Business, IT/AV

Unified Communications: Are AV Integrators Really In This Business?

It’s 2:43 in the afternoon and I’m knee deep in working on a proposal when a message pops up on my IM client.

“Hey, you have a second?”

It’s an important customer, and of course I don’t have time, but when an important customer asks that question, I almost always will say yes. Any business that doesn’t entrench itself in a customer-centric business model won’t be in business for long. (I digress and step down from my soapbox.)

My response, “Sure, what’s going on?” entered back into the chat box. She said, “Let’s jump on video if that’s okay.” Of course, my hair is a mess (irony), but when the customer asks, I do, so I type in “You call me or I call you?”

“Call me now,” she replied.

Click. I press one button and instantly launch a video session. The conversation continued and it was related to the need to quickly review a white paper that had to go out. She threw it up on the screen. Next, she asked a question about the copy and quickly I interjected, “Let me get the copyeditor into the session.” Click and it rings; she’s not at her desk, but her video is set to ring her cell and she answers via mobile.

Wow! In the matter of three minutes using ad-hoc messaging, video, content sharing and call management, we have just experienced Unified Communications (UC) and instant connectivity the way they are meant to be. Seamless, powerful and on demand; the way they are supposed to work. So, what I am about to say next may be unsettling to some people, but there are two things that must be noted here:

  • The entire experience I mentioned was done entirely using free applications on Google.
  • This is much closer to Unified Communications than what most integrators are offering today.

I’ve read the copy on dozens of sites of AV companies. “Unified Communications” or “Leading Provider of Unified Communications” are common catch-all phrases under the products tab of their websites.

When you proceed to that section of the site, you are quickly greeted by some logos from Polycom or Cisco, or perhaps another vendor. These suppliers are most certainly in the UC business, but that isn’t really the problem. The problem, or perhaps better stated, the challenge is, Are we as an industry actually capable of selling Unified Communications?
Beyond the fact that UC has an encyclopedia worth of definitions that no two people, let alone companies, will agree on, at the heart of any UC solution is the ability to tie all of the ways people communicate into a single solution. This means email, instant messaging, voice, video, calendaring and so much more. As I read the “solutions” that most integrators are offering, it is usually only one to two pieces of this equation, most frequently video and calendaring.

This begs a question, an important one for those in the industry who are looking to play in the UC space: Are customers going to continually be satisfied by working with companies that are selling only a piece of the solution? Furthermore, is the differentiated video knowledge that we bring to the table in UC so much greater than the voice and data companies selling the other part of the solution that we will continue to be sought out to partner or integrate a piece of the solution?

In the future, we are going to see more, not fewer, points of integration. However, we are going to see them operated out of fewer solutions. As surprising as this may sound, we are going to see our inboxes getting smarter and, through their semantic understanding of our behaviors, they will prioritize our email to make sure we see what we should, and perhaps not what we don’t care about.

Through intelligent integration with tools such as Salesforce, we may see our inbox and CRM become a single solution that also features contact management, calling, messaging and even integration with our social media accounts. Even though social has yet to be deeply integrated into UC (as we know it), there are companies building solutions that combine our social data, email and communications tools under one umbrella. Very powerful, indeed!

This industry has long been putting teeth into new ideas for revenue, and topics such as Cloud and Unified Communications have been at the forefront of the service and recurring revenue discussion. However, although we are talking about these ways of making money, we have been a little slow to adapt to the new trends: items such as mobile integration, voice service, social CRM and more. But every one of these solutions is a market force that is impacting what UC is, and what it can become.

I firmly believe that this industry needs to be in the UC game. We need to sell solutions that truly tie users to the way they behave. This means consideration of how we navigate between devices and how much more mobile we are now than even a few years ago.

However, I also believe that we need to move beyond just selling part of a solution when it comes to UC. If we want to market that we sell UC, then it is time to address the entire premise so we can solve the entire business challenge for our customers. Sure, this may be a partnering project for many integrators, but just passing off video that is part of a UC company’s product line as UC doesn’t make anyone a UC provider.

Although I’m a big proponent of the security and privacy value of using professional solutions, I’m also a user of free solutions every day; hence, the story I opened with. But really, when you think about it, the fact that I can integrate my communications more seamlessly with a free application than most can with several “UC” solutions commonly provided by our industry goes to show that we have a long way to go. It is a journey I believe we, as an industry, can and should make.

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