Unified Communications (UC) has been around for over two decades; but it’s not been well used by smaller businesses until very recently. There are three reasons for this:
- It was expensive. That’s no longer the case. Microsoft Lync Plan 1 is available from just £1.30 per user per month
- It was hard to set up, requiring different systems to talk to each other. Ditto – no longer the case.
- And the name sounds like a boring mobile phone company. There’s not much we can do about that.
The purpose of unified communications is simple. We communicate in a lot of different ways these days: phone, mobile, fax, text message, email, etc. The reason for the word “unified” is that all these modes of communication should come together in a simple, easy to use and manageable interface.
That yields some clear, everyday benefits.
First off, you can stop being interrupted and instantly bag some increased productivity. When you’re in control of your communications, you can handle them all at once, and at a time to suit you. This works in two ways. Firstly, you can bundle up all those calls, emails and texts and deal with them in one go, which is handy.
But, more importantly, UC uses the concept of “presence”. If you’ve ever used Instant Messenger or Facebook Chat, you’ve already used presence. With one or more customisable presence options (“Online”, “Do not disturb”, “Be right back” etc.), you can inform contacts of your availability before they phone or write.
The counter-intuitive beauty of presence is that your clients (or partners, staff etc.) actually feel more connected to you, even with the virtual “Do not Disturb” sign up, than they would calling blindly.
Secondly, when you do want to be available, you can do so on your own terms. With UC, you can choose which channels to keep open, and which to ignore. You may be happy to take emails, whilst diverting all phone calls to voicemail, for example. Similarly, UC employs a technique called “cascade” or “trickledown” (depending on whose jargon takes your fancy) to allow people to get in touch in the most appropriate way for your needs without their giving up and quitting. Seamlessly to the caller, UC can try your office phone, home phone and then mobile. Then it can take a voicemail message, leave it on your mobile, and also email the audio to your work email address. This means that:
- The system will do its best to find you, in order always to look after your customers
- …and this can happen across any communications medium, irrespective of your supplier contracts or provider
- …and if you cannot be found, you can set it up to leave messages in the most convenient place for you to pick up quickly.
Finally, the other bonus of unified communications is a collection of additional modes of collaborative communication which have come to rest under the UC banner. UC platforms variously support:
- video calling
- shared workspaces
- conference calling
- lowest-cost routing
- live document editing
- online whiteboards
- shared presentations
…and plenty more.
The clever stuff
That’s the basics, but there are some hidden benefits, too. Smart small businesses are squeezing plenty of extra value out of their UC systems. As modern UC is software-driven and available on any platform (desktop, laptop, mobile, tablet, etc.), it can be extended in some clever ways – here are our top five.
1) Many businesses are using UC to replicate a customer relationship management system. It is perfectly possible, when a call comes in, to use the incoming number to identify the caller and then look up their customer history. It means that you can pick up the phone with complete customer knowledge at your fingertips.
2) In the same way, for many non-regulated businesses, UC represents an adequate compliance repository. Being able to find all records of contact with individuals or companies in date order, irrespective of the mode of communication, is an elegant first-base to dealing with compliance or legal challenges.
3) Other users – particularly home businesses – find that UC lends their company both the authority of a larger business, but, crucially, extra anonymity. On the occasions when you take calls at home, you might prefer customers not to have your home phone number. By giving out only your presence details (i.e. a name) or a mobile which cascades down to a home phone number, there’s no need to give out home/personal details at all.
4) Then there’s the extension of presence to “roles”. UC doesn’t differentiate between names (“Brian Binley”) and roles (“Support”). If you, or your team, wear different hats, that’s just fine. You can look like a 20-person company, even though there are only four of you. In doing so, you will almost certainly improve your workflow, productivity, and gain transparency into the efficiency of your operations.
5) Many users have also discovered that the “cascade” can work in reverse – or “escalation”. Instead of dealing with unanswered calls, the same change of mode can be executed within an active call. This means that during a conversation, you may find it appropriate to escalate from a voice call to a video call; or to additionally share desktops for a demonstration. With UC there’s no need to ring off and switch equipment – the flip of a simple software switch will do the job.
Microsoft’s UC system is called Lync; and it’s available to small businesses with minimum outlay, because it’s located entirely in the Cloud: there’s no new hardware to buy, no security worries, and no unpredictable bills. It’s simply on offer from £1.30 per month on its own, or from £5.25 with the full Office 365 suite.