How Unified Messaging Benefits Your Bottom Line

By Virginia Citrano  |  Posted 08-22-2007

How Unified Messaging Benefits Your Bottom Line

 

Opportunity

 

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?

 

Next page: Strategy

Strategy

 

Strategy

 

Determine how each business unit uses the communications tools at its disposal and identify any communication problems, then consider how each unit might benefit from unified communications.

 

In 2004, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein had run out of room in its then-telephony set-up, one of Nortel's Norstar key systems. The San Francisco-based law firm's three offices were expanding, so IT director Dario Mileto looked at traditional phone systems, pure VoIP and VoIP hybrids (which let legacy PBXs work with IP systems). Lieff Cabraser segmented out just one line before settling on a pure VoIP system from Avaya.

 

But it took the firm's partners some convincing to make the decision. "They were concerned that voice quality would not be as good with VoIP as traditional TDM," says Mileto, referring to time division multiplexing, the older method whereby voice and data share the same space on a public-switched telephone network. "But we learned that voice quality is perfectly fine if your infrastructure can support it." Still, the firm hedged its bets just a bit: The firm's main number was left on a traditional telecom line. "We're a plaintiff's law firm," Mileto explains, "and if that number ever went out, we would lose all sorts of business."

 

The firm fully integrated some 300 phone lines across offices in New York, San Francisco and Nashville, for a total cost of about $100,000. Voicemail and e-mail are stored on the same server. Lieff Cabraser is weighing instant messaging, which Avaya offers, but opted to forego a fax server. Company policy is to maintain a hard copy of all documents in its records. The firm added a bridge for conference calls. By switching from a teleconferencing service, the firm will cut its conferencing costs in half and the bridge will pay for itself in six to eight months, Mileto says.

 

Unified communications vendors are quick to assert that implementing their systems does not mean ripping out legacy systems and the investment that was made in them. Their systems are software-based, they say, and can be layered on top of existing set-ups.

 

Vendors say their systems play a role in protecting investments in other ways as well. Users' phone directories are preserved on the main system, for instance, so if an employee loses a cell phone during a business trip, for example, that employee's contact list remains accessible. Also, one compliance system applies to all the tools in a unified communications system, simplifying compliance and saving on costs.

 

Before you can decide which, if any, unified communications system to implement, ask your firm's employees how they use real-time communications. Are they at their desks all the time, or on the road? Do they telecommute from remote offices? Do they get frequent high-priority or emergency calls? Are there gaps in workflow that can be closed only with real- time communications?

 

It was that last problem that pushed Global Crossing in the direction of intelligent, unified communications. When Michael Fuqua, senior vice president for global information systems at the IP-based network operator, analyzed the company's workflow, what immediately jumped out at him was its execution of exception processing. But the right tool to close the communication gap would have to be something that did more than ping the right problem solver. To Fuqua, it needed to operate from within the application the employee was using. And that ability to communicate and function with a core application is the difference, for many, between simple unified messaging and true unified communications. "We had the view that unified communications is more than just a standalone tool set; it's embedded into an app," Fuqua says. "We wanted to have users have the same experience regardless of the app."

 

After evaluating unified communications options from Avaya, Cisco, Microsoft and Nortel (elements from all four were operating within the company), Global Crossing went with Microsoft, starting in 2005 with Microsoft Live Communications Server, which it integrated with Cisco CallServer. Microsoft announced a big push into unified communications last year and Global Crossing has since moved up to its Office Communications Server, a session initiation protocol server that can handle IP-based voice traffic, instant messaging and Web conferencing. Global Crossing spent $25 to $30 a seat on the changes--the investment will save the company 30 percent on its telecom costs, Fuqua says. It includes a secure instant messaging structure for the entire company.

 

Ask your IT unit heads:

 

Is the equipment more important to the company's strategy, or are the applications?

 

Ask your business unit heads:

 

What do you aim to accomplish with unified communications?

 

Next page: Implementation

Implementation

 

Implementation

 

Unified communications doesn't mean putting all your eggs in one basket. And your rollout will be as unique as your company.

 

"Right now, companies are purchasing their communications from many difference sources and they all have evolution ahead," says Bern Elliot, a Gartner vice president. "Each channel is expanding and growing, but at the same time there is consolidation. CIOs will start using this to rein in and get control over the wide variety of communications techniques."

 

This does not mean, though, that you can get all your communications needs met by one vendor, even if the major players in this market are touting their ability to do it all. But it does mean you can begin to substantially pare the number of vendors you deal with. Eventually, experts say, you may be able to count your vendors on one hand instead of two.

 

Most of the big vendors in this arena partner with each other, and there have been many acquisitions, which can complicate matters for customers. Earlier this year, Cisco acquired the videoconferencing company WebEx for $3.2 billion, while Microsoft paid a reported $800 million for Tellme Networks, which does voice-enabled mobile search. Siemens bought the wireless LAN startup Chantry Networks and integrated it into its HiPath products.

 

So all the big vendors will want to talk to you, and that's great. But in the end, you have to go where your business needs to go, not necessarily where the vendor goes.

 

Take this test to see if you are traveling in the same general direction: Ask your instant messaging provider if it offers an application programming interface (API), which allows the exchange of data between two applications and lets you create what Avaya calls "communications-enabled business processes."

 

Avaya's Doc2Doc, for example, being developed in partnership with consultancy Computer Resources, will let doctors immediately reach colleagues to speed patient care decisions by linking up with systems tracking doctors' schedules.

 

And spend money where it makes the most sense. Instead of investing in an expensive desktop visual display phone, for example, CIOs should put their money toward softphone software that lets users place calls from their computers over the Internet, says Gartner's Elliot.

 

Unified communications rollout strategies vary based on company needs, budget and timeframe.

 

If you have time for a phased rollout, follow a simple strategy of early adopters first, others later. Or target first salespeople and others who place a high value on staying in constant communication, regardless of location or device, for instance. Another group to consider prioritizing: People who do all their work on PCs and would benefit from communicating in a more varied way through that device, too.

 

Lieff Cabraser didn't have the luxury of time. After an intensive test phase, the firm had to cut everybody in its main office over to its new VoIP system in a single night, amid a move to a larger space. It added its other two offices to the VoIP system several months later.

It's key to keep an open mind when it comes to the rollout. Shimano American deployed unified communications to its salespeople first for their work with customers, but quickly found the salespeople needed it to connect with people in the company's home offices at least as much.

 

"The major thing is the flexibility," Shimano American's Crane says. "It's going to be different for each organization. If we'd had a hard design on what we did, we wouldn't have achieved what we did. We were continually surprised. And once you start to use it, it's often the people who were the most resistant who come up with the best suggestions."

 

Ask your compliance officer:

How would a unified repository of all voice and data communications improve our record-keeping?

Ask your CEO:

What does increased productivity add to the bottom line?

Please send questions or comments on this story to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.