Best Unified Communications Platforms for Your Small Business

Cody Cromwell
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What Is Unified Communications?

Usually referred to as UCaaS, unified communications is the latest umbrella term for communications solution providers such as switchboard operators, receptionists, and everyone in between. It is a way for a company to integrate all of these communications resources into one unified system that can be controlled from a single device or place.

Unified communications (UC) has many applications. It can be used to help businesses with call routing, voicemail, mailbox, and receptionist services. It also can be used to help departments with inter-office communications and even to link your various lines of business into a single communication platform. In small businesses, unified communications means you can centralize your communications strategy and make sure everyone is on the same page. You might also use unified communications to boost internal employee productivity and help fight against the epidemic of phoning. This is particularly useful if your office is located in a remote part of the map and calls have to be physically made to an individual. For example, with UCaaS, you can have an employee call a remote database or application in a directory that assists with calling or vice versa.

Types of Communication That Can Be Unified

There are two different types of voice communications that can be unified: Speakerphone and Multi-way conference call.

Further divide these into mobile and in-office based, this being for those using their mobile device to make a Nationwide, Global or Regional call.

This includes: Conference calls, Telephone Counters, Interactive Voice Response systems (IVR Systems), Interactive Voice Recording systems (IVR Systems) and other such systems.

Text-Enabled Communications

There are four major types of text-enabled communications systems that can be unified:

  • Instant Messaging
  • Text Messages (SMS)
  • Paging
  • Phone Calls (VoIP)
  • Instant Messaging
  • Voice Messages
  • Text Messages (SMS)
  • Paging
  • Phone Calls (VoIP)
  • Communication Management System

These are used to help in the management of Communications.

These systems ensure that there is no switching between different communication methods to keep the process moving forward.

This can be done through the following methods:

  • Address Book
  • Calls list
  • Conference call list
  • Conference address book
  • Scheduled calls list

Technology used for the Unified Communications Technology Platform:

  • There are three different technologies used for the Unified Communications Technology Platform
  • XML
  • HTML
  • JavaScript

Communication vs Collaboration

Computer science and communications are two different disciplines. They are dealing with different aspects of computing, such as different network topologies, operating systems and operating systems, requirements, etc.

By communicating, we mean sending a message (or information) from one person to another. By collaborating, we mean working together and sharing information with other people. For example, you are collaborating with your team, colleagues, or client, when you are working on a project together.

What does your company do?

If you have a small team but need to work more closely with your colleagues and client, you might want to go with an SIP based voice service for your company.

One of the benefits of SIP based voice services is that you can easily communicate with your clients and also collaborate with your colleagues. Both of these benefits will help your productivity.

However, you can choose a different application in case you just need a single way of communicating with your customers. For example, you might have a blog where you post articles on a regular basis. You can use a blog-based application in this case.

Why Businesses Need Unified Communications Services

A communication system which supports both voice and data needs to be viewed as an essential part of any business. Even if you are a small-sized business, working out of your home or working with a small staff, having a business communication system in place is extremely important. Not having a phone system which can provide and efficient cross-platform communication would put a damper on your business. A unified communications system can help solve that issue.

A unified communication system combines both voice and data communication all in one solution. It can easily cater to the growing demand for voice, video and data communication all at the same time. The major reason for this is that a unified communication system uses a single communication platform.

A unified communication system not only provides all the functions of the traditional communication systems but also integrates with various software. This creates an exceptional communication platform which assists businesses as they grow.

UC Small Business Benefits

Though more businesses are deciding to go Unified Communications (UC), I still remember hearing about this new cool technology during my undergrad. Older generations tend to be more reluctant to embrace new technology and they were the ones that started embraced UC. Over the years, I’ve started to see more of my peers interested in UC and its benefits. And UC is not only beneficial to the businesses but to their staff as well.

With UC, communication between staff members (remote or not) will be easier with various features offered such as call forwarding, soft phone, video chatting and various other features.

If you’re thinking of adopting UC, here’s a list of UC business communication solutions for small businesses to consider:

  • Google
  • Skype for Business
  • Yahoo
  • Salesforce
  • Zendesk
  • Zoho
  • Microsoft

Many of these UC business communication solutions are web without the need to install software on the target phones and PCs. Some are both web and software. They’re all cost-effective, easy to use and very flexible. Each solution listed above deliver a complete solution for an individual’s needs.

