Everyone has heard the term "unified communications," but few understand what it really means. Unified communications (UC) generally refers to the ability to simplify and integrate all forms of business communication into a single user experience. This may include phone, video, e-mail, voicemail, fax, instant messaging, presence, web conferencing and desktop sharing. Unified communications allow all of these systems to work together in real-time and transfer messages or activities between one another.


For example, UC technology allows two people to collaborate productively on a project, even if they are working in different locations. One person can quickly locate a desired colleague by accessing an interactive employee directory, find out if they are available with a presence indicator, engage them in a text messaging session and then escalate the session to a voice or video call – all within minutes. They can even look at the same information in real-time through desktop sharing or conference in additional coworkers as needed. Unified communications technology can locate and contact a desired person whether they are at their desk, in a conference room, in a remote office or on the road.


I’ll admit that all this sounded like a pipe dream to me at first – something reserved exclusively for large companies with deep pockets. I was highly suspicious, to say the least, when my internal IT department came to me with a unified communications initiative. Yet three months later, here we are. We’ve converted all of our employee laptops into "soft phones," enabled web conferencing and conference calling for everyone in the company and even added video conferencing to our remote offices. And our employees love it. Here are five things I learned along the way:

1.    Unified communications is not the same as unified messaging

When I first heard the term "unified communications," I thought all it meant was getting your voicemail messages and faxes in your e-mail inbox (which is still pretty cool). Come to find out that’s really "unified messaging" (UM), which is only a small subset of unified communications. Unified communications add presence, audio conferencing, video conferencing, instant messaging and more.

2.    We didn’t have to compromise on audio quality

One of the building blocks of UC is "Voice Over IP" (VoIP). For many of us, our experience with VoIP phone calls comes from trying out a home-based Internet service like Vonage or Skype. And while these services are quite usable and cost-effective for personal use, they are not usually "business quality." I assumed, wrongfully, that a VoIP phone system had to use the Internet to place calls and would therefore be subject to quality degradation. What I found out instead was that VoIP systems use your existing computer network (which is fast and reliable) for internal calls and regular phone lines for outside calls.

3.    We didn’t need to replace our existing phone systems

We have six offices, each with a different phone system (Nortel, Avaya, NEC and Toshiba). Some were already VoIP enabled; others were not. When our team first investigated the feasibility of a UC implementation across the whole company, my initial assumption was that we would need to replace all of our existing phone systems with a newer, more UC-friendly one. That would have cost over $200,000 in hardware alone. Fortunately, I was wrong. We implemented Microsoft’s "VoIP as You Are" approach, which is a UC software solution that sits on top of our existing phone systems. Total hardware cost for our Microsoft UC implementation: $28,000.

4.    We cut our phone bill in half

Because we typically work with local clients, our long-distance phone bill has never been significant. On the other hand, we use multi-party conference lines all the time. Our conference line expense was over $4,000 per month. After our UC implementation, that number dropped to less than $500 per month, and our overall phone bill (local, long-distance and conference lines) was cut in half.

5.    We had no idea how much it would transform our company

Most of our employees are highly mobile and have laptop computers. They travel between our offices and often work onsite with our clients. One of the steps in our UC implementation was turning each employee’s laptop into a "soft phone," which is a software program that allows you to place and receive phone calls on your computer using VoIP regardless of location. We let our employees choose between a Bluetooth and wired headset for better sound quality, and turned them loose. What happened next caught us by surprise. We almost immediately experienced measurable improvements in resource availability, productivity and employee satisfaction. No matter where they sat (office, client or even at home), our employees could be reached on their work number and make calls without using their cell phone.