Unified Communications (UC) and Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) are poised to take off in a big way this year, as buyers look at consolidating their wartime purchases from 2020 and reach maturity through the help of partners and resellers. Looking at the latest statistics on the UC market, interest in this space isn’t new. According to Gartner, UC has reported a steady annual growth of 20% or more every year between 2015 and 2018. Cloud UC, particularly, is growing at a 14% CAGR and the UCC market at 8% CAGR.
At the same time, there is a definitive push towards digital transformation and away from legacy systems, now necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital transformation investments are slated to cross $6 trillion by 2022, says IDC, even as 61% of companies eagerly wait to switch to VoIP as soon as their existing phone contracts expire.
In other words, enterprises across industries need to have their finger on the UC pulse in 2021 if they are to make smart investments, transform in a sustainable manner, and equip their workforce with technologies that can help boost productivity. How can you achieve this? To answer this question, we spoke with experts from Vonage, Enreach, and Intrado – delving into themes such as the pandemic’s impact, the influence of AI, and predictions for 2021.
Vonage is a telecommunications company with robust UC, contact centre, and CPaaS capabilities. Enreach specialises in UC for contact centres, and Intrado is a collaboration, communication, and digital media company.
What trends did the COVID-19 pandemic introduce to UC/UCaaS in 2020?
In recent history, the pandemic has been the single most civilisation-shaping event for populations across the globe, and inevitably, it has changed communication forever. We were eager to know what our experts believed were the biggest changes from last year. In addition to remote communication, there was also the need for channel integration, UX transformation, and a surprising resurgence of audio.
Here are the full insights.
Brian Gilman, VP, Product & Solutions Marketing, Vonage
Gilman spoke about the accelerated pace in digital transformation in a bid to enable remote work and business continuity. It wasn’t just about connecting globally distributed sites at a time when business travel was impossible – customers, too, wanted newer communication channels and interconnectivity between them.
“As a result of the COVID pandemic, we saw the critical need for organisations to ensure business continuity across functions, and to seamlessly enable remote work throughout global locations. Businesses have been challenged to accelerate their digital transformation through communications at an unprecedented pace,” Gilman said.
“The pandemic also accelerated the adoption of newer communications channels while increasing fragmentation in channel preferences, especially in the ways that consumers interact with businesses and service providers. Our way of working has fundamentally changed, and this will likely be a constant as workforce strategies continue to embrace a distributed, but highly connected, work environment,” he added.
During this period, Vonage conducted research to keep pace with changing consumer preferences and behaviour. This, Gilman said, would help organisations to realign the experiences they provide to better engage with customers. You can explore the findings of the research here.
Justin Hamilton-Martin, Director, Enreach for Service Providers, UK
Hamilton-Martin from Enreach spoke about two aspects of the pandemic response – quick fixes and long-term implications. While the initial wave of digital transformation aimed at low-hanging fruits, the later stages were about integrations, consolidation, and expansion, which resulted in new opportunities for UC providers.
“Many businesses had to pivot to online, not just for staff, but for customer-facing services too. Physical engagement has been narrowed down to the size of a screen. Initially, the focus was on just making sure that remote digital communications and collaboration were possible, so businesses turned to ‘quick fixes,’ often using consumer-grade tools and services. Those helped businesses overcome an emergency situation,” Hamilton-Martin said.
“But the long-term limitations soon became clear,” he added.
As 2020 progressed, three trends emerged:
- “There was an upswell of interest in unified communications, as businesses sought to overcome siloed collaboration, communication, and productivity solutions”
- “Buyers also began to look at ways in which to enrich the user experience, both internally and externally, to help ensure uniform quality regardless of whether someone is working from home or in the office”
- “Finally, they embraced mobile communications as an essential part of remote and hybrid working models”
Already, in 2020, the industry was starting to move out of the reactive mode, and this is a trend that will continue to play out this year.
Patty Watson, President, Enterprise Collaboration at Intrado
When we asked Patty Watson from Intrado about the dominant trends from 2020, she pointed to a spike in adoption, blended environments, and a surprising resurgence of audio. UC providers have repeatedly stressed on the power of video to overcome isolation and disconnect when working remotely. But, as WFH continues to remain the new normal, a sense of video fatigue might be setting in.
Here are the trends she highlighted:
- Going digital faster – She mentioned the “accelerated adoption of UCaaS overall, especially WFH solutions.”
- Multiple solutions co-existing – There was a rise of “Blended solution environments, where groups of workers may leverage different telephony options depending upon local needs – e.g., leveraging Microsoft Teams Direct Routing to support calling, blended with existing users using mobile versions of Cisco HCS.”
- The resurgence of audio – “Although trending downward in recent years, audio conferencing tools saw a resurgence as companies leveraged simple toolsets to handle baseline collaboration. This highlighted the demand for simplicity. A feature list that has 400 items on it looks good on paper, but it contributes to ‘Zoom fatigue.’”
