Close your eyes. Really, just do it. Now, imagine a world where voicemail messages from clients automatically appeared in your chat app as messages then automatically analyzed and converted into a task under the client’s account in your CRM. Then, instead of assigning the task and creating workflows for your team, relevant team members receive an automated notification that they have been assigned a task.
We’re more likely to see world peace in our life time, right?! Now, open your eyes. Reality check, unified communications (UC) is here, and while a work day like the one described above is still not the reality for 99.9% of businesses it very soon will be. But, until then, what can unified communications solutions offer my company today?
First, what are unified communications?
Gartner defines unified communications (UC) products (equipment, software and services) as:
those that facilitate the interactive use of multiple enterprise communications methods. This can include control, management and integration of these methods. UC products integrate communications channels (media), networks and systems, as well as IT business applications and, in some cases, consumer applications and devices.
Sometimes called UCC (unified communications and collaboration), these solutions aim to consolidate business communication both synchronous (like voice calls and video conferences) and asynchronous (like email and text messages), and provide collaboration tools to streamline processes. With a well-integrated UC solution, information can flow between devices, locations, business applications and (of course) people, faster and more effectively. Pretty straight forward so far right?! Let’s go deeper.
What unified communications can do for ME
Better communication means higher productivity, worker satisfaction and a lot of time and money saved. In a recent survey, 93 percent of employees reported that integrating UC tools increased their productivity. In addition, 97 percent noted improved collaboration, 88 percent acknowledged faster problem solving, and 81 percent reported faster decision making.
But how do UC solutions increase employee productivity and cost efficiency?
Through increased mobility, improved collaboration and optimization.
1. Mobile First
Today’s businesses and employees are mobile and demand mobile solutions. With 98% of users working remotely or collaboratively, hyper-availability of employees (in the office and outside of it) is just as important as cross-channel availability of corporate information resources and applications.
Unified communications take both into account, saving you money and improving employee satisfaction and retention. There are 10 innate advantages to workplace mobility: portability, availability, accessibility, real-time data, improved user experience, personal device ownership/Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and visual content (built-in camera).
UC doesn’t only contribute to the productivity and cost-effectiveness of your current workforce, but enables you to tap into remote talent pools, engage contingent employees and vendors, and more. All they need to have is an internet connection, and preferably a smartphone. And who doesn’t have one nowadays?
Approximately 80% of the global workforce, around 3 billion workers, are performing physical or deskless work, daily. And, these workers usually bring their mobile phone to work with them. This creates a unique opportunity to streamline communications using employee apps as part of a UC solution.
Handheld devices, capable of running Skype, Facetime or your company’s choice of UC solution, make a cost-effective and easy-to-use alternative to traditional desk phones and other costly and antiquated infrastructure and equipment (someone say fax machine?!).
Enterprises and small businesses alike see the potential, and are rapidly adopting BYOD strategies to capitalize on the opportunity. And the employees? Loving it! 60% of employees say mobile technology makes them more productive! Another four out of ten (40%) acknowledge it causes their creativity to rise. Basically, you’re not the only one jotting down brilliant ideas on your mobile while sitting on the porcelain throne.
2. Collaboration Nation
We’ve thrown a lot of stats at you but we’re not done yet. Improved employee collaboration is a top business driver for 62% of American businesses, which is probably why some refer to UC as unified communications and collaboration solutions (UCC).
Communicating information is obviously a business necessity. But it’s only step one of the process. For example, if you’re having dinner and your meal is bland you’re not likely to only communicate the problem: “This meal is bland”. Instead, you’ll communicate the problem, solution, and assign a task: “This meal is bland. Stacie, can you pass me the salt, please”. And that’s how collaboration tools work: they offer up problems with solutions and then break them down to smaller solutions with trackable goals.
Introducing collaboration tools as part of your UC strategy doesn’t just make good sense it also saves time, and, again, saves you buying unnecessary equipment. A shared screen in an online video conference is cheaper and just as effective as a meeting room with a projector. Also, a video conference is a lot easier to schedule and execute than a face-to-face meeting, especially when many of your employees are remote or deskless.
