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What to Expect from UCaaS in 2019

November 21st, 2018 by

Predicting the future can be clouded with hype versus substance in volatile markets, but the path for UCaaS in 2019 is already becoming clear. Several strong trends are emerging that are setting the course for development and purchasing. Here are a few that you can expect to see more of in 2019.

What to expect from UCaaS in 2019

Workstream collaboration

The digital workplace is driving more employee and customer engagement opportunities. Enterprises are begging to take some of these existing capabilities like chat, messaging and audio/video conferencing and couple them with workstream collaboration tools like Slack, Asana and monday.com. This allows internal teams as well as outside parties such as customers and partners to not only communicate but share documents, manage projects and engage in a persistent conversation that even a newbie can join in on and see the relevant history.  

Embracing a new generation

There was a time when only nerdy developer types were using workstream collaboration tools but that is changing with the influx of millennials and promotion of these tools by Microsoft and others. In case you haven’t notice them heads down on their smartphones in meetings, millennials aren’t just bringing their own devices to work, they are bringing their own apps. Business leaders can either choose to lock down their applications and try to prohibit use of these apps or embrace them and determine how to maintain security while enabling integration. For Trekkies fans, the phrase “resistance is futile” comes to mind. The opportunity for companies to enable employees, customers and partners to engage with each other, documents, project plans, and even with machines is rapidly increasing.

Artificial intelligence

Another area that has yet to go mainstream but is getting a lot of attention is artificial intelligence (AI) in the UC space. We are seeing early adopters of virtual assistants that can interact with IP-enabled devices like phones and conferencing systems to start and stop meetings. Virtual assistants are also showing promise as meeting transcription and scheduling apps with capabilities to listen for key words like “action item, take a note, priority, constraint” and create a follow up list for participants. My personal favorite app is Voicera. The evolution of these tools to the mobile space will have faster adoption and more practical business applications from this authors point of view. After all, you more likely to want/need help joining a meeting or taking notes when you are mobile. AI will also pop up almost un-noticed in other areas like the ability to set communications preferences based on where you are, coupled with your habits or the time of day. For example, “automatically forward my calls to my mobile device once I leave the office or at 5 p.m. Monday thru Friday.“

Tracking productivity and engagement

Finally, don’t think for a minute that with the new engagement tools that are expanding faster than we can keep up, hello Apple watch, that companies won’t figure out that tracking productivity for employees and customer engagement is not only possible but extremely valuable. Software that tracks, trends and predicts performance and interactions will become invaluable for insights on the level of engagement, cultural transformation and predictors of future actions.

The tech evolution certainly shows no signs of slowing down and UCaaS is no exception to this. 2019 is shaping up to be another monumental year for UCaaS adoption and advancements. It’s an exciting time, and fascinating to know that the digital trends embraced now will impact the workplace for years to come.

Planning for Unified Communications in the Next Fiscal Year

October 8th, 2018 by

Budgeting season is upon us and if you’re planning to replace your business phone system with UCaaS (unified communications as a service) in 2019, the time to start planning is now. Still undecided? Understanding the impact that UCaaS can have on your spending, productivity and revenue are key to making an informed decision.

Unified communications video conference in progress

Calculating costs

The first place to start when evaluating the best scenario for a future investment is to determine what your costs are currently. There are basic economics to apply when calculating the costs for your current system. These expenses will include any remaining lease payments or payoff values you have on your current hardware or phones, plus maintenance costs. Maintenance costs— should encompass any ad-hoc service calls made over the last 12 months and any replacement costs such as hardware, phones and inside wiring you’ve accumulated. To this amount, you’ll need to add the cost of your telecommunications services for your local, long distance, toll-free service, etc.  If you do have a contact center in place, it’s best to separate the costs associated with that platform but to include it in the overall picture.  Once you have a complete picture of your last 12-24 months of expenses, you can determine your annual and monthly spend for your current system and do a healthy cost comparison to a new one.

CAPEX vs. OPEX

Now for the good news. You no longer need to budget to purchase and maintain the “big iron” hardware phone system that you’ve had in the past.  UCaaS is cloud-based—meaning you only need IP Phones and some peripheral hardware to support specialized functions.  The only other consideration is whether you need/want to upgrade your network to support POE (Power over Ethernet) for POE-powered phones.