UC/UCaaS is now firmly embedded into employee workflows, which means that purchase decisions are now more about business user requirements than IT. For this reason, simplicity and powerful functionality will be key going forward – as Watson put it, “Too many bells and whistles can add to visual and mental overload, which can undermine effective collaboration.”
Another trend that she pointed out was the use of technology for employee engagement, apart from productivity – “We are seeing our customers make deliberate choices about their company culture to support and nurture while everyone operates remotely. “
Next, we wanted to know how these trends from last year could influence UC/UCaaS development in 2021.
How will these trends influence UC/UCaaS platforms in 2021?
The UC/UCaaS market is poised at an interesting place. Vendors could simply focus on strengthening the engagements from last year and enjoying the fruits of their timely innovation. Or, they could grab the bull by its horns as it were, and build on this momentum across all of 2021. In every industry, there will be interest in digitalising communication, and 2021 will be all about actualising these opportunities.
Read what our experts had to say.
Brian Gilman explained how the pandemic has fundamentally changed the dynamics of human conversion, taking the focus away from in-person presence and physical movements. At the same time, flexibility continues to be key, as consumers aren’t likely to compromise on the sense of empowerment and freedom they would feel in a pre-pandemic world.
“We’re at the very beginning of a huge market-wide communications revolution, a secular change in how business gets done. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed consumer consumption models due to the length that it has gone on. Consumers are going to physical locations – doctors, food shopping – less. People have forever adjusted how they consume, and businesses have to adjust,” Gilman said.
“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 added. And this trend cuts across industries and organisations of every size”
“It is a fundamental paradigm shift across all industries – from healthcare and fitness to education, retail, and financial services – to accelerate digital transformation and the delivery of services while creating unique experiences for their users,” Gilman observed. “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.”
He summed up this trend as a single moment of realisation that’s hit organisations in the last few months: “Organisations must always be agile and ready to adapt to changes in the market, but we’ve learned this year that agility is key to survival.”
When we asked Hamilton-Martin from Enreach about what he predicts will be the top trend this year, he zeroed in on one theme – the contact centre. Unified Communications as a Service or UCaaS makes it possible for any company to onboard a contact centre capability at very little investment. If you are a small company with low call volumes, for example, you no longer need to outsource or do everything via self-service. UCaaS enables the “casual contact centre,” which is the biggest influence from last year’s UC trends.
“One of the biggest directions we are already seeing is interest in contact-centre functionality from all kinds of businesses, especially those that did not have any before: anyone who is customer-facing is essentially in a contact centre role,” said Hamilton-Martin.
“The benefit of UCaaS is that any business – however small – can have a ‘casual contact centre’ facility, rather than having to invest in a dedicated contact centre solution. That’s also a new revenue opportunity for the channel”
Another major area of influence, says Hamilton-Martin, is mobile usage. Business communication, and therefore UC, was traditionally associated with fixed-line telephony – the move to WFH has changed this. “We saw mobile usage rise in 2020, and we expect that to continue in 2021, especially as UC becomes more focused around the user and his or her status (rather than dictated by network, device, or app),” Hamilton-Martin said.
According to him, mobile is on a par with any other part of the UC environment, not just an afterthought. “The ‘mobile first’ mentality that Scandinavia has long adopted has spread to the rest of Europe and to the UK.”
Patty Watson from Intrado discussed three ways in which the trends from last year will have an impact on UC/UCaaS platforms in 2021. The continued rule of remote work will cause an increase in demand. Buyers will become more conscious about security as valuable/sensitive data is exchanged via UCaaS. And, Microsoft Teams will be on everybody’s minds.
“Remote work is here to stay in one form or another. With social restrictions still in place and 77% of employees worldwide wanting to work remotely (as per the Global Work-from-home Experience Survey), UCaaS tools will be necessary to support the needs of both remote and in-office employees”
She also shared trends from Intrado’s own customer base – “Among our customers, we are seeing a movement toward hybrid work models with an emphasis on mobility”
“Customers are showing preferences toward meeting tools keyed to practical workflow and productivity rather than feature creep,” she added.
Speaking on security, she told us Intrado’s research reveals that 51% of IT managers will hinge their spending decisions on cybersecurity issues, and it will be a top driver for moving communications to the cloud for 43%.
So, it makes sense that UCaaS giant Microsoft would prioritise security to further solidify its market presence. “Already the leader in public cloud security, Microsoft’s commitment to invest $1 billion per year on security should ensure that Teams remains the most complete UCaaS solution for security-minded businesses of all sizes,” Watson said.
Apart from the pandemic, an important trend that is maturing this year is artificial intelligence (AI).
Will AI start to appear in Unified Communications and UCaaS in 2021 – and in what way?
