What to Look for When Buying – Unified Communications

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We are kicking off our regular technology column by looking at the key features that you should consider when looking at Unified Communication Solutions.  We have asked our panel of experts for what they consider to be their “must have” features of a successful unified communications solution.

Answer 1 By Anita Marsh, Manager, Marketing, Europe and Africa, Aspect Software (www.aspect.com)

Anita Marsh

With Unified Communications (UC) tools and applications, organisations can connect people through ‘presence’ and ‘availability’ – tools that combine people’s ability to communicate with details of their specific knowledge and their availability to communicate – delivering huge benefits.

There are three key agent-facing applications that Aspect believes are directly relevant to UC projects: Workforce Management, Contact Recording & Quality Management, and Performance Management.

Workforce Management
Workforce management provides direct, real-time awareness of whether agents and subject matter experts are where managers have planned them to be. It allows for recalibration of the tasks allotted to agents based on how their presence and availability relates to the presence-state of the customers. In addition, it provides a routing framework to direct specific types of customers towards specific agents.

Contact Recording & Quality Management
Quality monitoring & recording and performance management tools function in a similar way, although they have a somewhat delayed impact as their results are not usually managed in real time.

When extended from the contact centre to the rest of the enterprise, each of these management technologies can bring significant benefits.  Workforce management software, for example, can play a key role in scheduling ‘experts’ into short timeslots, based on expected call volumes, to help reduce the overuse of knowledge workers outside of the contact centre who are still trying to do their ‘day jobs’.

Performance Management
By extending Quality Monitoring across the enterprise they can also retain visibility and management control of ALL contacts, wherever they are handled.  In addition, by taking reports of actual performance versus goals and combining them with aggregated knowledge of skill gaps and expectations, companies can start to deliver ‘company-wide’ quality management.

UC is making Enterprise-wide communications more streamlined, rapid and effective. It is also starting to change the way organisations work – making people more contactable on the move, multichannel communications more integrated, and business processes and workflows more efficient.

UC is clearly good for the contact centre.  But what is often overlooked is just how useful the contact centre can be to the rest of the organisation.

Dave Paulding

Answer 2  from Dave Pauling, Regional Sales Director – Interactive Intelligence (www.inin.com)The call centre industry has been moving towards unified communications for a number of years and in a recent survey conducted by Interactive Intelligence, 87 per cent of respondents said that they were looking to invest in a unified communications solution in the near future, despite the financial threats posed by the credit crunch.

Session Initiated Protocol (SIP)

The first and possibly most important factor is to ensure that the solution you select is non-proprietary and based on truly open standards, such as Session Initiated Protocol  (SIP), a signalling protocol used for setting up multimedia communication systems. This will enable your call centre to use any SIP compliant device or gateway and to interoperate with any other telephone or messaging system. If your system is based on SIP protocols then you can use any device from any vendor which also complies with this standard. When working this way call centres have a lot more flexibility and the potential to work more cost effectively.

A key feature of unified communications solutions is presence management, while most solutions have this built in, it is important to consider how it works, how fully featured it is and how much experience the vendor has in this field. Some solutions will offer a very limited range of presence statuses such as available, away from my desk, or at lunch. These statuses are not descriptive and do not help colleagues when they are trying to ascertain whether a person is free or when they will be available. An effective unified communications solution will offer features that allow users to be contactable when they are away from their desk with options such as call forwarding, one number find me and follow me. Fully featured presence management can enable users to work effectively regardless of their location. From a reporting perspective it can also help to effectively manage home-workers and remote agents, as a supervisor can monitor the agent’s status to ensure that they are available to take scheduled calls.

Interactive Interaction
The final thing to look for when selecting a solution is a product that offers a complete range of interaction options, ranging from voice to video, email, web interaction and SMS in a single interface. By offering a complete range of interaction paths, agents can interact with customers in the medium that is most appropriate for them at that time. It can also be useful for ensuring first call resolution of customer queries. For example, if a customer asks an agent a question that they do not know the answer to, that agent can initiate a web chat with a supervisor, in order to find out the answer to the question while still on the phone to the customer, eliminating the need for a call-back at a later date.

