Unified Communications for Small Businesses 101
Enterprises had the technology advantage for years. With larger IT teams and bigger budgets than small businesses, enterprises could invest in solutions to streamline employee collaboration and customer service. Then cloud computing came along and leveled the playing field, enabling small businesses to leverage the same unified communications technology as bigger competitors.
With a pay-for-what-you-use model that lets companies scale as they grow, cloud communications technology delivers far more functionality for less than the cost of traditional phone systems. Small businesses can enable seamless remote work, integrate data from siloed systems, and deliver a multichannel customer experience — all from the same platform.
So what is unified communications? Why do small businesses need it? And how can leaders build a technology stack that meets the communication needs of their growing businesses?
What Is Unified Communications?
As the name suggests, unified communications (UC) is technology that unifies multiple communications channels, including voice or video calling, personal or group messaging, and audio or video conferencing. Cloud-based UC solutions might also be referred to as unified communications as a service or UCaaS.
As Gartner points out, "UC products and services can also be integrated with networks and systems, IT business applications, and in some cases, consumer applications and devices." For instance, businesses can integrate customer relationship management (CRM) with UC platforms, enabling company reps to see everything there is to know about customers calling into the business. Many UC solutions can also be integrated with popular file-sharing apps (such as Google Workspace or Office 365), collaboration apps (such as Microsoft Teams), and messaging apps (such as Slack and Facebook Messenger). This way, teams can collaborate in real time while customer service and sales reps can interact with customers using their favorite channels.
Businesses large and small were already adopting UC solutions at a steady pace before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sudden need to transform entire teams into remote workforces boosted demand for secure, streamlined communication and collaboration tools. Thus, the global UC market hit a record high of $78.33 billion in 2020, according to Grand View Research. That data also suggests the market will be valued at $93.52 billion in 2021, grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20.5 percent over the next seven years, and reach $344.84 billion in 2028.
Simply put: UC solutions will only become more popular over time. And if recent trends are any indication, it will also become more sophisticated and maximize the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
How Does UC Work?
Many UC providers (including Vonage) started out as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) providers. This technology, which lets users place voice calls via the internet rather than telephone lines, provided the basis for modern cloud communications platforms. Over the past 20 years, a plethora of new communications channels have emerged — including instant messaging, SMS, and video calling and conferencing — and forward-thinking VoIP providers began adding this functionality to their solutions.
With a robust modern UC platform, teams can use the same system to message their colleagues, video chat with clients, and place voice calls to vendors. If they need to switch a conversation from one channel to another, they can do so seamlessly, without disconnecting the initial interaction.
UC solutions offer features and functionality that traditional office phone systems don't, including visual voicemail, paperless fax, call forwarding with mobile phone integration, and call recording capabilities. With the right integrations, UC platforms become even more powerful — for example, adding the ability to click-to-dial from shared files, automatically log customer calls in CRM, and view screen pop-ups that provide information about incoming customer calls, including relevant account details.
Channels and customer data are streamlined, which makes communications (and overall operations) far more efficient.
How Does UC Improve Communication Efficiency?
With UC, users don't need a desk phone and a half-dozen logins to access communications channels and data — just an internet-connected device and a single username and password. This means they can have secure business conversations from anywhere, return missed calls in between meetings at client sites, access client data during business travel, or simply work from home.
Mobility became particularly important during the pandemic, and although remote work is no longer a necessity for many businesses, the trend is expected to persist well beyond COVID-19. In a September 2021 Gallup poll, 76 percent of employees who worked from home during the pandemic said their employers will continue to permit remote work going forward at least part-time. Three in 10 said they were extremely likely to change employers if their companies eliminated remote work entirely.
Even if employees are sitting at desks in an office, UC helps them save time looking for information. Rather than toggling between communications apps and information systems, they can view all the information they need from colleagues and about customers inside a single platform via a user-friendly dashboard. Data from integrated apps and databases is synced and thus current, and all the necessary communications channels are at the users' fingertips.
By improving communication efficiency, UC improves operational efficiency. Long phone calls, even longer email threads, and unnecessary meetings become a thing of the past when teams have a variety of communications tools. When teams do have meetings — via phone or video conferencing — they can record them so leaders don't have to waste time filling in absent employees on what they missed. These recordings can also be used for training purposes to bring new hires up to speed quickly.
What Are the Types of UC Platforms?
Cloud-based applications and business software have become increasingly popular in recent years, but not all UC solutions require cloud hosting. What's the difference, and which makes the most sense for small businesses?
Cloud-Based UC Solutions (UCaaS)
With UCaaS, communications software and data are hosted by the UC provider in the cloud and are accessible via the internet, so employees can communicate from anywhere using any internet-connected device. The UC provider is responsible for securing data, upgrading software, and ensuring disaster recovery and business continuity. There is no equipment for the company's IT department to install or servers to maintain, and businesses only pay for what they need, so it's easy to scale up or down as the business grows or downsizes. Many providers also make it easy to work with key business apps, either through native integrations with select third-party vendors or through open APIs.
