A Holistic Approach to Unified Messaging

By David Winikoff

Building your telephone answering service business (TAS) today requires continuously adding value to the services you provide your customers. New technologies are making it easier to provide higher levels of customer service. Customer relationship management (CRM) tools, for example, can help you target incoming calls, emails and Web inquiries to the telephone agent best able to handle them, allowing you to serve your clients’ customers with greater ease and efficiency. Tele-working solutions can help your company take advantage of a dispersed pool of talented workers and reduce operating expenses. And, unified messaging applications can help your customers keep in touch with their messages anytime, anywhere, via the medium of choice. This article, in particular, focuses on unified messaging.

Information technology has progressed at such a rapid pace that it is now estimated the average executive, or some of your clients, are receiving or sending more than 190 electronic, voice, fax or paper messages per day (Pitney Bowes, 1998). Retrieving these messages is not only time-consuming with multiple message “in boxes” to check, but when and how your clients respond to these messages depends on their ability to access them, especially while traveling or working from a remote location. Many unified messaging solutions vendors have presented compelling arguments about the business case for unified messaging: from helping workers manage information, to increasing the effectiveness of remote/traveling workers, to maximizing a company’s intellectual capital; while others have touted the technology trends that have made unified messaging possible. But few, if any, have delivered products that address the very real issues of implementation and cost.

The truly successful approach offers practical solutions, both for the administrator and the end-user, for moving unified messaging technology out of the lab and into everyday business use. This article will describe how unified messaging could potentially enhance the quality of service you are currently providing your clients. It will discuss distinctions between “integrated” vs. “unified” architectures, exploring the “shortcomings” of integrated systems, and will introduce three imperatives that can make unified messaging truly “work” for you and your clients.

Finally, it will touch on some key technology issues and present a glimpse at what future open-standards-based unified messaging solutions might have to offer.

Three Imperatives: Unified messaging can add significant value to your clients’ business. First, your clients can have their answering service as well as email messages read to them over the phone. Fax messages can be retrieved over the phone and delivered to a nearby fax machine. Your clients could access and listen to voice mail messages through their PC or laptop message in-box. Some unified messaging system seven provide find-me, follow-me personal digital assistants that can track your clients down on their mobile phones to notify them of incoming urgent messages.

There’s also the potential for productivity gains. Even if your average client could save at least five minutes a day per worker in productivity by using a unified messaging system, the payoffs for a client with 1,000 employees could easily exceed $360,000 per year!

A purchase decision, in many cases, may be driven by a single lost opportunity. How much business could your client potentially gain or lose based upon that critical message reaching them?

Some also suggest unified messaging can enhance knowledge sharing and collaboration between employees. In 1995, Computer World reported that as little as 20 percent of an organization’s knowledge gets used; the other 80 percent remains untapped in databases, PCs or people’s heads. If unified messaging could make it easier for your clients’ employees to share their experiences, creativity and knowledge across continents and time zones, then the dramatically increased value of this knowledge could pay off big.

At Siemens, we believe enterprise-scale unified messaging solutions must address three key imperatives to be successful, namely:

  • It must provide complete convergence of voice, fax and email messaging for the end-user,
  • The system must be designed for trouble-free operation and easy maintenance, and
  • The solution must provide you and your clients an affordable, flexible and rational migration path to unified messaging.

Complete Convergence: Unified messaging solutions should offer robust and reliable, anytime, anywhere access to voice, fax and email messages via PC or phone. Most vendors can deliver these features, but how these features are delivered to you and your customers can make a difference. Today’s vendors offer two different architectural approaches: “integrated” and “unified” messaging.

The integrated approach does not deliver true unified messaging. Instead, it provides users with desktop access to messages located on separate voice mail, fax mail and email messaging systems. These separate messaging systems must be maintained independently, meaning two or more points of system administration. Preserving the appearance of unified messaging requires continual synchronization between the various messaging servers. This consumes valuable system resources, slows system performance, and can delay the delivery of messages to desktop and telephone clients.

The unified approach, by contrast, stores all incoming voice, fax and email messages in a single mailbox. With this approach, all messages are centrally stored, administered and controlled from a single messaging database, eliminating the need for background synchronization. Further, because voice, fax and email messages are stored together, there are almost no limitations on how one can respond to an incoming message. One can answer voice messages with fax or email (and vice versa), add voice comments to fax messages, or broadcast a single message to both fax and email recipients. This process is called “message morphing.”

The unified approach provides economic and performance benefits to the TAS operator that can be extended to its client base.

Simple Administration: Another key requirement for today’s next-generation messaging systems is ease of implementation and maintenance.

For TAS providers using unified messaging internally, a truly unified approach to messaging makes back office administration simpler (than the integrated approach), because there is only one database to update or maintain when customers join or leave your company, or when they request changes to their messaging services.

Unified messaging systems that share a common in box can also take advantage of shared directory (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol-LDAP) services that can simplify directory updates throughout the enterprise. Some systems also feature an intuitive Web-based interface that streamlines installation, maintenance and updates.

Externally, the simplified system administration can be translated into reduced unified messaging service costs for your customers.

Rational, Affordable Migration: A third imperative for the success of an enterprise unified messaging system is a rational and affordable migration path.

Many of the offerings on the market, however, fall short of this criteria, forcing customers to buy a fully loaded unified messaging system now, or a legacy voice messaging system with no clear upgrade path to true unified messaging. Today’s advanced unified messaging systems offer customers maximum flexibility in design and deployment. A scalable system allows users the flexibility to implement unified messaging on a work group-by-work group basis or an application-by-application basis as needs dictate.

Being able to provision some users with full unified messaging and some with just voice messaging is a good feature for those who are hesitant. A client, for example, may want to roll out unified messaging to its sales reps first to see how they respond to it. If these road warriors respond well, they can roll it out to other people in their organization.

Next Generation Messaging: So what’s in store for tomorrow’s enterprise unified messaging systems?

“For so long, we’ve had discrete voice, email and fax messaging systems, but now these are being combined into a single in box,” said David Zimmer, president of the Unified Messaging Consortium.” Tomorrow we’ll be putting other types of messages in there, such as work flow, e-commerce and knowledge management. Our whole communications paradigm will change drastically over the next five to ten years as we roll these systems out.”

Among key developments we are likely to see flourish in next-generation messaging solutions:

  • Speech recognition software will be added to unified messaging applications allowing users hands-free navigation through message review and distribution.
  • Advances in voice compression technology will increase voice quality and further reduce network bandwidth requirements.
  • The addition of multiple language voice menus will allow virtually any company to provide customized support to a global client base.
  • Advances in video recording and compression technologies will enable the expansion of video messages into the unified messaging mix.
  • Intelligent agent technology that finds and sorts messages and other database information according to criteria you specify will allow users more control over an ever-growing volume of messages.
  • Mobility functions such as find-me, follow-me forwarding will ensure that urgent messages are delivered right away.
  • Telephone-based management of calendar and contact files as well as messages will more completely provide for the “virtual desktop.”
  • Integration with real-time collaborative work flow applications will promote faster response to dynamic business opportunities.

David Winikoff is director of messaging and collaboration at Siemens, headquartered in Santa Clara, California. In this position, Mr. Winikoff is responsible for directing the development and delivery of Siemens’ messaging and collaboration solutions across North America.

[From Connection Magazine – January 2000]

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