You can also consider a combination of these solutions for your business.

Improves Customer Experiences

In a recent company release, Apple announced that customers had made more than 225 million MMS messages sent and received on the company’s iMessage and FaceTime services since the launch of those services.

Besides creating a mobile messaging service for customers, how did the company go about making this happen?

Many in the company knew they wanted to improve the user experience of the products – and as the company notes, ″Our user design process is led by early prototypes and real customer feedback” ″and whether the feedback is positive or negative, we try to learn from it and improve our products.”

Understanding that iMessage and FaceTime were going to be extremely popular with customers, the company created and executed a plan to ensure that these were implemented as soon as possible, so they could ensure the quality of the service.

Increases Productivity

A unified communications platform helps your business communicate across organizations such as your team inside the office, your vendor, and customers outside the office. It’s a platform that acts as an instant messaging, voice, and video communications platform at an affordable cost.

One of the main reasons you should switch to a unified communications platform is that it is a cost effective and easily scalable solution for smaller businesses as well, unlike unified communications systems that require a lot of training institutes.

As an example, let’s suppose that you notice increased productivity and efficiency since you have a unified communications platform. With a unified communications platform such as ManageEngine Unified Communications Manager, you can easily extend the solution to your desktop by adding another license. This way, you do not have to spend time upgrading the product which saves countless hours and money.

Supports Online Collaboration

Report Generation, and Inter-Departmental Communication.

Microsoft’s Lync 2010 is a complete Web-based communication platform that offers the most all-encompassing Unified communications platform available. Whether you’re on a small business, government agency or enterprise, you can enjoy the same great features and capabilities. With Lync 2010, your business can choose from a wide range of deployment options that include cloud, office, enterprise or federation deployment.

The key features that Lync 2010 provides are:

  • It’s flexible and easy to use. You can easily and quickly configure the platform for each individual department or team. And with Lync 2010, everything is always just a one click away.
  • Lync 2010 offers multiple collaboration methods to choose from. You can join meetings online, join an online meeting via dial-in and share documents, presentations, and projects.
  • You can also gain access to a wide range of spoken communications such as phone conferencing, voice recording, and video. Plus you can get help from virtual assistants like Cortana.
  • Voice, video or instant messaging to stay in touch – with Lync 2010, you have the tools you need to interact with your customers, partners, and employees.

Bolsters Business Continuity

While tech is an important business necessity for nearly all, it’s even more so in the small business sector. That’s because you don’t have the benefit of a million dollar budget and physical security to protect your valuable property and data. So, keeping it safe is of the utmost importance.

And keeping it safe is easier said than done. As it relates to communications and voice and video, the best way to do so is through unified communications platforms. unified communications platforms offer such capabilities as meetings, group chat, conference calling, video conferencing, file sharing, and many more. Not only do they act as communications and collaboration tools, but they also act as a business continuity tool.

The purpose of a unified communications platform is to combine and integrate multiple solutions under one umbrella so that it becomes easy to do and manage. In other words, one solution that can meet all of your company’s communications needs at one time.

Enhances Employee Experiences

VoIP uses fast Internet connections, software-based call control, and small, inexpensive, voice-only switches to provide a high standard of voice communications for a wide range of business purposes. And in particular, it’s easy to initiate calls and to place calls to mobile devices and another office or business location, with a consistent quality of service.

In comparison to many unified communications platforms, a SIP-based phone system is fairly simple to deploy and cost effective to implement, and it enhances worker morale because of the ease of use. While some organizations have VoIP phones individually assigned to each worker, often businesses use a legacy PBX system that has a single phone number for each business location, and when employees use a VoIP phone, they simply make a call using that phone number to get connected to a desired business application. This is similar to the way some organizations now have a single phone number for each business location that all employees can use, which has enhanced employee experiences.

