A businesswoman working remotely via her tablet. Sitting at a window - Unified Communications Concept
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Even now, with the COVID-19 lockdown being slowly lifted in many states across the US and countries worldwide, communications and a communications strategy has never been more important. However, communications have always been a big enterprise need and now, with so much depending on workers being able to communicate while working remotely, getting the right communications strategy in place is key to success.

This is not just about telephones, or email, or access to the numerous chat apps that are currently being used in the enterprise. It is about unified communications (UC), a business and marketing concept describing the integration of enterprise communication services.

These services include services like instant messaging (chat), presence information, voice (including IP telephony), mobility features (including extension mobility and single number reach),  call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax). In fact, it includes anything that enterprise workers use to communicate with each other.

Nor is it a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types.

Enterprises Turn to Unified Communications

Last year, Westford, Mass.-based Ribbon Communications, a global software developer of secure and intelligent cloud communications, surveyed 4,800 technology decision makers in 23 countries in enterprises from five people to over 1000 people. It showed that, of those that hadn’t already done so, 68% of large (more than 1,000 employees) companies and 46% of small (1-20 employees) companies planned to adopt some form of UC in the next two years.

The numbers were even more striking for mid-sized companies, with 67% of respondents with 21 to 100 employees and 71% of respondents with 101 to 1000 employees planning to adopt some form of UC in the next two years.

It also showed that a significant number (39%) of the respondents who have already adopted UC purchased their service from traditional providers (LECs in the U.S. and national carriers in the rest of the world), with the next 30% of respondents evenly split between competitive carriers and IT services companies. Mobile carriers, on the other hand, only accounted for 4% of purchases identified by our respondents.

What to Look for

So, what will these companies be looking for now, especially as so many workers are doing so remotely.? Andy Elliot is VP for marketing and business development for the EMEA at Somerset, NJ-based AudioCodes, which provides advanced voice networking and media processing solutions for the digital workplace. He says that there are four things enterprises should be looking for:

1. Agility

Recent events tell us that agility should be a prerequisite for any UC vendor. The rush to work from home during the COVID pandemic made that very clear. Enterprises with a cloud-based UC strategy, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, found it much easier to deploy homeworking than those with legacy on-premises PBXs, especially when allied to promotions such as free SBC licences from AudioCodes to quickly provide secure voice connectivity for homeworkers. “Let’s be clear, the homeworking boom is not just a short-term measure, it’s here to stay. Other crises will happen, business continuity must be sustainable not short term. Environmental concerns and demand for flexible working will change commuting and working practices," he said.

Enterprises will look to benefit from office real estate savings. And they’ll also want to recruit the best talent irrespective of location in this globalized economy. This long-term shift to flexible and homeworking means that enterprises need to build agility into their UC strategy. The cloud UC and UCaaS models are perfect for that. 

2. Quality

With a more agile UC environment that involves collaborating from anywhere, enterprises need to stay focused on the quality of their communications. Meetings can be rendered useless with poor voice or video quality and they are equally important to a positive collaboration experience. The key point is that where cloud-based UC is great in empowering employees to work from anywhere, enterprises should never accept any compromise in the voice and video quality they need for truly effective collaboration.

3. Interoperability

Most enterprises are not new-start green-field businesses. They have a history, they have legacy equipment and they have differing needs across different countries. To journey successfully to the promised land of their preferred cloud-based UC vendor, be that Microsoft Teams or Zoom, interop is a critical requirement. Interop with legacy comms kit (PBXs and analog devices). Interop with multiple network providers. Management across multiple platforms. Enterprises need to ensure that as well as selecting the right UC platform for their business needs, that they work with a partner to advise them on how best to migrate from legacy to UC in a way that delivers the collaboration benefits they expect, encourages user adoption and allows them to fully leverage their existing tech assets.

4. Cost Is a Factor

In all this cost is going to be a major factor. The emerging cloud-based UC and UCaaS (UC as a Service) providers such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom can offer the lowest monthly recurring cost.

Cloud based UC services leverage centralized technology in a multi-tenant model, which is typically lower cost than providing on-premises hardware to each customer. Support costs can also be lower with a cloud model, as technical issues can be diagnosed and fixed remotely rather than via engineer site visits.

Other Unified Communications Considerations

In real terms, cost and SLA (Service Level Agreements) are key in making the decision as to what vendor to go with. Ty Stewart, CEO  and president of  La Jolla, CA-based Simple Life Insure, explained what his company was looking for when they started developing their UC across the company. “For my own company's unified communication needs, I don't prioritize only brand name providers to decide. I weigh things like SLA costs, maintenance fees, security features, customer support availability, and the general interactions I have with representatives,” he said.

While he agrees that hosted providers are cheaper, it is not the only consideration. An off-premise, hosted UC provider will be cheaper up-front because you don't shoulder set-up or maintenance costs. They also come with set payments providing budget certainty. However, on-premise UC gives greater control over total system cost and features while eliminating the risk of service fees unexpectedly increasing.

Overall, he said, businesses must prioritize a UC provider based on their own size, current communications infrastructure, and IT budget. Those capable of handling maintenance and upkeep can probably keep things on-premise and therefore, maintain tighter cost control and visibility. Compare this to startups and SMBs without the same IT resources, who will do better with cloud-based and hosted UC systems.

Evolving Solutions

As a final word, Ken Presti VP of research and analytics at Chicago-based Avant Communications warned that potential buyers need to be aware that it’s difficult for any UC vendor to sustain a technical differentiator over the long haul. He pointed out that a great idea from one company will almost always be duplicated by competitors within a few months.

While enterprises certainly want to make sure the necessary features are available, decision-makers should largely focus on how well the solution interoperates with all other applications, the terms of the deal, the degree to which your users like the interface among others. To do this, they need to set up a couple of proof-of-concept exercises involving different vendors. Then listen to the people who are involved in the testing.Then listen to the people who are involved in the testing. In most cases, the best choice will rapidly become clear.