. Plus, they can decide how incoming communications during those timeslots are handled. ‘Presence’ also supports team-wide or organization-wide visibility of colleagues.
Fixed mobile convergence – the pandemic has seen mobile traffic grow. People are using their smartphones to communicate in business at home as much — if not more so — than when they were working in traditional offices. It is likely that we will continue to see a shift towards more flexible and remote working, including collocated work spaces and public locations, as well as home and work offices.
However, it is essential to think beyond just mobile handsets. UC should be to integrate all kinds of devices that can be considered ‘mobile’: smartphones in VOIP or GSM mode, DECT, ultra-portable laptops, and tablets. In a truly integrated environment, a phone (fixed or mobile) and the smartphone become the target and connector to link into a variety of different apps and acts as a trigger.
Clever and forward-facing – preparing for 2020 and beyond means looking for UC solutions that make the most of what new technologies have to offer, and also have a clear roadmap of future innovations. For instance, within a short space of time, AI has become far more prevalent within UC and we will see that continue, for instance the introduction of more advanced bots that can engage better with customers.
Get help from MSPs and resellers – there is a growing community of DX and UC-savvy resellers and managed service providers both in the UK and worldwide who are ideally positioned to help businesses navigate through the decision-making process. 2020 has been a challenge for the IT and comms channel, but equally, there are numerous firms who have stepped up to the challenge. To thrive and survive in 2021, these companies have realized that they need to evolve how they ‘add value’ and are expanding their portfolios away from price-driven telephony sales. Cloud-based platforms mean that they can minimize their own investment and resources for UC, and instead, focus on providing a great experience to business customers.
Businesses are having to find new ways to work in order to survive. Together, UC and DX pave the way for a true ‘work anywhere’ future, with better communications and collaboration contributing to a better customer experience and organizational efficiency that works around people, not technology.
- The future of Unified Communications: smarter collaboration equipped to handle the shifting digital landscape
Justin Hamilton-Martin, Director, Centile