Realizing the Full Benefits of Unified Communications

By Bob Hockman

Unified Communications, or UC, is a buzzword often heard these days within the enterprise and contact center. Although it is not a new concept, UC has only recently become widespread, and those who have implemented it in a successful manner have begun to gain a competitive advantage. But what exactly is UC, and why should you be interested in it?

As the economy rebounds, organizations are reexamining the way they do business as part of an attempt to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve their bottom line. They are extending the life of existing resources, taking advantage of underutilized IP-based networks to solve important business problems, and improving their existing structures and cultures. One key way to accomplish these goals is to improve the internal and external user experience by utilizing multiple channels of communication.

Multiple Communication Channels: Although voice is often still the preferred mode of communication, employees and customers are more frequently beginning to expand the range of methods used. Text messaging, instant messaging, email, Skype, Twitter, and various types of conferencing have become integral parts of the communication process – both within the company and between the company and the customer. An effectively implemented UC structure integrates all of these communication approaches (generally using a Session Initiation Protocol-based [SIP] architecture). When a variety of communication systems are incorporated through UC, the contact center becomes increasingly strategic and more closely incorporated into an organization’s business processes.

However, it is important to remember that making the move from traditional contact center infrastructures to more complex UC environments must be handled carefully. Customers will have negative experiences if network performance suffers while enterprises migrate voice, introduce new video services, or add other channels of communication (such as IM and email) to their existing data infrastructure. Customers experiencing issues will, at best, be annoyed and, at worst, take their business elsewhere. So the next question is: What is the best way to go about gaining the most benefits from a UC infrastructure with the least amount of pain?

Creating a UC Infrastructure: The more widespread the adoption of UC across a company’s internal and external audiences, the greater the benefits. One crucial step to making UC adoption smoother is to ensure that the company’s IP infrastructure is capable of providing adequate resources and intelligently integrating voice, video, and data sessions. UC systems must reach hundreds of thousands of endpoints, and it is critical that every customer contact, whatever the mode, be straightforward and easy to use.

Accomplishing this goal can be challenging. UC environments are complex, composed of many layers of technology developed by multiple vendors. System devices within the environment can include session control and management servers, application servers, media servers, private branch exchanges (PBXs), gateways, and SIP-based endpoints.

Security Is Crucial: Security in this environment also becomes more complicated. With a traditional voice-only system, there is a dedicated circuit for communication. However, with data and voice sharing the same IP infrastructure, the number of places where possible vulnerabilities may reside increases drastically. For instance, a denial of service attack or oversubscribed data services can ultimately result in voice and video quality issues. Understanding traffic variances, as well as vulnerabilities, helps organizations reduce the chances of encountering issues that can affect customer satisfaction.

Understand User Behavior: Moreover, individual company needs are unique. For instance, one company might need to provide access to Web forms or online communication, while another might rely mainly on phone communication. It is important to understand customer behavior and consider it in the planning phase. Otherwise, companies that rely heavily on voice communications could end up dealing with voice quality issues, or those that focus on online forms and data transfer could end up with slow connections that bring communications to a halt. It’s best to understand user behavior from the start to avoid the issues associated with low customer and employee quality of experience.

Test, Test, Test: Once user behavior is understood, the configuration of the UC infrastructure can be determined. The next step is to test each component both on its own and as a part of the integrated system. In this way, organizations can avoid the greatest cause of installation and upgrade issues: inadvertent configuration errors.

In addition, components tested independently often encounter issues once they are integrated with different components from a (potentially) different vendor. If a company waits to test a complete system until it is already in production, one problem can result in a domino effect across the entire environment. At that point, finding the source of the issue can be nearly impossible and can cause serious repercussions across the entire network.

The proper way to accomplish comprehensive testing is to work methodically, using a holistic approach. For instance, start by testing voice systems and use them as a baseline. Then add data and other systems one at a time, testing each one on its own and as part of the whole. Finally, try attacking the system to ensure that security is complete. With a phased approach to end-to-end testing, as described here, organizations can identify the source of any issues in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks, and most importantly, the issues will be discovered before they affect customers.

Once all issues have been discovered and resolved, a UC system is ready to be taken live. It is important to remember that, over time, customer needs may change and traffic may migrate to a different source (for instance, over time a system may experience more data traffic than voice traffic). As such, it is critical to continue to monitor the system to ensure that no issues are experienced, as well as to understand changing customer needs. Furthermore, each time an upgrade or some other change is made to the system, it must again be tested in order to ensure that it remains problem-free.

If companies understand their customers, properly plan their communications environment, and thoroughly test and monitor that environment in a methodical way, they will reap the multiple benefits of UC. Ultimately, they will be able to maintain a more effective and lower-cost environment while keeping their employees happy, gaining new customers, and keeping existing customers coming back for more.

Bob Hockman is the director of product marketing for Empirix, which helps organizations worldwide to accelerate the development, deployment, and profitable operations of new IP communications.

[From the December 2010/January 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]