Voice is a fundamental feature of communication. Even as technology offers new ways to exchange information – from e-mail to texts to tweets – voice still proliferates. It remains the only real-time, layered method of communication. Given that it includes both tone and content, it’s harder to misinterpret a voice conversation.
But as enterprises race to reap the benefits of digital transformation, voice technology within the enterprise isn’t necessarily keeping pace with network innovation. Though service providers have added new features to voice systems, enterprises still maintain traditional systems. That’s creating a gap between perception and reality. Users expect voice capabilities with the same kind of digital simplicity and transformative capability they’ve experienced with their own smartphones and enterprise computers. There’s a myth that such capabilities are not possible, and it’s just that – a myth.
A new IDG Research Services study reveals that IT practitioners across a variety of enterprises believe that their voice systems haven’t evolved to keep pace with digital transformation. In effect, IT is as dissatisfied and frustrated as users. So why is the solution so elusive?
The problem, simply put, is history, or, to use a more-accurate technological term, legacy. It’s an issue with which enterprises are all too familiar. In fact, there was a time when computer systems were expensive, lumbering, and proprietary. Those systems changed. Voice systems haven’t changed as quickly.
To be fair, there are sound reasons behind this lag. Enterprises wanted – indeed, expected – voice systems to have a level of reliability and availability beyond that of computer systems. The idea of downtime on a phone system was rare. As a result, enterprises invested in phone systems that remain viable today – but only for the basic features that have been part of such systems for decades – call forwarding, hunt groups, voice mail, among others.
Enterprises’ investments in those reliable but proprietary systems didn’t stop with hardware. Those systems required staff that innately understood the somewhat-arcane systems. (There’s an old joke within IT that deems command-line Unix, an operating system not known for its user-friendliness, positively intuitive compared to phone systems’ interfaces.) Enterprises have to think about cultural issues when it comes to retraining staff who know the older systems so well.
At the same time that voice services have remained stuck in the past, network services have rocketed into the future. In an unprecedented digital transformation, they’ve brought new levels of capabilities and connectivity. Thanks to advances in cloud computing and networking, users can now access information from anywhere, which makes them significantly more productive. And increasingly, they’re gaining such access through smartphones, which makes them wonder why those old voice applications aren’t as cool.
As a result, it’s becoming increasingly clear to IT and users alike that the usability and features gap between voice systems and computer systems is widening. In fact, every day users experience a wide variety of capabilities on their smartphones, as they connect with both corporate-and consumer-oriented databases. They wonder why voice applications – which are clearly just as key to communication as e-mail, if not more so – aren’t as advanced as computer applications.
That’s why the IDG survey results are no surprise. They reveal that both IT practitioners and users are aware of new capabilities available in voice systems, and sense that they could boost both innovation and productivity with new systems. They’ve concluded that their current voice technology is holding back the enterprise on a number of fronts. The biggest issue is inherent in its proprietary heritage: 39% believe even a “small change” in the voice system is expensive and labor-intensive. Other issues cited include their belief that their enterprises’ phone technology is outdated; that it doesn’t scale well; and that it’s bulky to administer.
The survey revealed other issues. For instance, 30% of survey respondents believe that their enterprise’s voice technology “isn’t reflective” of its innovative spirit, while 25% believe that their current voice capabilities don’t align with business goals. At a time when workforce productivity and customer engagement are key corporate goals, the fundamental methods of communication and collaboration are falling short. A voice system should help stakeholders find solutions to their problems, not hinder them. In addition, as enterprises look toward increasing automation, their phone system should make it easier, not harder, for users to get what they need.
Overall, these results reflect an intriguing revelation: IT believes there is more functionality that they can provide to make their voice technology more effective.
The Ideal Voice Environment
What kind of functionality are IT practitioners and users alike looking for? Essentially, they’re in search of capabilities that bring voice functionality into alignment with computer functionality. Based on the survey results, when asked what constituted an “ideal voice environment,” 48% of respondents said they envisioned a variety of attributes to meet disparate needs. Those capabilities include the basics, such as voice mail, call forwarding, and three-way calling. Advanced needs include the ability to launch conference calls (both audio and video) and access documents for higher levels of collaboration.
An almost equal amount, 46%, say they want easy integration of voice applications with enterprise applications. Just consider customer engagement and digital transformation, the potential of a voice system integrated with a customer relationship management system — even routing high-value customers immediately to tier-two service agents — is astounding. Customers wouldn’t need to know who to ask for, but by virtue of their caller ID or other mechanism, they would automatically get a higher level of service.
Another 43% of respondents want easier deployment of smartphone or mobile capabilities. This issue may become even more crucial in coming years, as smartphones and tablets cement their position as replacements for laptops and even desktops. The realm is complicated by the bifurcation in mobile operating systems, but the desire for simplicity still looms.
