UC Trends 2021 – Unified Communications Round Table

Anwesha Roy

We sat down with four experts – from Mitel, MyPhones, Vonage, and Xelion

Vonage Mitel Insights
UC Trends 2021 – Unified Communications Round Table

Between 2020 and 2021, nearly two-thirds of all large companies are slated to invest heavily in unified communications (UC) solutions, with a wide cross-industry appeal. COVID-19 brought UC even more to the forefront, enabling remote services and consolidated management over the cloud. It is no wonder that a CRM company like Salesforce considered it wise to spend over $27 billion on Slack, a collab platform, which on the surface looks entirely outside of Salesforce’s domain! But it is the promise of a strong UC value proposition that brings the two together.

2021 will be another exciting year for UC, witnessing new innovations, steady adoption, and a handful of challengers, as always. We sat down with four experts – from Mitel, MyPhones, Vonage, and Xelion – to understand the industry pulse. Here are the top insights from our discussion.

What are the most significant customer trends from 2020?

The #1 customer trend in 2020, our experts agreed, was COVID-19. Its impacts played out in a variety of ways, from putting more pressure to improve customer experiences to switching to remote work overnight. Business continuity across multiple locations was also a major driver among UC customers.

mitel logoNick Riggott, Sales Director for UK&I, Mitel

Mitel’s Nick Riggott focused on the end-customer-facing aspect and how UC could help deliver engaging customer experiences during a period of crisis. Indeed, COVID-19 created a touchless economy where we rely on technology more than ever.

“The way to keep end customers coming back is by investing in their experience and the technology underpinning it. A troubled economy and upheaval in sectors like retail and hospitality re-affirmed this fact,” he said. That’s why UC customers worked closely with their technology vendors, often achieving remarkable outcomes in the face of formidable obstacles.

“The British Red Cross implemented a national support line aimed at the public and their volunteers. They worked with one of our technology partners to develop a new and user-friendly contact centre platform while in lockdown within six days, enabling volunteers to answer calls quickly and remotely,” Riggott shared an example.

Another trend that he highlighted was the rise and rise of the cloud.

Paul Gibbs, Sales Director, MyPhones

Like Riggott, MyPhones’ Paul Gibbs spoke about the role of the cloud in enabling remote work.

The first phase of cloud adoption saw users leveraging disparate cloud-based platforms without proper consolidation. “In the first instance, they used fragmented applications to get their staff working at home. Initially, video interfaces were key, and Zoom had a huge uptake,” Gibbs mentioned.

Next, the biggest challenge was how to enable business telephony to function in the same way as it did ‘pre COVID.’ Businesses found themselves looking at the technology in-house. “Could it adapt to enable remote working? Could the routing be changed to get the right teams, even if they were working at home? For those with PBX and ISDN, this became a huge challenge – so cloud-enabled telephony with UC technologies became a must,” he added, explaining how the cloud gradually enabled a degree of consolidation between telephony and newly adopted collaboration tools.

The next step is to adopt solutions like Teams, bringing the two together in an organic UC environment. As Gibbs put it, “MS Teams was behind the curve when it came to video, but has more than caught up. It is now the technology of choice.”

Vonage LogoBrian Gilman, VP, Product & Solutions Marketing, Vonage

Continuing on similar themes, Brian Gilman from Vonage spoke about accelerating digital transformation among UC customers to keep pace with and match their end-consumer preferences.

“The pandemic increased the fragmentation in channel preferences, especially in the ways that consumers interact with businesses and service providers,” he said. As a result, businesses have had to pick up the gauntlet of digital transformation and improve their capabilities at an unprecedented pace. “If there was ever a question that businesses needed to digitally transform their communications not only to survive but thrive, COVID-19 eliminated any doubt,” Gilman emphasised.

Internally (i.e., not end-consumer-facing), organisations are using UC in a big way to ensure business continuity across functions and power remote work in different global locations.

As Gilman said, “Our way of working has fundamentally changed. This will likely be a constant as workforce strategies continue to embrace a distributed, but highly connected, work environment.”

XelionDave Reynolds, Managing Director, Xelion

Adding to the conversation, Xelion’s Dave Reynolds highlighted the growing trend of “distress purchases” of cloud products in 2020.

