VoIP Business and Virtual PBX

When the whole elephant finally comes into view

The term unified communications can be a confusing one in the best case. Bearing this in mind Peter Kelly, Enterprise Director, Vodafone UK, sheds some light on this particular 'elephant in the room' and examines how organisations can use this concept to their advantage.

The words of Forrester analyst Art Schoeller

These are the words of Forrester analyst Art Schoeller, from a recently-published report entitled 'The Unified Communications Civil War'. He has a point: definitions of the term unified communications differ widely between different players in the field, and the UC market is all in all fragmented. For too long, unified communications has looked like a solution in need of a problem - leaving many potential buyers scratching their heads in confusion.

From my own experience, there is a definite shift in the perception of UC, and what it can do for business. The relatively recent - however rapidly growing - trend to mobile and remote working as a business imperative seems to have helped lift some of the fog surrounding UC.

By integrating fixed and mobile devices, UC can help put organisations back in control of their communications. Clients and other important contacts can reach the person they want first time on one number, regardless of device or location, and employees only have to pick up messages from one voicemail box and can do this from any device.

This is a key advantage when you consider how critical responsiveness has become to business success. Vodafone's own Critical Response Time Index technology shows that the average cost of not responding to a potential new business enquiry topped £30,000 for the average UK company in 2010.

The research as well shows that 27 per cent of business people expect a response from a prospective supplier within an hour, with nearly one-third expecting a response within the hours that make up a morning or afternoon.

By letting people work in this more agile, more responsive way, UC helps boost productivity, improve customer service and reduce the total cost of ownership of communications infrastructure.

Increasingly, small and medium-sized enterprises are choosing to outsource their entire communications infrastructure, bringing the added benefits of not having to manage, depreciate and replace hardware, as then as improved disaster recovery capability.

Of course, UC can be more than just integrated fixed and mobile communications: there is a trend for organisations to weave in services just as instant messaging, presence, video, a single accessible corporate directory, file sharing and shared workspaces like whiteboards.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of UC is in enabling enterprises to work smarter as a result of reduced decision times. When people are always in reach, they can respond previously to emerging business situations and customer requests.

The corporate network

With mobile phones fully integrated into the corporate network, First Rate's 350 staff will be able to make and receive calls on a single number - and use features like conferencing, instant messaging and presence, video calling, desktop sharing and group chat - as if they were sitting at their own desks, even when they are working off site.

With true single-number access to staff, wherever they are and whichever device they are using, UC will help the company cut the time it takes to communicate and reach decisions. It as well helps First Rate satisfy the expectations of the new generation of 'millennial' workers who are comfortable with tools like IM, collaboration and presence-enabled communications, and appreciate the ability to work flexibly.

The estimated £450,000 reduction in communications costs over five years will come from consolidating fixed and mobile call and rental charges; eliminating conferencing service charges; and implementing intelligent routing. First Rate as well anticipates significant additional savings through deferring or avoiding the need for office refits or bigger premises, as a result of hot-desking and remote working.

Similarly, Optical Express, the high street optician chain, consolidated its fixed and mobile calls into a single system to achieve a 40 per cent reduction in communications costs as a first step. Nevertheless the benefits will go far beyond financial savings as UC enables new ways of working within the organisation.

The UC roll-out

As part of the UC roll-out, Optical Express as well upgraded its IP network used to carry all voice and data traffic between its head office, call centre and stores, with the benefit of free VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls. Field-based operations staff are served with fully integrated mobile voice and data services.

Optical Express as well runs its electronic medical records system over the network. This tracks every aspect of the tests, images and measurements that its optometrists undertake for clients, and enables data to be securely accessed by the appropriate people whichever site they are located at.

The faster network enables video to be streamed to stores, to put it more exactly than downloaded - saving time when staff need to show videos to customers while the consultation process, for instance. High-resolution images of patients' eyes can be quickly shared between sites, removing the need for new images to be taken.

In addition, optometrists can use the company's paperless patient management system to securely retrieve patient information in any of its 200 clinics, making their work faster and more efficient. With integrated smartphones, staff on the move can respond on the spur of the moment to patient queries - avoiding the need for the patient to make a follow-up visit to one of the stores.

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