It doesn’t take much to become a “service provider” providing a sub‐par cloud communications experience. For example, a vendor can pair open source software with commodity off‐the‐shelf servers and partner with a third‐party session initiation protocol (SIP) provider, and voilà! There’s a new kid on the block offering cheap voice services “in the cloud.”
However, any cloud communications system is only as good as the ongoing end‐to‐end services that it provides to its customers. In addition to the foundational software, there are data center operations, staffing, design, scalability, customer service, and much more to evaluate. In this chapter, we’ll look at ten key communications capabilities that you need to consider when evaluating cloud communications providers for your organization.
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Cloud-based voice and telephony
Voice is, of course, a basic requirement of any cloud communications solution. In addition to providing end‐to‐end voice quality, a cloud communications provider should offer a variety of endpoint options, including software and mobile agents, as well as various desk phones. Functionality should include a personal communications dashboard with advanced unified communications (UC) and voice features, like:
- Presence: Know whether people are available, away from their desk, or out of the office and choose the best mode to reach them.
- Instant messaging: Look for the answer to a quick question, or, busy on the phone, get what you need with a simple chat to your colleagues.
- Unified messaging: Access call recording and send voicemails to your email so you never miss a message. Add fax to email functionality as an optional feature.
- Soft clients: Workers enjoy the same intuitive communications management they would experience in the office from a remote PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone, with an embedded, software-based IP phone.
- Attendant console: Offer phone status information for multitasking attendants, receptionists and administrators.
- Web access: Get access to key collaboration features from remote locations using any computer with Internet access.
- Single number reach: Your personal cell number stays personal. The single number reach allows users to be reached on any device through a single phone number with intelligent call routing capabilities. Calling the single number rings one, some or all devices simultaneously depending on user preference and defined rules.
Modern conferencing makes it possible for remote workers to be remote, with collaboration capabilities that go well beyond a basic conference call. Sharing screens, seeing other conference participants, working on content together in real‐time and more, are all important capabilities.
Conferencing capabilities in a cloud communications solution are a must. These capabilities should be as easy-to-use as picking up a phone and should include advanced features that make it simple for users to invite meeting attendees, dial out, join conferences, share workspaces and record meetings.
Cloud workstream messaging
Work, and especially team‐based activity, is not static, but a continuous process that involves collaborating to solve a problem, measuring results and improving the output, whether it’s speed to market, quality of service or return on investment.
That workflow is a steady stream with faster currents in some portions of the project and slower demands in others. Like a stream, it meanders its way with an inconsistent ebb and flow of people, conversations, collaboration, and content.
Workstream messaging embraces this natural workflow continuity and provides a single, unified experience with rich collaboration and real‐time communications to support how real teamwork is achieved today:
- Keep pervasive chats, collaboration and content (like presentations, pdfs, and more) so that new team members can get caught up quickly.
- Keep up with projects, stay connected with colleagues and clients, and eliminate cumbersome emails with powerful layers of embedded collaboration within a single, shared application.
- Consolidate teamwork capabilities into a single window pane, centralizing chats, content sharing, collaborative whiteboard sessions, pictures, videos, presentations, and add rich graphic and vocal annotations.
- Conduct face‐to‐face meetings with team members even if you aren’t in the same room with them using multiparty video integration.
- Expand teams past the physical confines of your own organization to include remote employees, contractors and even partner or customer contacts, anywhere around the globe and on any device.
Cloud application integrations
Business application integration is critical to make sure that your systems are talking to one another. Having to switch between screens that require different passwords and transfer data between applications slows business down and destroys productivity.
In addition to basic email integration, your cloud communications solution should natively integrate with communications-enabled business processes (CEBP) and popular applications, like:
- Customer relationship management (CRM) suites, like Salesforce, Oracle Sales Cloud, Zoho and SugarCRM
- Microsoft Exchange and Gmail
- Microsoft Office 365
- Google Apps
- Other vertical business applications within healthcare, insurance, retail, or real estate as examples
Two approaches to extensibility include application programming interfaces (APIs) so customers can create custom integrations and packaged/supported integrations that have already been created (such as Salesforce.com).
Contact center functionality in the cloud
Not every business has a formal contact center, but every business can benefit from contact center functionality.
Regardless of the terminology (customer specialist, sales agent or support representative) your business has a need to route incoming calls efficiently, while effectively measuring customer service metrics.