“Because of the pandemic, businesses have been making many ‘distress purchases’ of cloud products over the past months,” he said, adding his recommendations for 2021: “Channel resellers should work with customers and help them plan longer-term strategies to support flexible working and steer integration between platforms.”

There’s always a risk of UC products becoming a sort of “a flash in the pan” without garnering long-term interests or investments. 2020 was a year of outsized interest in UC technology, a trend that vendors and channel resellers must work on if they are to convert short-term gains into long-term customer relationships.

Next, we delved into the possible challenges on the road ahead.

What will be the top challenges facing end customers in 2021?

2021 will be a year of challenge, as well as opportunity.

The pandemic situation is still evolving, with different geographies planning a different line of response, a vaccination strategy, and a roadmap for economic continuity. In the midst of this, UC customers will try to gain from the rebound while solidifying the digital infrastructure put in place this year. Read our experts insights:

According to Riggott, customers’ biggest challenge will be to navigate an increasingly complex UC segment in the face of uncertainty.

“With COVID-19 still prevalent, uncertainty is going to be the biggest challenge to customers heading into next year. Businesses will find it harder to chart a way forward, which makes choosing the right technology solutions and partners even more important,” he said. The problem is compounded by the sheer number of options available in the market.

The trick is to make the technology fit the problem, said Riggott, and not opt for a one-size-fits-all model.

As an example, he spoke about artificial intelligence (AI) – a technology touted as somewhat of a “magic bullet” for UC, particularly contact centres.

“Nascent technologies like AI-enhanced chat-bots are exciting innovations, but they present an overwhelming plethora of options, and the use case is not always clear. Firms should reach out to expert counsel and work closely with partners and technology providers to drive innovations,” he explained. The goal is to not only implement the most cutting-edge solutions but to actually increase the adoption of value-add services.

MyPhones’ Paul Gibbs turned the spotlight on Microsoft Teams, which has emerged as a top contender in UC over the last couple of quarters.

“Now I think the majority of customers have or are deploying Teams as it is the medium of choice when it comes to using video. With this in mind, a lot of customers are exploring how they can voice-enable Teams and get the best out of it”

In 2021, the next challenge is to adapt platforms like Teams to serve a wider variety of use cases. Integrating Teams with telephony solutions, either first-party or via native connectors, is a good idea – but there is a learning curve involved.

“Does this [maximising Teams] come by subscribing to MS cloud calling, direct routing, or integrating with a cloud telephony platform? The challenge here is around education and what is best for them. If they want to have a fully functional PBX, then the only answer is selecting a telephony platform that can underpin Teams with a full suite of PBX functionality,” Gibbs opined.

On the other hand, there is also an argument to be made for Microsoft Teams as PBX, adding to customer options further.

Brian Gilman from Vonage reiterated that there is a shift in end-consumer expectations, resulting in a new approach to communication in 2021.

“Consumers are going to physical locations (doctors, food shopping) less. People have permanently adjusted how they consume, and businesses have to adjust. It is now fundamental for companies to stay connected to employees and customers from anywhere – through whatever channel they choose – be it video, voice, messaging, email, and chat,” he said. He called this phenomenon a market-wide communications revolution, which is a “secular change” in how business is conducted.

“The COVID pandemic has drastically changed consumer consumption models due to the length that it has gone on,Gilman said, and its impacts will be felt well into 2021, even after a vaccine is available. Consumers have now come to expect incredible responsiveness, omnichannel presence, and seamless service fulfilment – expectations that aren’t going to go away.

“Businesses of all sizes will be challenged to differentiate and deliver personalised, engaging experiences as customer demands grow for virtual experiences that deliver real connections. It is a fundamental paradigm shift across all industries – from healthcare and fitness to education, retail and financial services,” he said.

The answer lies in fast and effective digital transformation, with UC at its core.

Xelion’s Dave Reynolds, too, spoke about Teams and how its integration capabilities with telephony could enable a more powerful UC environment.

Importantly, he pointed out a few of Teams’ shortcomings that might make it slightly less than the “perfect” UC solution in itself.

“MS Teams Phone System is not a PBX and has a very limited feature set and is missing fundamental components that 99% of our customers use every day. For example, Teams offers limited reporting functionality, a critical requirement for any customer-facing organisation,” said Reynolds. “The 1% that could use it independently would have to pay significantly more to get the same service using Teams.” This is where vendors like Xelion and others must intervene, adding on features such as detailed reports, contact centre functionalities, etc.