As far as budgeting for the services themselves, most UCaaS providers offer multiple payment plan options for hardware and deployment so you aren’t paying huge up-front capital fees in the first year of the agreement.  Phones, service and hardware can be rented or leased from a UCaaS provider with maintenance included, creating an operating expense (OPEX) vs. a capital expenditure (CAPEX).  Many also offer the ability to purchase the phones if your primary objective is to reduce OPEX.  You will want to make sure you ask about the replacement costs of devices over the course of the contract, and your ability to add and remove services based on growth or staff reductions.

Factoring in revenue gains

Lastly, don’t forget to factor in soft-costs and productivity gains that can lead to more revenue for your company.  Unified communications and contact center services have many benefits that older systems don’t typically provide.

Here are a few that should be factored into to your planning and budgeting:

  • Mobility – When employees can access their work communications systems from any device, there is a greater ability to service customers and communicate with other employees during times they would otherwise be out of touch.
  • Teleworkers – When employees can take their work phone and voicemail home and gain access through a secure connection, softphones and other UC-enabled applications like video and web conferencing, allow work to continue even when the office is inaccessible.
  • Phones – Replacing all your phones may not be necessary. Some providers allow you to bring your own devices or offer a mix of IP and analog devices on their system. There is also the option of just giving some employees softphones.
  • Customer relationship management (CRM) – UCaaS offers advanced capabilities such as call routing, auto attendants and CRM integrations which can improve employee productivity, workflows and the customer experience.

As you can see, crunching the hard numbers alone won’t get you to the bottom line budget.  I recommend factoring in a conservative revenue gain component or the estimated reduction in hours employees lose with the current system that would be realized with a new unified communications system in place. Happy budgeting!

UCaaS at its Best: Prioritizing Communications with SD-WAN

September 13th, 2018 by

How well could your business function with on-going performance issues or a major network outage? If the mere thought gives you anxiety, you’re not alone. Cloud-based applications (and their performance) have become essential in our ability to communicate internally and serve our customers. While there is no end to the benefits that cloud-based communications and collaboration offer, poor performance and downtime with these real-time applications is simply unacceptable.

Unified communications video conferencing applications prioritized by SD-WAN

UCaaS meets SD-WAN

Due to the growing dependency on mission-critical cloud applications, we’re seeing more and more businesses opting to support unified communications as a service (UCaaS) with a software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) solution. These acronyms, if not already part of your vocabulary, will be soon, as they’re becoming more mainstream every day. The powerful combination of UCaaS with SD-WAN allows businesses to aggregate multiple connections at their locations in an active-active configuration that optimizes network traffic to improve performance and guarantee uptime and redundancy for our coveted voice, video and collaboration applications. We call this “UCaaS at its best”.

UCaaS applications have become the lifeline for businesses – and performing at their best – is certainly more critical than ever. Although highly beneficial, moving voice, chat and video conferencing and collaboration services to the cloud, can put increased strain on the network and cause performance issues. A consequence that can come with a hefty price – poor performance equals poor customer service, and poor customer service equates to customer loss.

The future is bright

The bright side? Averting these scenarios is entirely possible with the addition of SD‑WAN. SD-WAN provides higher Quality of Service (QoS) for your communications, with more visibility into the overall health of your network, and more control to drill down to site, network connectivity, and end-user and application levels.

For example, if your cloud applications are suffering because of an unusually slow network, you can actually see in real time that the slow-down is caused by employees streaming applications like Spotify, and just as easily, you can rate limit, or block Spotify traffic to ensure that UCaaS is a higher priority and has the bandwidth it needs.

Unlike traditional WANs, SD-WAN is more cost-effective and delivers increased network agility. On their own, broadband and wireless access solutions are vulnerable to voice and video quality issues such as packet delay, jitter and packet loss. However, businesses today have the option of blending these access solutions in an active-active configuration to attain the right mix of cost, performance, reliability and bandwidth for UCaaS applications by leveraging SD-WAN. It’s no wonder that 25% of businesses are predicted to manage their WAN through software by 2019.

Preparing Your Business for Disasters: How to Keep Your Lines of Communication Open

September 6th, 2018 by

September is National Preparedness month, and while many of us think about the steps we should be taking in our personal lives to prepare for disasters (and rightfully so), our businesses are not immune to the devastation that can ensue.

