Corporate technology buyers have been hearing about voice over IP (VoIP) since it’s become the mainstream standard for voice communications among small to midsized businesses (SMBs). It’s enjoyed this success because it demonstrates too many benefits when compared to old-fashioned on-premises PBX systems. VoIP costs significantly less (especially when delivered as a cloud service), is much more flexible when it comes to software integration, and can be used to power several other communication channels besides a straight voice conversation using your desktop handset.
It’s actually that ability, which has given rise to a new term for some kinds of VoIP-based services, called Unified Communications-as-a-Service (UCaaS). These are essentially VoIP services that have expanded into multi-channel delivery systems, which sounds complex, but is really rather simple as long as you focus on what you need rather than the potentially myriad options providers might be throwing at you.
What’s given rise to UCaaS is essentially VoIP’s great enabler: software. By pushing your communication solution to the software layer, you’re opening a myriad of new doors when it comes to enhancing the capabilities of what most people think of when they look at a phone. From adding new features to the technology to integrating it with the software your business relies upon most, it’s all possible with VoIP, and especially UCaaS solutions, which are usually designed with integration in mind. Undoubtedly a big reason they’re growing so fast as the chart below from market research firm, Statista, clearly shows.
Below we’ll explain the features you’re paying for with a straight business VoIP provider, including those in our latest PCMag Business Choice Awards for VoIP survey. We’ll also cover what you’ll get if your VoIP provider offers UCaaS. But before we get into the specifics, let’s do a simple breakdown of VoIP and UCaaS. We asked Curtis Peterson, Senior Vice President of Cloud Operations at business phone system provider RingCentral to help distinguish between the two types of services.
“VoIP is usually just a voice service provider, inbound and outbound calls,” Peterson explained. “UCaaS is basically looking at all business communications and putting them over IP or Internet Protocol. VoIP is a single mode. UCaaS is multi-modal: texting, chatting, video conferencing, screen sharing, video meetings. But it uses VoIP to power the voice part.”
A great nutshell summary, but now let’s get into more detail.
At its core, VoIP is a digital telephone service that uses the internet for the transport and delivery of communications. You can make and receive calls from your internet connection via handsets as you would in most traditional office settings or via softphones (which are software-based applications). By taking advantage of the microphone and speakers on your desktop, laptop, or smartphone, you’re able to conduct calls in the same manner as you would using a typical handset.
VoIP offers many of the same accouterments as your telco service provider. You will be able to receive and listen to voicemail messages, and monitor calls via caller ID. Calls can be forwarded to alternate lines if someone isn’t available to receive a call. Other features VoIP offers include auto-attendants, call holds, call logs, call monitoring, call recording, call transcriptions, dial-in conferencing, and number porting.
An Emphasis on Networking
One caveat of VoIP, even for services that are delivered and managed via the cloud, is that they’re taxing to your local area network. With VoIP enabled, suddenly many of your PCs will start transmitting voice traffic not to mention all VoIP-enabled desktop handsets, and, for most companies, also a slew of mobile phones, tablets, and other devices. And the fact that this is a lot of new traffic isn’t the biggest problem; the biggest problem is that all this new traffic is also sensitive.
Normal data traffic can stand sudden if short network slowdowns as well as occasional packet loss, latency, and network jitter. VoIP traffic doesn’t like any of those things and tends to react badly to them in the form of audible breaks in your conversations or even dropping calls entirely. Preventing such problems is certainly doable, and all the best VoIP providers can assign you customer service engineers to help, but you’ll still need on-staff IT professionals on your side and this will take up a good deal of their time, especially during the initial roll-out of the service.
And all of the above is simply about one kind of communication, namely voice, being turned into a new form of data. Once you add more channels, things can become even more complicated, which is exactly what can happen when you deploy UCaaS.
UCaaS generally includes voice as one of its communication options, but as the name implies, it provides a more robust communications capability by offering other channels as well, notably video. With UCaaS, your service provider will let you also schedule one-on-one video calls as well as one-to-many video conferences. This may not seem like a must-have for smaller companies but, as your team scales and as you hire in different geographies, you’re going to want to be able to conduct “face-to-face” video calls. With video conferencing and VoIP, you’ll be able to do things such as conduct meetings with hundreds of attendants, share your screen with everyone attending, and even share and receive files to everyone on the call or to individual attendants.
UCaaS tools also let you chat and text message with coworkers on your plan. Why would you need this feature? Well, if you’re on a video call with a client and your sales rep is speaking out of turn, then you can send her a private chat message to get everyone on the same page. This also lets your team members send chat messages rather than emails to discuss more time-sensitive and more casual interactions.
If you’re one of those stubborn cats who still enjoys sending and receiving faxes, then some UCaaS solutions let you do so from your computer or mobile device (where the faxes will automatically be stored to your Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive account). This feature also gives you better oversight into who is sending and receiving faxes, what they’re faxing, and it will let you turn off junk faxes.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a UCaaS platform is its ability to integrate with third-party solutions to help you better pull in and export data from tool to tool. For example, if you need to call a customer and you’d like to access her records to improve your communications, then integration between your Salesforce account and your UCaaS tool makes this incredibly easy. From within your Salesforce dashboard, you’ll be able to launch the call, view the customer’s interaction history, and add notes about what is being said during the call. With a Microsoft Outlook email integration, you can launch calls directly from within the body of an email.
Integrations are especially useful for companies that plan to use their UCaaS tool to respond to help desk tickets. Imagine giving your service reps the ability to make and take calls directly within the help desk console. Imagine giving them the ability to research customer interactions or add notes to customer records while on the call, and then tie this data back across your UCaaS, help desk, and customer relationship management (CRM) tools for later edification.
“Companies that are looking at plain VoIP solutions are losing out on the opportunity to put multiple communications tools together with a vendor and getting a discount to do so,” said Peterson. That’s because most vendors offer bulk discounts when you bundle all of your UCaaS tools together rather than cherry-picking communications tools across multiple vendors. Think about how you purchase your home’s cable, internet, and phone service: the price of all three together is typically less than going with three different vendors for each.
Bundling also guarantees that each service integrates and reports back to one another without issue. “[But] if you have one provider for VoIP, one for video, and one for chat, you can’t share analytics between them,” Peterson explained.