It’s safe to say that 2021 has been a unique year for all of us. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in America in early 2020, businesses have found themselves needing to adapt their operations to customer expectations and preferences that continue to evolve, as well as the realities of remote work.
Over the past 10 years, Unified Communications as a Service—or UCaaS—has emerged as a technological advancement that can solve these challenges in 2021 and beyond. In many business cases, the onset of the pandemic accelerated a desire to move to a cloud-based delivery model better-equipped to accommodate remote work now, and provide flexibility and scalability to accommodate whatever the future may hold.
A successful migration to a cloud-based UCaaS platform will streamline workflows and processes by integrating with various applications within a single interface over the internet.
Whether you’re just starting to investigate UCaaS possibilities for your business, or your transformational journey is underway, we’ve put together this guide to the past, present, and future of UCaaS to help you understand what UCaaS is, what it can do for your business and employees, and how to find the best UCaaS solution for your particular use cases.
This post will cover:
- What is a UCaaS platform, and how does it work?
- UCaaS features and benefits
- Selecting a provider and making the change
What is a UCaaS platform?
UCaaS stands for Unified Communications as a Service. Breaking the term down, “unified communications” refers to the managing and monitoring of different communication channels, like phone calls, webchat, video conferencing, and so on. The “as a service” designation simply means the features are provided as a service, with users paying a monthly subscription for use.
A brief history of UCaaS
It might help to think of UCaaS as an evolution from the telephone’s invention in 1876, so let’s take a quick look at the history of UCaaS. Over the next 75 years or so, switchboard operators were responsible for answering calls, determining who the caller was trying to contact, and plugging the phone cord into the appropriate jack to complete the connection. Once businesses realized they could hire their own switchboard operators, this role became known as a private branch exchange, or PBX.
From there, the interactive voice response (IVR) was developed, which automated the call routing process, so no human switchboard operators were required—making operations both cheaper and more efficient. Later, the dial tone was implemented (to let callers know their call was being processed), and the first wave of more advanced features became available in the form of hold music and call transfer capabilities—and voicemail’s invention wasn’t far behind.
In 1996, session initiated protocol (SIP) was introduced, opening the floodgates for new services beyond mere telephony—multimedia/video, instant messaging, and web integration, for example. Voice over IP (VoIP) was an early 2000s means to provide phone service over the internet, which promised advantages like clearer voice quality (at lower costs), as well as increased accessibility, scalability, and flexibility.
It’s over the last 10-15 years that we’ve seen the emergence of UCaaS as the latest solution, one impacted by the rise of new communication technologies as well as the growing prominence of the cloud. Hosting operations in the cloud increases scalability and versatility over on-premises solutions, and through ongoing processes of iteration and invention, UCaaS has become a transformative model for delivering optimal functionality.
Today, UCaaS vendors offer a wealth of features ideal for modern business system setups, enabling better collaboration and internal communication, without the infrastructure and upkeep costs associated with non-cloud configurations.
While there are some similarities, it’s worth noting that UCaaS is not the same as Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) or voice over IP (VoIP). Let’s take a quick look at these differences.
CCaaS vs. UCaaS: What is the difference between UCaaS and CCaaS?
CCaaS stands for Contact Center as a Service. Savvy contact center leaders are always looking to compete on the basis of providing a positive customer experience, and investing in a quality CCaaS platform helps businesses streamline and strengthen operations to produce happier customer outcomes.
An effective CCaaS platform streamlines customer touchpoints into a single platform for contact center agents to engage with. Customer touchpoints would include phone calls, web chat, or email, as well as items like support tickets. CCaaS offers a rich set of features and capabilities like call routing, IVR, and analytics to better understand user productivity through key performance indicators.
UCaaS primarily unifies internal communication tools into a single source, with an aim of streamlining business functions and creating consistent processes and outcomes. So while the employees in the contact center might communicate with each other better, the UCaaS platform won’t impact the customer-facing workflow.
UCaaS vs. VoIP: What is the difference between VoIP and UCaaS?
VoIP, or voice over IP, is a standard voice-based communication platform that represents an advancement from private branch exchange systems. Compared with PBX, VoIP technology provides cost savings—especially when VoIP is delivered via the cloud—as well as the flexibility to integrate with other applications. Agents can handle calls using their desktop, laptop, or smartphone’s microphone and speakers, rather than being tied to a conventional landline-based desk phone.
Think of VoIP as a precursor to the UCaaS phone system, which took VoIP to the next level of sophistication by expanding the functionality to communication channels beyond voice-based calling. Instead of being limited to inbound and outbound calls only, UCaaS makes it easy for businesses to introduce new channels to engage with their customers in the manner they prefer, whether that is chatting, emailing, or even video-conferencing.