On-Premises UC Solutions
On-premises communications platforms give businesses complete control over their communications channels and data and can be customized to meet the business's needs. But they also require a greater upfront cost and far more IT resources. The company's IT department must set up and maintain servers on-site, build out a communications infrastructure, and purchase licenses for each team member to use the platform. A highly qualified IT team can enhance data security by adding firewalls to prevent hacking, but without the right skills and security resources, this option can also expose businesses to greater security threats. On-premises solutions are typically more expensive due to the hardware costs, harder to integrate with third-party business systems and apps, more complicated to access remotely, and less efficient to scale. For each new hire, IT has to set up a workstation with the requisite hardware, purchase UC platform licenses, and install software.
Examples of UC Platforms for Small Businesses
In general, UC refers to any platform that combines at least two different communication modalities, so these solutions vary dramatically from one vendor to the next both in terms of communications channels as well as features and functionality.
For example, both Skype and Zoom can be classified as UC platforms because they offer voice and video calling and conferencing capabilities. But neither solution provides a full suite of communications channels or the wide features and functionality that a sophisticated UCaaS solution has to offer.
While Skype and Zoom began as video conferencing apps, other UC solutions began as VoIP providers and later added more communications channels and features. But some solutions are more robust than others, and some focus on either internal or customer communication. For example, Genesys offers contact center as a service (CCaaS) with complex enterprise functionality that small businesses might never use, while Aircall offers a more scaled-back CCaaS solution with fewer bells and whistles. However, neither solution is geared toward internal communication and collaboration.
Vonage offers UCaaS and CCaaS and has merged the two systems for even greater operational efficiency, team collaboration, and customer service improvements. For example, contact center employees can forward customer calls to internal experts that don't work in the contact center, and bundling the two services costs less than paying for different solutions for different teams.
How to Choose the Right Provider
Whether a small business needs UCaaS, CCaaS, or a combination of the two, there are many different vendors that offer these solutions. But not all providers are created equal. So, how can businesses evaluate UC solutions to find the right provider?
Make Sure You Receive the Right Features
Does the solution include all the communications channels the business needs, or will integrations be required to add SMS, messaging, and other critical functionality?
Does the solution enable call forwarding, intelligent routing, virtual assistants, and any other communications features the business needs?
It's important to answer these questions with a forward-thinking mindset. Maybe the business doesn't need paperless fax or chatbots right now, but if these might become relevant in the future, it's easier to invest in a comprehensive solution in the beginning than to piece various apps together later.
Make Sure It's Scalable
For small businesses, it's wise to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Hopefully, the company will continue to grow and hire, but if budgets get tight and workforces must be downsized, leaders don't want to pay for licenses they're no longer using. That's why it's important to find out whether potential vendors can scale as the company grows and how easy it is to scale back during tough economic times.
Make Sure It Integrates With Your CRM and Other Key Business Technology
Every business has certain critical business systems and applications, and the more of those that can be integrated with the UC solution, the more processes can be automated, data can be synced, and productivity can be boosted. Before investing in a UC solution, it's wise to determine whether it plays nicely with the business's most important third-party software.
Make Sure It's Secure and Reliable
Data security and platform uptime can vary dramatically from provider to provider, so it's important for businesses to know how data is secured from malicious attacks. What are the provider's security features, protocols, and certifications? Just as importantly, what are the provider's average uptime and business continuity guarantees?
These are essential questions to ask any potential vendor or, better yet, their customers. Online reviews from users and industry experts can tell you more about a vendor than they will.
Benefits of Using UC for Your Small Business
So why should small businesses invest in UC solutions? And how does this provide an advantage over traditional business phone systems and help companies outpace less tech-savvy competitors?
Siloed data and human latency can create communication gaps and snafus that are inefficient and frustrate employees and customers alike. UC makes it easy for employees across departments and locations, whether they're working from home or anywhere else in the world, to collaborate and share real-time data.
UCaaS is a powerful business solution on its own, but integrating it with critical business apps makes these solutions even more valuable to small businesses and their teams. Not only does integrating this technology improve communications efficiency, but it also gets customer data out of silos and provides accurate, real-time insights.
Better Customer Experience
Whether businesses use UCaaS, CCaaS, or a combination of the two, these solutions enable businesses to interact with customers on their preferred channels. With CRM integration, customer service reps get screen pop-ups for incoming calls so they can easily access the customer's profile and account history and have all the information they need to thoroughly answer questions and provide prompt support. And thanks to call recording and analytics, customer service and sales managers know how reps are performing and can provide specific feedback and tailored training to improve the overall customer experience.
Lower Communications Costs
Unifying communications into a single platform means paying a single vendor. On average, Vonage Business Communications customers save 36 percent compared with traditional phone service, which doesn't include video calling, messaging, AI-enhanced features, and all the other functionality that comes with UC. Plus, with cloud-based UC, there are no upfront hardware costs or licenses to purchase.
Communications technology has evolved quickly in recent years and will continue to do so as UC providers innovate. From AI-enhanced features such as chatbots and voice assistants to omnichannel contact centers with social media integration to whatever comes next, UC platforms are the future of business communications. And thanks to the great equalizing power of the cloud, large enterprises aren't the only ones that benefit. Small businesses can access the same technology to unite their workforce and surprise and delight their customers.