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How to Avoid the Pitfalls of UC Implementation

When I started out in telecoms, the PBX or phone system was a bit like the old mushrooms and Lloyds Names joke – what do they have in common? Both fed on crap and kept in the dark..... Well OK, not the best analogy, but the phone system was always in the boiling basement broom cupboard, whirring away like some demented fan oven and typically managed by the facilities team who, by their own admission, were not necessarily the best qualified for the job…network services were provided by BT alone, or if you were really lucky, Mercury provided you with a ‘Smart’ box which looked like a microwave oven (perhaps to accompany the aforementioned PBX fan oven) but was significantly less reliable. Maybe a microwave would have done a better job of routing your calls to the new network…they weren’t very good!

Okay – enough frivolity! Fast forward 30 years. Copper phone lines are obsolete and are actually scheduled to cease completely by 2025. Ditto digital ISDN lines, which are also past it, and competition and the Internet have changed the industry beyond recognition. What we have had for some time is an application in the ICT portfolio called Unified Communications. From your laptop, desktop PC, tablet or mobile you can make calls (wherever you are) from the office phone system, share files, send instant messages, go on audio or video conference calls, etc.

The UC app comes in a number of varieties, split between MS Teams and proprietary UC apps from the main telcos such as Avaya, Mitel, Cisco and the hosted only providers 8x8, Broadsoft, etc. What it does is great. Delivering it to a large organisation that has not used it before is another matter. Plenty can go wrong and often does if the basic rules and processes are not followed.

So in the context of ‘how do we avoid the common pitfalls’, the first question is ‘why should UC be positioned as part of an overall business strategy?’ Well, for a start it will affect the behaviour of everyone in the organisation. If a business is considering a transformational strategy, UC will play a key roll. The combination of people, process and technology is to be treated as a symbiotic relationship if such transformations are going to be successful and UC is an enabler for this, if a Unified Workspace ambition is to be achieved. This means delivering access to business applications on any device, anytime, anywhere using a standardised set of tools.

OK – so it affects the whole organisation. This means that deployment will have to be seamless if the IT manager wants to keep his/her job. The terms seamless and IT deployment are all too rarely used in the same sentence. Therefore we have to be prepared: knowing what might go wrong and taking pre-emptive action. AKA risk assessment, Action Logs, project planning and all the other implementation terms we know and love. In a UC deployment, other typical issues can start with:

  • The transition from old to new platforms is plagued with problems around quality, call transfer, voicemail, ‘cliff edge’ between systems, cut off recordings, inaccurate reports. Result – management chaos and endless firefighting.
  • Users do not have suitable devices for their requirements – e.g. "I’m not wearing that!" "Where’s my phone gone?"! "Why have I got two mobiles now?" Etc.
  • Overlapping projects, e.g. Teams deployed for UC and then discovering that the trusty old Mitel/Avaya could do it in the first place! Social media managed by a media team in isolation, and then IT bring it into a contact centre so that it can be reported on and managed in an Omni Channel context. A worthy notion, but CC agents are not necessarily PR experts…could be quite damaging.
  • Inadequate preparation for number porting – not enough lead time allowed, wrong postcodes, IPEX issues, incomplete DDI ranges etc.

How do we prevent these types of issues from happening? The short answer is planning and scoping.

The slightly longer answer is to strip the project back and consider the following 3 points:

1. Know your strategy. The generic term ‘digital transformation’ doesn’t quite cut it - What are the expected functional outcomes? Shared desks? More homeworking? More video calls? More conferencing? Better mobility? Improved BCP? Better customer service? Wider use of AI and natural voice apps?

Why? – Do you have mobile staff zig-zagging from office to client and back to upload or update information? Are there complaints from staff about having to use a personal landline or mobile phone for work? Do you need to reduce the amount of desk space to cut costs? Reduce travel? And so on…

How? – do your research! Consultation….Find out what your staff are currently lacking to achieve this outcome and at the same time use discussions with them as a way of introducing a new way of working. The reception is likely to be good if it improves their lot, plus it manages their expectations. (Caution, don’t over promise and under deliver…)

2. Allocate equipment and applications correctly

As a part of the staff consultation there is an ideal opportunity to combine this with user profiling. Levels of detail here will depend on available budget to carry out the work, but typically a department head will know what their staff do on a daily basis, where issues lie and what equipment they use currently. They will also have a good idea of how roles could be improved, even with limited knowledge of technology. This provides an ideal opportunity to use phrases like ‘would it help if you could do xxx without having to come into the office’ and ‘ what if you shared a document with your colleagues while working from home, while on a conference call with them?’ If this is supplemented with information about processes - time spent out and about seeing people, time in the office, at home, on the phone, etc. it does not take long to work out what they need. Thus a table of user profiles can be built up for the whole organisation – here I recommend that this is sent back to dept heads and signed off by them before moving to the next stages.

The phrase for this is roles-based ICT – useful for avoiding over spend on laptops, tablets and smartphones where they are not needed, or conversely, undersupplying staff and leaving them dissatisfied.

