The Business Case for Staying Connected

Keeping a workforce connected to people and to data anytime, anywhere, is a big step toward boosting operational efficiency. It's especially important for small and medium-sized businesses
Keeping a workforce connected to people and to data anytime, anywhere, is a big step toward boosting operational efficiency. And it's an especially important step for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

"Individuals in an SMB are much more critical to the overall business than individuals in larger enterprises," according to Jan Dawson, research director of Ovum Research. "If the general manager is out of contact or cannot access corporate resources for an extended period of time, this can seriously damage a small business."

To keep employees connected to people and data at all times, some companies are turning to IP (Internet Protocol) communications—which help facilitate enhanced business communications—and to virtual private networks (VPNs), which provide a secure, remote connection to the company network.

IP Communications: How It Works
An IP communications solution provides a range of communications services on an IP network infrastructure, including:

  • Voice over IP (VoIP), in which phone calls are transmitted and received as data packets
  • Basic telephony capabilities, such as conferencing, call transfer, and call forwarding
  • Advanced telephony features, including unified messaging, integrated contact centers, and rich-media conferencing that combines voice, data, and video
  • The intelligent network infrastructure required for an IP communications solution must have high reliability, scalability. and quality of service (QoS) built in. QoS provides better service to selected network traffic, such as voice, by differentiating packets according to the type pf service they need, managing bandwidth according to those needs, and other methods. On top of that network infrastructure, an IP communications solution must also have network applications that deliver telephony features to end users.

    IP Communications: How You Can Benefit
    IP communications can enhance operational efficiencies in many ways:

  • By integrating an IP communications system with a customer-relationship management (CRM) system, a call center employee can immediately see important information about a customer, displayed on an IP phone or computer screen when the customer calls. This improves efficiencies as well as enhances customer satisfaction.
  • Workforce members can have one phone number ring simultaneously on multiple devices (such as an IP phone and cell phone), reducing the inefficiencies caused—and potential opportunities lost—due to missed phone calls.
  • An employee can relocate to a different office or work from a home office without any interruption to his or her phone system, eliminating potential downtime and ensuring that the employee is easily accessible by phone. In addition, an IP communication solution significantly reduces the cost of moves, adds, and changes to a phone system.
  • An IP communications solution can enhance operational efficiencies with automated attendant functionality. An automated attendant intelligently routes calls and enables users to customize call screening and message notification, among other benefits.
  • Rich media conferencing, which can also be part of an IP communications solution, enables multiple users to collaborate easily via video or teleconferencing. Because participants don't have to physically be in the same room together, rich media conferencing saves time and enables people to collaborate who might not have been able to otherwise.
  • An IP communications solution can even help companies streamline business processes, such as time-card and staffing. For example, Tucson-based Zeus Nestora, a franchisee of Subway restaurants, operates its restaurants with minimal staffing. Previously, if one employee called in sick at the last minute, the shift leader had to spend time trying to find a replacement.
  • It is probably the most inefficient, nonproductive time in any quick-service restaurant," says Les White, Zeus Nestora owner.
  • Today, Zeus Nestora's Subway employees clock in to work using Cisco Unified IP phones and software that runs directly on the phone displays. Now, if someone calls in sick, the IP phones' time-shift management software automatically checks which employees aren't currently working; locates those with the needed skills who want an additional shift; and identifies which employees can work additional hours without incurring overtime. Then the system calls each eligible employee, one by one. If an employee wants the shift, he or she simply presses a key.

    "To have access to 300 employees immediately at the touch of a button is just absolutely miraculous," says White.

    VPN: How It Works
    IP Security (IPsec) and Secure Socket Layer (SSL) VPNs enable branch offices and offsite workers to cost-effectively, remotely connect to company data resources securely over a public network, such as the Internet.

    With a VPN, a secure private network, or "tunnel," is created on top of a public network. Creating the secure tunnel involves the highest level of user authentication standards, tohelp ensure that only valid users can access the VPN, and strong encryption technologies make the data unintelligible to anyone attempting to intercept VPN communications.

    VPN: How You Can Benefit
    Securely and reliably extending the company network to remote users via VPN helps growing businesses boost operational efficiency in many ways:

  • A VPN enables employees to work from home, a remote office, a hotel, or other location, and yet still have full, secure, reliable access to the company network — just as if they were in the company's main office.
  • A mobile salesforce can securely access confidential corporate data, such as customer records, while at a customer's site.
  • A VPN can convert unproductive time into productive hours.
  • For example, Joe Cassell, an account manager for Akraya, a professional services firm providing IT solutions to Global 2000 companies, used to drive 75 miles each way to the main office. Working from home wasn't a viable option, Cassell says, because the company's previous remote access connections weren't reliable or entirely secure.

    Since Akraya transitioned to a secure Cisco VPN connection, Cassell is able to work at home four days a week. "That's three hours a day I can generate sales instead of sitting in traffic," he adds.

    James A. Martin writes for Cisco Systems.

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