All told, addressing these issues means creating a voice system that mimics the capabilities of state-of-the-art systems – the ability to bring colleagues into calls, to launch both audio and video conferences, to access documents for sharing while collaborating on a voice call.
Not surprisingly, though, IT practitioners have no willingness to trade off fundamental capabilities for those potentially seen as futuristic. But they don’t have to make a tradeoff. As noted, voice systems have a long-standing reputation for reliability, and no one wants to lose that aspect. That’s why 41% of survey respondents say they want a “blended” solution, one that encompasses the characteristics of both traditional and advanced systems. That way, they get the reliability that older systems are known for, but also the state-of-the-art capabilities that session initiation protocol (SIP) applications provide. These include quality-of-service (QoS) capabilities, security, messaging, and other tools. Other items on IT practitioners’ wish list for advanced voice systems include easier administration for remote or branch offices (cited by 30% of respondents) and the ability to use off-site voice systems based in the cloud (cited by 27%).
These issues exemplify crucial capabilities for which state-of-the-art voice systems may actually be better than computer systems. For instance, when IT has to upgrade an enterprise application to a new version, each user needs access to the new version simultaneously. In order to ease the workload on IT, new voice systems can be added incrementally, with branch offices, remote offices, and other sites upgraded in sequence. While some features may not be available to everyone immediately, the advantage remains that everyone maintains basic voice service.
In addition, especially with cloud-based systems, IT can add state-of-the-art voice features almost as soon as they become available. This is a key element of digital transformation: the ability (and agility) that comes from deploying cloud-based applications quickly, at low cost, in order to derive greater efficiency. Enterprises can garner the same kind of benefits with voice technology as they already have with other technology — from the network to storage and what seems to be everything in between.
In fact, the IT practitioners surveyed already know the benefits they can derive from state-of-the-art voice capability. Based on the results, there’s almost an unsated hunger for such a system. For instance, 60% believe a better voice environment would increase productivity. Some 46% believe it would reduce costs, and an equal percentage say they believe it would smooth customer interaction. Other advantages: 32% believe it would maximize innovation and support digital transformation, and 27% believe it would improve competitive advantage and increase revenue.
These are all key business advantages, addressing a variety of areas. Not only would a state-of-the-art voice system free IT to address more strategic issues, but they could also do so with a lower budget for phone systems. This is counterintuitive – newer is usually more expensive – but there have been so many innovations in voice technology that advanced systems may indeed offer a better ROI than legacy systems.
For the highest levels of productivity, enterprises need to evolve both their network and voice capabilities. Deploying one without deploying the other is only half a solution.
How can enterprises transform their voice technologies to become commensurate with their network technologies, to get the highest levels of employee and IT productivity out of both? The answer is to seek an advanced system that has all of the features IT practitioners are looking for: reliability, scalability, and flexibility. The system must replicate all the time-tested features of a traditional system, but jettison its drawbacks. Consider each of these features:
Reliability. The first step is to move to an IP-based system, which takes advantage of Internet-based communications protocols and other tools for monitoring and management. There’s one caveat to this, however. Initially, when IP-based voice networks were introduced, vendors recommended using a single network to reduce monitoring responsibilities. That premise has been invalidated because of latency issues. When the bits comprising voice traffic slow down, it adversely affects the real-time impact of the conversation. The same isn’t true of data traffic, which, because it represents asynchronous communication, is still viable when latency is higher.
Scalability.The second step is to consider a hosted system. This overcomes one of the key drawbacks of legacy-system PRI access – they can only add users in specific increments of 24 channels. If an enterprise needs to add just one more person, it pays for all those channels – no matter how many it actually needs. With a hosted system, enterprises can add as few or as many subscribers as necessary without building out legacy equipment at each location, which saves money on both hardware and management. Finally, as noted, new users can be upgraded as necessary, not simultaneously, given IT the opportunity to rationally schedule a rollover.
Flexibility. Finally, enterprises are increasingly looking at cloud-based systems for flexibility. By offloading the management of a voice system to a third-party, enterprises can make their IT department more efficient and can take advantage of newer features, such as videoconferencing, at a managed cost. The same applies to other advanced features offered by a cloud-based service provider – enterprises can deploy them easily without having to worry about the capabilities of their own internal infrastructure.
Overall, shifting voice systems from an on-premises system to a nimble, cloud-based system can offer significant advantages. Moving away from legacy phone systems (at a rate that takes into account previous investment and future ROI) can help enterprises become more efficient in both their internal and their external communications. The upshot: more productivity all around, at a managed cost.