Over the past few years, unified communications (UC) solutions have become much more affordable for small to midsize businesses (SMBs).
Unfortunately, many software vendors have jumped on the bandwagon by branding their systems “UC” solutions—even when they lack crucial UC capabilities.
Since there’s so much confusion about which vendors’ phone systems truly count as UC, we’ve created the following checklist to help you compare solutions.
(To learn more, you can also download our free e-book by clicking on the red box to the right, which ranks the top 10 providers for smaller organizations.)
Telephony and messaging
Generally, UC deployments for SMBs focus on voice and telephony capabilities first and foremost, and secondarily on messaging functionality.
Megan Fernandez, principal research analyst at IT research and advisory company Gartner, calls UC solutions aimed at SMBs “UC lite.”
“There are some organizations in the smaller size segment that don’t have advanced video- or Web conferencing requirements, and want something that’s voice-centric,” she explains.
Most UC systems offer basic audio conferencing functionality. Web conferencing and HD videoconferencing, however, are generally capabilities of high-end UC systems.
Unified messaging allows voicemails, faxes and more to be delivered as emails in a “unified inbox.” This is one of the most essential capabilities of SMB-oriented UC solutions.
Presence is a feature that shows users which employees in their contact list are online. Full UC solutions allow extensive control over presence status: For example, the system can automatically detect when employees are on the phone, or integrate with employees’ calendars to show when they’re in meetings.
More basic UC systems only offer “on/off” presence and custom status updates.
Mobile communication tools are also important for SMBs to focus on when evaluating providers.
Find me/follow me is a particularly important feature in “UC lite” implementations. This tool forwards calls to users’ mobile devices when they don’t answer their office phones.
Fernandez explains that find me/follow me “is a basic feature, but people think it’s wonderful.” And you don’t necessarily need a full UC system to get it: Find me/follow me can be found in many standard phone systems designed for VoIP service.
A single identity number is another crucial UC feature. It allows employees to use the same phone number to make and receive calls from any device: desk phones, softphones, smartphones, tablets etc.
Single identity numbers are offered by many VoIP providers: You don’t need a full-blown enterprise UC system to get them.
However, when it comes to mobile and desktop UC clients, the functionality included in SMB solutions can be very different from what’s offered in enterprise UC systems.
A UC client is an app that allows users to make and receive calls, send and receive instant messages and view the presence statuses of coworkers.
More advanced UC clients also boast features such as audio/videoconferencing and remote configuration of communication preferences.
To maximize the productivity and cost benefits of your UC solution, you’ll need to integrate it with other vital software systems. In some cases, this will include your company’s existing phone systems.
Many organizations invest in new phone systems as they grow, buying one brand for one branch location and another brand for a different location.
As Fernandez explains, over the years, this results in “a hodgepodge of solutions that can’t speak to each other well.”
In particular, the dial plans of phone systems at different sites may have been configured in very different ways over the years.
A dial plan is a set of rules specifying how a phone system interprets the numbers dialed by users: It controls both call routing and user access to phone system functionality, such as international calling.
When an organization has multiple systems with different dial plans in place, call routing issues can be a major headache. What’s more, this type of setup makes it hard to manage your company’s phone system usage in order to cut costs.
With a UC system, you can implement a unified dial plan across all of your locations in order to smooth out call-routing issues and connect calls in the most economical way.
Intuitive administrative interfaces also make it easier for administrators to manage communications networks that span multiple sites and include multiple phone systems.
As Fernandez explains, organizations relying on multiple legacy systems “get easier administrative capabilities and intuitive management interfaces that allow their systems to speak to each other more easily.”
Finally, an API library allows your IT staff to vastly expand the capabilities of your UC system by linking it to the other software your business depends on.
For example, you can feed data from the UC system into other software for reporting and analysis.
You can also use a UC solution to add communications capabilities—such as click-to-dial or automated alerts about problems that require human assistance—to your customer relationship management system.
If you need more help narrowing down your list of providers and comparing solutions, you can speak with one of our expert Software Advisors at (855) 998-8505.