Artificial intelligence or AI holds incredible promise but is mostly deterred by technical limitations, resource shortage, scale, and ethics. In 2021, AI technology will reach new levels of maturity, particularly, when it comes to agent-enablement in the contact centre. Even for other business users, AI could uplift the user experience dramatically, through simple aids such as an auto-generated meeting summary.
Read on for the complete insights from our experts.
Gilman from Vonage spoke about the clear potential of AI when it comes to transforming contact centre operations. Consumers are now turning to digital channels en masse both out of necessity and convenience, and companies must adapt. However, there is no room for a dip in CX quality. AI can help achieve this balance between functionality and engagement.
“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,” he said.
In this context, AI can offer a competitive advantage when coupled with the right contact strategy.
“It is important for businesses to understand customer frustrations and interact with customers through a variety of communications channels. Organisations that meet consumers on their communications channel of choice, while limiting frustration, may emerge from this turbulent era stronger than before.”
In a nutshell, he observed, the ability to seamlessly integrate unified communications solutions into the contact centre, while adding layers of AI, machine learning, and programmable APIs will be the key differentiator in customer experience.
Justin Hamilton-Martin from Enreach expects AI to become more accessible – even commonplace – from 2021. It can not only reduce human effort through smart automations, but it can also introduce an element of personalisation – much needed at a time of remote working and social distancing.
“AI will be far more prevalent, particularly for customer-facing services, to provide the level of support and engagement that people increasingly need or demand. Together with Natural Language Programming (NLP), AI can reduce the initial burden of contact on staff while improving service quality,” said Justin Hamilton-Martin.
“Furthermore, as data is captured, interactions become more tailored,” he added, sharing an example –
“The majority of customer questions have a simple, standard answer. However, customers do not expect to have to hunt around for the information, nor do they want to spend a long time in phone queues. The latest generation of smart chat and conversational voice-based AI gives customers fast, accurate, context-based answers. Human interactions can then be prioritised for complex queries or those that require empathy.”
Conversational AI of this kind isn’t just limited to consumer-facing applications. One can imagine scenarios like an IT service helpdesk or an employee query helpdesk, where a bot takes care of common, knowledge-based issues. “It can integrate consumer-grade tools with business applications, allowing companies to blend both worlds,” said Justin Hamilton-Martin.
Patty Watson shared with us exclusive insights from Intrado’s newest research report that confirms AI’s immense potential in UC/UCaaS in 2021. “Intrado’s own research indicates AI will continue to gain ground within UCaaS tools,” she said, highlighting five trends:
- 62% of remote workers would want to initiate a video call using voice commands
- 65% of remote workers would find a virtual assistant or a personal digital assistant helpful in scheduling and managing meetings
- 66% would be interested in an AI feature that could automatically schedule meetings based on everyone’s availability
- 57.53% would want their conferencing app to automatically look up public information on meeting participants before a conference
- 66% believe that AI-based automation of mundane and boring tasks would make them more productive
Here as well, Microsoft is leading the way in AI investments. Already, Microsoft Teams uses AI for a powerful recap feature that gives you an end-to-end recording, transcript, and summary of all meetings. Watson explained that the company’s resources in Azure could fuel further advancements in AI.
“While all the major UCaaS players will and do employ AI, Microsoft clearly owns the high ground there. That’s because the entire Modern Workplace and Azure stack lives on a common AI fabric, including all of the non-Teams applications that more than 90% of people and businesses use to create, store, organize, and share information.”
Azure has been such a game-changer for AI, says Watson, that Salesforce decided to move its CRM Cloud to Azure last year. AI is a big motivator for UC vendors looking to partner with Microsoft – “Every publisher of tools that help businesses manage workforces, teamwork, projects and tasks, forms and automations, customer relationships, resources, etc., are racing to partner and integrate with the Microsoft cloud and Teams.”
Summarising these insights, it is clear that the impacts of the pandemic have changed the course of the UCaaS/UC industry, or at least accelerated its maturity. From supporting employees who are WFH to customers now accustomed to digital channels, UC will power a brand-new era in internal and external communications. Video, chat, mobile, and voice will come together to enhance flexibility. Artificial Intelligence or AI will add a layer of intelligence automation for greater convenience on the one hand and more effective personalisation on the other. Amid all of this, Microsoft emerges as a key player – owing significantly to its cloud capabilities in Azure (you can read more trends on Microsoft’s rise in 2021’s UC landscape here).
Buyers considering fresh investments in UC/UCaaS must look at security, integrations, multichannel flexibility, and AI as among their key selection criteria. Providers must increase these abilities either through in-house innovations, third-party integrations, or partnerships.
We would like to thank Brian Gilman from Vonage, Justin Hamilton-Martin from Enreach, and Patty Watson from Intrado for their valuable insights on this topic.
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