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What Is Unified Communications: An Overview

This article was updated on December 28, 2023

Enterprises had the technology advantage for years. With larger IT teams and bigger budgets than small businesses, enterprises could invest in solutions to streamline employee collaboration and customer service. Then cloud computing came along and leveled the playing field, enabling small businesses to leverage the same unified communications technology as their bigger competitors. So what is unified communications? Why do small businesses need it? And how can you build a technology stack that meets the communication needs of your growing business?

Photo composite showing a desk phone, cellphone and laptop computer. On the cellphone screen we see a video call and on the laptop screen we see a team messaging dashboard.

What Is Unified Communications (UC)?

Unified communications (UC) is technology that unifies multiple communications channels, including voice or video calling, personal or group messaging, and audio or video conferencing. Cloud-based UC solutions might also be referred to as unified communications as a service, or UCaaS.

With a pay-for-what-you-use model that lets companies scale as they grow, cloud communications technology delivers far more functionality for less than the cost of traditional phone systems. Small businesses can seamlessly work remotely, integrate data from siloed systems, and deliver a multichannel customer experience — all from the same platform.

As Gartner1 points out, "UC products and services can also be integrated with networks and systems, IT business applications, and in some cases, consumer applications and devices." For instance, businesses can integrate customer relationship management (CRM) with UC platforms, enabling company reps to see everything there is to know about customers calling into the business.

Many UC solutions can also be integrated with popular file-sharing apps (such as Google Workspace or Office 365), collaboration apps (such as Microsoft Teams), and messaging apps (such as Slack and Facebook Messenger). This way, teams can collaborate in real time while customer service and sales reps can interact with customers using their favorite channels.

Businesses large and small were already adopting UC solutions at a steady pace before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sudden need to transform entire teams into remote workforces boosted demand for secure, streamlined communication and collaboration tools.

As a result, the global UC market hit a record high of $113.48 billion in 2022, according to Grand View Research. That data also suggests the market will be valued at $136.11 billion in 2023, grow at a compound annual growth rate of 17.4 percent from 2023 to 2030, and reach $417.86 billion in 2030.

Simply put: UC solutions will only become more popular over time. And if recent trends are any indication, it will also become more sophisticated and maximize the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

How Does Unified Communications (UC) Work?

UC technology, which — using voice over internet protocol (VoIP) — lets users place voice calls via the internet rather than telephone lines, provided the basis for modern cloud communications platforms. Over the past 20+ years, an array of new communications channels have emerged — including instant messaging, SMS, and video calling and conferencing — and forward-thinking VoIP providers began adding this functionality to their solutions.

With a robust modern UC platform, teams can use the same system to message their colleagues, video chat with clients, and place voice calls to vendors. If they need to switch a conversation from one channel to another, they can do so seamlessly, without disconnecting the initial interaction.

UC solutions offer features and functionality that traditional office phone systems don't, including visual voicemail, paperless fax, call forwarding with mobile phone integration, and call recording capabilities. With the right integrations, UC platforms become even more powerful — for example, adding the ability to click-to-dial from shared files, automatically log customer calls in CRM, and view screen pop-ups that provide information about incoming customer calls, including relevant account details.

Channels and customer data are streamlined, which makes communications (and overall operations) far more efficient.

Benefits of Using Unified Communications for Your Business

So why should small businesses invest in UC solutions? And how does this provide an advantage over traditional business phone systems and help companies outpace less tech-savvy competitors?

Improved Collaboration

Siloed data and human delays can create communication gaps and snafus that frustrate employees and customers alike. UC makes it easy for employees across departments and locations, whether they're working from home or anywhere else in the world, to collaborate and share real-time data.

Seamless Integrations

UCaaS is a powerful business solution on its own, but integrating it with critical business apps makes these solutions even more valuable to small businesses and their teams. Not only does integrating this technology improve communications efficiency, but it also gets customer data out of silos and provides accurate, real-time insights.

Better Customer Experience

Whether businesses use UCaaS, a contact center, or a combination of the two, they can interact with customers on their preferred channels. With CRM integration, customer service reps get screen pop-ups for incoming calls so they can easily access the customer's profile and account history. And thanks to call recording and analytics, customer service and sales managers know how reps are performing and can provide specific feedback and tailored training.

