Corporate Traffic, Colony Tire and NCI Building Systems seemingly have little in common, but they all needed to tie together voice, video and data on a single network. To that end, the three businesses turned to unified communications  tools that empower their employees to communicate and collaborate in new ways.
Through a single PC interface, for example, Corporate Traffic employees now hold web conferences, share presentations and collaborate on interactive whiteboards — all via the cloud. Deploying Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows Colony Tire to route telephone calls through its corporate network, in turn reducing long-distance expenses. And NCI Building Systems installed high-end video conferencing equipment, which lets employees in different offices meet face to face without traveling.
Location: Jacksonville, Fla.
Website: www.corporate-traffic.com 
Business: Logistics and transportation firm
IT administrators and analysts agree that unified communications result in more effective communication and collaboration between employees and a more efficient, easier-to-manage IT infrastructure. “The benefits include greater levels of productivity, knowledge sharing and lower costs,” says IDC research analyst Jonathan Edwards.
Companies looking to take advantage of different unified communications technologies and strategies would do well to first consider the stories of these companies. The results they’ve achieved thus far are by no means industry-driven. With proper planning, companies of all types can benefit from UC.
Corporate Traffic implemented unified communications without having to buy any hardware, courtesy of the cloud.
The Jacksonville, Fla.-based logistics and transportation firm, which helps companies deliver goods from manufacturing facilities to distributors and retailers, subscribed to Microsoft Online Services  earlier this year. Microsoft’s suite of hosted software includes Exchange Online for e-mail, Office Live Meeting for web conferences, Office Communications Online for instant messaging (IM) and SharePoint Online for managing and collaborating on documents.
The applications have improved communications and collaboration among Corporate Traffic’s 50 employees, particularly the 15 staffers who travel frequently or telecommute, says President Chris Cline, who oversees IT for the firm.
With Office Communications, staffers can check their colleagues’ online presence and communicate through IM and web-based audio and video conferencing — all through a single interface.
“It’s been a great tool for communicating faster,” Cline says. “Our office is very fast-paced. You could be on the telephone and IM a co-worker with a quick question and get a faster response than on e-mail.”
The presence feature also is helpful for reaching remote workers, Cline says. They may have a “do not disturb” message on if they are in a meeting, but if they’re available, he can have a quick IM or video chat with them.
The company previously hosted the Office Communications Server software on its own server, but it was rarely used because remote employees didn’t like the hassle of having to connect through the company’s virtual private network.
48% Percentage of businesses that intend to invest in Voice over Internet Protocol technology in 2010
Employees also take advantage of Office Live Meeting to hold web conferences and to share presentations.
They use the tool weekly at staff meetings and in new product offering training sessions with the sales staff, Cline says. The company also uses SharePoint, which gives employees one central location for housing corporate documents rather than spreading files among different servers and computers.
E-mail is a big component of the hosted service. The company previously hosted its own Exchange servers but turned to Microsoft’s hosted e-mail service to save money and to rid itself of the headache of managing the hardware, Cline says.
Through a web interface, Cline can click on the administrator web page and create a new mailbox. The company hosts Active Directory on its own servers, and employees listed in the directory gain access to the hosted applications.
Cline believes all small businesses should consider hosted software. “We decided to let the experts handle it,” he says. “It’s one less resource we have to constantly work on and maintain. We can tend to our core business and be a logistics company instead of worrying about e-mails and why the spam filter is blocking something.”
Colony Tire, an Edenton, N.C.-based company that sells consumer and commercial tires in North Carolina and Virginia, switched to VoIP technology to improve customer service.
During the past few years, business has been so good that the sales teams at its three wholesale locations couldn’t keep up with the call volume. When the sales teams were busy on the phones taking orders, the warehouse workers backed them up and took calls. Of course, doing so kept them from performing their primary duty, which was to load tires onto customer trucks.
“We are known for our strong customer service, but we were losing that touch,” recalls Network Administrator Adam Evans.
So in March, Evans created a call center to solve the problem. He replaced some aging PBX devices at headquarters and the wholesale locations with a new Avaya IP Office 500 VoIP system  and about 30 Avaya IP Office 5410 phones . Today, the wholesale business has a universal phone system — customers call one toll-free number that goes to a call center at headquarters, where a six-person staff answers and redirects calls to the appropriate warehouse salesperson.