In this way, VoIP has essentially become one element of the full suite of communication channels provided through UCaaS.
How does UCaaS work?
As mentioned before, VoIP technology typically powers the voice-based functions of UCaaS—inbound and outbound phone calls. These calls are handled over the internet rather than a conventional phone line, and, because calls are made and taken over the internet, the technology works the same whether employees are in a physical call center or each is working remotely from their own home.
The best UCaaS providers will integrate communication methods beyond mere telephony within their user interface. Whether agents handle multiple communication types or are trained to specialize, channels and functions can typically be turned on and off with relative ease.
Next, let’s look at some of the basic features that define a UCaaS platform:
Technology research and consulting company Gartner defines UCaaS as encompassing six communications functions, the foundational elements of a UCaaS platform:
- Enterprise telephony: a business telephoning system that provides basic features like caller hold, three-way calling, call transfer, and call forwarding.
- Meetings (audio, video, or web conferencing): collaborative tools like messaging, screen sharing, and calendar integration.
- Unified messaging: the integration of various communication channels (g., email, SMS, voicemail) within a single system and interface.
- Instant messaging and presence (personal and team): real-time communication for users and teams, including visibility into other users’ status (g., online or way).
- Mobility: a mobile experience that lives up to the “non-mobile” experience (either equals or exceeds)
- Communications-enabled business processes: the integration of automated communications into existing business processes, typically through custom-leveraging an application programming interface (API) or software development toolkit (SDK).
When it comes to UCaaS, cloud-based services can offer more functionality than on-premises systems.
What are the key features of UCaaS in the cloud?
Some specific features that make UCaaS in the cloud especially appealing for interested companies include:
- Better remote work through cloud-based communications that keep users stay connected and productive wherever they’re working from.
- Robust security protocols to keep company data and user identities private and protected, using end-to-end encryption and other methods.
- The communication features you want, without the headaches of provisioning and other maintenance.
- Reduced capital costs associated with unified communications being delivered as a service—including less downtime for installation and maintenance.
Why move to UCaaS?
Through its basic features, UCaaS provides many benefits including cost savings, increased efficiency, flexibility, cybersecurity, and more.
UCaaS solutions come with attractive price points, since they don’t require complicated installation and implementation processes compared with on-premises solutions. Organizations that leverage a UCaaS platform also save on equipment and maintenance costs. Rather than having to account for all these costs, UCaaS-subscribing businesses only have to budget for the monthly or yearly subscription plan—and that’s all. It’s a predictable, budgetable expense.
For sales or support agents who have to switch back and forth between different screens, windows, or applications, transitioning to a UCaaS model can feel like a godsend. By integrating all communication channels into a single system, communication is centralized—with customer information, call history, and other data stored in a single, accessible database. This establishes a “single source of truth,” so pertinent information can be accessed and relayed on to the customer or prospect in an expedited manner, creating a more positive customer experience.
One of the biggest drawbacks to on-premises solutions highlights a key benefit of UCaaS in the cloud, and that’s flexibility. While on-premises systems can only be accessed and used in the specific, physical location where they are installed, cloud-based UCaaS is available to any employees who have an internet-enabled device. This means that whether employees are working in-office or from home, using company-provided equipment or their own devices, their experience is consistent.
Related to flexibility, scalability refers to the ability to easily add or remove specific users or features to the UCaaS system. In many cases, each of these is a straightforward process, with individual communication channels being enabled/disabled with the literal flipping of a toggle or switch within the interface.
When communication operations are moved to the cloud, updates for new features or security patches can be deployed automatically, freeing your IT team up for other purposes. When needed, platform updates are deployed in small batches in order to minimize or even eliminate the downtime associated with routine updates.
Security and compliance
UCaaS comes with unique security considerations, but they also come with highly-advanced security measures for their data and services. Protection measures include data encryption, as well as VoIP call security, two-factor user authentication, and fraud prevention. Cloud providers are generally held to very strict compliance requirements, and are audited regularly, so you can trust that data is safe. For example, many providers should be able to support SOC 1, 2, or 3, and HIPAA, PCI, or GDPR compliance.
Even brief downtime can be frustrating as well as costly. UCaaS providers are able to prevent a lot of downtime scenarios through something called geo-redundancy. Basically, instead of making a single server responsible for holding all relevant data and keeping it secure, UCaaS makes use of multiple, concurrent datacenters. This way, if one server location goes down for any reason, there’s no significant disruption—the system just moves to leverage a different server. UCaaS systems usually offer pretty advanced disaster prevention and recovery practices, by using additional, backup power systems in the event of an outage.