Lower Communications Costs

Unifying communications into a single platform means paying a single vendor. In general, VoIP is cheaper than traditional phone service — which also doesn't include video calling, messaging, AI-enhanced features, and all the other tools that come with UC. Plus, with cloud-based UC, there are no upfront hardware costs or licenses to purchase.

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Unified Communications: Not Just for Big Business, an IDC Report
Want to enable remote work? Got limited IT resources? You need UC, says IDC, in their new study, Unified Communications: Not Just for Big Business.

What Are the Types of Unified Communications Platforms?

Cloud-based applications and business software have become increasingly popular in recent years, but not all UC solutions require cloud hosting. What's the difference, and which makes the most sense for small businesses?

Cloud-Based UC Solutions (UCaaS)

With UCaaS, communications software and data are hosted by the UC provider in the cloud and are accessible via the internet, so employees can communicate from anywhere using any internet-connected device. The UC provider is responsible for securing data, upgrading software, and ensuring disaster recovery and business continuity.

There is no equipment for the company's IT department to install or servers to maintain, and businesses only pay for what they need, so it's easy to scale up or down as the business grows or downsizes. Many providers also make it easy to work with key business apps, either through native integrations with select third-party vendors or through open APIs.

On-Premises UC Solutions

On-premises communications platforms give businesses complete control over their communications channels and data and can be customized to meet the business's needs. But they also require a greater upfront cost and far more IT resources.

The company's IT department must set up and maintain servers on-site, build out a communications infrastructure, and purchase licenses for each team member to use the platform. A highly qualified IT team can enhance data security by adding firewalls to prevent hacking, but without the right skills and security resources, this option can also expose businesses to greater security threats.

On-premises solutions are typically more expensive due to the hardware costs, harder to integrate with third-party business systems and apps, more complicated to access remotely, and less efficient to scale. For each new hire, IT has to set up a workstation with the requisite hardware, purchase UC platform licenses, and install software.

On-premises solutions are typically more expensive due to the hardware costs, harder to integrate with third-party business systems and apps, more complicated to access remotely, and less efficient to scale. For each new hire, IT has to set up a workstation with the requisite hardware, purchase UC platform licenses, and install software.

Advantages of Cloud-Based UC vs Traditional Systems

Cloud-Based (Digital) Systems

Traditional (Analog) Systems  

Costs — Involves minimal on-site equipment; updates are automatic; because it’s over the internet, phone service is generally less expensive

Costs — Can require large initial investment; business is responsible for maintenance and other ongoing costs

Equipment — No major equipment for the company's IT department to install or servers to maintain

Equipment — On-premises hardware and phones connected to the local telephone service via “twisted pair” copper wires

Features — Dozens of collaboration and CX features, plus CRM integrations

Features — Limited features, normally just call hold, mute, and redial

Reliability — Reliable service; requires strong, consistent internet, cable, or fiber optics

Reliability — Reliable service; susceptible to downed, cut, or degraded telephone wires

Examples of Unified Communications

In general, UC refers to any platform that combines at least two different modes of communication, so these solutions can vary dramatically from one vendor to the next in terms of communication channels as well as features and functionality.

  • Skype and Zoom can be classified as UC platforms because they offer voice and video calling and conferencing capabilities. But neither solution provides a full suite of communications channels or the wide features and functionality like a sophisticated UCaaS solution.

While Skype and Zoom began as video conferencing apps, other UC solutions began as VoIP providers and later added more communications channels and features. But some solutions are more robust than others, and some focus on either internal or customer communication. 

  • Genesys offers contact center as a service (CCaaS) with complex enterprise functionality that small businesses might never use.

  • Aircall offers a more scaled-back CCaaS solution with fewer bells and whistles.

However, neither solution is geared toward internal communication and collaboration.

  • Vonage offers UCaaS and CCaaS (contact center as a service) and has merged the two systems for even greater operational efficiency, team collaboration, and customer service improvements. For example, contact center agents can forward customer calls to internal experts that don't work in the contact center, and bundling the two services costs less than paying for different solutions for different teams.

How to Choose the Right Provider

Whether a small business needs UCaaS, CCaaS, or a combination of the two, there are many different vendors that offer these solutions. But not all providers are created equal. So, how can businesses evaluate UC solutions to find the right provider?

Make Sure You Get the Right Features

  • Does the solution include all the communications channels the business needs, or will integrations be required to add SMS, messaging, and other critical tools? 

