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Tailoring Unified Communications to Fit Your Small Business

These 3 steps will ensure you get the right solution to meet your needs now—and in the future.

A unified communications (UC) solution means different things to different people. In a broad sense, it integrates your voice and data networks. It can show up as a simple integration of your email with your voicemail into a single messaging inbox. It can be far more complex with presence and instant messaging technologies, fax, SMS, video and web conferencing applications all tying employees together. Or, you can have a UC solution somewhere in between—one that is tailored specifically to the needs of your small business.

No matter which components you choose, all unified communications solutions offer the same benefits to your employees: they can reach one another on the first try, they can be more productive, and they can collaborate more effectively. As a result, UC can reduce network and communications costs.

A UC system brings together all of your company's myriad communication methods—voice (including voicemail), email, instant messaging, and even video conferencing—so that users can access them through a consistent interface. This means that a user can, for example, read a voicemail message from his email inbox. UC can also make employees more accessible, so that a chat session can quickly be turned into a web conference with just a few clicks. And everyone always knows who's online and available to collaborate.

Ramon Ray, editor of the leading small business technology blog SmallBizTechnology.com , elaborates on the benefits of unified communications for small businesses:

By now every business owner has a smartphone, email, online services, even desktop video conferencing. However, to maximize one's productivity and ensure a seamless communication experience, implementing unified communication is important.

Being able to operate from out of your office as if you were in your office and have full access to all your corporate communication features is one of the benefits of UC.

Your competitor’s product or service is only a mouse click away. When customers call, are you able to respond to them as fast as they want you to? Unified communication features can help ensure you can operate quickly and even anticipate customer needs.

Whether you have 20 employees or 200 employees, ensuring they can communicate with each other is critical. Enabling the consultant in Miami to know that the team leader in Columbus is available can seal a large deal. Ensuring that the corporate office can conduct a video conference with the three team members traveling in Paris might be the difference between winning or losing a big order from your most demanding customer.

SmallBizTechnology.com recently posted an article on unified communications, its benefits and it’s functionalities. You can read it here.

From decision to implementation

Once you’ve made the decision to adopt a unified communications solution, you need to determine which one and how to implement it. Here are three steps you should follow in crafting the UC solution that’s right for your small business:

Step 1: Find the right IT partner

Even UC systems designed for small businesses are complex. They touch every aspect of your network—from security to performance to capacity–as well as the ways in which you interact with customers and vendors. So it's a good idea to work with an IT partner who’s experienced in both building network infrastructures and designing UC systems for small companies. A Cisco Partner can help you pinpoint the UC features that are best for your business as well as implement them.

Step 2: Identify what you need now

Even a UC solution designed for small businesses can have an almost overwhelming number of features and functions. It's important to remember that these systems are designed to be installed either as a complete integrated solution or as individual components. The bottom line is this: You don't need to invest in features your business won't use.

When determining the features you need now, a good place to start is with the number of employees you expect will use the solution and how many of them are mobile or remote workers. Some small business UC packages are designed to support a range of users with feature sets appropriate for a smaller or a more medium-sized company. Your partner will help you determine which is the right fit for a company of your size.

For instance, Cisco offers four small business UC solutions, each one targeting a different size company:

Every small business UC solution should include a few basic features that significantly improve communication and collaboration among colleagues, including:

  • Support for IP phones, including an IP soft phone client for the desktop
  • Integrated or unified messaging with one inbox for both email and voicemail messages
  • Instant messaging or chat tools
  • Presence tools that let users know who is available and the best way to reach them (e.g., via phone or instant message)
  • Integration with standard desktop applications like Microsoft Office

Step 3: Consider what you’ll need later

Depending on your business, you may need some of the more sophisticated UC features immediately, or you may grow into them as your company expands. Either way, it's important to know what additional components a UC solution can provide, because sticking with a single vendor solution can save you a lot of integration hassles later.

Additional unified communications features usually include:

  • Integrated audio, web, and video conferencing
  • One number reach, which routes calls to any phone the user prefers, such as a mobile or home phone
  • Integration with third-party business applications like customer relationship management (CRM) software

Planning ahead

Independent research firm Gartner divides UC into six main areas of communication:

  • Voice and telephony, which includes your IP-PBX system, landlines, and mobile phones
  • Voice, video, and web conferencing
  • Email and voice messaging
  • Presence services and instant messaging
  • Client applications for users to access messages from various devices, such as smartphones
  • Applications that have communication functions built in, such as contact center, collaboration, and notification apps

Chances are good that you won't need all of these features immediately; however, it is likely that your small business will grow into them over time. If you choose a solution that includes a wide range of optional functions, it will be easier to integrate them into your existing UC components when you need them.

What unified communications features do your employees use most? Which do you wish you'd deployed right away that you didn’t?

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