Unified Communications in the Cloud Transforms the Contact Centre
Unified communications began to emerge in the 1980s in the form of Unified Messaging (UM) which was intended to improve communication, integration and business processes. Back then, in the days before fast internet speeds and mobile phones, the emphasis was on integrated email and voice messaging. By the 90s, the idea had caught on and we began to see companies making investments into UM in order to bring email, voice mail, remote office phone and office PCs being brought together.
At this time, solutions such as DEC All-in-One and Octel (which later became Microsoft Exchange) began to emerge and mobile began to become increasingly popular. This helped to push UM along and further features began to appear such as text-to-speech and other functions. At this point, we began to see the term Unified Communications come into play, which was the precursor to the solutions we see today.
By the 2000s, IP telephony had arrived and we saw numerous telephony solutions come to the fore such as those offered by Cisco, NEC, Mitel and Shoretel. These allowed companies to purchase systems that provided a single, UC experience.
What is UC?
Today, UC is defined as a central framework that works as a platform on which applications can be run and communications devices connected.
- A communications system with at least three elements, including: voice, IM, video, mobility, web/data collaboration, conferencing and presence management.
- Ability to send a message through one medium and receive on another.
- Ability to “bridge the gap” between telecoms and computers in order to deliver real-time messages, voice, email etc.
In modern UC we also see the integration of social media through the CRM, which can generally be added to a UC solution using an API.
Unified communications, like many terms in the tech industry, is a phrase that’s often used, but little understood. Tech Target set out that this is because the term means different things to different people. And it’s not so much a single product as a solution that’s made up of various tools to enable integrated communication in the enterprise.
“Unified Communications (UC) takes both real time and non-real time communications with business processes and requirements and presents a single user interface across multiple devices, applications and in different geographies.”
Source: Unified Communications: Managing Change and Growth in Your Organization
With the advent of the cloud, we’ve seen UC move from a purely premises-based solution to one that can be fully hosted in the cloud, or used in a hybrid environment – this is described as UCaaS (Unified Communications as a Service).
Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS)
Unified communications as a service (UCaaS) supports the same functions as its premises-based unified communications (UC) counterpart; only the delivery model is altered.
Gartner uses six broad communications functions for both:
- Voice and telephony, including mobility support
- Conferencing — Audioconferencing, videoconferencing and Web conferencing
- Messaging — Email with voice mail and unified messaging (UM)
- Presence and instant messaging (IM)
- Clients — Including desktop clients and thin browser clients
- Communication applications — For example, integrated collaboration and contact centre applications
In a business context then, UC allows you to integrate and streamline business processes. In turn, this allows for a number of business benefits such as improved productivity and communication.
Cloud-based UC also allows for costs to be reduced in terms of capital expenditure and ongoing maintenance. Whilst a full, premise-based UC system would require hardware and the infrastructure to be built and maintained onsite, with cloud UC it’s maintained by the hosting company. However, a company can also choose to have a hybrid solution, with some of the infrastructure hosted in the cloud, and some installed onsite.
For a more detailed comparison of hosted versus onsite unified communications, check out this post from Tech Target.
Pros and Cons of UC
Most technologies have their pros and cons and UC is no exception.
The benefits include:
- Connect departments, workers, partners, vendors and customers easily and share information.
- Access and share video on mobile and desktop.
- Improve collaboration and productivity.
- Extend mobile devices so that they are essentially extensions of the network so that employees can be reached at any time, in any place.
- Integrate communications into applications (such as the CRM) and business processes.
Research carried out by Cisco has found that 49% of organizations that uses UC saves up to 20 minutes per employee per day. UC can boost productivity through collaboration and time-saving for mobile workers, remote employees and between satellite offices.
There are however downsides, which include:
- Implementation – can be expensive depending on whether an onsite solution is chosen, or cloud.
- Limited in-house staff can limit the deployment.
- Employee resistance to change.
In the Cisco research, 73% of organizations state that their top concern when considering UC is in the initial cost. This is especially true when replacing legacy systems as older hardware and software is not compatible with new UC technology.
When it comes to choosing UCaaS and hosted aspects of the UC, it can also be the case that organizations are at the mercy of the hosting company. For this reason, if you’re considering hosted UC then you should first plan your strategy and policies that will surround it.
Another concern surrounds security and the need to comply with regulations such as those set by PCI DSS. For the organization, this means that it’s necessary to carry out research before implementing UC so that a supplier can be found that has the necessary certification and security controls in place to protect organizational and customer data.
Unified Communications and the Contact Centre
The majority of businesses can benefit from UC, both onpremise and in the cloud. For contact centres, the benefits are especially useful and aside from the cost benefits associated with UC, contact centres can expect to benefit from improved customer service.
For smaller enterprises, UC makes it possible for the business to appear to look and operate like a large organization thanks to collaborative tools which effectively level the playing field.
Further benefits include:
- Higher level of customer loyalty
- Higher customer retention
- Faster problem resolution
- Speed of deployment
- Business continuity
- Staffing efficiency
- Location independence
According to Unified Communications: Managing Change and Growth in Your Organization,
“They also provide better communication with partners, suppliers and customers while enabling shorter product development cycles leading to faster market time.”
So the benefits are many and are all geared towards improving business processes alongside customer relationships.
“By deploying a multi-channel contact center platform, providing single queuing and routing, a single integrated view of the customer and a single reporting system, companies can reduce costs while enhancing customer service and support.”
For the modern contact centre, this is essential. In recent years we’ve seen the power balance between consumers and enterprises shift in the favour of the former.
One Integrated Platform
This means that consumers now want to contact businesses on their own terms, using their preferred platform. This could be social media, email, mobile, or telephone, and this could clearly become very confusing for the customer service agent if they had to manage customer communications across all platforms separately. With UC this is unnecessary as a single, integrated platform can pull all of the channels together so that reps can get a complete overview of the customer in one single view.
Customer service and improved relationships are only one part of what UC can do for the call centre though. It’s also worth bearing in mind that UC can help to build a positive, collaborative working environment which gives staff more agency and the ability to perform their jobs more effectively. These employees don’t have to be in the contact centre itself either, as UC also offers the means to allow remote employees to be fully managed whilst using the same equipment as those based onsite.
With this in mind, businesses looking to improve on customer service and overall business processes should only implement a UC solution after satisfying themselves that the vendor has the security concerns covered. It’s also useful to ensure that the SLA sets out how long the vendor takes to respond to any service requests should supported equipment fail.
For more information on UC and its implementation in the contact centre, take a look at the Executive Brief, Unified Communications: Managing Change and Growth in Your Organization.