Unified communications early adopters tout benefits

Businesses presenting their stories at the recent VoiceCon Orlando 2008 found that unified communications can increase productivity, reduce costs, speed up customer service and even do good things for the environment.

The downside they see going forward is the lack of interoperability that will give them free choice among vendors, they say. (UC was a big theme at VoiceCon. Read more here.)

Dennis Schmidt, senior vice president for network services at Bank of America, delivered a keynote address on the company's 115,000 Cisco VoIP phone system, which has been integrated with UC gear to provide presence. (Compare unified communications products.)

The phone system has cut the cost of supplying phone service to employees by 15% per seat on average, Schmidt said, crediting remote management that means fewer trips to branches to fix problems. With VoIP running over the same network as data, the bank has also saved on wiring up voice-only networks in new buildings.

The system has enabled workers who move from building to building to log into an IP phone and get their presence registered to the network, have their calls routed to the phone and get their voice mail. "It becomes their phone," Schmidt says. Without VoIP, they would have to forward calls from a dedicated extension somewhere in the network.

The VoIP system is green, too, Schmidt said, citing shared workspaces that VoIP enables as translating into less office space to heat and cool as well as enabling employees to work at newly created suburban facilities built closer to where they live to reduce commute times and the amount of gasoline used.

The bank uses wireless handsets to improve productivity of bank managers who spend more time out of their offices with customers than they could when they had to run back to their desk phones. VoIP over wireless phones have not been deployed to everyone because Schmidt believes the technology is not ready yet.

One lesson learned by Bank of America was that setting up the right team is key. "Network transformation is less about technology and more intensely about the people, process and organizational transformation," Schmidt said. He recommended setting goals for how many VoIP phones will be deployed per month, then sticking to those goals.

In its internal deployment of VoIP, service provider Global Crossing decided to give its people a taste of the technology and see where they took it, said Michael Fuqua, senior vice president of information systems. It was given the broad goal of enabling departments to use communications to overcome business roadblocks.

The provider uses Microsoft Office Communications Manager (OCS) as its UC platform in tandem with Nortel and Polycom VoIP gear.

The deployment strategy was to deliver OCS to everyone, Microsoft Exchange collaboration software to 40% of workers, VoIP headsets to 10% and video gear to less than 5%. After that, it was up to business units to decide whether they wanted to invest money from their own budgets on the gear to boost their individual bottom lines, Fuqua said.

For instance, a provisioning application flags potential problems setting up a customer line, which often requires consultation among provisioning staff. By embedding communications in the application, workers can reach each other by clicking within the application. The back-end provisioning setup boosted successful resolutions of issues on the first try by more than 20%, he says.

Overall the UC platform has resulted in 30% fewer long-distance calls made by Global Crossing workers. Some company departments also showed a 20% reduction in travel costs because workers collaborated on the network rather than in person. That 20% has now been mandated across the company, Fuqua said.

The key to UC success is not about shoving the technology down people's throats, but in improving the efficiency of workers. "Maintain focus on applications," he said.

Black and Decker tools around with UC

The focus at Black and Decker is on three things: accomplishing business at less cost, boosting revenue and serving customers better, said Karen Dean, director of global voice communications for the company. And this means integrating communications into business applications.

For instance, Avaya VoIP gear and contact center software has improved customer service in the tool-repair arm of the business, Dean said. The company reduced the average time tools spent on the shelf in the repair shops from 39 days to 27 by implementing automated self-service status checks that blended the phone system with the repair database.

The company has hired consultants to write UC into its business applications, but doing so has become so important that they may change the model. "The more we do, we're thinking about building that expertise in-house," Dean said.

Application integration at JJ Food Service in the United Kingdom with its Cisco VoIP gear and its UC products has also boosted customer satisfaction, said Rif Kiamil, the company's IT manager.

The JJ Food call center takes Caller ID information, relates that to a database and, say, if the customer calling is known to speak French, the call is automatically directed to a French-speaking agent who gets a screen popup about who is calling. This streamlining resulted in cutting the need for transferring calls or calling customers back in 162,500 cases per year, Kiamil said.

The system also boosts productivity for internal workers. For instance, when a help desk call comes in, the call shows who is calling and their history of help desk requests. So when help desk staff answers the phone they already know what the problem is and if it requires a visit to the desktop. The system also shows the presence of help desk techs so the closest one can be contacted via the UC system and dispatched, Kiamil said.

Similarly, the external help desk can tap into presence data gathered from handhelds in delivery trucks to track exactly where drivers are and project when deliveries will arrive, he said.

Taking UC to school

Integrating voice into the Web presence at Concordia University in Toronto makes it simpler for students to find out about courses, said Ravdeep Sawhney, IP telephone analyst for the school. All university applications are Web-enabled, so individuals access them via a portal. Every class has its own Web page and a click-to-talk button to connect students to the professor if they have questions and the professor is available.

Sawhney has big plans for UC, including browser-based phone service, a click-to-talk directory of university phones, Wi-Fi phones with GPS capabilities and presence for workflow automation. As handsets become less expensive, he will switch to supporting dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones.

The big hurdle users see that vendors need to overcome is a single server that can handle presence information from other vendors' gear, said John Turner, the school's director of network services at Brandeis University.

Brandeis uses Cisco IP phone gear and presence in the school's instant messaging, but can't extend it to other applications. Turner is considering open source presence server software as a way to integrate disparate presence elements of his network in-house, but that's not ideal.

Widely adopted standards and interoperability certifications are needed, Turner says. "Hopefully, it will be more open and we're not tied to a single vendor," he said.

This story, "Unified communications early adopters tout benefits" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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