Investing in a UCaaS platform means investing also in a team of professionals who will architect, implement, and manage the application. This level of support enables organizations to simply buy what they need, pay according to a subscription model, and then let the UCaaS provider handle the configuration, provisioning, and system maintenance.
To meet various organizational needs, UCaaS enables team members to take advantage of communication channels and features that go beyond typical, on-premises alternatives. Having trouble trying to explain something over the phone, and want to start a video conference or share your screen? With UCaas, it’s easy to switch channels, without losing access to items like the company’s knowledge base or database of customer and transaction history.
In addition, UCaaS systems typically have a mobile version of the core tech stack, again enabling employees to work on-premises or from home without any loss of features or functionality.
Another way UCaaS improves work for teams is through the creation of a “single source of truth” type database, making it easy for employees to find the information they need—and to have all employees drawing from the same base of knowledge, enabling more consistent messaging and reducing opportunities for misunderstanding or misinformation. Additionally, UCaaS users can easily communicate and collaborate with each other through a variety of digital communication methods—channels like email, chat, video conferencing, and more can be turned on and off in an instant.
Selecting a UCaaS provider (for today and beyond)
The benefits listed above underscore the unique value a well-selected UCaaS platform can bring to an organization.
Many look to industry-recognized authorities like Gartner research when it comes to unified communications vendor comparison and insight.
Who made the UCaaS Magic Quadrant for 2020?
Gartner categorizes software providers into quadrants, according to two main factors: completeness of vision and ability to execute. Based on their positioning along these two axes, then, platforms are assigned to one of four categories:
- Leaders “execute well against their vision and are well-positioned for tomorrow.” The top UCaaS providers Gartner identified as “Leaders” were Microsoft, RingCentral, Cisco, Zoom, 8×8.
- Visionaries “understand where the market is going or have a vision for changing market rules, but do not yet execute well.” For 2020, Fuze was identified as a “Visionary.”
- Niche Players “focus successfully on a small segment, or are unfocused and do not out-innovate or outperform others.” Gartner recognized Vonage, Star2Star, Dialpad, Windstream, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise as “Niche Players” in 2020.
- Challengers “execute well today or may dominate a large segment, but do not demonstrate an understanding of market direction.” 2020’s “Challengers” were Google, LogMeIn, and Mitel.
While you may read those definitions and assume that you would only want to look at “leaders” as viable options for your business, the other categories also offer unique opportunities for creating value. Market challengers, for example, are exciting—forward-leading companies may prefer to work with challengers in order to differentiate themselves and bank on the future. Niche players may be perfect partners for niche companies.
InterVision provides Microsoft, Cisco, and 8×8’s UCaaS offerings via a managed services model, which saves money and streamlines management and maintenance.
Adapting to the new normal
Through the pandemic, companies have been moving to UCaaS solutions for their lengthy list of benefits. Even when the pandemic is under control, though, experts advise that the trend toward UCaaS transformation is here to stay.
Is UCaaS the new normal?
While we’re certainly hoping for a “return to normal” at some point, the reality is that the extended nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many organizations to have to adapt on the fly, to find new ways to do business without losing momentum—not an easy task.
Through the difficulties experienced by organizations that found themselves scrambling to adapt, we can identify some reasons why UCaaS seems primed to become the “new normal”—whether workers ultimately return to the office or not.
Whether you intend to return to in-office operations, adapt to remote work, or are open to providing a hybrid work experience, there is little (if any) downside to adopting cloud-based UCaaS as the new, more productive normal. With UCaaS, an employee who never returns to the office and an employee who does return to the office can use the same services, in the same interface and platform, regardless of location or device.
With UCaaS, employees can be more productive, as they don’t have to switch between different applications or screens to handle different tasks. UCaaS also helps deal with the costly problem of informational silos. When vital information is housed in a single, accessible repository, everyone’s working from the same playbook, reducing the risk of misunderstanding or confusion.
When communication channels are consolidated within a UCaaS application, a world of real-time analytics is made available, empowering leaders to make data-informed decisions to drive business. For example, if there are times when call volumes are low and many agents are in an idle state, staffing and scheduling can be adjusted to reduce waste.
Remote and hybrid work can create concerns around data security. When it comes to UCaaS, data security is no longer entirely the IT department’s responsibility. UCaaS vendors are able to offer sophisticated security, encryption, and fraud prevention tools.
InterVision: Connecting teams and driving revenue growth with best-in-class UCaaS
Leading the way in unified communications, InterVision offers a number of managed services, supported by an in-house team of engineers and certified experts that will help guide a successful transformation.
Head over to our website to learn more about why we specifically partner with 8×8 to deliver a best-in-class experience.
We’re here for you, today and beyond. Let’s begin your transformation.