A recent study by the Aberdeen group found that businesses lost upwards of $260,000 per hour during outages. However, this figure doesn’t just apply to outages from natural disasters. Disasters of any kind can have grave impacts on a business, which is why we encourage our customers to prepare for any type of situation.

Whether you’re in the Florida Keys along the path of hurricane alley, or in Arizona where natural disasters are less likely, the reality Is, things happen.

Flooded streets prohibiting employees from accessing businesses

How to prepare your business, network and your communications for unexpected disasters

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to your business location, network and communications – all critical lifelines to your business.

Below is a checklist that can help you prepare and ask the right questions of your service provider to ensure your business location, network and communications are ready in advance.

Your business location(s)

  • Power – Do you have battery backups or generators? If so, routinely test them to make sure they maintain power. Ensure you have flashlights and batteries available just in case.
  • Safety – Are first aid supplies fully stocked, and is safety equipment functional and easy to access?
  • Awareness – Do you have an emergency plan for evacuations or other likely scenarios? If not, develop a plan and share it with employees. Make sure employees fully understand the procedures they will be expected to follow.
  • More resources – Visit the EPA site for additional disaster preparation tips.

 Your network

  • Access redundancy – Do you have diverse connections to your location(s)? If not, how do you plan to ensure access redundancy?
  • Network elements – Does your service provider have a geo‑redundant network? If not, how will this impact your business, should you find a way to ensure geo-redundancy?
  • Failover capabilities – Are your network connections set up for failover? Or better yet, do they have SD-WAN with “active-active” connectivity?

Your communications

  • Mobile applications – Can your employees work effectively outside of the office? How can you ensure they can make and receive business calls, chats, texts and emails from any location or device?
  • Call routing – Do you have a pre‑set plan to ensure calls can be answered in the event your location is unable to open? If not, develop a plan to re-route calls to other locations or mobile devices in an emergency.
  • Change management – Can you make online changes to your communications system from anywhere that has public Internet?
  • Cloud-based network – Is your communication system housed in your building or hosted in a secure data center?

The above list is a good starting point. However, it’s always a good idea to contact your service provider to walk through a network and communications disaster recovery plan or find a service provider that can help you design a more resilient solution that will ensure your business remains up and running, no matter what.

4 Ways to Increase Contact Center Agent Productivity

August 22nd, 2018 by

My favorite definition of productivity is “the effectiveness of effort”. In my humble opinion, volume of work doesn’t directly correlate with productivity. Instead, it should really be measured by the quality of output, the customer experience and the effectiveness of transactions.

Coincidentally, when it comes to contact centers, many of the tools used to measure performance and productivity are heavily focused on volume of activity, metrics such as the number of customer interactions, the amount of time a rep is idle, how often an agent is available, missed calls, you get the gist.

So, how do you shift the evaluation to more qualitative measures?

Well, there are several ways to do just that using contact center tools available in the industry today.

Musician recording music

1. Call recordings

“This call is being recorded for quality assurance”. We’re all accustomed to hearing that when contacting a service provider for support. Universally, people act quite a bit differently when they are aware they’re being recorded, especially employees. Call recording provides a simple way to ensure your call center is performing at the highest level. With most cloud-based Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) solutions, calls can be recorded automatically, and recordings can be accessed online for agents to listen to.  Much like musicians that record and listen to a song multiple times before making the final cut, employees are often their own worst critics when hearing calls played back, resulting in the desire to improve their own performance.

2. Monitor, whisper, barge-in

Contact center managers now have the ability to be front and center, fine‑tuning agent‑customer interactions. Supervisors can listen in on random calls without the agent or the customer’s knowledge. An even more instrumental capability, is something called the whisper feature, which allows managers to talk directly to agents privately during calls without the customer knowing a supervisor is even on the line. If things do get heated, the barge-in feature is clutch, allowing supervisors to enter two-way audio conversations to speak directly to both parties.

3. Mobility

When thinking about contact centers, most people think of big office buildings with open cubes and high noise levels.  While this can provide a great environment to supervise and monitor physical activity, it’s not always optimal for productivity. Enabling the option for agents to work from home or other locations allows you to recruit the best talent across the globe and enable more time zones to be covered without the cost of remote offices.  Many people today work more productively from home or locations where they can get into their “zone” and have a conversation with a customer without interruption.