By ensuring a unified communications solution has all of these features, contact centres can benefit from a solution that offers internal ROI as well as external improvements in operational efficiency.

Gene Reynolds

Answer 3 from from Gene Reynolds, Director at Blackchair

Remote working capabilities
Technically, this can be delivered in a number of different ways. However, the essential ability to allow an employee to communicate at a different location other than the office will create a powerful enabler for the call centre.The continuing trend is for contact centres to seek out new skills and resources from farther afield. This technology will allow the centre to connect an agent to their queues and skill groups from virtually any location in the UK. This can open up new resource pools that were recently unavailable (e.g. single mothers, disabled, etc.).

The pre-requisites are typically a broadband connection and sometimes, a separate phone line. Of course, your business may have other legal, and HR-related requirements before someone can work from home. Check these out before you take the plunge.

Resiliency and Survivability
I have been in too many places where the centre goes “off the air” because of a lack of resiliency in the phone system itself. When investing in a new telephony solution, especially if your business is located at more than one location, ensure that the solution is completely resilient and survivable. This means that no calls should be lost or disconnected if the connectivity between the phone systems fail. Some phone systems do this better than others, so it’s vital to see demonstrations and gather some references to know what to expect.

Also, in conjunction with the first must have, these two features will allow your call centre as well as your entire business to work remotely in the event of an evacuation issue.

Virtual Capabilities
One of the nirvanas of many call centres these days is the ability to consolidate reports and activities across multiple locations. Benefits include single point of reporting, as well as leveraging economies of scale and improved customer experience. Many offers in the market today claim the ability to create a virtual call centre. However, all they offer is the ability to create a single queue in the PSTN network, which then sends calls to one site or another based on certain ratios. Others have to wait until the agent clicks a button a on desktop application before a call is delivered. This is not a virtual call centre. Check to see whether your staff can report all activity from a single report source, rather than two or more. Ensure that your system can instantly see the availability of an agent, rather than putting the onus on the agent to set their availability. Also, this feature will likely require your business to have a dedicated bandwidth between your multiple sites to send calls via IP.

Sian Ciabattoni

Answer 4 from Sian Ciabattoni, Marketing Director EMEA – Noble Amcat

Within the contact centre industry there are a number of definitions for Unified Communications (UC), but all of them have the common goal of helping agents contact the right people on any device at the right time.  Contact centres in the UK are starting to realise that the public are becoming more and more aware about how they want to be contacted.  An SMS message might get the attention of a teenager, but could totally turn off a retired person.An efficient unified contact centre solution can help your business improve productivity, create opportunities for value-added customer experiences and decrease the time to bring new product/services to market for a distinct competitive advantage.

Cater for your customer preferences
Speak to your customers in the language that they want, e.g. SMS, email, web-chat, telephone.  Configure your system so that it only calls when convenient for your customer/contact – e.g. if your contact works in the day, only send them SMS messages in the daytime and only call on their home number after 6pm.  This will improve your drop rate and increase agent morale by ensuring more first-call resolutions.

Variety of calls
Reduce churn by providing variety for your contact centre agents.  Think about mixing up their day by routing a mix of inbound/outbound calls, emails, SMS messages and web chat.

Home working
Consider the location of your agents; remember that your contact centre could consist of home-based agents and remote offices, so it’s important that you give all agents the same tools and access to the same interface.

Intelligent Voice Messaging (IVM)
Finally, consider the use of Intelligent Voice Messaging (IVM) to increase customer satisfaction and inbound call activity.  IVM allows contact centres to push messages out to customers, e.g. your account is close to going overdrawn, your payment is due, your tickets have been issued.  Ensure regulatory compliance by gaining prior consent for these types of communications from your contacts.

