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Unified Communications: It’s Not Too Big for Small Business

July 28, 2010 - 2 Comments

Real-time collaboration and communications tools improve employee productivity and customer service.

It’s happened to all of us, and probably more times than we care to remember: You need to talk to a colleague on an important matter but you just can’t reach him. You leave voicemails, you send emails, and you roam the cubicle maze asking if anyone has seen or heard from him. Finally, the guy who sits next to him says, “Oh, he left on vacation yesterday and won’t be back for two weeks.”

In my case, as a full-time remote worker, with most of my colleagues 3000 miles away from my desk, this problem is further exacerbated, since roaming the cubicle maze to track down someone would first require six hours on a plane…

At any rate, no one has this kind of time to waste when you are trying to get a question answered. It’s precisely this problem that unified communications (UC) can alleviate.

With unified communications, anyone in your company can see who is online and available at any given moment. UC makes it easier to communicate and collaborate with coworkers, customers, and partners in real time. It increases employee productivity and efficiency, improving your ability to make accurate decisions, and enhance customer service.

Until recently, UC technology was adopted by big businesses with large workforces in multiple locations. But smaller companies benefit from unified communications, too, especially if your employees are mobile (or they just move around a lot within your office) or are geographically distributed. In addition, unified communications is a good fit if your company needs to collaborate closely with partners or vendors.

What is Unified Communications?

A UC solution integrates several different communications products, such as video, instant messaging and email, and enables them to work in real-time. You may already be using a key UC component–instant messaging. Here are some other UC tools that your company might find useful:

  1. IP telephony: IP telephony is often the first step a company takes in adopting a UC solution, but it doesn’t have to be. IP telephony (which some people refer to as voice over IP or VoIP, although that term really just refers to the way the voice is transmitted–over an IP network–be it Skype’s or the one in your office) connects your phone services–including conferencing–to your network. This way, mobile workers can access business phone services from any location by logging into your network. IP phones act more like little computers with the capability of running and displaying productivity-enhancing applications–employee directories, time card and attendance, inventory and supply-chain, flight status and weather updates, instructions for workers who may not have access to a computer–the list is endless.
  2. Conferencing: Web-based conferencing applications let participants attend a meeting from any location using voice, video, and the Internet. Conferencing is one of  the most popular components of unified communications because it lets employees collaborate in real time. As a remote worker, 90% of my day is spent on WebEx calls with co-workers and vendors. I can see their faces on video, know who is talking by looking at the browser interface, and share a document for their input, all from my comfy chair at home.
  3. Unified messaging: Often confused with UC, unified messaging simply gathers all of your emails, voicemails, and faxes into a single inbox, which you can then retrieve from any device with an Internet connection, including your smartphone. So if I’m on the phone, waiting for a meeting to start, I can log in and play my voicemail from a browser while I wait.
  4. Instant messaging with presence: Presence technology shows everyone on the network where you are, if you”re available, and how you prefer to be contacted. Advanced solutions let you start an instant message chat and then escalate it to a voice call or even a video conference. Again, working remotely, this saves a ton of time that I’d otherwise spend calling folks and leaving them voicemails to call me back (which usually happens when I’m in a meeting–perpetuating that vicious phone-tag cycle). I can get the answer to a question in seconds, or provide a key update to a colleague while they are in the middle of a meeting. In fact, a Chadwick Bailey Martin study showed that businesses of all sizes can save up to 20 minutes per employee per day simply by enabling them to reach a co-worker on the first try.

You can pick and choose the tools that will make your small business more efficient. But if you plan to purchase all of your UC tools from one vendor, you may want to consider installing a UC client, providing users one-click access to all of the applications from a single window. As your company grows, you can add other features, such as a softphone client for PCs, which lets employees make an Internet-based call from their computers. Also, you can add advanced telephony features, such as “single number reach,” which gives you a single phone number that can ring at an employee’s mobile phone, desk phone, and home phone.

Vancouver-based Fresh Direct particularly likes how single number reach makes its employees more responsive to customers, since the customer doesn’t have to try to figure out which number to call to reach a sales rep.

As with any new technology, there are several things to consider before implementing UC. You need a solid network and a reliable, fast connection to the Internet. In some cases, you may need an in-house IT employee or a local reseller who can help install and manage the various UC tools. Alternatively, you could choose a hosted or cloud-based UC service, which might be a more cost-effective choice for some smaller companies.

If your business depends on quick communication and collaboration among employees, customers, and partners, a unified communications solution might be a smart investment for your company.

Is your company using any unified communications applications or services now? Which ones have been the most helpful for your employees? What benefits has your company reaped by using UC?

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  1. Great article on Unified Commmunications.

  2. Check out OnSIP for hosted business phone service! We even review Cisco phones…Example: Cisco SPA504G Review