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What is Unified Communications?
Unified Communications (UC), also known as Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS), is a cloud-based platform that bundles several key business communication and collaboration systems into one unified platform and interface.
Unified Communications technology lets users access several real-time communication channels on their preferred device within a single “unified” interface, as opposed to constantly having to switch between different applications and devices.
With Unified Communications systems, users can communicate internally and externally through:
- Cloud-based voice telephony
- Instant messaging
- SMS texting from a dedicated business phone number
- Video conferencing
- Website live chat
- Send and receive paperless fax
- Interactive file and screen sharing
- Virtual whiteboards
How Unified Communications Works
Unified Communications (UC) uses a high-speed Internet connection to send/receive data via the VoIP/SIP network instead of the standard PSTN.
For example, the VoIP network converts vocal sounds into small data packets when communicating via voice. These data packets then travel over the Internet to the recipient and reassemble into decipherable words/sentences.
With UC platforms, users can connect via the unified app or any browser on their smartphones, desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and even smartwatches.
In addition to including many modes of communication, it’s also common for Unified Communications systems to have customization options through API integrations that allow for interoperability with other popular platforms and services. For instance, a specific Unified Communications solution might let you incorporate activity from external locations such as Microsoft Office, Zendesk, or G Suite.
Given that Unified Communication systems can vastly improve team communication and collaboration, increase employee productivity, and offer major operational cost savings, the rising demand for them isn’t surprising.
Conversations are automatically synced across channels and devices. Users can start a conversation on one channel, like SMS texting, and finish it on another, like social media messaging, without missing a beat.
Unified Communications (UC) streamlines business communication and offers increased flexibility for customers and employees by offering multiple modes of communication (often with advanced features) within a single platform.
Unified Communications and Collaboration
While Unified Communications and Collaboration go hand in hand, there is a distinction between the two solutions. Unified Communications strongly focuses on providing multiple business communications channels with audio, video conferencing, and instant messaging.
On the other hand, collaboration is about enabling teams to effectively work together on a single goal. These collaboration tools will generally include communication features. Collaboration tools will generally include some of the following:
- Instant messaging
- Project / Task assignment
- File sharing and editing
- Screen sharing
- Virtual whiteboards
So, as you can see, there is a large overlap between Unified Communications and a Collaboration platform.
The two concepts differ slightly but are generally combined under the same umbrella of UCC.
Unified Communications Essential Features
Below, we’ll cover the most important communication channels and additional Unified Communications features to look for.
VoIP Audio Calling
Because users make phone calls over the Internet instead of via the PSTN, VoIP phone systems provide unlimited local and long-distance calls and reduced rates for international calls. By switching from traditional phone systems to VoIP, companies can reduce monthly telecom bills by more than half.
Admins can create toll-free vanity numbers, local business phone numbers, and user/department extensions.
Especially given the rise in the remote workforce, face-to-face video meetings are one of the most important communication channels.
Blended teams can communicate quickly, switch between devices during video calls, schedule meetings ahead of time, or start ad hoc meetings from the instant messaging interface.
Unified Messaging allows real-time communication across several messaging platforms, including chat messaging, SMS text messaging, social media messaging, and MMS messaging.
Because messages are synched within the singular Unified Communications interface, conversations can seamlessly transition from one messaging channel to another.
Chat messaging can be used as a standalone communication channel or in conjunction with video conferencing.
Users can send/receive public and private chat messages, create channels for departments, teams, or projects, and upload files in the chat interface. Agent status updates allow users to see who is currently available/online, away, offline completely or has enabled Do Not Disturb.
In addition to allowing users to send/receive individual messages from their desktop computers and mobile devices, business SMS texting makes sending mass marketing messages much easier. Many UCaaS platforms also allow for messages on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram Messaging in addition to other social media platforms.
The UCaaS tool will automatically synch conversation histories across devices and communication channels to prevent customers and co-workers from having to repeat themselves.
Team Collaboration Tools
UC team collaboration tools like real-time team chat messaging, live file editing and version control prevent miscommunications and let users send/receive quick answers and updates without needing constant emails.
Basic task management functionalities clear team member expectations, simplify keeping up with deadlines and multiple projects, and help identify workflow roadblocks.
Digital whiteboards let users collaborate on ideas and concepts and help to keep track of key points in meetings, while screen-sharing tools ensure everyone is on the same page through more hands-on communication.
Unified Communications systems also offer virtual faxing, where users send/receive faxes via email instead of fax machines.
End users will receive faxes even if they’re on the phone when the fax comes in. They can also store previous faxes within the tier UC system and get notifications when a fax has been delivered.
