18 Nov 2011

Unified Communications – worth making the change?

Unified communication has well and truly come of age, with new products on the market aimed specifically at SMEs.

The important question, of course, is whether your business can benefit.

I think the key is to understand 1.) how much poor communication is costing you, and 2.) how much better your productivity can be should your communications improve.

What is unified communications?

But first, for those who need a primer, let’s remind ourselves what unified communications (UC for short) actually is.

UC is about harnessing real-time information and connectivity for the benefit of communication processes. It aims to make your business communications faster and smarter.

What this means can take many forms, but the most popular features of UC systems are:

Presence: The idea behind UC is to allow your staff to instantly tell where their colleagues are and what they’re working on. Rather than waste time calling someone who’s busy or in a meeting, staff can leave callback requests or receive availability notifications instead.

Telephony: With UC, everyone in the business has one phone number, which will reach them whether they’re in the office or out. You’ll also see features like direct-to-voicemail, voicemail-to-email, in addition to simple controls over how calls are routed. The best UC systems now integrate with Outlook, allowing staff to transfer, conference and divert using drag-and-drop.

Messaging: UC also provides internal instant messaging to desktops and smartphones, depending on where you are.

Unification: The most important part of UC is that the features above are patched seamlessly together in the one system, improving the way that email, messaging and phone calls can be used together.

Many businesses are taking advantage of UC as a replacement for their PABX systems. The benefits they’re seeking when they do so are usually:

Productivity and reduced costs: After eliminating “phone tag”, UC also promises to provide a business communications platform that matches your processes – instead of processes that work around inefficient ways of communicating.

Better customer service: When receptionists can know which members of sales or support teams are available before routing or queuing a call, businesses can be more responsive to customer enquiries.

Is UC right for your business?

One way to assess whether or not UC will benefit your business is to analyse the cost of current deficiencies in your communications, and how much UC might save you.

Let’s say, for example, that your receptionist (who, with UC, will now be able to tell whether a contact is at their desk and ready to receive a call) can answer and route calls twice as effectively. Depending on your labour costs, a 50% productivity increase will save around $1,350 a month.

We could also make a very conservative estimate that your staff will be at least 1% more productive once you eliminate phone tag, give everyone a single number and provide instant messaging. If you have 20 staff paid $18 per hour working eight hours a day, that’s $633.60 per month. Typical estimates of UC productivity gains are between five and 15%.

From a customer service perspective, you might calculate how much business you lose when customers abandon calls or don’t leave a message.

As we know, customers often judge the effectiveness of your business by their experience on the phone, so you may also consider whether UC will offer advantages in terms of winning business as well.

Summing up

Better communication carries both tangible and intangible upsides. As always, it will depend on the nature of your business, but the increasing affordability of unified communication systems means that SMEs should be seriously considering how they can benefit.

Dave Stevens is MD, Brennan IT

(This blog post was first published on the SmartCompany website on November 17 2011).