3. Affecting Effectiveness
Unified Communications are, fundamentally, about effective human communications. However, many tasks can be offloaded to machines through automation, or made easier to work with through digital processing.
For example, instead of trying to get a hold of someone in your company, uncertain when they might reply, your UC solution of choice may offer a presence feature, so you can see if the person you’re looking for is available for calls, or otherwise engaged. Half of the companies using a presence feature reported ‘fewer repeated messages’, or ‘telephone tag’- with many employees saving as much as three hours per week, or 150 hours per year.
Remember faxes? And how annoying it was to get them in paper form rather than as files on a server or emails? Remember having to type up the content of the fax into the computer? This ineffective and archaic ritual was made obsolete with UC, and the rainforest thanks you for it.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are endless examples of brilliant uses of unified communications, interconnecting social media channels with non-digital channels, and allowing for faster decision making, smarter work, and a lot of saved time.
But with too many options, features and applications, come challenges.
The Unified Communication Challanges for Small Enterprises
Unified communications platforms have a lot to offer. Traditionally, UC platforms were made for large complex and slow moving organizations. a.k.a enterprises. Thes UCs developed were just as complicated and convoluted. They demanded on-site teams to manage, local servers to run, and a significant monetary investment in hardware, software, and support.
Cloud technology has changed all that and made UC make-sense for smaller enterprises and even local businesses. As UC evolves to match the needs of SMEs, IT managers and business owners are often the ones to suffer from their growing pains.
Some of the challenges SMEs face today when choosing and implementing a UC solution are what you might call “legacy” issues that stuck with the market from the days it targeted only large organizations and enterprises. Others are unique to the SME segment, and can often be ignored when choosing an “enterprise” mindset to implement an SME solution.
So what can potentially stand between you and unified communication heaven?
- High costs – According to a survey by Jabra [PDF], 73% of companies with more than 5,000 employees cited cost as an obstacle to implementing UC. While the solutions themselves might not be very highly priced, the hardware, support, and staff required to run the systems, can really add up. Not to mention the cost of training, that is largely affected by the user interface the solution offers.
- Bad UX (user experience) – 71% of employees surveyed use only some of the communication tools their employers make available to them. When asked why, over a third admitted they simply didn’t know how to use some of the tools offered by the UC platform in their organization. Sure, you can throw a lot of money on training your employees on all the shiny features of your UC solution but without an easy to use interface non-software-developer (read normal) people will actually use and dare we say love it’s money flushed down the software toilet.
- Employee resistance – People do not like change. Adjusting to new communication tools and developing new habits is hard enough, but people bring their anxieties to work with them. Some hate to “announce” their availability to their coworkers. Others get downright paranoid, thinking their bosses are spying on them through their phones and computers. So it’s important to include them in the evaluation and selection process, but even then – success is not guaranteed.
- Interoperability issues – Old legacy systems don’t play well with new UC solutions. So sometimes instead of making things more effective, they end up creating making things worse. Another issue to consider is bandwidth limitations. A UC system used by all employees in the office can put a strain on the local network, and it’s often hard to foresee bandwidth requirements when setting up a UC solution.
SME Unified Communications Today (and tomorrow)
Unified communications are no longer a game for the big boys alone. Unified communications as a service (UCaaS) and cloud-based vendors are now offering competitively-priced solutions to businesses of all sizes.
There’s no lack of demand, either: “a majority of small companies (86 percent) are considering the use of cloud-based unified communications (UC) systems as a possible solution to their communications needs, replacing their more traditional premises-based counterparts” [PDF].
There is no doubt that the quick and cheap deployment of cloud services remains the main driver for UC adoption in small to medium enterprises. But there’s still a long way to go before the unified communication paradise we imagine is a reality. Compatibility and interoperability issues are slowly but surely are being overcome with vendor consolidation and API integration options.
In addition, business and vendors are beginning to understand that the most important part of implementing a UC solution is ensuring it truly benefits the business. And that can only be reached through thorough evaluation of business needs, employee involvement in implementation, and better user interfaces.
The future of UC for SMEs is bright, and even though there are still challenges, it’s clear that for most businesses, it’s a wise decision.