According to Reynolds, a one-size-fits-all model isn’t the way to go (as mentioned by Riggott earlier), as custom integrations and dedicated telephony solutions might offer better value. “Several of our customers that have already gone down the full direct routing method without fully understanding the limitations are now waiting for a solution to get back all the features they had before, such as call recording,” he shared an example.

Next, we asked our experts about the most promising technology for 2021.

What technology will deliver the greatest value to your customers in 2021?

The UC industry has seen the rise of several popular technologies, from largely mature ones like video conferencing to more cutting-edge tracks like AI. Our experts mentioned a wide variety of tools, technologies, and platforms that are likely to continue their growth momentum next year and deliver value.

Nick Riggott from Mitel refused to prioritise a single technology, emphasising the need to find the right combination of communication technologies instead.

“I believe there is no single technology to answer this. Customers will get the greatest value from the right combination of technologies working together in a complementary way, and using them in a way that supports their business model,” he said, mentioning that this need is a direct outcome of the remote working trend.

“As a firm, we’re looking at building a portfolio of solutions where staff can intuitively find the right tool at the right time, and remote working can become more fluid and spontaneous, and a seamless extension of the office environment”

One pitfall that he highlighted was an overemphasis on video conferencing: “Videoconferencing kept companies running in 2020. But its overuse has fatigued employees and staff miss out on spontaneity and real human interaction.” 2021 will be more about finding the right balance between virtual and on-premise systems, backed by a diverse technology blueprint.

Paul Gibbs, Sales Director, MyPhones

Echoing the opinion of several industry analysts, Paul Gibbs from MyPhones mentioned Microsoft Teams as a key technology for 2021. Its USP is the ability to co-exist with other business-specific technologies, thereby enabling a full-feature UC environment.

“The continued drive for remote working will encourage the demand for richer UC applications that don’t sacrifice functionality. So, as major providers such as Microsoft add to Teams, it will be more and more critical to leverage integrations to enrich the user experience,” Gibbs said.

Teams alternatives like Zoom and Slack are also doubling down on integrations/interoperability. In the end, it comes down to the mainstream of remote working and the push towards a technology landscape that can support it. Technologies like Teams integrations can help build a powerful landscape without causing fragmentation or IT chaos.

Brian Gilman, VP, Product & Solutions Marketing, Vonage

Vonage’s Brian Gilman had a more futuristic perspective on this issue. The restrictions on in-person movements we saw this year are not going to end any time soon, he believes, necessitating robust remote communication enablers that stand the test of time.

“With lockdowns and social distancing likely to continue into 2021, organisations must successfully adapt to new ways of conducting business and interacting with their customers virtually. But this will mean little if the experience isn’t frictionless, seamless, and embedded into the applications customers are already comfortable using”

Even when not guided by a regulatory mandate, it is safe to say that user expectations have changed forever. The most value-adding technologies will be the ones that can help UC customers succeed in this reimagined normal. For Gilman, this means “the ability to seamlessly integrate unified communications solutions into the contact centre, while adding layers of AI, machine learning, and programmable APIs.”

Together, these technologies will drive a company’s entire digital presence, transforming the end-customer experience. Those who recognise and leverage this could even witness outsized profitability. “The ones that meet customers on their communications channel of choice, while limiting frustration, will emerge from this turbulent era stronger than before,” declared Gilman.

Dave Reynolds, Managing Director, Xelion

Xelion’s Dave Reynolds discussed two technologies that would add the most value: the combination of cloud PBX, Teams, and other services for UC customers and open platform architecture for resellers.

“What brings the most value will be different for every business. For many, value comes from dropping those services that are out of date and lack flexibility, focusing on multiple communication streams for internal and external operations instead. It will be a combination of Cloud PBX, Teams, and other similar services,” said Reynolds.

For resellers, an open platform architecture that allows for ala-carte solution offerings will be game-changing.

The adoption of collaboration tools is growing every day. Businesses are opting for free tools like Zoom or MS Teams, which is bundled in an Office 365 subscription. To counter this, resellers must start by understanding customers, determining their needs, and putting together multi-platform solutions to suit the customer’s requirements,” he said, adding that, “Channel resellers/partners need to be able to provide an ‘ala-carte’ menu of voice and data solutions to facilitate remote teleworking.”