Reduces Costs While Increasing Revenue

Your small business might be slowly growing, but you’re not quite ready to make the leap and spend more resources on the phone system and online voice solution like Skype for Business, Office 365, or Google Voice. In case you’re not convinced of the need for your company to use any Microsoft-based phone system, think of the possible 1-to-1 or remote access using PCs or smartphones, as well as instant message capabilities as the most valued features in any Unified Communications Platform. And once you’ve finally made the decision to consider a Microsoft phone system for your small business, you’ll realize you’d need to have a more sizeable system to support your growing enterprise.

But before you consider a Microsoft solution to your Small Business Unified Communications Platform, you should know that no matter how small your company is, you can always find a low-cost alternative that fits your needs. There are many Unified Communications Platforms available online and offline that you can use to improve your communications inside your company, as well as between your personnel and clients. Look for the Unified Communications Platforms that offer the most features, and compare and contrast the costs of each model to get the most bang for your buck. Once you’ve settled on the product that best suits your needs, you can gather your team and explore its features one piece at a time.

Examples of Unified Communications Platforms

To really understand Unified Communications, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of how it works in regard to different business sectors. I’ve broken down some of the more popular Unified Communications (UC) products and explained how each of them can be used in the small business sector.

Nextiva

By Asterisk: A Unified Communications Solution

Creating a unified communications strategy for your small business can be challenging, as you have to decide which communication system to use and integrate your existing services. Fortunately, there are a number of solutions available today with Nextiva by Asterisk being one of the best.

8×8

If you’re a small business owner with a limited budget, one of our favorite features of inexpensive phone systems is the ability to integrate with a Unified Communications platform.

A Unified Communications platform is a hosted application that can combine multiple aspects of communication such as email, phone, chat, and video feedback along with instant messaging and audio conferencing into a single platform. By using this platform, all of the communications fall into a single communication stream, which removes the need for multiple programs, multiple phone lines, or multiple email accounts. Instead, you can consolidate all of your communications into a single program and use the integrated features to communicate with your customers and employees.

Additionally, integrating your collaboration software with a Unified Communications platform can reduce the costs associated with upgrading your hardware. You can keep your current internal phone system and simply add a Unified Communications program to your existing hardware.

When selecting a Unified Communications platform, there are a variety of things to consider based on your business’s needs and budget. Regardless of whether you’re looking for a stand alone platform or a hosted option, there are a few things every business owner should be aware of:

Web Interfaces:

RingCentral

When it comes to choosing the right cloud infrastructure to power your small business, most companies select the Unified Communications platform on which their business needs to run. Unified Communications software offers a comprehensive and heavy-duty portal, which incorporates all the major technologies and a lot more. The Unified Communications App Platform is where the big-ticket items of Unified Communications shine. It allows you to create engaging online services via APIs and Web-based client apps, and RingCentral is leading the pack with this. The RingCentral platform drops in the UCC as the shiny new object in town, and, as such, it powers many of the best and most innovative UCC programs. In fact, it’s very rare for any UCC program to be a solo affair. With RingCentral, your business gains easy access to a rich array of services and tools which, when used together, can create a powerful and entirely customizable Integrated Communications Experience.

RingCentral is a UCC provider that provides industry-standard, cost-effective values for voice and video, along with additional work force management among its many enthralling features. RingCentral is a reliable platform for Unified Communications, and their excellent platform will help you find any Unified Communications feature that you need at a fair price. RingCentral provides you with a range of neat Unified Communications features which accommodate a great deal of different business needs.

UC Features That Support Small Company Communication

As a business owner, you have many communication needs to serve, from immediate response to the needs of clients and employees to long-term, strategic interactions with vendors and partners. In today’s business world, small companies are challenging the status quo to look for more efficient means of communication that facilitate faster, cost-effective solutions.

A small business’s requirements for communications vary greatly depending on the type of business and the size of its workforce. To use your time wisely and to keep your business running smoothly, you’ll need a Unified Communications platform to help manage all your communication channels.

When choosing a UC platform, there are several key features that make a significant impact on productivity and employee satisfaction:

  • Simple management. If you’re dealing with a mentally and physically challenged employee or a substitute, take advantage of automation features and minimize work by placing and managing calls automatically.
  • A robust agent experience. Save precious time by enabling the agent to get information on calls, answers, and other data from the agent’s PC.
  • Asset tracking. Gain peace of mind from knowing exactly where your company’s physical and virtual assets are at all times.
  • Spillover protection. Have the ability to manage any number of calls simultaneously using a computer screen view and a private voice channel.

