The Power of Unifying Communications and Collaboration

Updated: September 10, 2010

Today's challenges: wasteful delays, high collaboration costs, and a complex infrastructure

Twenty years ago, telephones, face-to-face meetings and travel were how people collaborated. In today's world, however, interactions with colleagues, customers and partners are much more complex and fluid. And competitive pressures have further sped up these interactions. However, the people who need to collaborate are likely to be in any location around the world. The result is often wasteful human delays in business processes: you can't find the right person to help you answer a question, you wait for a reply to an e-mail, you play telephone tag, you lose time while a team gets organized to tackle a project. These delays lead to lost sales, unhappy customers and decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information. Consider these examples:

  • Customer care, contact centers and bank tellers can have tens or even hundreds of customer contacts in a day. Each contact is an opportunity to delight a customer, which can in turn improve loyalty and increase sales. But the representative or teller is seldom an expert in all of the companies' offerings. So if the customer asks a detailed question, an expert needs to be contacted. However, one expert may be in an all-day meeting while another is on the phone. Meanwhile, the customer is waiting. Unfortunately, the best customer service that can be offered is: "Thank you for your interest. I'll investigate this and get back to you."
  • Consider an agent for a property and casualty insurance company. Questions come up during the underwriting process. The agent sends an e-mail, and then waits for the response. Or he picks up the phone to call an underwriter, but finds she's on the phone with someone else. The underwriting process is delayed. Think about when it's time to process a claim. Forms and photos are e-mailed. Questions arise. Repeated rounds of telephone tag and waiting for e-mail replies can slow the settlement of the claim. Meanwhile, the customer doesn't understand the delay.
  • A medical professional needs to speed a diagnosis to provide the best possible patient care. Experts -- who may vary based on location, topic and availability -- need to collaboratively review the digital results of an X-ray or other diagnostic procedure. Are they available? How can they be reached quickly? Delays can cost lives.
  • A company's sales force or consulting team is often on the move. Yet wherever they are and whatever device they are using, sellers and consultants still need to be in touch. A manager, business partner or customer may have a quick question. Or the representative may need to pull in experts from around the globe to address a customer concern. Delays from missed phone calls can mean missed sales. Delays in pulling together the experts may impact customer satisfaction. Meanwhile, when salespeople travel, they often run into exorbitant cell phone roaming and hotel access charges.
  • Marketing professionals provide value by discovering and combining expertise and information. They work on dynamically constructed teams that may be in different cities, across the country or even on different continents. Yet their company may have expense controls in place -- or a "green" initiative -- that allows for little or no travel for face-to-face meetings. Yet the need to quickly and easily collaborate with others is still there.
  • Human resources professionals are challenged to hire and retain talented people as a key competitive advantage. But talent knows no boundaries. How do you use the best people around the globe, but still respond as quickly and effectively as if everyone were sitting in the same building? How do you build a common corporate culture with offices on multiple continents, employees at customer sites and key contributors who work from home?

As if these examples weren't enough, most enterprises are also under immense pressure to reduce expenses. Travel and telephony budgets are at the top of the list. How can teams minimize traveling for internal and external meetings? Avoid high cell phone roaming and hotel access charges on international trips? Slash other telephony costs? Postpone expensive PBX migrations? Reduce expensive monthly subscriptions to hosted Web conferencing services? Reduce maintenance and real estate costs by enabling staff to work from home?

To address these simultaneous challenges, many enterprises have invested in collaboration, telephony and video technologies incrementally. Unfortunately, these systems tend to be isolated, complicated and, typically, underutilized. As a result, these enterprises run and support multiple infrastructures and IT platforms from multiple vendors. The convergence of voice, video and data on IP networks provides a way to unify communications and reduce costs in the long term. But does unifying communications mean that the enterprise needs to do a complete migration to IP telephony and rip and replace their existing infrastructures? Or do organizations have a choice?

A better way forward: unifying your communications and collaboration

There is a common misconception that Unified Communications (UC) = IP telephony, which in turn implies a wholesale replacement of perfectly viable existing infrastructures. However, UC is really an umbrella that covers a wide variety of communications technologies: instant messaging, e-mail, voicemail, audio-, video- and Web conferencing, and IP- and time-division multiplexing (TDM)-based telephony. More importantly, UC is really about how these different capabilities can not only be moved onto a common data network, but become integrated on the back-end and unified for the end-user, while also leveraging and extending your enterprises' existing telephony, video or IT infrastructures.

Your UC vendor or partner should be able to not only bring in one or more UC capabilities, but integrate them with the broader collaboration environment of your enterprise, and tie them specifically to your business' and workers' way of working. Beyond the simple, up-front questions of cost and capability, there are additional important questions you should ask of all your UC vendors:

  • What core features are included in your solution, and where do you need to partner? Rich presence? Enterprise IM? Online meetings? VoIP? Video? Data?
  • How will my UC solution integrate with my existing investments, investments that work fine today?
  • How will my UC integrate with the way we work today, or will work tomorrow?
  • How can I communications-enable my business processes?
  • How intuitive will my UC deployment be for my end-users? Will my UC solution be able to support a variety of collaboration and communications methods, so my people can quickly select the right approach, device, end-point, etc. for the task at hand?
  • What are the measurable results of a UC deployment? How do I measure the reduced costs and wasted time, or improved productivity?
  • How will UC handle security-rich exchange of information among parties?
  • How will my UC connect with other enterprises and people outside my firewall?
  • What services will I need, from up-front strategy and planning, to design and implementation, and finally post-deployment hosting, education and support services? Do you provide those services or do you partner?
  • Does your UC solution require on premises infrastructure, or can you deliver UC services in the cloud? Can you deliver a hybrid approach that meets my specific delivery requirements?
  • Do you have examples of where you've done UC for enterprises similar to my own?

The benefits from a successful UC deployment should be both hard and soft outcomes, including:

  • improved decision-making time (through faster finding and reaching the right expert at the right time)
  • reduction of telephone costs, including connection charges, conference bridge usage, mobile usage, voicemail load, etc.
  • higher adoption through easy integration with existing productivity and business process applications and tools
  • improved customer and business partner satisfaction and engagement
  • improved employee satisfaction and retention
  • reduced employee training and on-boarding costs

Done right, UC can result in >100% return on investment within the first year of deployment. IBM research estimates that advanced audio conferencing in a converged network environment can save as much as 35% over the cost of traditional approaches. IBM itself typically realizes over US$100million in significant annual savings in phone and travel costs from its use of these solutions.

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