As enterprise employees spend more time working outside their offices, their employers are introducing more flexible work environments—virtual workspaces that offer seamless access to the full suite of workplace tools and apps. This trend drives innovation in the unified communications (UC) space, especially cloud-based UCaaS. Here’s what we’re seeing three months into 2020.
Millennials continue to find new uses for UC
Today it’s common to see younger employees working on their own mobile devices. Since UC can function on multiple devices (unlike other work-related platforms), most companies are adopting a liberal BYOD policy and encourage the use of work-related UC apps on personal hardware. Collaboration apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Assistant can integrate with a company’s primary unified communications services via API to create a seamless in-app experience. End users can start a chat that seamlessly transitions to a group video meeting or phone call. With millennials continuing to invent new ways to leverage these communications, the use cases get more interesting every day.
The line between on-site and remote collaboration is even blurrier Audio, video and web conferencing are becoming more immersive, which means remote workers face fewer technical hurdles to perform at the same level as an office-based employee. Some examples:
AI is mimicking your communication habits
As UC platforms incorporate artificial intelligence, we’re seeing the rise of behavior-based AI. For example, users who regularly forward their business calls or set “do not disturb” during certain times can now leverage Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa to manage those routines. UC is also closing in on predictive AI that recommends and performs these routines for users based on their behavioral patterns—with their permission, of course.
Organizations see who’s using what—and how
Companies that have invested heavily in unified communications tools and applications have access to wide-ranging analytics capabilities within those platforms. UC solutions can generate useful end-user insights on usage and engagement, offering employers greater visibility and control.
Expect more unified everything
Between UC’s ability to easily incorporate new apps and the continuing trend towards virtual workspaces, audio, video and web conferencing tools will see a spike this year—along with investments in workplace collaboration tools. And as the impacts of political upheaval and the coronavirus outbreak ripple throughout the globe, now more than ever, office-based and remote workers alike will turn to other methods to get their work done.
The era of customer focus has arrived and is transforming the methods and speed of delivery for new products and services for B2C and B2B businesses alike. As a consumer, if your patience is thin, and your expectations are high, then you’re in luck. For those of us in product development, the process is evolving to offer more customization at faster speeds than ever before. Many organizations, like Windstream Enterprise, are adopting three major trends in product development: customer feedback technology, minimum viable product releases and continuous release cycles.
Customer feedback technology
Gone are the days when you need to email
support or wait for your account rep to return your call to provide feedback on
products and services. Technology today enables instant feedback on future
releases. Advances include the ability to provide “in app” feedback to rate the
performance, usability and functionality of most web-based and mobile
applications. A good example of this is Net Promoter Score (NPS). Most
companies only get NPS by having customers complete a survey online or via
phone. This takes consumers extra time and yields limited results.
Windstream Enterprise is currently deploying
NPS scoring right in our applications so clients can tell us what they think
about our product or even the specific feature they are using at that moment
with little effort. These kinds of tools help companies make data-driven changes
to their apps and gain a better understanding of how product changes impact
customer satisfaction. Some tools also enable A/B testing capabilities to
uncover how changes to features impact success metrics such as purchase rates,
trial requests, onboarding and survey results.
Voice of the customer is king in all of these applications, with the goal of providing near real-time feedback directly to the developers and product teams. Other applications provide product teams with the ability to follow the customer journey throughout their product to determine where customers get stuck or frustrated with a page, feature or action, even recording the number of clicks. We frequently look at a funnel report that shows how much time a customer spent in each step of the product journey to help determine where they are getting stuck to help identify design flaws or the need to publish guides and walk throughs. Some of these tools border on Orwellian oversight but ultimately benefit customers.
Minimum viable product
Minimum viable product (MVP) is a term used loosely by many product development groups and is often misunderstood by others. Tesla founder, Elon Musk and Spotify CEO, Dan Ek are both entrepreneurs who have done exceptionally well with the MVP process. It can best be described in four actions.
1. Think it. Create a vision in mind for your final outcome, building in flexibility on how you will reach the outcome and communicate it to your customers, developers and the outside world to drive incremental results. Elon Musk’s ultimate vision is a planet powered by the sun and eventually inhabitation of other planets. Dan Ek started with the concept of building a music streaming service to create a service that was better than the free apps that pirated the music industry and, at the same time, compensates the music industry.
2. Build it. Start with a simple product that moves you toward that goal. Musk started with an electric car which grew to be the world’s best-selling vehicle in under three years. Ek started with a simple peer-to-peer streaming service that was easy to use and quickly outpaced competitors like uTorrent.
3. Launch it. As you build new iterations, get them out there in the market quickly and constantly measure which characteristics of your services are solving customer problems. Gather feedback, do surveys, interview and listen to your customer support and repair issues. All of these inputs will guide you as you work on the next component, one MVP at a time.
4. Adapt it. Continue to build and evolve the product in service to the grand vision you established at the beginning. For Spotify, it was moving to a cloud-based subscription model which made it easy to access more music from anywhere, enabling custom playlists and off-line listening. For Tesla, the batteries keep getting better, accelerating performance and introducing self-driving technology via machine learning. For Windstream Enterprise, it’s continuing to evolve our unified communications and networking services to allow online management of a large distributed company and enable users to communicate seamlessly across any device.
Source: Spotify Engineering Culture
Continuous release cycles
Wikipedia defines continuous delivery
as a software
in which teams produce software in short cycles, ensuring the software can be
reliably released at any time. If we rewind 20 years, it took
Microsoft two years to build Windows XP and it was shipped as a CD. Translate
that to a modern product development process with a strong DevOps focus, and
the outcome is monthly, daily or sometimes multiple daily releases of a product
iteration. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google are releasing software updates
thousands of times a day. There are still some more tangible products, like a
good bourbon or a new home that purposefully take a longer time to produce, but
when it comes to software and services for business and consumers, it’s all
about speed to market and continuous improvements. Buckle up, it’s only going
to get faster.
The market is crowded with choices for UCaaS ranging from “pure play” SaaS providers to network providers, cable companies and resellers. To narrow the field, start with a short check list of key criteria based on your business needs with a focus on these five key areas:
Ease of Management/Use
Technology should work for you. That’s why it’s important to ensure your UCaaS system is easy to use and manage by everyone in your organization. End-user adoption depends on having intuitive web, desktop and mobile applications as well as features like Single Sign-On (SSO) which can leverage your company’s Identity Management System for fast access to the UCaaS portal. The portal itself should provide a varied level of administrative access and control and include all your locations, business units or divisions in an easy to understand format. In addition to standard administrative features like real-time service ordering, order tracking, trouble tickets, billing and simple end user administration tools, make sure to look for advanced efficiency capabilities like end-user and site-level reporting, analytics and monitoring.
Pro tip: Ask for a demo or trial to see first-hand if the system you are considering will be easy to use for both your administrators and end users.
One of the best aspects of UCaaS is its ability to grow with your Enterprise as you add new employees and locations. However, UCaaS providers vary widely in what geographic regions they can serve. Make sure the provider can service your current phone numbers and deploy service technicians to your sites for installation or repair, especially if you have limited local IT support. Don’t forget to discuss your planned growth with providers to ensure the platform can handle the size and scope of your future enterprise.
Integration with systems and business applications
Siloed applications create complexity and more cost when deploying new solutions, making integrations critical.
Service Quality and Control
Poor service quality is one of the primary reasons businesses switch from their current UC provider, no matter how well they rate in other categories. Narrow your search to network-based providers who offer services like SD-WAN. They have a distinct advantage because SD-WAN enables visibility and control to monitor and manage down to the application level. The provider also needs to be set up to support an enterprise size customer with the right mix of individual and project teams who manage your installation process from multiple aspects. Contrast this level of quality to “pure play” SaaS and cable companies who have little control over the service quality and performance of their UCaaS solutions.
Security and Compliance
Your industry may influence your UCaaS requirements. For example, if you are in healthcare then PHI is governed by HIPAA and you need a provider who has been evaluated on their ability to enable your compliance via HIPAA, HITECH or other attestations. If you are in manufacturing or financial services, SOC2 may be more relevant to compliance. Ask providers upfront if they have and maintain these certifications and attestations. This may save you time and allow you to sleep better knowing you have a provider who can support you during an audit. It shows a commitment on their part as well to maintain rigorous process and security measures.
With your checklist in hand you are prepared to begin making the move from a premises-based system to the right cloud-based UCaaS solution for your growing business.
A recent survey showed that 47% of Americans didn’t take all of their vacation time last year, and 21% left more than five vacation days on the table1. This doesn’t have be you.
As you plan your vacations this summer, here are some tips and tools that will let you book your trips knowing you won’t lose touch or traction with your work (unless of course, you want to). In today’s always-on world, being out of reach for several days can make your return overwhelming, not to mention, you may miss key decisions that could shape your role or company.
Luckily, technology has also evolved to help you stay connected no matter where you are. Your options are no longer limited to working in a stuffy hotel room while friends and family are enjoying the beach, going on a hike, or relaxing by the pool.
Modern collaboration meets convenience
Years ago, sophisticated software and video equipment was needed to achieve immersive connectivity. Today, advanced communication tools are available to keep you connected on your terms with options that range from email, chat, text, voice calls to full blown video and web collaboration. Best of all, they can maintain your business identity, keeping your personal life separate. They can also work seamlessly on the device of your choice, including mobile phones, tablets, laptops or desktops.
The ease of use and flexibility today is truly remarkable; many online video conferencing tools require nothing more than your mobile phone to make you a full participant in a face-to-face meeting or client interaction when you’re lounging by the pool. What’s more, you can even ensure the background behind you remains professional by using a custom virtual background to show off your brand or mask the real scene behind you.
Enabling the mobile workforce
So how do you get all these great tools before you pack your bags? Many companies have already adopted cloud-based communications or unified communications as a service (UCaaS) but are not fully leveraging all the capabilities to maximize their investment. Simply asking your IT department what is available and how to set it up is a great first step. If, on the other hand, it’s not in place today and you have stake in making your employees and the company more productive, then a unified communications solution is definitely worth considering.
Technology has also made vast improvements to enable virtual workers. Unified communications services have evolved into cloud-based solutions that can be accessed from anywhere, on any connected device. High-definition audio, video and content sharing services are no longer reserved for the larger enterprise companies with hardened conference room systems. Advanced collaboration solutions can now be leveraged from any desktop, mobile and tablet device over any broadband connection capable of supporting the minimum bandwidth and latency requirements.
Additionally, remote access and security have also advanced with easier to use virtual private networking (VPN) and 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 a necessity with the advent of the softphone and mobile twinning of devices. The day is finally here where this author 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 actually have an advantage.
The upper hand of connectivity
Companies who have not yet made the cultural and technology changes necessary to enable digital nomads and remote work lifestyles are going to quickly find themselves out-paced by their leaner, more agile competitors. My advice is to partner with communication providers who can not only enable remote workers but empower them in a way that allows immersive engagement and connectivity across all their communication channels. If you already have tools in place that aren’t making the grade because of the lack of key features, quality issues or seamless integration with your other platforms and applications, know that there are better options from companies who offer superior software solutions and the adjacent data connectivity solutions required to make it all work together.
Regardless of who your services are with, be sure to take advantage of the advanced technology available to make the most of your time, whether you are on vacation or not.
Perhaps one of the biggest transformations taking place in the digital age are the ways in which we work and conduct business. The rapid adoption of technology, coupled with a new mindset of a younger, tech-savvy generation of workers, are having lasting impacts on workplace practices.
The intersection of consumer and business technologies
Employee preferences for a “consumer-like” model are redefining the ways we communicate, and get work done. As a result, new work styles and standards are emerging, infused by the rapid adoption of digital workplace applications. These apps are enabling employees to collaborate and communicate with greater mobility through different forms of input. Unified communications, voice-aware applications, team collaboration tools, and other next-gen technologies are creating a new baseline for workplace policies. The “app” generation composed of youth, ages 15-18 are poised to bring a new wave of tech disruption of their own, having grown up in a world where smartphones with on-tap, high-speed Internet access is the norm. This new reality will come fast as frontline workers become more critical to the workstream collaboration market. A Gartner study projects that “from 2019 to 2023, frontline workers’ use of workstream collaboration applications to drive teamwork and productivity will increase from 5% to 20%.”1
So, how do we adapt and prepare for the ever-expanding digital workplace?
The adoption of new technology often starts at home and in our personal lives. Amazon claims to have sold 100 million dots by January of 2019 and there are even more mobile devices that have Siri or Google Assistant pre-installed. Using natural voice as a digital interface instead of a keyboard and mouse is becoming a viable alternative in the workplace. This doesn’t just apply to translating voice to text. A growing number of applications now have voice commands for interfacing with other applications. Likewise, a number of these solutions have already emerged in the business world including voice interaction for scheduling and starting meetings, managing communications preferences, checking voicemail, and the list only continues to grow. Hands-free interfaces are an advantage for frontline and mobile workers who need to stay focused on the customers they serve and don’t typically have a keyboard and mouse within reach.
The acceleration of team collaboration
Another major workforce trend that was initially born as a consumer application is team collaboration. Gaming applications like Fortnite and Apex Legends were built on the concept of team-based environments in a digital space. Teams can communicate either through messaging or live audio and share everything from health points, weapons to ammo and information. Translate this to the work environment and now you know why team collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are gaining traction as workplace hubs. Tight integration with unified communications solutions make these tools even better alternatives to email and other traditional methods. These advanced integrations enable multiple forms of communication, persistent conversations and information sharing within specific groups and project teams like never before.
The new era of team collaboration will require careful examination of security policies and accessibility; however the benefits are undeniable. These emerging capabilities make it easier for employees to interact and communicate based on preference, increase productivity and create higher levels of engagement among teams, regardless of where they are working from.
We can expect to see this trend of consumer preferences continue to drive the adoption of new technologies in the workplace. It will be exciting to see the evolution of work styles and the many advancements sure to come.
Let’s start with the basics. The cloud offers easy access to the benefits of technology without having to worry about the usual challenges such as deploying, building, investing, maintaining and operating the infrastructure involved. This ease of access allows enterprises to focus on what technology can do for them, rather than how to deliver it to their users.
Beyond that, we have seen time and time again that disruptive technology grows exponentially; therefore, investing in hardware will most likely result in riding out antiquated/outdated solutions to ensure you got your “money’s worth” unless you’re one of the techies who is always willing to pay for the latest and greatest (hello iPhone Max XS).
The advantages of cloud communications
The thing most buyers miss when they look strictly at the economics of moving to cloud services are the huge advantages companies have when they move to the cloud. Cloud communication tools provide a substantial advantage by putting companies at the forefront of customer relationships and generating new revenue streams. Contact center as a service (CCaaS), for example, enables enterprises to communicate via their preferred methods (chat, email, voice, text, video conferencing, social media) in a seamless interface between their employees and customers. Even businesses who do not have a formal contact center/customer service environment still need communication management tools such as mobile client support and call routing based on device or time of day, along with automated reporting to optimize performance. These tools more effectively enable distributed enterprises with remote offices, employees and nomadic users like sales. The days of putting a phone on every employee’s desk are fading fast as mobile clients and SaaS-based solutions become more accessible and user friendly. As enterprises start to follow consumers from wireline to wireless communications services, they can leverage the cloud for greater functionality and a lower-cost model.
Planning your migration to the cloud
As you plot your course to the cloud or add more services, the arms race between the telco and cable providers is still escalating and a whole host of other adjacent technology vendors are now entering the space, including Amazon and Microsoft, to offer team collaboration and communications tools. That said, businesses should be wary of jumping on the bandwagon of hype surrounding some of these mainstream applications until they understand the big picture. It’s not just about picking the best software solution for unified communication as a service (UCaaS), it is important to find an experienced provider that will be your partner—not a vendor—and one that can help you find the path to the cloud that is right for your business today, while planning ahead for tomorrow. Lastly, look for a provider that also offers software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) to optimize your connections to the cloud and maximize the value of your investments in new communication technology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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