4. Awareness

Finally, and something that is often overlooked, is the commitment to increase your agent’s awareness of their personal impact on the reputation and success of your business. Share your business plans and results from your CSAT (customer satisfaction) surveys with them.  Get them involved more deeply in business reviews with large clients so they feel more integrated into the business and understand they are a key part of it.  Engagement, paired with the right underlying technologies, can go a long way to increasing productivity and your bottom line.

Effective Workplace Building Blocks: Improving the CX through Integration

August 6th, 2018 by

Man calling customer service

How many times have you called a service provider and been prompted to enter your account information, only to be asked again for the same information once you were routed to a live representative?

Instead, what if the system recognized you based on the number you called from and you were greeted by a cheerful agent on the first ring who not only knew who you were, but why you were calling. Utopia, right?

The technology needed to enable this type of intelligent interaction, linking customer data to communication networks, has actually existed for quite sometime. However, the challenge has been integrating the various application building blocks that enable it. In many cases, businesses tend to make application and system purchase decisions in silo, without considering how well those applications will work together, or, they think they’re in the clear by checking the box on integration during the buying process without a demonstration or test environment to verify it actually works. Additionally, customization of CRM and other software applications add to the complexity and make it difficult to integrate.

While struggling with these challenges, how can you focus on delivering a great customer experience?

First, define what you want the customer experience to be. For example, if you want to know more about your customer at each interaction, determine how they will be contacting you and what systems are involved.  If you enable calls, email and SMS text, as an example, then there are at least three communication applications that require integration to your CRM software.  Flip the paradigm, and you may also want your sales people to be positioned to provide visibility into customer information such as orders, notes and important details through integration with back-end systems. This level of functionality is important not only to your support and sales team, but to your entire organization.

After mapping out the customer journey, identify the applications your employees need. Do your current applications meet the goals of delivering a great experience and integrate with other apps? If not, determine what is missing. A good checklist is to inventory all the tools associated with a customer contact. Determine where your customer data is inventoried and how that information is accessed in your current workflow.

Some of the most common business applications to integrate with in order to drive an enhanced CX include:​

Salesforce, Google, Skype, Outlook, Microsoft, Office 365, HubSpot, 1 CRM, Apptivo, Accelo and more

Then, take the next step of finding if and how that customer data maps to your business communication tools.  Integrations could include:

  • Screen pop-ups with contact details based on customer phone number​s
  • Click to dial functionality from the CRM​
  • Ability to add notes to a customer’s account via a call pop-up ​
  • Integrated logging – automatically tracking interactions through the CRM​
  • Integration of other communication apps with email

The list of vertical market-specific customer management CRMs and applications is quite expansive and most require some degree of customization, or at a minimum, a review for compatibility with your communications system.

What to look for

Finally, identify unified communications as a service (UCaaS) providers who have pre‑built integrations with your existing applications, or those that can build the integrations through an open Application Programming Interface (API).  This will be vital to delivering the level of functionality your employees and customers will demand to make everything work together seamlessly.  It’s important to look for providers that will enable easy integration to the apps you require. Be sure to ask for demonstrations so you understand exactly how they work in the real world, this is often overlooked.

If your CRM application requires custom integration, and you have your own developers, or third-party resources, request the API information from a UCaaS or application provider to make sure they can be integrated.  When it comes to APIs, customers should have a game plan on how to implement. Some providers hand over documentation and expect you to figure it out, while others offer some important elements:

  • Test environments so that you are developing and testing with live customer data
  • Tools that verify each step is working properly to simplify troubleshooting
    • Web socket tests to make sure your web sockets are successfully connecting
    • Interactive web-based testing tools that show exactly what data is returned whenever specific requests for data are made

The bottom line is, integration of business applications should be a high priority for you and for any UC provider that you work with. The partners you enlist should be willing to work with your IT staff or third-party developers. Critical to ensuring a great customer experience, is having pre-built integrations, an open API for customization, and finally, a hands-on approach, to ensure everything will work together for you flawlessly.

