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When Robert Fort is sick with the flu, that violin you hear the background isn't a sign of sympathy -- it's a sign of success. With a computer on his lap and a pillow under his head, Fort, the vice president of Internet technology and chief information officer of Virgin Megastores, manages to operate his business and keep the records (or, these days, the CDs) spinning, not just in his company's Los Angeles headquarters, but in its 10 stores around the country. What makes it possible for Fort to ensure that all those CD tracks stay on track? His company's heavy reliance on integrated communication technology.

"I was home sick one day when we were having an issue in New York; I was literally in bed with a laptop. I had two [instant messaging] sessions open, which I blended together to make a group chat. I then made a community phone call with one click of my mouse. The issue was solved within minutes while I was lying in bed. I thought, 'This is fantastic.' "

The day-to-day operations at Virgin keep Fort occupied, but he's enthusiastic about any successful application of technology. As an example, he calls his daughter to illustrate the effectiveness of the click-to-call application Virgin's using, developed by Microsoft. When she answers, seemingly confused by her dad's out-of-the-blue phone call, Fort laughs, explaining that she's used to him testing out his latest toy.

"We deal with highly trendy products," Fort says, recalling one artist whose album sold very well one week but dropped 60 percent the next. "That showed that we need to be right on top of everything. Delays in shipments can cost us money," he says. "Anything to make communication fast and simple definitely has an impact."

In other words, in the ever-fickle music industry, Virgin can't afford time-related mistakes. Attempting to stay on top of its game, Virgin deployed Microsoft's Office Communication Server (OCS) in the fall of 2007. With OCS connecting all of the computers in the company's retail chain, floor managers can easily reach buyers or other managers with the help of a presence tool. They can access inventory data simply by typing a word into a PC -- and they know that the employees they're communicating with are using the same interface. Technologies such as unified messaging, presence, and video conferencing represent some of the functions that Virgin and other companies are deploying for everyday operations. Some of these things are new, some have been around forever, and others have been revamped under new names -- but they share one common trait: They all fall under one of the CRM industry's most overused (and least understood) buzzwords -- unified communications, or UC.

"UC." Don't You See?
Depending on which analyst, consultant, or vendor you ask, the notion of "unified communications" will vary. Truth be told, there's no unified definition for unified communications. (See the sidebar, "The UC Glossary," below, for some help with the related terminology.) The International Engineering Consortium defines UC as an industry term used to describe-- deep breath, now -- all forms of call and multimedia/cross-media message-management functions controlled by an individual user for both business and social purposes. This includes any enterprise informational or transactional application process that emulates a human user and uses a single, content-independent personal messaging channel for contact access. (Seriously.) As wordy as that might be, it boils down to this: UC is supposed to tie together the various channels of business-critical communication to enhance the business itself. Gartner refers to this as reducing the "human latency of business processes."

Some vendors and industry experts still view UC as a new and untapped segment. Others, however -- such as Siemens Communications and Interactive Intelligence -- claim to have been offering the essentials of UC for years, sometimes minus the fancy title. "The market is changing with new players and new challenges," says analyst Blair Pleasant, founder of CommFusion and UCStrategies.com. "There have been early adopters who have been implementing applications, but most don't really value presence and don't know how to use it. There are product limitations. There is a lack of best practices cases," she explains. So are vendors running around in a panic to slap the title "UC" on any messaging or collaborative application? Not quite -- but it's important to note that the trend shows no sign of abating: More than 20 UC-related product announcements were made at this year's VoiceCon industry trade show alone.

There's some measure of agreement that presence is a key feature of UC, but at its core UC is really about bridging forms of communication that were formerly kept as silos. Candela, a well-known lighting distributor based in Irvine, Calif., relies heavily on faxes from customers, and to integrate those faxes into its CRM system it turned to another Irvine company, Zeacom, a producer of customer call center and telephony integration software that also has offices in New Zealand. The Zeacom Communications Center made receiving faxes as simple as opening an email. That kind of customization is integral to a unification strategy. Gary Kelly, Candela's IT manager, says he thinks of Zeacom's UC offering as having directly impacted his company's efficiency. "We're able to do a lot more with a lot less people -- and that, for us, is incredible."