Though some unified communication tools have basic CRM (customer relationship management) and project management features, their goal is not to replace your current third-party business software but rather to integrate with it.
Unified Communications integrates within preferred CRM software (like Salesforce) or project management and collaboration apps (Microsoft Teams, Avaya, etc.) into one interface without switching from one application to another.
Unified Communications app marketplaces let users choose tools to integrate with the platform, providing a highly customizable experience.
Unified Communications Use Cases by Industry
Now, let’s look at some more specific Unified Communications use cases by industry or business.
Within the healthcare industry, UC is used to:
- Offer HIPAA-compliant telemedicine and telehealth services to patients
- Unite a patient’s entire care team
- Provide instant access to patient forms, medical history, etc.
- Access real-time patient data from IoT healthcare devices (heart monitors, etc.)
Retail and eCommerce
Unified Communications in the retail and eCommerce worlds:
- Lets customers place, pay for and pick up orders via SMS text messaging, or other channels
- Allows for customer self-service or personalized customer service through IVR phone systems
- Lets customers track the live location and shipping status of orders
- Lets in-person and online salespeople check current stock or use knowledge bases/wikis to provide additional information to customers.
In the manufacturing industry, cloud-based UC services help to:
- Improve the supply chain management process by allowing vendors, suppliers, distributors, etc. to communicate with each other
- Alert entire teams/departments in case of a mechanical failure, shipment delay, etc.
- Get production and shipment updates
- Work with teams to improve business processes and the product development process
Within the education sector, Unified Communications is used to:
- Instantly message the entire campus in the event of an emergency
- Connect faculty and departments to coordinate events, discuss student progress, develop curriculum, etc.
- Update students about assignments, grades, class schedules, syllabi, etc.
- Offer students a complete virtual classroom experience
Home Services Providers
With home services providers like pest control experts, landscapers, plumbers, or electricians, UC systems can:
- Let customers book, reschedule, cancel, or receive notifications for upcoming appointments
- Simplify the technician scheduling process to ensure certain techs aren’t overwhelmed while others are underused
- Provide a direct line of communication between the technician and homeowner without compromising phone number privacy
- Send customer surveys and collect responses/feedback
How to Get Started with Unified Communications: Profile Existing Setup
The first step to the entire process is understanding what you currently have. Take the time to profile your entire existing communications setup, as well as some basic information about your internal and external forms of communication. From here, you can begin to shape an idea of how your business is currently operating and what the logistical needs might be.
Generally, you want to make a note of:
- Current and future locations
- The number of end-users in total and at each location
- Existing provider contracts and agreements for both equipment, and service
- Existing hardware and equipment – desk phones, mobile phones, network architecture like modems, routers, switches
- Inventory and understand your existing LAN or WAN networks, and network security, including any firewalls
- Current network traffic and utilization levels – an important step to help understand if your business must upgrade their network or prevent any common hosted PBX implementation issues
- Any existing collaboration tools used by current teams – email, video conferencing services, chat apps
What to Look For in a Unified Communications System
There are several equally important ways to evaluate Unified Communications platforms.
Cloud-UC means that the service provider hosts your services within their data centers. Your provider should offer a minimum guaranteed uptime of 99.99%.
Ask how the company maintains that uptime, how they notify users in case of a problem, and the average response and resolution time to system problems. Look at what types of maintenance and repairs are the company’s responsibility in your contract and which ones you’re expected to manage and pay for on your own.
Finally, make sure the platform integrates with your most essential business software.
Remember, a Unified Communications system isn’t necessarily meant to replace all your existing third-party applications — and your team members may feel more comfortable still working on platforms they know how to use.
Additional signs of a superior UCaaS system include:
- Interoperability with current or compatible hardware (headsets, desk phones, etc.)
- Installation process
- Available add-on features
- User training
- Compatible and complete mobile app
- Positive user experience
- User-friendly interface
- 24/7 customer service and support
- Phased migration from your existing system to the new provider platform
- Ease of use
- SLA and Security Compliance (PCI, HIPAA, GDPR, etc.)
- Service configurations
Top Trending Unified Communications Solutions
Now that you know what UCC solutions can offer your business, it’s time to start researching top providers.