3. Prepare Detailed specifications

From a supplier’s point of view, there is nothing worse than receiving a spec that only tells half the story. They know full well that they are taking on a risk i) that there will be significant professional services required further down the line as they try to determine the client’s actual requirements and ii) this will be done on the fly, so their performance will be compromised. The result of this? Usually a no bid or caveats that render the bid unusable.

From the client’s point of view, there is a massive risk in relying on the supplier to help you if you have not done the homework (I refer to Item 1 – Strategy). Inevitably i) they will not allow enough resource because they want to win the tender, which mean that ii) the installation and service will not be satisfactory and take months to bed in, if ever. It might not even be the right product to begin with!

If you know what you want, you can be more prescriptive in the spec. This means detailing what you actually want the end result to look like and then stating expectations on i) installation process and network preparation, ii) telephony requirements, iii) contact centre, iv) workforce management, v) call recording, vi)reporting, v) training, vi) payment process.

Each of these needs to be scored according to how it matches the requirement and there are various approaches to this, but I find the most efficient to be self-scoring, whereby the supplier gives themselves a mark out of 5 confirming that the requested feature or service is available and included, down through ‘on the roadmap’ to ‘never going to happen’. If you think about it, who is going to know this information better than the supplier themselves. Obvious question – ‘won’t they cheat to win the tender’? Answer – not if it is made abundantly clear that during the evaluation process that they will be found out and scores adjusted accordingly.

Of course, how to write a spec and evaluate a tender is a whole separate piece– this is about UC, but you get my point about its importance.

 So to recap – we are talking about avoiding the common pitfalls of a UC implementation. You could apply a fair bit of this pre-emptive action to any technical project, but with UC the combination of technical and cultural change means that whilst, as is normal, preparation is everything, knowing what to prepare is equally important.

What are the deployment options for UC?

On premise, cloud or hybrid? The debate still rages as to which is better, but really it depends on the current status and nature of the client’s business. Let’s quickly run through those options:

Carrier hosted, Tier 1 or 2 – very much the ‘turn the tap on or off’ model, based on revenues or pay as you go, per user, per month format. The carrier has invested heavily in the infrastructure and their own data centres, so will charge for services available to recoup and make their profit, but rarely will you be able to ask for anything that is ‘off piste’ without engaging a third party and some sort of SIP connectivity between them – a bit messy if you like to have any kind of design input. Examples of this might be BT Cloud Phone, VMB UC Hosted, Verizon, etc. This is ideal for organisations that need agility across many sites and have fluctuating headcounts, but do not need feature flexibility.

Tier 1 carriers will normally have direct SS7 connectivity with and form part of the PSTN with other Tier 1 carriers, who in turn provide services to Tier 2 suppliers.

Re-seller hosted – The reseller has built their own data centres to house their As A Service platform, but in this case might also provide a managed service to the end users own specifications. Thus the client may be charged capital costs for setting up servers and licensing, but everything else will be included within support costs – saving on space and internal resource. This type of service – Tier 2 or 3 ASP - will rely on SIP connectivity and number planning with a Tier 1 wholesale supplier. This is a more bespoke service and can be tailored to detailed business needs and added applications.

End user hosted or On Premise – where the end user has their own data centres, purchases licenses and servers from a reseller who installs and maintains it for them, but will normally have their own IT team who can be trained to a more detailed skill level. This makes ‘on the fly’ changes possible without having to go through external party processes which can introduce significant delays to adds, moves, changes and fixes. It also focuses cost on capex rather than opex.

The best fit for any individual client will be teased out by initial design stages.

Now - without proper preparation, UC can present some challenges. Quite often I have come across situations where Teams has been deployed as a low-cost UC solution on its own, without consideration to the telephony platform. This can work but if anyone is thinking of doing it, I would strongly recommend that, beforehand, they compare the costs of licensing and the practicality of running separate systems, with a single platform that can do the whole lot. The single platform might be MS Teams + Phone System, but equally it could be an upgrade to an existing telephony system (Mitel, Cisco, Avaya, etc.) which supports UC.

Issues with the hybrid are usually:

  • Separate support contracts
  • Duplicating costs of licensing
  • Cliff edges on voicemail, recording, contact centre, conferencing
  • Software updates out of sync

Now, if you have started this process and missed out any key stages….

Don’t Panic

Ideally, the hybrid should be no more than a transition stage. However, if you find yourself in this position, having invested in a telco vendor system recently and then have unwittingly been drawn into Teams as the UC application (by popular demand), then do not panic. They will run alongside one another quite happily until there is a business case for moving to the single system. Most traditional telcos provide a Teams plugin, so that call control across the PSTN works from the Teams client. Effectively it is buying time to plan the whole business transformation process with a shorter-term solution, knowing that in the longer term you will shift to one platform.

To summarise, please remember that:

  • UC affects the whole organisation, so must be done properly
  • Know what the required functional outcomes are so that they will deliver to the corporate strategy
  • Understand what your organisation does at every level, so your people can be equipped effectively without breaking the bank
  • Build profiles to achieve this
  • Prepare a specification that covers all these requirements and can be easily evaluated
  • Choose the supplier model that suits the business
  • Always take out references before final selection
I hope this has been helpful. For further information, please call 01737 242400 or email and I will be delighted to help

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