Faraz Khan

Answer 5 from Faraz Khan, Business Development Director – Protocall One
Choosing the right solution for your business is vital to UC project success, and with many world class UC solutions on the marketplace today the process can be extremely challenging. Here are three key considerations we recommend to look out for when embarking on an UC initiative:

Define clear objectives and deliver in stages
Set clear objectives for your UC project. Too often a project starts with vague statements around the benefits it will bring to the business, so remember that the real purpose of any UC implementation is to optimise business processes and deliver improved results.  UC applications should align with and support your company’s strategic business initiatives; you need to identify your top three to five initiatives as a guide for UC investments.

Keep your UC project manageable. Many businesses opt to roll out their UC environment over time as UC incorporates such a wide array of communication modes, multiple hardware and software platforms and applications.  Use staged deployments that gradually bring the technology to a steadily growing number of employees.

You will need patience, diligence and persistence as a UC project can easily grow into the most complex communications project a business will ever tackle.

Look for UC solutions that are based on open architecture
Understand how committed your suppliers and equipment providers are to making their software and interfaces ‘open’ so you can retain the flexibility to choose best-of-breed solutions now and in the future. Traps abound, so be careful.

Ask if your vendor is truly committed to supporting open standards or do they just ‘talk the talk’.  A major vendor recently announced that they support open standards and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), but that only applies if you buy into their infrastructure which happens to use their own non-standard wideband codec. Also check if your vendor works with other suppliers, even ones that may offer overlapping product lines. By making the right choices early on, you will not trapped by supplier lock-in strategies and will have flexibility for the future.

Select players that know voice communications
With new UC tools making it easier to initiate voice or telephony interactions, voice communications and telephony usage is actually increasing. In this emerging era of unified communications, voice is the foundation, with new tools such as telephony presence and ‘click-to-call’ making it easier for workers to pinpoint their colleagues and initiate real-time voice interactions.

Jurgen Hekkink

Answer 6 from Jurgen Hekkink, Unified Communications Solutions Marketing Manager at Affiniti

Unified communications can provide the tools to make contact centres, and businesses, more efficient, especially in terms of customer satisfaction, employee productivity and cost reduction.

Historically, one of the key functionalities of a contact centre has been about distributing the calls to available agents – but that was where the intelligent call routing stopped. When agents needed to transfer a call to specialists or other departments, it would often be a difficult process, resulting in an unsatisfactory experience for the caller. With presence, agents can now get direct access to specialist resources when required, enabling them to gain the relevant information quickly, or pass on calls easily. For example, in a financial services company, an agent gets a request for a specialised mortgage application and needs to involve a senior mortgage advisor. With one click of the button she can see that from the six mortgage advisors in the company, two are currently available.

Collaborative tools
New web-based collaborative tools can allow agents to set up ad hoc conferences with the customer to share web pages, documents or applications with them. These collaborative sessions can then be expanded to include other people such as specialists, to help in the customer process.  This collaboration also speeds up the process of explanation by using multimedia rather than just straight dialogue.

Unified communications can also allow people to work location independent, giving an organisation the ability to provide their staff with flexible working options. This enables agents to work from almost anywhere, and gives greater flexibility for contact centre management to cater for peak demands by introducing part-time agents or non-contact centre staff during the peak times.

Tony Butler

Answer 7 from Tony Butler, Chief Technology Officer, Intact IS Limited
According to one recent US research study, organisations using IP-based unified communications applications saved an average of 32 minutes per day just by being able to connect with team members more efficiently.

Connectivity is particularly important given the nature of interactions in today’s contact centres – one recent study showed that over 10 per cent of daily interactions now require assistance from experts outside the contact centre. In pure productivity terms, this highlights a significant optimisation opportunity in terms of talk time, individual agent productivity and first-call resolution performance.

