Unified communications is such a broad term that it can be a little daunting to approach. Like "networking" in the '80s or "the Internet" in the '90s, unified communications describes a trend everyone knows is important, but not everyone knows how to use to their advantage. As the technology matures, more and more sets of applications are being developed that address the specific needs of different vertical markets, as well as different job descriptions.
Today's adopters of unified communications typically come in two different waves. One wave includes organizations that are looking to replace aging phone systems. The savings and ease of management associated with the convergence of voice and data networks are the strongest draws for these customers.
Many of these companies have merged with other companies and have yet to merge their phone systems. The return on investment that is possible by merging phone systems from acquired companies with IP telephony is one of the "no-brainers" of unified communications.
The second wave of adopters consists of companies whose success depends directly on how well they handle the subtle intricacies of customer and employee relations. These companies include professional services, insurance, banking, retail, health care and nonprofit organizations. These are companies that are drawn to the immediate responsiveness with customers made possible through such unified communications features as presence and mobility.
Presence is like instant messaging on steroids. It lets you know immediately who is available for an online conference. Mobility gives users the ability to redirect incoming IP calls to or from an office phone to a cell phone on the fly. These companies also tend to have a very mobile sales force and support staff who can quickly realize the benefits of collaboration tools such as online multimedia work sessions.
Significant competitive advantage is the reward if you can figure out how to leverage this technology for your own purposes. Unified communications is an inherently customizable technology, so there is no limit on the creative ways it can be adapted to meet your specific needs. Here are three applications that deliver the best and most immediate return on investment:
Application #1: Collaboration
Collaboration in most corporations was a good idea, but it cost a lot of time and money. In the increasingly decentralized corporate environment, employees had to be flown around the country for meetings. Just scheduling a conference call was a full-time job for some unfortunate administrator. For lack of an efficient medium for collaboration, a lot of other good ideas were left unrealized.
Today, collaboration tools make sharing ideas as easy to accomplish as dragging a set of names from your Outlook address book or unified client into a collaboration space. An instant multimedia work session can be launched that allows all participants to not only to see and hear each other, but also to share and revise files interactively.
Combined with presence, collaboration tools make it possible for employees to work effectively together from any device - anywhere, anytime. Some real-world examples of how collaboration is used include training, sales presentations, technical support, and group document creation and editing.
Application #2: Unified Client
The unified client capability saves employees from playing a time-consuming and frustrating shell game with their messages. It does this by acting as the integration point for all forms of communications, including e-mail, voice, fax, IM and the presence environment. With a click of the mouse, it is also possible from a unified client to launch collaboration and video conferencing. From the user's point of view, all the applications required for each type of communication are integrated seamlessly in the background.
Application #3: Integrated Contact Centers
More companies are opening contact centers today as a way to enhance customer relationships by giving customers the opportunity to talk to a real person. The two biggest expenses in setting up contact centers are facilities and personnel. Integrated contact centers address them both. By definition, no facility is required for a virtual contact center, and leveraging current employees more efficiently often means that no new staff has to be hired.
Virtual contact centers allow agents to log in from any phone. Because of this, virtual contact centers also make possible a level of job flexibility (i.e., agents working from their homes or remote office locations) that dramatically decreases the characteristically high turnover rate among contact center personnel and greatly reduces facility costs. Another level of flexibility is provided by the multi-mode functionality of integrated contact centers that allow an agent to seamlessly establish a voice, chat, e-mail or video connection with the customer.
Eric Linxweiler is a technologist and senior vice president with Logicalis. He is responsible for supporting all phases of the IT lifecycle, and complementing Logicalis' product and project services units. Since joining Logicalis, he has held a wide variety of positions, all contributing to accelerated revenue growth and enhanced corporate profitability. Most recently, he directed Logicalis' Managed Services practice. Earlier, he created Logicalis' E-mail Practice, as well as oversaw the EMC product division. Prior to that, he established and managed the National Infrastructure Consulting Group, delivering key offerings related to advanced communications, storage and high availability. Previously, he led marketing efforts related to all data offerings, managed the Western U.S. professional services delivery groups and led the high availability consulting practice. He started his Logicalis career as a Senior Consultant for Bloomfield Computing Solutions, a Logicalis legacy company.
Mr. Linxweiler began his business career with Bank One. He later joined Hewlett-Packard through the company's College Hire Program. At Hewlett-Packard, he was instrumental as the lead architect for a number of large systems deployment efforts. He is on the board of advisers for the IT Service Provider Association and volunteers with The Mountaineers. He is an alumnus of Ohio State University and the University of Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.