  • Does the solution enable call forwarding, intelligent routing, virtual assistants, and any other communications features the business needs? 

It's important to answer these questions with a forward-thinking mindset. Maybe the business doesn't need paperless fax or chatbots right now, but if these might be relevant in the future, it's easier to invest in a comprehensive solution in the beginning than to piece various apps together later.

Make Sure It's Scalable

For small businesses, it's wise to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Hopefully, the company will continue to grow and hire, but if budgets get tight and workforces must be downsized, leaders don't want to pay for licenses they're no longer using. That's why it's important to find out whether potential vendors can scale as the company grows and how easy it is to scale back during tough economic times. And in the cloud, it’s easier to add or remove feature-rich extensions and manage your account.

Make Sure It Integrates With Your CRM and Other Key Business Technology

Every business has certain critical business systems and applications, and the more of those that can be integrated with the UC solution, the more you can automate processes, sync data, and boost productivity. Before investing in a UC solution, it's wise to determine whether it plays nicely with your most important third-party software, such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, or the Google suite of apps.

Make Sure It's Secure and Reliable

Data security and platform uptime can vary widely from provider to provider, so it's important for businesses to know how data is secured from malicious attacks. What are the provider's security features, protocols, and certifications? Just as importantly, what are the provider's average uptime and business continuity guarantees?

These are essential questions to ask any potential vendor — or, better yet, their customers. Online reviews from users and industry experts can tell you more about a vendor than they will.

Conclusion

Communications technology has evolved quickly in recent years and will continue to do so as UC providers innovate. From AI-enhanced features like chatbots and voice assistants to omnichannel contact centers with social media integration to whatever comes next, UC platforms are the future of business communications. 

And thanks to the great equalizing power of the cloud, large enterprises aren't the only ones that benefit. Small businesses can access the same technology to unite their workforce and surprise and delight their customers.

Discover how Vonage Unified Communications can help you take customer engagement and employee productivity to the next level.

1. Gartner IT Glossary: Unified Communications (UC)

Still have questions about Vonage Unified Communications?

UC eliminates the need for a desk phone and multiple log-ins to access communications channels and data — employees only need an internet-connected device and a single username and password. UC also enables a high level of mobility, so employees can easily collaborate and connect with customers remotely. Even if employees are sitting at desks in an office, UC helps them save time — rather than toggling between communications apps and information systems, they can view all the information they need in a single platform.

Merging unified communications (UCaaS) with a contact center (CCaaS) creates an employee-collaboration customer-engagement machine. Agents can quickly connect with internal departments to get the right answer for a customer. Callers get fast service and only need to authenticate themselves once. Integrated communications data means teams across departments and functions are on the same page. And By bundling UCaaS and CCaaS, companies get the functionality of both platforms from one cloud-hosted vendor — one bill to pay, one platform for IT to manage.

Unified communications is very cost-effective, especially when you consider the wealth of features it offers. VoIP phone service is cheaper than traditional service, and cloud-based UC has no upfront hardware costs or licenses to purchase. Paying a single vendor also adds cost efficiencies.

A cloud-hosted unified communications solution requires little on-site infrastructure beyond broadband internet (which many businesses already have on hand) and internet-connected devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. An on-premises UC solution does require more of an investment, including on-site servers and other equipment. (Note that, for companies struggling to migrate from on-premises to the cloud, there are solutions that can smooth the transition; for example, SIP trunking allows a business to run a legacy PBX phone system over the internet without needing to completely replace all existing hardware or connection points.)

Convergence refers to the concept of different media coming together to create a single medium, e.g., you would need more than a dozen different devices to carry out all the functions a single smartphone can do today. Converging unified communications and contact centers brings together voice, video, SMS, social media, and more to empower businesses to create differentiated experiences for their customers and drive increased productivity within their organizations.

To access Vonage Business Communications services, apps, and features, start by selecting a VBC plan that is right for your business. View our plans and buy online, schedule a conversation, or simply call 855-430-6401 to discuss your needs with a business VoIP expert.

Scott Rigdon bio
By Scott Rigdon Sr. Content Writer

Scott creates effective and engaging blog articles, web pages, email sequences, and other content for Vonage. His journalism degree, editing experience, and advertising background give him a unique perspective on content structure and strategy. When he's not working, Scott enjoys reading, movies, and helping his wife restore their mid-century home. Oh, and sandwiches.

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