5 Reasons Call Recording is a Must for Every Business

July 9th, 2018 by

We’ve all heard it when calling into a business: ‘This call may be recorded for quality assurance.’ Whether you have sales or customer service representatives handling customer calls, the same holds true for any employee, how effectively they communicate is the difference between a happy customer vs. one who will be going elsewhere. Your reputation, and ultimately, your success, rely heavily upon your customer’s experience. Much like professional musicians, who listen to their own recordings to refine their skills and make adjustments to improve, modern companies strive to reach that higher level of professionalism and differentiate CX from competitors, and that’s where solutions like call recording come into play.

Businesses today are not only concerned with the quality of communication taking place between employees and customers but, the growing number of threats and liabilities that their business is susceptible to on a daily basis. Here are five key reasons call recording is a must-have service for modern businesses.

1) Protect your company by reducing liabilities – The possibilities of lawsuits, unfortunately comes with the territory of being in business. We hear all too often how customer disputes can transpire from a simple miscommunication, and result in costly legal battles where it’s difficult to decipher who is at fault. Corporations, along with their employees can both be held liable in these circumstances, and no matter the outcome, the cost can be exorbitant. Fortunately, there are proactive measures that can be taken with services like call recording. By recording your calls, you create a record of every interaction. Recorded evidence can be extremely beneficial when trying to defuse customer disputes before they escalate into actual lawsuits. If the case were to go to trial, the recording would be a valuable asset for your legal team and could be admissible in court as evidence.

2) Satisfy regulatory requirements There are so many different government regulations in place, it’s hard to keep up. Compliance is an important concern and requirement for many businesses, but especially crucial if you are in the financial, insurance, healthcare or legal sector. Many of these industries are required by law to record all verbal communications. Call recording ensures your business complies with these regulations and can prevent you from being fined or prosecuted.

3) Keep your business secure – Beyond satisfying regulatory concerns, there are also privacy and security concerns to take into consideration. With a call recording service in place, you have the ability to ensure that confidential business information is not compromised and can easily detect security problems. You can also monitor employee activity and help reduce any inappropriate conversations that could be detrimental to your business like illegal activity, sexual harassment, or the excessive use of company time for personal phone calls.  Additionally, call recordings can be encrypted by some providers to make sure you meet compliance and CPNI requirements if relevant to your business or industry. 

4) Maintain quality control and evaluate performance – Having the ability to listen to and monitor current and past call recordings provides a huge advantage, allowing for more control over the quality of the interactions your employees have with your customers. With call recording, recordings are stored in the cloud, making them accessible to listen to online from anywhere. This provides supervisors with instantaneous access and the ability to quickly and discretely evaluate how calls are handled in their natural context, and without employee knowledge. Additionally, this type of storage offers the ability to filter past recordings based upon a variety of search criteria including: inbound caller ID, outbound dialed number, extension recorded, date and time. When combined with robust evaluation report features, it doesn’t get any easier to customize reports and fill them out while you’re listening to recorded calls. 

5) Improve training and develop best practices – We all have expectations of how we’d like customer calls to be handled and we do our best to communicate that to our new employees, but by having pre-recorded calls, you have the unique advantage of showing live examples of different circumstances that may arise and how you’d like them to be handled. This allows you to set expectations from the very beginning, as well as create uniformity and best practices for the employees to follow. Training and growth is a continual process and should be ongoing for employees no matter how long they have worked for you. With call recording, you can share employee’s recorded calls to address concerns on the spot and continuously improve the quality of your business’ communications.

It’s important to remember that your employees are on the front lines each and every day. In every interaction they have with the public, they are your company representation. These individual experiences can have a significant impact on your reputation and your success. If you haven’t already, the best place to start when modernizing your approach to communications and compliance is to implement a quality UCaaS solution that offers contact center services and extension call recording. Windstream Enterprise offers various options for these services, including our
award-winning OfficeSuite UC® solution. Feel free to reach out with any questions.

