Ask your average CIO about his business case for unified communications (UC), and the likely answer will come down to cost reduction or avoidance–savings generated by voice-over-IP (VoIP) networks, bills lowered using instant messaging instead of toll calls.
But the real value in UC–improved communications among employees and with customers–is rarely best expressed in dollars and cents.
When Richard Buss began exploring UC in 2010, his goals were straightforward: simplify his telecom infrastructure, cut costs, harden his networks and reduce network redundancy. At the time, the vice president of technology for environmental testing company EMSL Analytical was managing a hodgepodge of phone systems scattered around the company’s 43 sites.
But as he pulled together his UC requirements, he found it wasn’t just the technology that was disjointed. “We hadn’t realized how ‘un-unified’ we sounded to our customers,” Buss says.
Lab staff felt their time was wasted fielding unrelated customer calls. Elsewhere, those taking calls wouldn’t have access to information requested. Customers faced frequent transfers or would land in voicemail. “That experience wasn’t what our customers were looking for,” says Buss, adding that EMSL, whose clients include the Environmental Protection Agency and New York’s Port Authority, lost business as a result. EMSL was staffed with deep subject-matter experts–microbiologists, food scientists, geologists and chemists. But neither customers nor internal employees could find them.
During the yearlong UC rollout, EMSL and vendor Alteva collaborated to map out call flows that essentially created virtual work groups out of like-minded experts scattered throughout the company. Alteva Anywhere, the vendor’s “follow me, find me” service for routing calls to employee cell phones, has been a revenue booster for EMSL, says Buss. “Sales are increasing, we’re getting more new customers and winning back some we lost over time.”
Buss delivered more hard cost savings than expected–cutting telecom costs by a third annually–but he’s wary of putting a number on increased sales or decreased customer churn for fear of taking too much credit. Still, there’s no denying IT’s strategic role. “No one knew how big a problem this was until IT took this on,” says Buss. “We see business problems the way no one else [does].”
There was some user opposition to the kind of Big Brother-like monitoring UC enables. “Now we can find you and you’d better be there to answer the phone,” says Buss. “But now people are seeing the benefits. We are better able to monitor the entire call cycle to figure out what our customers want.”
The 600-person company has also benefited from the disaster-recovery features of UC. No signal? Busy line? The call rolls over to another location seamlessly. “I hadn’t realized how powerful that would be,” Buss says.
Of course, reliability of VoIP is an issue. Buss says the promised 99.999 availability sounds good, but it just isn’t the same as what we’ve come to expect from traditional phone companies. “You just have to look at your vendors, look at your network and make sure you’re just one hop away from the big boys when you need them.”