Advantages of Integrating Your Phone System With Business Software
IndustryView | 2015
One advantage of a software-based, Internet-enabled phone system is that it easily integrates with various types of business software to add communications functionality. To learn more about how such custom integrations can enhance business processes, we surveyed case studies from unified communications (UC) vendors’ websites. We also analyzed posts by information technology (IT) professionals in support forums on Microsoft’s and Cisco’s websites.
This report will describe the most popular and successful types of UC integrations to help owners and operators identify which business models will benefit most from undertaking one.
The software-based automation of a growing number of business processes has transformed the nature of business phone systems. As such, many businesses now seek seamless integration between their phone and software solutions.
For example, customer relationship management (CRM) software has witnessed a dramatic increase in adoption in recent years. Our survey of case studies for this report shows that call centers in particular are looking to integrate phone systems with CRM software. Businesses are also integrating phone systems with software for specific industry verticals (e.g., property management, help desk and supply chain management software).
The term “unified communications” usually refers simply to the effort to join multiple channels of communication (e.g., voice, video, IM and SMS text), within a single application interface. However, phone systems themselves have now become true UC solutions in a much richer sense of the term. The flexible and customizable integrations that UC solutions enable with other kinds of software can improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of business processes.
In fact, Jamaal Savwoir, senior vice president and technical evangelist at Star2Star (a leading provider of UC solutions), explains that many of the company’s projects “started as custom deliverables, but contribute to comprehensive system enhancements over time.”
However, simply configuring a phone system to work with a VoIP service provider can present complex challenges, such as ensuring that your phone system supports esoteric SIP requests. Custom integrations can be even more complex.
As such, we surveyed the case study literature on UC vendors’ websites as well as the UC support community to discover how custom integrations can pan out. We tracked data on the primary UC system integrators (i.e., organizations that integrate telephony software with other business applications), the most common types of communications functionality these integrations enable and how successful they are.
Business owners and IT decision-makers can use the data in this report to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of different kinds of UC integrations.
Based on the case studies we analyzed, the following chart shows the most common communications functionality UC integrations enable.
Here, we see that screen pops appear in 26 percent of case studies in our survey. A screen pop is a graphical display window that appears on a user’s screen when they receive an incoming call. It includes information about the caller, including contact information and interaction history, which is frequently pulled from a CRM system.
Screen pops allow employees to quickly familiarize themselves with the customer they’re interacting with, and can notify employees of incoming calls while they’re within the interface of another business application (e.g., a CRM system or an email client). For instance, many UC systems offer pre-built screen-pop functionality for Microsoft Outlook.
The following image of a screen pop displays the different kinds of information one can relay:
Typical screen-pop interface
Organizations can also use screen pops to indicate the priority level of an interaction with a buyer based on data within the CRM system about their history.
Along with CRM systems, screen pops can integrate with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menus. These menus are navigable via spoken responses or numerical keypad entry that allow customers to complete support actions over the phone, such as paying a bill or changing a service address. Screen pops can use a customer’s responses within an IVR system to identify the purpose of a call (e.g., support or sales) and display this information once the call is transferred to a call center agent.
Savwoir explains that Star2Star has installed systems that retrieve and route calls based on the information callers enter via numerical keypad as they navigate IVR menus.
When this information is funneled into call center software, he says, it can assist agents “in driving callers to the right people in the right departments for large organizations. For example, this has been used with an auto parts dealer to route VIP customers to the best staff for handling classic car restorations.”
Going back to our data, 22 percent of case studies also cite the addition of click-to-call functionality. This allows a user to dial a phone number with one click, without leaving the software. Click-to-call can be enabled within email, CRM systems and other business applications. UC systems can also route incoming calls made via click-to-call links on Web pages.
The prevalence of screen-pop and click-to-call functionality is not surprising: Among the case studies we analyzed, call center and CRM solutions are the most common types of software involved in UC system integrations.
Call center software, which often includes screen pop and click-to-call functionality, depends more on integrations with other kinds of software (e.g., CRM systems) than other, more basic business VoIP solutions do. This helps explain why both call center and CRM solutions are popular in our case study sample.
Salesforce is the top proprietary CRM solution in our sample (6 percent). This isn’t surprising, given Salesforce’s dominance of the market for cloud-based CRM.
Interestingly, despite recent pronouncements of the death of once-popular DIY CRM systems, 8 percent of the custom integrations in our sample of case studies are with in-house CRM solutions (i.e., ones that businesses had built themselves). Integrations with Microsoft and Google applications are also quite common.
Despite the appearance of DIY CRM solutions in the case study literature, our research shows that most businesses need a partner to help customize and integrate their UC systems.
Channel partners are the local and national resellers of major VoIP vendors: For example, West IP Communications is a reseller of Cisco’s Hosted Collaboration Solution. These organizations do the grunt work of integration in nearly half of the case studies in our sample. Direct assistance from vendors is slightly rarer, though still fairly common. Third-party consulting firms also help integrate UC systems for 6 percent of the organizations in our sample.
Only 14 percent of organizations sampled look solely to in-house IT personnel in order to customize and integrate their systems. These findings suggest that businesses will need a capable IT team with bandwidth for major strategic projects if they want to perform an integration themselves.
Of course, case studies are promotional in their intent, and thus not necessarily the best source of information on the feasibility of custom integrations. As such, we turned to the support forums for Microsoft and Cisco’s UC solutions: two vendors that have had a huge influence on the ongoing evolution of unified communications. We find that posts about UC system integrations from the IT personnel who’ve actually attempted them paint a slightly different picture than the case study literature.