The Unified Field
"I understand the rationale to [use the term UC]. It can garner more attention for the product, but it confuses the marketplace even more," says Christine Holley, director of market communications at Indianapolis, Ind.-based Interactive Intelligence, a software provider that has been offering aspects of UC for contact centers. "It makes it look like this is something new. And it's not. It's an evolution of what's already been." Interactive's product, Customer Interaction Center, has long provided elements of UC such as converged networks, converged applications of unified messaging, presence, instant messaging, Web chat, conferencing, and collaboration with business process automation. And yet Holley says that Interactive has no near-term plans to rebrand the product under a "unified communications" label.

On the other side of the spectrum, it's been five years since Berlin-based Siemens began marketing its OpenScape offering as UC. "It was new and businesses weren't ready for it -- they are now," speculates Graham Howard, the vendor's director of global marketing for large systems. "It took a while for people to realize how compelling the arguments were for it. As leaders, we had to do the initial education. Now big companies are realizing how complete it is. Maybe we were just too far advanced." Atlanta-based Engage Inc., a provider of CRM, enterprise resource planning, and e-commerce solutions, was with OpenScape from the beginning and has stuck with the software for three versions. "They were the only ones that were demonstrating reality while others were [still] talking [about] the roadmap," explains Todd Sharp, Engage's director. Engage chose Siemens because it was the only company using its own software to communicate with customers. Sharp says that other vendors were taking two to three months to respond to questions, whereas Siemens had representatives responding immediately thanks in part to its UC software.

The UC buzz really kicked into overdrive with the 2007 debut of Microsoft's OCS, which brought recognition and attention to the issue. In its 2007 Magic Quadrant report assessing the UC space, industry research firm Gartner listed Microsoft, Nortel Networks, and Siemens as frontrunners. Avaya, now marketing its self-described "cheap and easy" UC software, wasn't far behind. IBM, with its SameTime Lotus program, wasn't overlooked either, in part due to the company's announced billion-dollar commitment to UC development.

Unifying UC and CRM
Unified communications, although useful for executives on the move and for connecting disparate employees, can also provide tremendous aid to customers. Even when customers can't tell they're dealing with UC -- in fact, maybe because they can't tell -- there are benefits in first-call resolution rates and a shorter wait to talk to the right person. Irwin Lazar, principal analyst and program director for convergence and collaboration at Nemertes Research, refers to this as UC's "just-in-time, fetch-the-expert" feature. Realizing how central communication is with customers, it's no wonder that vendors are particularly interested in providing strategies specifically for contact centers. (See the sidebar "UC for the CC," below.)

UC can also help in other customer-facing ways. Engage's Sharp says that, in real-time application, UC probably is most beneficial with his company's order-entry system: When a consumer places an order, the system identifies the salesperson on that account; Siemens' OpenScape can trigger a call for the salesperson to follow up with a thank you. "I don't have to look up [a] number or depend on [the] sales administrator to tell me that the order has [been] placed," Sharp says. "I can tell [the customer] I'm out and about and tell them thank you. That's a tremendously powerful sales technique."

At Virgin Megastores, the Microsoft OCS software is installed on every computer on every selling floor. When a consumer has a question or wants to request a product, the salesperson can immediately access contact information for buyers or store managers -- and the salesperson can do more than just leave a message; she can see who is available to serve the customer's needs immediately.

CommFusion's Pleasant ventures that companies should consider four key elements before deploying a UC strategy: mobility, interoperability, intelligence, and extensibility. She also points out that no vendor currently offers the whole solution. The goal is to integrate different elements and work with what's best for you -- but the real promise of unified communications is how it's embedded in relevant business processes.

Unified Systems, Disparate Challenges
"The[return on investment] and the cost justification [are] what's hindering the adoption of UC," says Nemertes' Lazar. Companies, he says, are asking, "Why should I make that investment when there are lots of other things to spend time and money on?" Lazar continues,"It's hard to make a generic argument saying, 'You would save 20 minutes a day you would have spent looking up a phone number.' That argument falls flat."

The absence of a clear return on investment will continue to be a roadblock to UC adoption. Only when UC is applied to business processes such as sales and customer contact can real dollar figures be measured: When Engage deployed Siemens OpenScape in its contact center, for example, the company saw a 194 percent return on its investment over a six-month span.

