• August 14, 2007
  • By Nick Ferachairman and CEO, Parlano

Got a Unified Communications Strategy?

"Unified communications" is quietly creeping up the to-do list for many CEOs and CIOs. Unifying communications involves converging, both technically and conceptually, all the various communication and collaboration modes in the typical organization, including voice, video, email, Web conferencing, chat, and document sharing. Unifying your communications can reduce the chaos many organizations and customers suffer as a result of the arbitrary use of these various modes throughout the business day. If you've ever asked yourself, "Why are we having this conference call?" you know what I mean. Organizations want to bring order to the chaos of disjointed communications. To that end, Unified Communications (UC) envisions two things. First is a presence framework that tells you where the people you want to reach are located, what communication device they would prefer to use at that moment, and how available they are to participate in the desired conversation. UC also involves a new ability to shift seamlessly among the various device options, selecting whichever one is best for the business at hand and the people involved. The most efficient form of communication for a given task will reveal itself organically, and you will simply run with that option, paying little or no attention to the fact that you're switching from one mode to another. UC's promise is attracting heavy attention from media, analysts, and business executives. Every new product development generates tremendous interest. Sounds great--but where might one start? UC platforms such as Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 and the upcoming Office Communications Server 2007 manage presence and make it easy for users to switch communication and collaboration modes. Although these UC platforms unify the technology, companies still need conceptual unity within the organization to prevent users from wasting time and driving one another crazy with an excess of options. Organizations can establish conceptual unity through a form of text messaging called persistent group chat. Persistent group chat gives organizations hundreds of communication channels that behave like "chatrooms" but add:
  • the stickiness (or persistence) of email so large groups of users can communicate asynchronously as well as in real time;
  • configurable filters and alerts that eliminate information overload and enable efficient knowledge management; and
  • the scalability and reliability of an enterprise application, including full compliance capabilities.
Persistent group chat is exponentially more efficient than email or the phone for many purposes, enabling dispersed employees to monitor dozens of conversations at once. Significantly for unified communications, each chat channel brings users together in a cross-functional team around the topic, client or initiative for which the channel is assigned. This point is critical. By organizing dispersed users in cross-functional teams around topics, persistent group chat firmly establishes a desperately needed unity. Persistent group chat is the only communications medium capable of efficiently defining ahead of time the persons who may need to participate in a conversation around a problem--whether in that business-class chatroom or by switching gears to another communication mode, e.g., a telephone conference call. In other words, the ideal is for the team for any given situation to be assembled and gathered ahead of time. Email doesn't do that. The telephone doesn't do that. Instant messaging doesn't do that. Persistent group chat does, however--simultaneously breaking down communications silos and reducing communications chaos in the process. Although these business-class chatrooms provide the perfect launch point for all the other communications modes in the UC arsenal, they are among the most efficient communications mediums in their own right. Persistent group chat is becoming increasingly helpful for customer-facing sales and support teams because it engages more people in the sales and support processes. For example, an inside sales representative trying to upsell a high-value customer can get help from a "deal closer" or solution expert monitoring a chatroom from the other side of the world without even asking. The simple and unobtrusive act of posting a quick update on the deal to the chatroom broadens awareness of the situation and often results in help from unexpected places--a key benefit that only comes from organizing people and topics in advance of the communications need. A customer service representative with a sticky support problem may discover that no one on his immediate team has a solution. A colleague from R&D, however, may be passively monitoring the channel. An alert triggered by a keyword filter captures her attention, enabling her to solve the problem even before the customer is put on hold. Using traditional communications modes, the colleague from R&D would never have even known of the issue. Companies regularly extend group chat to special customers for one-to-many or many-to-many conversations to improve support response and increase visibility of customer issues internally. Companies can also extend persistent group chat to their Web pages so that when a customer hits "chat with a representative," they're really chatting with a power group of customer representatives. One company, for example, has used persistent group chat in an award-winning external portal implementation that helps financial-markets customers manage accounts, execute transactions, and communicate efficiently with their account teams. In any of these scenarios, conversations are logged and archived, providing cases for training opportunities and solutions for a knowledge base. Your unified communications strategy will require conceptual unity on top of technical unity, and persistent group chat is one way to do that. Even if it has no effect on your unified communications strategy, which is unlikely, you're still exponentially improving your customer interactions. About the Author
Nick Fera (nick.fera@parlano.com) is chairman and CEO of Parlano, Inc., the leader in persistent group chat. He is author of "They Speak," a blog (http://nickfera.typepad.com/) focusing on improving communication and collaboration efficiency.
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