Unified Communications (UC) has long looked like a solution in need of a problem. It has left many potential buyers confused over what it actually means, what the benefits are and how it helps businesses to find better ways of working.

To a large degree, this confusion has been brought about by a fragmented marketplace, with a multitude of players coming at the topic of UC from different angles. IT and telecoms vendors, network operators, systems integrators and managed service providers, to name a few, have all come up with their own approaches and definitions of UC. And they continue to do so as they evolve their UC solutions with more collaborative, social and multimedia features (see here).

However, in my view, there has been a noticeable shift over the past couple of years in the ways businesses perceive UC and what it can do for them. I see two major drivers behind this. The first is the continued pressure on private and public sector organisations to generate financial efficiencies, which is making UC – especially hosted approaches – an attractive option.

The second is the trend towards remote and flexible working which, thanks to the growth of the mobile Internet and smartphone usage, has helped businesses of all sizes appreciate the advantages of UC in terms of facilitating new and better ways of working. What is more, there is growing evidence that the technology is helping companies tap into new business opportunities they could not have pursued previously.

Speeding response times

At a simple level, UC refers to the integration of fixed and mobile devices. This means that customers and other contacts can reach the person they are trying to talk to first time, regardless of time or location. In addition, employees only have to pick up messages from one voicemail box, and again they can do this from any device. There is also an increasing trend towards mixing in services such as instant messaging (IM), video, file-sharing and shared workspaces.

UC is giving enterprises the chance to improve in several ways, but the biggest advantage is perhaps the opportunity for more efficient working and reduced decision times. With people staying connected and being able to work from almost anywhere using mobile technology, they can rapidly respond to customer enquiries or chase up new business leads.

My own company’s research has shown that nearly one-third of business people expect a reply from a potential supplier within an hour of calling. Another third want a response the same morning or afternoon they call.

It follows that failing to respond to a new business enquiry within this timeframe means lost business, with a significant impact on the bottom line. Our last Critical Response Time Index indicated that, on average, around £30,000 could be lost per missed opportunity. That is £70 billion of potential business lost across the country.

With such huge sums at stake, and ever more aggressive competition, it is not surprising that not only large companies but an increasing number of small and medium-sized businesses are opting for UC. The availability of hosted UC services, which reduce capital investment to virtually zero, have had a major impact on uptake in the SME segment.

However, the capex-to-opex benefit that wins over small businesses is also appealing to larger corporates in search of efficiencies. One contributing factor may be that, beyond just financial advantages, outsourcing frees up time for staff to focus on their core responsibilities, as they no longer have to deal with hardware maintenance and replacement issues, and it improves disaster recovery capabilities.

Sharper focus on performance

The much-discussed advantages of UC are no longer just talk. When Optical Express, the chain of high street opticians, set out to integrate its fixed and mobile communications into a single solution, the main driver was to achieve a 40 per cent reduction in communications costs. However, the benefits have exceeded financial savings, as this new system lets the company to work in new and better ways.

As part of the roll-out, Optical Express has upgraded its IP network to carry voice and data traffic between its head office, stores and call centres, with the added benefit of free VoIP calls. Field workers are now equipped with fully-integrated mobile voice and data services.

Optical Express also operates its Electronic Medical Records (EMR) system over this integrated network. This tracks all aspects of the measurements, tests and images that the company’s optometrists undertake on behalf of customers.

As a result of making this information available centrally, customers do not have to return to the same branch every time, and tests do not have to be conducted multiple times. Staff can securely access data and patient records from wherever they are. With smartphones, staff on the move can respond to customer queries ad hoc, rather than having to schedule a follow-up appointment in store – benefiting the business and its customers.

Expanding without the cost

LetCo, a rapidly growing lettings agency in the Southampton area, is an example of a small business successfully using UC. Previously, staff members had to return to the office to manage piled-up emails and voicemail messages, adding extra hours to their working day. According to owner and founder Oliver Warren, he used to spend approximately 40 per cent of his time dealing with this backlog.

A UC solution allowed the LetCo team to use smartphones to access email and receive landline calls on the road, which has resulted in considerable time and cost savings. This same technology has also meant LetCo has been able to expand geographically, without needing to pay the overheads of local offices, and with minimum staff.

LetCo cleverly uses the Internet as a shop-front, with local landline numbers that are routed to the head office near Southampton. In this way, LetCo has established a ‘virtual’ presence in four other cities, realising a six-figure turnover, and is now looking to take its concept nationwide.

Playing with the big guys

Somerset-based Think Drinks saw a similar impact on its bottom line when it opted for a hosted UC set-up. The company provides soft drinks and pumps to restaurants, pubs and big outdoor events such as the Glastonbury Festival, in competition with the big pub groups and soft drinks companies.

With only seven staff, Think Drinks has been able to grow from a purely regional to national scale, achieving 20 per cent growth over the past year alone. It attributes this largely to the ability to cut response times, for example when a pump fails, thanks to its UC system.

The company can now ensure that no call ever goes unanswered: customer calls can be taken and dealt with quickly, whether staff are in the office or in the field, and employees can work together easily from wherever they are, at their desks or in the field.

With this ability to respond more quickly, Think Drinks is now able to meet the tight SLA requirements set by large national wholesalers and hospitality chains, helping the company expand beyond its traditional base of smaller, local customers.

Clearly, such examples provide strong evidence that UC is finally being demystified. Enterprises are beginning to find better ways of working and understand how the technology can benefit their businesses beyond just straightforward cost savings. By enabling more flexible working approaches, which can shorten decision times and boost responsiveness to customer needs, UC can help create competitive advantages to carve out profitable niches – in new and mature markets alike.