Established in 2004, Unity Connected Solutions is a Newmarket-based provider of on-premise and cloud-based unified communications solutions. Its customer base of 3,500 ranges from SMBs to large enterprises, the bulk of which fall into mid-size market category. Unity’s three pillars and mission statement are to help customers connect, communicate and collaborate.
Unity started as a provider of on-premises solutions, introducing cloud-based PBX and UCaaS services in 2014 to meet growing customer demand. It began with its flagship Flexfone Essential, followed by the launch of the more comprehensive Flexfone Advanced in July of 2015. Since then, Unity Connected Solutions has continued to build out its software, hardware and services offerings with the goal of providing both on-premise, cloud-based and combined options to meet different customers’ operational needs and budgets. Moving to the cloud has enabled the company to operate based on a monthly recurring revenue model as a means of counteracting the deceleration of opportunities in the on-premise side of its unified communications business.
Business challenges: finding a better business model
In recent years, Unity has worked to migrate from focus on telco integration to the delivery of solutions and services to meet the growing interest in and demand for cloud-based offerings. Although cloud accounts for 10 percent of Unity Connected Solutions’ customer base, the company’s own customer surveys have shown that 55 percent are looking at cloud as their solution of choice moving forward. The reality is, while customers are familiar and relatively comfortable with cloud-based offerings for functions such as storage and email, a large number are less informed on what cloud can deliver on the unified communications front. As a result, adoption of cloud-based PBX and UC in particular has not been as advanced as adoption of other cloud based applications; and Unity has found that customers that are considering cloud tend to begin with a private solution before fully committing to a shared service.
Unity’s primary challenge has been ensuring that customers understand what cloud means in the IP communications world. Explaining cloud-based IP-based communications is a more complicated task than discussing more basic solutions such as cloud-based storage or email services. The issue hearkens back to the early days to IP telephony, when without taking into account the cost for integration and other necessary services, companies believed voice services should be free, explained Unity marketing manager Paul McDevitt.
Internal best practices: no cookie cutter approach to addressing customer needs
In delivering its services, Unity’s core goal is to provide customers with choice. “Because our customers are so dramatically different, we don’t pre-determine what works for them,” said McDevitt. “We talk and listen to them to determine the best options depending on their operations, situation and desires.”
The company’s first step is to educate customers on the benefits and solutions available for both on-premise and cloud-based infrastructure. While there are a number of common benefits, the key question Unity looks to address is if and where cloud fits well. For example, cloud may be the optimum solution for operations with multiple locations as it offers greater consistency in service delivery, reduces overhead costs, and enables seamless and consolidated system/network management across locations. Cloud also provides a cost-effective and flexible option for customers working with aging technology as it provides a means to adopt new offerings quickly with little to no additional capital cost.
Cloud-based PBX solutions are also a natural fit in the case of many smaller customers who may have limited internal IT resources, as well as inadequate budgets for hardware procurement and external cabling.
On-premise, on the other hand, is often preferred by customers who wish to maintain control of their equipment on site.
For larger enterprises, cloud-based communications often entails a more staged transition before full adoption of cloud. In those situations, Unity will often start with a remote or smaller location to test out the concept and help the customer become aware of solution benefits, including the line of business – procurement, financing or marketing – ability to quickly scale up or down seats.
Best practice enablement: meeting the needs of the larger and smaller enterprises
Among customers that are considering transition, a key driver for adoption of cloud-based unified communications is the need for an OPEX-based, pay-per-use models that can better align with business budgets. Cloud provides a means to reduce capital costs, streamline operations, speed decision making and consolidate communications for multiple locations under a single point of cloud delivery.
“We work with customers to discuss the benefits, ranging from the CAPEX versus OPEX debate, to how they can be more nimble, have access to upgrades and reduce employee involvement so they can redeploy people to more revenue-generating functions within the organizations – or reduce staff size if need be,” said Brian Ochab, Unity cloud practice leader.
Armed with an understanding of how cloud-based PBX can deliver the most benefits within departments or to the organization as a whole, customer organizations can then work to develop best practices around collaboration, decision making, response times and service delivery. This can involve, among other things, developing SLAs (service level agreements) between internal end users and IT staff; establishing internal policies and procedures; and developing a sustainable long-term business model that can readily respond to ongoing technology changes.
Metrics: understanding the measures of success
Given the eclectic nature of Unity’s customer base, the advantages of moving to cloud can be diverse. In some cases, benefits are measured in improved efficiency and speed of response that come with the ability to connect remote and/or internal employees, and their external clients.
Cloud can also make sound financial sense for organizations with large investments in legacy communications technology that are interested in transitioning to more advanced collaboration capabilities. In doing so, they can not only speed the adoption process, but also eliminate the capital costs involved in procuring additional equipment and technology expertise. For smaller organizations, cloud-based collaboration tools allow more effective business management without CAPEX or the expense associated with recruiting and retaining specialist IT personnel.
ROI and the true cost of ownership are not easily identified though in conversations with clients, who may be focused on justifying the up-front consulting and set-up and integration fees associated with moving to cloud, Ochab said. However, an integral part of establishing trust in the ROI process can be achieved through SLAs around response times and service delivery that may impact TCO savings. “There are a lot of soft cost savings that they need to be made aware of that will ultimately hit their bottom line, such as redeployment of full-time staff, reduction in ongoing maintenance and internal support requirements, disaster recovery, free system upgrades, and significantly lower long-term costs achieved through a pay-for-use model.”
When calculating ROI, it is often difficult to correctly gauge support costs over an extended period, Ochab noted. “The key is making sure that the solution customers choose doesn’t over promise and under deliver. It has to fit with how they want to execute their objectives. It’s not just about how the system works, but about how it will save money.”