“It’s improved communications immensely,” Evans says of the solution. “We’re all able to stay on the same page. There’s no more confusion and no missed calls, and customers never feel they aren’t given their due attention.”
The company is taking full advantage of the unified communications features. Salespeople who go offsite can have their office calls routed to their smartphones by pressing a button on their desktop IP phones. If they receive voicemail on their office phones, their smartphones alert them with an e-mail message.
For the first time, employees can transfer calls with confidence. From their IP phones, the call center staff can tell if salespeople are on the phone or out of the office. If transferred calls aren’t answered after the first few rings, the calls return to the call center, and the staff there can take a message or even take orders themselves.
In the past, if one warehouse employee needed to redirect a customer to another warehouse, the employee could transfer the call but would have to do so blindly because each warehouse had different PBX devices. “There was no guarantee it was received, and you couldn’t retrieve the call back,” Evans says. “Sometimes it would go to voicemail and customers didn’t get the answers they needed.” Because voice calls between headquarters and the wholesale operations are now on the local area network, long-distance charges are eliminated. Evans expects the company will save at least $1,000 a month on long-distance charges — meaning the new VoIP system, which cost between $20,000 to $25,000, will pay for itself in one and a half to two years, he says.
Which of the following UC solutions will be most beneficial to your business?
5% Video conferencing
11% Instant messaging
SOURCE: CDW poll of 143 BizTech readers
The system is easy to use, and implementation was simple. Colony Tire hired a service provider to configure the Avaya equipment, and Evans installed it himself. The LAN, which runs at gigabit speeds, has enough bandwidth for voice calls, and Evans uses a SonicWall  firewall to ensure voice calls are prioritized.
Evans plans to migrate the company’s retail locations to the VoIP system and may add full unified messaging capabilities, which would allow employees to listen to their voicemail on Microsoft Outlook and dial calls from their PCs by clicking their colleagues’ names on the contact list.
For now, the company is happy with the new phone system because it has resolved a chaotic situation at its wholesale locations. The integrated solution “has been rock solid,” Evans says. “Everything is a lot better — customer service and business flow.”
NCI Building Systems is turning to high-end video conferencing to reduce travel.
NCI, which engineers and manufactures components for metal buildings, purchased two high-definition video conferencing units in February, placing one inside its boardroom at the company’s Houston headquarters and the other at its Oklahoma City office.
Before the deployment, top-level executives traveled frequently to meet with board members and board members traveled regularly to headquarters for meetings. Now, thanks to video conferencing, they have many of their meetings face to face without the associated travel expense. The company’s Building and IT groups also hold meetings between headquarters and Oklahoma City office staff via video conference.
“We’re always trying to reduce costs, and we needed a more cost-effective way to hold meetings,” says Quintin Prior, NCI’s vice president of IT operations. “Video conferencing saves on travel, yet still allows for a more personal connection for participants.”
NCI standardized on LifeSize Communications’ video conferencing equipment and 42-inch Sony Bravia  displays. Each LifeSize Team 220  video conference unit includes a high-definition camera, a speaker and microphone device, and a remote control for dialing out. Prior expects a quick return on investment.
“If the average cost of travel is $1,200 per trip, and if video conferencing is used instead of travel once or twice a month,” a single unit costing less than $15,000 “can pay for itself in a matter of months,” he says.
The technology also is easy to install and use. The IT staff simply needs the IP address of the other site participating in the conference. Then they configure the information, and a user presses a button on the remote control to dial out; at the other site, a user answers by pressing a button, and just like that, they’re connected, Prior says.
So far, about 15 managers in the IT group have met for video conferences between headquarters and the Oklahoma City office. “It performs great,” Prior says. “It’s good for employees who don’t travel because they can put names to faces.”
To further improve communication among employees, Prior says NCI plans to implement video conferencing throughout the company as the budget allows. The company, which has 3,100 employees, maintains 60-plus offices (including more than 30 manufacturing facilities) throughout North America. NCI plans to purchase more video conferencing systems by year’s end for installation in its manufacturing facilities.
In Prior’s view, the technology not only cuts down on travel costs, it also improves productivity because NCI executives and employees aren’t wasting time at airports. “A lot of people who travel want face-to-face interaction and to be able to see the facial expressions of the other person,” he says. “At the end of day, if you have the ability to do that at your desk or office, you can save a lot of time and money.”