For a long time, unified communications seemed as mythic as the Loch Ness monster. But in the past two years, its promise has begun to surface.
Imagine this scenario: Your largest retail client runs short of a key product during a big sales campaign. Your marketing manager sends an urgent message to your New York production manager that, thanks to your unified messaging system, lands in both his voicemail and his e-mail. But he's away and misses both alerts--and a chunk of potential sales along with them.
Now imagine this scenario: Your largest retail client runs short of a key product during a big sales campaign. Your marketing manager wants to send an urgent message to your New York production manager. But she can see through your unified communications system that New York is not reachable, so she routes the message instead to a production manager in Michigan. The Midwest office immediately diverts a shipment from another location, and your client makes record sales.
Being there matters: The best electronic gadgets in the world are useless if the person you're trying to reach is unreachable.
"As technology has reduced the number of people required to do many jobs, the availability of [the people left] has become critical," says Bill Crane, communications manager at Shimano American, the U.S. arm of a Japanese company that makes cycling and fishing equipment.
Unified messaging, the first part of this availability equation, brings together fixed and mobile telephony, e-mail, faxes, instant messaging and conferencing (audio and/or video) into a single message delivery system. With voice, data and video traffic all on one network, users can send messages without having to consider whether the recipient will retrieve it on a desk phone, cell phone, PDA or other device. It's transparent. The mass migration of companies to voice over IP (VoIP) has made it possible to combine communications in ways unthinkable even five years ago.
But increasingly, companies are discovering that simply getting messages in one place isn't enough. A message must be delivered on the right device at the right time to the right person--a person who can respond immediately. That's where unified communications and its key feature, "presence," comes in. Simply put, presence lets users know who's reachable where and when. How? Think about how instant messaging works: Users can see which coworkers are active and which have stepped away. Put all communications tools (voice, data and video) on the same IP network, add an instant messaging-style interface and, voila, you've got presence. You also have everybody in your organization on a single, secure IM network, with record keeping if necessary.
There's one more part to this communications equation, something Yankee Group calls "intelligent communications." Not only are your many communications options unified and given the power of presence, but they are embedded in your user applications. Bank loan officers, for example, can reach out, in real time, to experts on particular lending practices without ever exiting their loan processing software.
The Internet, of course, is the technology that makes this all possible. In recent years, businesses have moved rapidly to embrace the Internet for their telephony needs. As of February, 82 percent of U.S. enterprises had adopted IP telephony or were testing it, according to Yankee Group. What puts the spark in IP telephony, though, is session initiation protocol, which was devised about a decade ago and does pretty much what its name suggests: It starts a session--phone call, IM conversation, audio or videoconference--on an IP network. It's akin to HTTP and SMTP, the protocols that govern the Internet and e-mail, respectively.
Companies are moving toward unified communications one step--or spoke--at a time.
Shimano American salespeople don't spend much time at their desks, so they need to stay connected to the company's U.S. headquarters in Irvine, Calif., as well as to Shimano Canada, the parent company in Osaka, Japan, and the factory, support team, original equipment manufacturers and warranty center. But it was a growing need for the sales team to stay connected with the buyers and ensure no customer orders were being missed that led Shimano American to consider unified communications, Crane says. Two years ago, the company moved to VoIP telephony and presence-enabled communications, selecting Siemens HiPath 4000 and its OpenScape real-time communications software suite. The HiPath system, which cost Shimano about $500 a user, supports digital and IP phones, which is the way Shimano elected to go.
Now, there are no more long distance calls. All Shimano American employees--not only those in the same office--are just a four-digit extension away. The company got a "pretty good" return on its investment just from buying one phone system for both locations, Crane says. And best of all, perhaps, the company has peace of mind knowing that customer needs, from handlebars to pedals, are communicated promptly to the people who can deliver.
Ask your sales manager:
d How many sales have your staff lost because a message about a key opportunity failed to reach them in time?
Ask your key customers:
How much time would you save if you could reach our sales rep with one phone call or e-mail?