If your business is expanding, with pockets of staff in various locations using different channels to communicate, it may be time to bring everyone together through a unified communications (UC) platform.
Unified communications is the concept of taking all the ways we communicate and seamlessly integrating them into a single interface. For businesses, this translates into pulling communication modes like voice calls, video conferencing, instant messaging, mobile communication, email, voicemail and fax into one platform.
What are the benefits for a small business?
Nowadays, a distributed workforce is becoming commonplace, even for small businesses. Consider a business with several satellite offices, an out-of-state warehouse, and an executive working from a home office; a UC platform allows the entire team to stay connected regardless of physical location.
With everyone connected on one platform, better team collaboration is possible. Online meetings can be scheduled or done impromptu for things like weekly meetings, brainstorming sessions and document reviews.
A UC platform also enables small businesses to serve its customers better. Incoming calls can be routed accurately to available personnel, and qualified individuals can be brought into calls as needed to help resolve a customer issue.
What can a UC platform do?
There is an assortment of UC platforms available, and they vary in communication and collaboration functionality. Here are features a UC platform can offer your business:
Presence. This sophisticated term refers to a person’s availability. Think of the green and red icons in your chat session showing your availability. Presence in a UC platform goes a step further–the system can auto-update your status if you’re taking a call or in a scheduled meeting (by integrating with your calendar).
Telephony (voice communication). A UC platform can connect various phone devices such as a deskphone, softphone (computer calling), mobile phone, even an analog phone. With unified communications, remembering extension numbers is a thing of the past–call your co-worker by simply selecting his/her name.
You can also define a single number so you don’t burden clients with multiple contact numbers. The single number rings all your devices, at the same time or in a specified sequence, so you’ll never miss a call.
Some platforms also allow you to transfer calls between devices without interruption. You can take a call on your mobile phone, then continue the conversation on your deskphone when you step back in office.
Instant messaging. Integrated chat provides a quick way to communicate with team members, either individually or through group chat. Sharing files with others is also much easier, and there’s no worrying about email size restrictions.
Video capabilities. Several UC platforms provide video call and conferencing functionality through the camera on you computer, IP deskphone or smartphone.
Unified messaging. Through this feature, all your emails, faxes, voicemails and text messages (SMS) come to one box.
Online meetings. UC platforms allow your team to experience a meeting that’s nearly as good as being in the same room. These meetings integrate high quality video, and participants can screenshare their desktop or work on a common whiteboard.
Mobile connectivity. Mobile devices can connect to UC platforms through native apps or through the web, connecting users who are on the road.
Software integration. UC platforms are moving towards tighter integration with business software for greater collaboration possibilities. Integration is currently possible with software like Microsoft Outlook, Office and SharePoint, and IBM Lotus Notes.
Which one for me?
As with any business purchase, define your business needs before choosing your platform.
It’s prudent to also think of your future needs. Rick Moran, vice president of marketing for Cisco’s Small Business Technology Group, suggested this consideration: “How does it scale up in size? Some systems are not built to grow. Most will require additional hardware or software, but it’s good to ensure you buy the right system for your plans’ growth or steady state.”
Once you’ve identified the platform features that fulfill your business needs, speak with an IT consultant to finalize your platform selection, and work out an implementation plan.
There are several server-based UC platforms available, each with its own strengths.
If your team is already comfortable collaborating in Microsoft SharePoint and Office, Microsoft Lync (formerly Office Communicator) may be a good fit for you. Cisco Unified Communications is worth considering if sophisticated video conferencing is essential for your business. Small businesses that need to manage incoming customer calls can deploy Siemens OpenScape which includes a full suite of contact center features.
If you are reluctant to purchase and maintain a UC server, there are also cloud-based solutions available. Opting for the cloud has the advantage of flexibility (you only pay per user) and quick adoption (no additional hardware setup). Microsoft, Cisco and Siemens all have cloud versions of their UC platforms, and several telecom providers like Verizon and AT&T also offer unified communications as a service.
UC in the near future
It’s a bright future for the small business and unified communications. Moran said he expects to see improved higher definition video solutions that will be affordable. In addition, “we will see more tablet-based applications that provide voice and video in addition to their data/email/messaging. Also, I expect to see continued integration with smart phones and the cellular network–allowing you to work on more devices seamlessly, but priced and featured to fit the needs of small businesses, not just large companies with huge IT staffs,” he said.
Photo credit Microsoft – http://www.microsoft.com/uc/what.mspx
By Joseph Mutidjo, Reporter, Smallbiztechnology.com