For this reason, Xelion pays close attention to its open platform architecture that channel partners can configure as per unique customer needs. “This puts the channel partner back in control,” Reynolds said.

Next, we wanted to take a closer look at four expert predictions on UC trends in 2021.

What is your prediction for the biggest game-changing trend for 2021?

2021 will witness cautious early steps in our return to normalcy, even as our communication modalities stand changed forever. Our experts’ predictions ranged from the continued growth of hybrid working to market consolidation and a permanent shift to digital among end customers. Here are the insights in more detail.

Mitel’s Nick Riggott shared there of his top predictions for UC in 2021 – hybrid working, mimicking in-person interactions more effectively, and the dominance of omnichannel.

  1. First, he expects there will be some form of hybrid-working for the foreseeable future, with workers split between the home and the office. “So, demand for Unified Communications as a Service will continue to soar,” Riggott mentioned.
  2. Second, communication and collaboration tools will become more refined to recreate the qualities of in-person interactions more effectively. “It’s important we capture more real-life nuances in the way we build digital collaboration solutions, so they feel more natural. This means more spontaneity, more creativity, more productivity, and ultimately more enjoyment.”
  3. Finally, the combination of AI and omnichannel will help deliver a more engaging (and convenient) customer experience. “It’s been clear for some time that omnichannel is now a customer expectation, rather than a perk. The pandemic has upped its importance even more. The communications technology industry must determine how these solutions [AI and omnichannel] can continue to boost customer and employee experience and do so without compromising on security, quality, or reliability,” he said.

According to MyPhones’ Paul Gibbs, UC companies shouldn’t bank on the return pre-pandemic conditions – investing in remote-first or at least remote-friendly technologies instead.

“Sitting at a table together with over 6 people not from one household? Going to the rugby with 80000 other people?” he wondered aloud, envisioning what would be most game-changing for all of us in 2021! “In all seriousness, I think the trend we will see is fast-paced growth in functionality to meet the demand of home working,” he added, which is a logical prediction given that so many companies plan to retain their remote work provisions after the pandemic.

Another important market trend to watch out for will be the continued consolidation of the UC market.

2020 saw a sort of communication and collaboration boom, with several mergers and acquisitions dominating our headlines. Adobe plans to acquire Workfront for a staggering $1.5 billion, Microsoft-acquired Metaswitch, and, of course, Salesforce acquired industry giant Slack. According to Gibbs, this trend will carry on into next year.

“Consolidation will be a large part of the comms market next year, with a lot of the resellers that perhaps have had historic reliance in one-off sales being swallowed up.”

Brian Gilman from Vonage spoke about the unpredictable nature of market demand and why agility is key.

“Since January 2020, there has been 140% growth globally in the number of people who prefer to connect with businesses via video,” Gilman pointed out. “Consumer preference for emerging channels, including video, social messaging, and chatbots has grown. This applies to banking, finance and insurance, education, healthcare, retail, and transportation and logistics.”

UC companies can expect continued interest in non-traditional communication channels, with growing – and often unpredictable – diversification. This places agility at the front and centre of organisational priorities.

“Armed with insights from various communication channels, businesses can build a winning customer experience that meets customers on their preferred communications channels, whatever and wherever they might be”

As per Xelion’s Dave Reynolds, the most game-changing trend in 20201 will be more options in pre-packaged integrations, particularly in the UK-hosted voice services market.

“Traditionally, first-generation UK hosted voice services provide a very ‘closed’ environment. The platform provider and not the reseller partner has control of the product and dictates the end customer solution,” Reynolds noted. This is poised to change next year.

“In the future, customers want to integrate the hosted telephony platform with other back-office solutions such as MS 365 and CRM systems,” he predicted, which is why Xelion is actively working on its integration marketplace to empower partners and resellers.

These technologies will prove game-changing by eliminating the time and expenses of working with a custom programming interface

2020 highlighted the incredible potential of unified communication technologies. It compelled organisations to overcome resistance and overlook teething troubles, gaining from UC’s undeniable benefits. Next year, as 2020’s first-time UC buyers reach greater maturity, these trends, predictions, and technologies will prove integral. Watch this space as we bring you more news and industry updates. We also look forward to bringing you our 2021 UC predictions in January — stay tuned!

 

 


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