One problem with using case studies to gather data on UC integrations is that they never focus on integrations between UC solutions from multiple vendors. (After all, case studies are first and foremost promotional materials.) However, in the support communities for Microsoft's and Cisco’s UC solutions (e.g., Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber and Cisco Unified Communications Manager), this is easily the most common integration scenario, appearing in 35 percent of these forum threads.
This begs the question: Why do organizations want to unify disparate UC systems? The answer is that most companies seek to either federate systems between parent companies and subsidiaries, or between partner companies.
“Federation” refers to the process of integrating communications systems at multiple organizations. The justification for federation is generally the need to maximize return on the IT investments of subsidiaries.
For example, if an acquired company uses a different IM application than its parent company, it may be less expensive to “federate” the two applications so they work together, rather than to install a totally new IM system.
The most common integration described in these forums is the federation of IM/presence capabilities between the UC clients installed on employees’ desktops, laptops and mobile devices (presence is a status display that indicates whether a contact within a directory is available to communicate).
Among posts that mention federations between IM/presence applications, those with Google Apps (e.g., Google Hangouts) are particularly common, appearing in 15 percent of our overall sample.
Organizations also seek to federate conferencing solutions, voicemail-to-email functionality (for subsidiaries/partner companies using different email clients and servers) and private branch exchange (PBX) systems.
PBX systems enable call routing between extensions in a central corporate directory. For example, a number of IT personnel intend to use Microsoft’s and Cisco’s UC products to integrate on-premise PBX systems from multiple vendors at their branch locations. Such integrations allow for unified dial plans and call routing across locations.
Examples of integrations between UC systems and security or paging systems are also much more common in support forums than in the case studies we analyzed.
For example, a number of IT personnel want to use UC systems for voice-enabled door entry. Here, entering a code at the door pings the security guard, who communicates via voice with the visitor to determine whether to unlock the door. Other posts focus on using UC systems to control security cameras, many of which now transmit data over IP.
Still other posts focus on integrating UC systems with intercom paging systems, or using the speakers of IP phones as a paging system. Mass notification systems are increasingly popular, not just for schools and hospitals, but also for IT help desks—for example, to blast notifications to IP phone displays when a program or service is down. (Mass notifications via text and voice also appear in 8 percent of the case studies in our sample.)
While case studies generally report solely on successful integrations, forum threads can contain valuable data on integration attempts gone awry. We tracked whether the problems mentioned in threads were resolved in order to determine which software integrations are most successful.
The following chart breaks down successful integrations by software and hardware type:
Overall, IT personnel have far more success integrating multiple UC applications than integrating UC applications with other types of systems. Office productivity software also accounts for a significant portion of successful integrations.
These findings suggest there are two strategies for integrating a UC system:
The low percentage of successful integrations with CRM systems is probably not an indication of how difficult this type of integration is. Rather, VoIP vendors simply offer more pre-built integrations with CRM systems and office productivity solutions than with other kinds of software, thus eliminating the need to self-perform this work.
Interestingly, there are significant differences between Microsoft’s and Cisco’s UC solutions in the success rates for different kinds of integrations:
Of course, the primary reason for the discrepancies in the above charts is that these vendors have different strengths and different visions of what “UC” means. For example, posts in Microsoft’s forums tend to focus on integrations with its Office 365 productivity solution, whereas posts in Cisco’s forums focus on using Cisco’s call control software (Cisco Unified Communications Manager) with third-party call accounting and UC applications.
The case study literature on UC integrations focuses primarily on custom integrations between CRM and call center solutions. Such integrations are designed to add communications functionality, such as screen pops, click-to-call and data retrieval from IVR systems. For call centers, phone system integrations are more of a necessity than a luxury.
Other case studies focus either on office productivity software or on custom applications that organizations build in-house. Custom integration work will be necessary if you want to unite a DIY solution with your UC system. That said, most businesses prefer to outsource this work to companies that specialize in integrating UC systems.
Forum posts, however, tell a story of federation between UC solutions primarily driven by the need to maximize their return on IT investments after mergers and acquisitions. These federation projects—as well as integration projects focusing on office productivity software—are the most successful kinds of integrations, according to our sample. If you’re seeking to unite branch offices and subsidiaries with corporate headquarters, our findings suggest that federation may be a better route than implementing a fully unified system from scratch.
Office productivity integrations are also far more stable than integrations with more specialized types of software, such as learning management systems, property management systems and so on.
Ten percent of the case studies we reviewed focus on hotels (real estate and property management also constitute 6 percent of our sample). Indeed, some VoIP vendors are beginning to offer pre-built integrations between hospitality management systems and UC systems (though many of the integrations in the case study literature we studied are custom).
While there were some small businesses in our sample of case studies, most organizations had three or more sites and 100 or more employees:
To collect the data in this report, we surveyed hundreds of case studies from 11 different vendors to find examples of custom integrations between UC systems and other kinds of software and hardware. In certain cases, a given product might integrate out of the box with solutions from some vendors, while requiring custom work to integrate with solutions from other vendors. In these cases, we determined whether or not the vendor offered a pre-built integration with the product. We did not include any case studies focusing on pre-built integrations in our sample.
Our analyses of forum threads focused on the Microsoft TechNet forums related to unified communications, as well as these forums in the Cisco Support Community. We counted a thread as “successful” if the user who initiated the thread did not report further problems after their question was answered, or if the user reported that the recommended solution was successful. We counted a thread as “unsuccessful” if the user posted about further issues after implementing the solution, or if the user asked a question about the solution that was never answered.
We primarily examined posts concerning Microsoft Lync (recently rebranded as Skype for Business) and Cisco Jabber, as these are comparable solutions, but we had to factor in other UC products from these vendors to arrive at a statistically significant sampling of posts from the past two years. Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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