From Open Offices to Open Spaces: Mobile Tech Takes Virtual Work to the Next Level

March 15th, 2018 by

A friend recently decided to take an extended cross-country trip with his family.  Faced with a demanding work load and colleagues who depended on him, he decided the only way to pull it off was to go virtual office from his RV. Equipped with two wireless providers, and a suite of unified communications and connectivity tools, they set off on their adventure.  Luckily his company had recently changed to a new communications and network service provider that not only had a full suite of UC tools but offered it in a self-service environment that seamlessly connected all of his communications, including voice/phone, video, presence, IM/chat, SMS/text and web collaboration.  It also worked on all his mobile devices so he wasn’t tethered to a PC and could roam freely with his mobile phone or tablet.

Doing video calls with majestic backdrops his new work environment quickly created a buzz with his co-workers and customers.  To his surprise, he found staying connected and actively participating in meetings wasn’t only easy; at times he was more accessible than his hard-wired comrades. His boss, customers and teammates from other departments began relying on him to be more responsive and available than anyone else.  Aside from a few side trips to remote areas with spotty WiFi or mobile data coverage, he was able to remain connected and on top of everything and enjoyed a great adventure with his family during the evenings and weekends when he purposely unplugged from work.

An anytime, anywhere office

In today’s world of modern “open” offices – where fluorescent lighting and distracting fish bowl conference rooms leave you nowhere to hide,  find some peace and quiet, or engage in deep strategic thinking or focus – there’s something to be said for the anytime, anywhere mobile UC powered virtual office.  Aside from saying goodbye to rush hour traffic and increasingly long commutes, mobile workers often find themselves more productive and happier working virtually than in a busy, noisy office.

It’s no wonder that what started out as a niche trend has turned into a full-fledged work/life balance movement. In fact, the mobile/virtual workforce is rapidly approaching a tipping point, with research indicating that by 2022, 60% of today’s office-bound employees are expected to be working remotely. If you’ve ever wondered why there is so much talk about digital transformation, you need look no further than this.

Digital nomads empowered by unified communications

There are a number of other emerging trends fostering this movement, including corporate cultural acceptance, advancements in and ubiquity of enabling technologies (UCaaS, 4G, WiFi) and the emergence of digital nomads who are monetizing the shift. Growth minded companies are responding by revising their telecommuting and remote/home office polices, increasing flexible work policies and making it easier for employees to work remotely.

This trend has shown positive effects on employee satisfaction and employers save money on the cost of maintaining physical work spaces. Which results in a win-win situation for everyone.

It’s not as if people haven’t tried to make this work before. The difference today is the dramatic improvement in technology to enable virtual workers. Kudos to smartphones, which really got things moving. But huge advances in unified communications solutions are equally important. In particular, cloud-based UCaaS solutions that can be accessed from anywhere on any connected device, have turned the volume up from ten to “eleven.” High-def audio, video and content sharing services are no longer reserved for larger enterprise companies with high-end conference room systems.

Companies like Zoom and Windstream Enterprise have partnered to deliver solutions that can be leveraged from desktop, mobile and tablets over any broadband connection capable of supporting minimum bandwidth and latency requirements. Remote access and security have also advanced with easier to use VPNs, remote desktop services coupled with two factor authentication and single sign on capabilities.  Phone systems are no longer tethered to a black box with blinking lights in the back room of the office or data center.  In fact, office phones themselves, are no longer an office necessity with the advent of the softphone (app) and mobile twinning of devices.

Behind every great virtual worker stands a great virtual service provider

It makes me proud to say that the day is finally here where this author (a veteran of a good many years in the business communications space) can claim that remote workers no longer have a technology handicap compared to their office bound, hard wired colleagues.  In fact, some might say they have an advantage.

Companies less prone to digital transformation that haven’t yet made the cultural and technology changes necessary to enable digital nomads and remote work lifestyle are going to quickly find themselves out-paced by their leaner, more agile, anytime, anywhere rivals.  My advice:  partner with technology companies who can not only enable remote workers but empower them in a way that allows immersive engagement and connectivity across all their communications channels.

If you already use Skype for Business or other tools that aren’t making the grade because of quality of service, concerns about customer experience issues or lack of seamless integration with your platform, it’s important to know there are better options from companies like Windstream that not only offer  easy to use, cloud-based software solutions, but ALSO the adjacent voice and data connectivity solutions required to make it all work together reliably and efficiently. A few years ago, that combination didn’t seem to matter as much. But take it from my friend living the life in his Airstream camper, it works like magic today.  Give us a call and set up a live demo to see for yourself.