Another roadblock is the idea of "ripping and replacing" -- the wholesale tearing-out of existing infrastructure in favor of all-new equipment. Some UC vendors require Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in place before they can hook their offerings into other UC applications. Recognizing that companies with expensive and relatively new private branch exchange(PBX) telecommunication systems would likely find that prospect unappealing, midmarket vendor Objectworld recently announced a UC strategy that works with pre-existing PBX systems.

What's Coming Together Next
Despite the rise in awareness surrounding UC, and the increasing number of companies beginning to think about deploying some sort of UC solution,many analysts remain skeptical of its immediate value. Brent Kelly,senior analyst and partner with Wainhouse Research, describes UC as a work in process and suggests that the technology's penetration may not yet have reached a tipping point. "Clearly not everyone is doing it,"he says. "But there are enough doing it [so] that I am aware of companies in many verticals that are adopting it. It's interesting the small and medium-sized businesses are able to adopt it [more easily]because they don't have as many systems to deploy."

The consensus among analysts seems to be that the future of UC lies in the application of and integration with business processes. Companies interested in starting down the UC path should first look for a business solution that can benefit the most from a UC strategy -- and then see how that effort can be expanded across the enterprise. Take Virgin, for example -- where Fort says the hope is to incorporate voice into more business applications: "We're looking at the [in-store]digital listening stations," he says, "looking at a way...[to] use our data network [to] let the customer communicate with [a] sales associate who isn't in the building.... If a customer is specifying an order, if they have a question, they just have to look [to see] is the buyer there and what way to reach them." By unifying those communications, Virgin gets to keep the buying process a seamless whole. "We'd like that embedded in the order," Fort says. "There's less decision-making and it keeps the [customer's] stream-of-consciousness going."

Siemens' Howard calls UC the dial tone of the 21st century -- five years down the road, no one will have to worry about how to define UC; by then, it will be no more exotic than email or phone calls. As Wainhouse's Kelly says, "No one asks to justify having a phone or an email account. Everyone just knows that they are a productivity tool that you need. I see UC as part of that class of tools that you just need to have."

SIDEBAR: The UC Glossary
Knowing the lingo is the key to communication, even the unified variety. Here's a very limited selection of key terms.

  • Presence is a status indicator that conveys the availability of a potential communication partner. Presence may indicate whether the partner is already using the phone, in a Web conference, or working remotely -- and may also suggest the best mode of communication to reach the partner immediately.
  • Unified messaging (UM) is not synonymous with unified communications. UM is an element of UC, involving the delivery of various forms of messaging data to a single device. Unified messaging frequently includes delivery of some or all of the following:phone service, voicemail, email, calendar, pages, and fax messages.
  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a telephony term for a set of facilities used to manage the delivery of digitized voice information over the Internet, rather than through the traditional circuit-committed protocols of the public-switched telephone network (PSTN). VoIP and Internet telephony avoid the tolls incurred through ordinary telephone service.
  • Private branch exchange (PBX) is a private telephone network used within an enterprise. PBX users share a certain number of outside lines for making telephone calls external to the PBX.

SIDEBAR: UC for the CC
Contact centers are the promised land for unified communications.

It's no wonder that UC's promise has been shouted at the highest volume with regard to contact centers, where there's so much emphasis on the customer and on communication.

With goals that include improving first-call resolution, contact center solution providers such as Aspect Software are thinking about what UC can do for the consumer. According to Aspect research, 10 percent of calls coming into a contact center need to be directed outside of the enterprise, eating up, on average, an additional two and a half minutes. That extra time can weigh heavily on cost and efficiency. To combat this, Aspect announced an alliance with Microsoft in mid-March to create a strong UC strategy customized for the contact center.

SIDEBAR: UC and Mobility
Road warriors add a new category of communication to the mix.

In research firm Datamonitor's "Trends to Watch 2008: Unified Communications," technology analyst Aphrodite Brinsmead says that"Mobility is becoming a more significant factor in unified communications from a productivity and cost savings point of view and is likely to help drive investments." She continues, "To achieve the full benefits of presence, integrated directories and messaging, employees need access to the same functionality on the mobile device as they have on the desktop."

As devices become smarter, analysts predict that UC will likely catch up with them. Ernie Wallerstein, president of Zeacom, a provider of contact center and telephony integration software, gushed about how UC's mobility benefits allow him to do business on the road. With UC tying sales data to his email, Wallerstein can receive news of a big sale and promptly call that client for a follow-up thank you.

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