Integrations

Google Hangouts (Chat).

Mobility

Is a hot topic right now, and with good reasons. And with the most advanced new Unified Communications platform called Avaya, mobility is not for the office alone.

With its next generation UC platform, a truly open platform, Avaya allows you to select the solution that best meets your needs. With the ability to integrate multiple products from different vendors, the platform can be tailored to your business needs. And, the platform is focused on meeting your communication needs.

With focus on mobility, the platform features a push-to-talk application and wide-band technology for better voice quality. The server appears as a browser and mobile browsers make it easier for employees to engage in collaboration from their own phones and tablets.

Building on a solid foundation, the Avaya Aura System 10 is a secure, flexible and intelligent system designed specifically for small businesses. It delivers unified communications by combining voice, video and voice mail, rapid messaging with new Web conferencing, and phone-based and IP telephony services.

With Avaya Aura System 10, small businesses can combine all communications as a single integrated platform, providing the system flexibility and modularity to adapt to changing needs.

Video Conferencing

Chances are, you’ve already heard of the benefits of a video conferencing platform. In today’s business world, it has become almost a standard for employees to use video conferencing technology for a variety of purposes.

Video conferences, for example, allow you to communicate with your team in the same time zone and give you a more seamless, effortless experience. You may also use video conferencing for:

  • Product demos … to show clients how to use your product or service
  • To meet with clients and potential customers
  • To communicate product knowledge and resolution
  • To collaborate or work alongside colleagues in different locations

Did you know that video conferencing is only one of the many benefits of your Unified Communications platform? Like so many other services, video conferencing also offers more benefits than you probably realize.

Carol Kubeho, an author of the …IT Asset Management” blog, says that Video conferencing tools are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. As these technologies advance, video conferencing tools are turning away from what was once known as …basic internet collaboration” …towards real communications.

Auto-attendant

(analog)

The classic implementation of auto-attendant is a machine with a variety of voice mail prompts to guide the caller through the auto-attendant process. In the analog world, auto-attendants were limited by the technology of the day and for the cost of hardware. The system would pick the caller up and guide them through the process of having their voice mail sent to their phone. The process for setting up an auto-attendant is simple, but a bit different depending on the system you are using. From there, you need to know the extensions of your users and assign them to a group to access the system. With that done you can start recording your own prompts.

The advantage to this type of auto-attendant is the simplicity of use and the low cost of hardware. Some of the disadvantages are limited configuration and the need for a costly PBX to provide the dial tone. The cost of hardware can be offset by purchasing auto-attendants used, as these are available at a low cost. They also provide a lot of creative control, but require you to set up and maintain the system.

The biggest benefit to this type of system is set-up, take-down is minimal. As mentioned earlier this is often used in areas where there is limited space. There are a lot of benefits to this type of auto-attendant based on your business needs. It should be considered for its cost, simplicity, and accessibility.

Team Messaging

Unified Communications (UC) is the umbrella term for a collection of technologies that allow employees to communicate, collaborate and share information in real-time with each other and with external people, systems and applications.

UC technology makes it easy for employees to communicate and collaborate in a way that supports the organization’s business growth, profitability and overall mission. In addition, UC technologies can conserve IT resources, such as time and money by enabling employees to communicate with other employees and other resources outside the organization, reducing the load on IT resources and allowing them to focus on more complex and futuristic projects.

The four basic segments of UC technologies are as follows:

Voice and Voice Colocation

Group communications (i.e. video chats, file sharing, conferencing and management tools)

Instant messaging (e.g. Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Sametime)

Virtual work areas and tools (e.g. Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat)

All the above segments are part of Unified Communications (UC) which is described as a comprehensive collection of applications and services that facilitate communications for the benefit of business. Wikipedia lists the following ‘Intended Audience’ for UC:

  • Large enterprises where vital business processes are affected by independent employees who are in different locations
  • Small and medium-sized businesses
  • Telecommunications service providers and access providers used in the implementation of UC solutions

Business SMS

With the cost of phone minutes on the rise, it’s a great time to consider using SMS text messaging. It’s important for businesses to consider a variety of SMS delivery methods including traditional SMS delivered by your local SMS gateway and web delivered SMS.