The below comparison table provides an excellent starting point, outlining top UC solutions, pricing, top features, and more.
|Solution||Nextiva ONE||RingCentral MVP||GoToEnterprise||Vonage Cloud||Zoom United|
|Pricing||Four paid plans from $14.95-$57.95/user per month for 20-99 users||Four plaid plans from $19.99-$49.99/user per month for up to 10 users||Three paid plans from $19.00-$39.00/user per month for up to 10 users||Three paid plans, with popular plan of up to 49 users from $14.99-$34.99/user per month||Three paid plans from $250.00-$360.00/user per year|
|What It Is||A cloud-based UC solution with a phone system, fax, video, and team chat focused on VoIP communication.||A cloud UCaaS platform combining team messaging, SMS texting, video conferencing, and a business phone system with industry-specific integrations||A UCaaS solution that combines GoToConnect, GoToWebinar, GoToMeeting, and more in a single platform||A highly scalable cloud-based UCaaS platform with a phone system, video conferencing, SMS messaging, team chat, and online faxing features with over 50 native VoIP features||A combined Zoom Video Meetings, Zoom Phone, and team chat UCaaS solution for 1,000+users|
|Best For||Small and midsize businesses with a high daily call volume and a high number of geographically diverse remote/blended teams||Medium-sized businesses within the education, tech, or manufacturing industries that communicate primarily via phone||Larger-sized businesses that are rapidly growing and need a UCaaS system that offers a complete set of bundled features for internal and external communications||SMBs of 50 or fewer employees that work mainly in-office, not remotely, that need to add features a la carte instead of purchasing bundled plans||Small businesses that are current Zoom web conferencing users and need to upgrade to a UC solutions with a primary focus on video communications|
|More Info||Nextiva UC Pricing & Plans||RingCentral UC Pricing & Plans||GoToConnect UC Pricing & Plans||Vonage Cloud UC Pricing & Plans||Zoom UC Pricing & Plans|
Is Unified Communications Right for Your Business?
Of course, we can’t exactly answer this question for you. Adopting UC services is not a light one and will require a lot of extra homework. Before jumping into the investment, your business should take a long, hard look at how your team and reps currently communicate, the cost associated with existing solutions, and the potential benefits a new solution might bring.
Just because UC tools are the latest trend, and these solutions seem compelling doesn’t mean that your business may need such a transformation, and you might suffice with a more basic business VoIP solution or Hosted PBX system.
Generally, UCaaS is a good fit for just about any business. We are quick to recommend Unified Communications solutions over legacy communication tools like basic phone calls and email simply because of everything these platforms will bring to the table. However, jumping into a new solution without the right education could end up a recipe for disaster.
The last thing you want to do is set out to improve business communications but end up with a messy, complicated system that no one wants to learn to use.
Unified Communications and Collaboration solutions can revolutionize your business’s interaction, but it has to be ready for digital transformation.
Test Drive Before You Commit
So you’ve profiled your existing network, tested your internet connection and infrastructure, surveyed teams and end-users to understand exactly what it is you need, and even narrowed down your potential list of providers to 2 or 3.
Great, you’re even closer to reaching a decision and transforming your business communications.
But if two Unified Communications systems vendors are so closely matched in what they can offer, that price doesn’t even come in as a factor. There’s not much else to do than go for a test drive. The whole idea can be compared to purchasing a car — most cars in the same segment will offer the same features, a competitive warranty, and the same size. If looks and price aren’t enough to push you over the edge, then you need a test drive — you have to see what it will be like to use and live with the vehicle. And only on this test drive do potential shoppers understand what works and doesn’t. Paper comparisons can only help so much.
UCaaS can be thought of similarly — providers offer similar features, functions, service levels, customer service, and even pricing. But using the system is how you will know if it works for you and your team. Maybe, after a month, it turns out that no one has even touched online faxing or business SMS texting, so why waste the extra cash? Most providers offer a money-back guarantee and at least a 30-day trial, and we encourage everyone to take advantage of these periods.
Test the system, let users play around and find what features work best, and even stress test the system to see how it handles peak moments or panic situations.
Unified Communications FAQs
Below, we’ve answered some of the most common FAQs about Unified Communications.
As with any software subscription, UCaaS pricing depends on the number of users and the specific plan that you choose. Additional features will also incur extra charges.
That being said, expect to pay anywhere from $15/mo/user from a company like Zoom, up to $39/mo/user from a company like RingCentral for a basic UCaaS system.
Though compliance and security may vary according to provider, high-quality UCaaS systems will have:
- HIPAA compliance
- PCI compliance
- GDPR compliance
- TLS and SRTP secure
- Two-factor authentication
- Third-party security testing
- Tier III data centers with SOC 2 certification
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) refers primarily to voice calling and audio conferencing. Though VoIP software is a part of UCaaS, not all VoIP phone systems will offer unified communications.
In most cases, yes, and you’ll likely sign a contract for a minimum of one year up to three years with the provider you select. That being said, an SLA is a good thing. It allows you to have written documentation of guaranteed uptimes, functionalities the tool must be able to complete, and other specifications. (Learn more in our SLA post.)
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