Sixty-six percent of survey respondents say one reason they're implementing VoIP is to cut call costs, making it the most cited reason. But the VoIP handset and network that used to provide simple access with rudimentary interactivity is now much more than a phone system: It's a computer in its own right. That power makes it possible to bring several forms of communication together into one interface. In the hands of the right user, that means better communication and collaboration.
This ability to provide a platform for one-stop communications is among the top reasons for implementing VoIP, cited by 41% of survey respondents using or planning to use VoIP. Some 57% of respondents are interested in pursuing unified voice, data sharing, e-mail, and/or conferencing in the next year, and 54% want unified messaging. At the same time, VoIP enables companies to introduce any number of novel applications.
When Virgin Entertainment North America implemented VoIP in August, one of the features that came with the system was unified messaging, the ability to integrate voice mail into the company's e-mail system. But when Fort sold Virgin Entertainment CEO Simon Wright on VoIP, his pitch was about cost savings; unified messaging never entered the discussion. Imagine Wright's surprise when one day he saw his voice mail popping up in his e-mail in-box. He shot off an inquiry as to whether it cost extra. It didn't. Two weeks in, he was hooked on the ability to check all of his messages from one place. So when Wright stopped Fort in the hallway one day, it was to tell him that installing the new VoIP system was probably the best thing he'd done since joining the company. Virgin now is looking at ways it can meld VoIP with other communications platforms to improve employee collaboration.
Fort's experience is common: Executives won't pay for this feature, but they end up loving it. It lets them scan voice messages even from the road and pick up only the ones they know they need to follow up on--rather than listening to dozens of messages on the chance that an important customer left one.
The Food and Drug Administration, busy consolidating most of its workforce onto one Maryland campus, has taken the unified communications leap. The agency jumped into the project with promises of increased collaboration among the 18,000 employees and 15 buildings on the site and is banking on IP videoconferencing.
Some scientists and researchers already have access to Cisco's IP Communicator unified communications app at their desktops, letting those working on projects in buildings across campus, or even across the country, collaborate over integrated voice, video, and data. That means a scientist can show and explain lab procedures for analyzing drugs to a colleague or send procedure results via text or data, all simultaneously through the same interface."Going beyond the phone-just-as-a-phone is really key," deputy CIO Glenn Rodgers says.
Another tool is presence awareness--the ability to transmit one's availability and willingness to communicate.
Once installed, though, companies are bound to find more innovative uses for VoIP. At law firm Morgan & Finnegan, phone billing that used to require handwritten reports now is automatic and more accurate. As soon as a call is made, an attorney enters into the VoIP phone a "client matter" code, and billing begins.
MTM Luxury Lodging's high-end Hotel 1000 in Seattle offers three IP phones in every one of 80 guest rooms and 47 IP phones in luxury residences atop the hotel. "They're programmable, which is the beauty of it," executive VP Jim Simkins says. "They can display the day's lunch special. We can have them working as a virtual concierge." How programmable? When calling for his car, a Hotel 1000 guest pushes a button from his in-room VoIP phone that rings the valet desk and instantly tells it where the guest's car is located.
It's understandable that IT pros aren't trying to sell VoIP based on these features, which don't have the hard ROI of lower phone bills. Especially at the beginning of deployments, companies should balance installation costs and adjusting to a new system with feature upgrades. For features like unified communications, most vendors aren't yet offering complete systems that integrate easily and intuitively with the rest of the phone system. So basing a deployment on them is high risk.
But it's ultimately what's going to make VoIP pay.
With Larry Greenemeier