Contact center functionality is a key benefit of unified communications. With the cloud, businesses of any size can enjoy the advanced features of a contact center without the upfront costs. The ultimate customer experience starts with key contact center functionality, like:
- Skills‐based automated call distribution (ACD): Skills-based ACD helps your business optimize resources by helping you handle a large number of incoming customer calls with a minimal number of skilled agents, sales primes or support reps. A skills‐based ACD system routes incoming calls to the longest idle agent within a specific agent skills group. If no agents are available, calls are queued and forwarded to an agent when one becomes available.
- First call resolution: Create multiple skill groups that prioritize and route calls to the most appropriately skilled agent based on pre‐defined skill proficiency levels. This ensures each call gets to the best available resource to meet the customer’s needs. Agents appearing in more than one skill group may be assigned a different skill proficiency level for each group.
- Monitor and manage: Real‐time and historical reporting provides contact center supervisors with the information they need to manage resources efficiently and optimize response times. Identify problem areas, analyze trends in performance and make informed decisions.
- Remote agents: Optimize business processes by providing home‐based and remote workers with complete access to ACD voice and data capabilities.
Cloud communications pricing
Prices tend to be fairly competitive among cloud communications providers and can be difficult to compare due to different bundling options. Focus on the features and functionality that your business needs—and remember that price isn’t everything.
There’s tremendous value in flexibility. You should give extra consideration to a cloud service provider that provides flexible pricing, like allowing you to purchase individual features and licenses – or bundled features and groups of licenses – and scale up or down as your business needs change.
Security and compliance in cloud communications systems
Cloud communications providers must provide advanced security measures, including full encryption, for all of their subscribers. Compliance with stringent security and privacy standards and requirements is essential, including:
- Sarbanes‐Oxley (SOX)
- Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)
Service level agreements (SLAs) for cloud communications
Look for a cloud communications provider that hosts their services in multiple, geographically dispersed Tier 4 data centers. This helps to ensure that your communications never go down due to a single network outage, hardware failure, or even a major disaster.
Data center tier levels are as follows:
- Tier 1: Single non‐redundant distribution path serving IT infrastructure, non‐redundant capacity components, basic site infrastructure with expected availability of 99.671 percent (approximately 29 hours of downtime per year)
- Tier 2: Meets or exceeds all Tier 1 requirements and redundant site infrastructure capacity components with expected availability of 99.741 percent (approximately 23 hours of downtime per year)
- Tier 3: Meets or exceeds all Tier 2 requirements with multiple independent distribution paths serving the IT equipment, all IT equipment is dual‐powered and fully compatible, and concurrently maintainable site infrastructure with expected availability of 99.982 percent (approximately 90 minutes of downtime per year)
- Tier 3+: Terms for this certification vary by region. Meets or exceeds all Tier 3 requirements with dual-powered cooling equipment (including chillers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems), and fault‐tolerant infrastructure with electrical power storage and distribution facilities an expected availability of 99.995 percent (approximately 26 minutes of downtime per year).
Service‐level agreements (SLAs) should provide easy-to-understand and useful performance metrics, including uptime and availability, performance, latency, jitter and loss, as well as clear escalation and remediation procedures.
Penalties for non‐compliance can never compensate a business for lost revenue opportunities, but should provide compensation beyond one‐to‐one service credits (one hour of service credit for every hour of downtime) and allow a business to terminate the service if it becomes untenable.
A user portal should be simple and help your users access the full functionality of their cloud communications suite, whether they’re sitting at a desktop PC, working from a tablet at home, or using a mobile phone.
The administrator portal in a cloud communications solution should be powerful and intuitive, helping IT administrators quickly and easily set up new users and change capabilities for existing users, as required.
Role‐based access controls help ensure that geographically dispersed IT staff have the necessary permissions to support the business and their users—but not more. Site- and team-level access further simplifies administration of the system.
If a cloud communications solution requires extensive training to figure out its admin portal, it’s too hard!
Billing and customer service
Billing is challenging for many organizations, and cloud communications providers are no exception.
Many cloud communications providers simply offer “unlimited” calling, which is great until you need to dig into details. For example, how do you determine peak periods and average call times to plan your call center staffing needs? How do you know where the majority of your calls are coming from to help identify potential market segmentation opportunities?
Look for a cloud communications provider that can provide you with online access to simplified, detailed billing information.
Customer service can be a real differentiator for cloud communications providers. How hard is it to reach a live person when you have a technical or billing question? As with anything, you should expect exceptional customer service from your service provider.