Text Message Delivery Methods

Traditional SMS Delivery: Using a traditional SMS gateway feature, your business client will receive their text messages directly on their cell phones as text messages.

Web delivered SMS: Just like your landline phone service, web messages will come directly to your cell phone though a virtual number.

Screen Sharing

Have you ever been in a meeting with someone and thought, ‘Man, we have a really need for real-time collaboration.’ In these rare occurrences, it’s important to take advantage of a feature that’s existed and flourished within the Microsoft Office Suite for years. I’m sure you’ve used it to share your screen with someone else, or perhaps to invite more people via the ‘Who’s there?’ option in Skype or Lync 2010.

Surely, these restrictions are justifiable, because the technology that supports screen sharing and chats have come a long way. However, these strict restrictions can damage the potential of contact centre services. You can call them restrictions, or you can call them practical reasons, but either way they’re still valid. You can’t pass information across the screen without long pre-scripted conversations, or you can’t create bots based on how the users’ voices interact with each other.

Telephony has been replaced by videoconferencing; with IM and e-mail rapidly decreasing in importance. In such a fast moving business environment, the ability to have video conferencing, collaboration and contact centers are becoming increasingly important to your business strategy so as to keep up with the competitors.

Today, UC solutions enable businesses of all sizes to compete in this increasingly competitive business environment by providing real time contact center services that are designed to deliver great customer experience, seamless collaboration among employees and executives across offices or countries.

Microsoft's Lync business communications platform is a unified communications platform that includes video, instant messaging and presence, voice, high quality audio, presence, collaboration, and mobility. It's a great business communications solution for small businesses that doesn’t require traditional phone lines.

Microsoft's Skype for Business is a UC business communication solution that includes instant messaging, audio/video calls, sharing whiteboards and documents, presence, and moderated chat. Skype's UC solution is an ideal choice for small businesses that operate globally and want to collaborate across offices.

How to Pick the Best Unified Communications Platforms

Many organizations have taken advantage of unified communications (UC) to stay connected and collaborate both internally and externally. The exploration of UC has left some business owners in a muddle. They have been driven by the notion that all UC platforms must be the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a number of UC platforms that cover all the bases and stand out from the rest.

As a business owner, you don’t have to have a broad understanding of the UC arena to choose the best UC platform for your organization. However, you do need to consider the following qualities when you are choosing a UC platform.

It Needs to Contain the Right Levels

As you investigate UC platforms, you’ll come across three levels – basic, standard, and advanced. The standard and advanced levels each offer 1-4 services. UC platforms offer the standard and advanced levels as a minimum. To gain access to the basic level, you must purchase a converged UC platform.

It Needs to Have the Right Options

Some UC platforms offer 1-3 options while others have 4-6. This has a lot to do with the fact that some UC platforms allow you to choose your own configurations.

It Needs to Have a Wide Range of Features

Glossary

Unified communications (UC) refers to any system that combines phone systems, fax machines, and other communication technologies in a way that they can better serve your business’s communication needs.

UC solutions (also known as UC platforms or unified communications platforms) can integrate multiple communication (voice, video, and data) technologies in order to get the advantages of voice messaging, faxing, online file sharing, video conferencing, call control, voicemail, and so on. However, most of these systems are proprietary and cost thousands of dollars …which makes the concept of unified communications complex.

That’s why UC vendors like Act and Vidyo choose to make different packages that address their customer’s specific communication needs. Different people have different needs – so it’s important to have options like the ones provided by UC vendors to suit your specific business needs.

As a UC customer, you’ll need to be familiar with the UC task trees and the UC goal trees that are included in your communications system. Understanding these will help you decide on the right solution for your business.

Bottom Line

Business UC tools are essential for business to grow, and with the UC market becoming more crowded, it is becoming more difficult to decide which UC solution would provide you with the best value.

In order to help you gain some insight into the market, this guide will offer the features of a few leading UC tools. It’ll go beyond the basic overview of the different UC solutions, and offer insights into their capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses.