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SMBs Take Advantage of Integrated Communications Made Possible by UC

The latest crop of unified communications systems offers flexibility to mobile workers and easier management for IT staff.

Satcom Direct, one of the world’s leading suppliers of satellite communications services, keeps business aviation and military flight crews connected with in-flight voice and data services. But until recently, the 80-person firm was facing its own communications challenges on the ground.

Like many small and medium-sized businesses, the company was relying on a standard PBX phone system, cell phones and Microsoft e-mail and calendaring software to keep the business going. But with four U.S. locations, a satellite office in the U.K., and additional offices in Canada, Brazil, Dubai and Hong Kong scheduled to open by the end of 2012, the strain began to show.

Last year, Satcom Direct decided to adopt a unified communications system from Cisco Systems, which combines IP phones with software for managing e-mail, voicemail, instant messaging, calendars and web conferencing.

“We have remote salespeople who are traveling all the time, and we operate 24x7,” says William Hoffman, director of IT development, security and compliance for ­Satcom. “With the Cisco software, they can log in via virtual private network from their hotel rooms, launch their softphones from their notebooks and communicate with our customers, working at any hour of the day or night from anywhere in the world. ”

With its headquarters in hurricane-prone Satellite Beach, Fla., Satcom Direct also relies on the Cisco software to ensure business continuity, says Hoffman, by ­enabling employees to work remotely from any ­location should disaster strike.

Another major driver toward UC was compliance, he says. With a substantial chunk of Satcom Direct’s business coming from the Defense Department, NASA and other government agencies, the company needed tighter control over internal and external communications to remain in compliance with federal regulations.

Hoffman says Satcom Direct plans to integrate presence technology via Cisco’s WebConnect, so it can connect customers who need assistance with avionics engineers around the globe.

“With calls coming in to our support center 24 hours a day, sometimes we would like to see if one of our remote engineers is available to assist with troubleshooting,” he says. “Our engineers come from various major avionics companies in the indus­try, and their experience provides them with an intimate knowledge of the avionics ­equipment used onboard an aircraft. We’d love to know when they’re available so we can connect them with our customers.”

Why UC Is Small-Business Friendly

Long a staple of large enterprises, unified communications systems are starting to make inroads into the SMB market, says Bob Hafner, managing vice president for Gartner. An important reason is the availability of sophisticated all-in-one suites of applications that ease the pain of integration for small companies with limited IT resources.

“You can now buy a unified communications solution in pieces that are preintegrated for you,” Hafner says. “That’s made it much easier for SMBs to jump on the UC bandwagon. Many small businesses that have outgrown their aging PBX systems are now making the transition to UC.”

The range of UC solutions is as varied as the types of businesses that use them, from basic phone switchboards to fully automated messaging and document management systems. For Balboa Park, a nonprofit cultural organization in San Diego, unified communications offers a way to share a single phone resource among its 26 member institutions, says Heather Hart, IT project manager at Balboa Park Online Collaborative.

Earlier this year, Balboa Park’s IT staff moved from FreePBX, an open-source Voice over IP phone exchange, to Switchvox, a digital PBX system for SMBs. The biggest reason was reliability, Hart says. “FreePBX was going down almost every day,” she says. “Switchvox is much more reliable, and the call quality is crazy good. When I talk to someone on another extension in the Park, it’s like they’re standing right next to me.”

What is the most important benefit of UC?

58% Integration of e-mail, voice and IM
22% Lower costs
12% Faster decision-making
8% Scalability

SOURCE: CDW poll of 322 BizTech readers

At the high end of the UC spectrum sits LaVan & Neidenberg, a Florida law firm specializing in disability claims with the Veterans Affairs Department and the Social Security Administration. They use a custom IBM Lotus Notes database called EZ Claim, which integrates phones, e-mail, instant messaging and calendaring with the thousands of documents the firm handles each day.

Automation is essential with the volume of documentation required by the VA and SSA, says Ken LaVan, president of the firm.

“When a client calls our office, the system identifies them in our database and routes the call to the legal assistant who’s been assigned to the case,” says LaVan. “Everything in our database runs through workflows and analytical intelligence, so the system tells employees what they need to do and when they need to do it. The claims are all organized, and it’s cut down drastically on the amount of training we have to do.”

The biggest challenge for SMBs is integrating all the different pieces that comprise an organization’s internal and external communications, says Hafner, which is why he usually recommends a holistic solution from a single provider. The other element is training. SMBs can’t expect employees to make the switch overnight, he warns.

“You’re changing how people communicate in lots of different ways at the same time,” he says. “You can’t go in on Friday and pull out all their phones and say ‘We’re doing things differently on Monday.’ You need to overlap your communications facilities until people get comfortable with the new ways, then clean up what was there before.”

Satcom Direct’s Hoffman says adopting UC requires a shift in corporate culture.

“What it really comes down to is changing the way people work,” he says. “We still have to train employees today, to get them used to using unified communications, presence technology and softphones. Once they get it, they really like the ability to take or make phone calls from anywhere, or use instant messaging to communicate with customers.”

Ben Van Hook
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Aug 21 2012 Spice IT

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