Many UC implementations rely on SOA-enabled enterprise integration to bring key business applications into play. SOA is a great integration approach, but when applications are asked to share data in ways that they never have before then it can raise serious security issues that need to be addressed right from the start. You’ve got to make sure that all of your existing security functionality is still in place while also providing the same enterprise security standards for remote users such as home-working agents or mobile experts

Project management and support skills
Given their nature, UC programmes are inevitably wide-ranging and can have an impact on many different parts of the organisation. UC implementation programmes need to be supported by enterprise-grade project management, and backed by methodologies such as Prince 2 to make sure that you can take advantage of all the processes, tools, templates and technologies that can help. You’ve also got to take any ISO standards or ITIL initiatives into consideration – done wrong, a Unified Communications programme can easily derail your hard-earned certifications.

Adam Faulkner

Answer 8 by Adam Faulkner, Director, Sabio (www.sabio.co.uk)

Standardisation on SIP

We’re already seeing with the SIP (Session Internet Protocol) how open standards can free organisations from being locked into proprietary IP-based hardware and software solutions. While SIP is only one part of the overall UC standardisation framework, it brings two distinct benefits:  streamlined infrastructure costs because of the lower barrier of entry for open standards device manufacturers, and the concept of presence, which provides information about the availability and status of individuals or shared resources.

We often find that more established call centre environments can’t immediately relate these benefits to their current operations. Because the bulk of their interactions are still voice-based, and are fielded by agents who tend to be in front of their PCs for the duration of their shifts, it’s easy for organisations to overlook the potential of the UC approach while they remain focused on more traditional performance measures and ACD statistics.Gartner sees this kind of responsiveness and agility as one of UC’s most significant benefits, and highlights this ability to reduce human latency within corporate processes as a real step forward. Another commentator described presence as the ‘dial tone of the 21st century, given its ability to support greater collaboration and team working.

Choosing the right UC approach
Unfortunately there isn’t yet a fully standardised approach to designing and building UC implementations. Network-centric vendors will offer one approach, telephony-centric vendors another, while IT-oriented applications companies also look at the challenge differently.

If UC was easy we’d have probably all done it by now. Instead we have to recognise that any successful UC approach needs to be evolutionary, needs to co-exist with your existing infrastructure, and provide you with a framework within which you can start to unlock some of the acknowledged UC benefits.

Rufus Grig

Answer 9 from Rufus Grig, Managing Director, Callmedia

There’s no such thing as unified communications!  It’s a marketing phrase coined by sales people looking for a bucket term to define the convergence of IT infrastructure, applications, and messaging; and to sell their ‘god-boxes’ that, at a first glance, can seemingly do everything under the sun.  Be wary, many of these vendor solutions are designed for enterprise-wide communications, not customer service environments.

What exactly is unified communications?
In the real world, unified communications means being joined up in the way we communicate such that the experience over web, telephony, self-service and email is “joined-up”, consistent and coherent. Or, put it another way, unified. In the IT vendor world, unified communications is more generally taken to mean the integration of telephony, voicemail and email wrapped up with “presence” – the ability to see the availability of your colleagues without having to try and call them to find out if they’re free.

How will it help your agents provide a better service?
How long is a piece of string?  Developing a solution based on presence, and weaving together your IT infrastructure with disparate processes and in-house ‘experts’ can seem somewhat overwhelming.  It can mean the integration of voice, data, SMS, and email into a single interface; through to the unification of CRM, marketing and finance processes into the contact centre environment.

Presence has the capability to bring the entire organisation into the reach of the contact centre, using presence and instant messaging tools to locate experts within the enterprise immediately, solving enquiries right away and improving that illusive first-contact resolution rate.

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 1st Oct 2008 - Last modified: 10th Sep 2021
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1 Comment
  • When you are looking for a VoIP system it is good to find service that includes SIP capabilities, so you can communicate effectively intercontinental and internationally.

    Harry 31 Aug at 22:45