The importance of ‘Unified Communications’

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Although a much-used buzzphrase, what exactly is the importance of ‘unified communications’ in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace.

Well, at its heart, it is the development of systems designed to tackle constant pressure on managers and key employees, and the intense competition for customers.

The goal of unified communications is simple: to make it easy and cost effective for employees to reach one another – as well as business partners and customers – as soon as they need to, wherever they are.

The idea is to merge two or more communications into one user interface, allowing users to see whether someone is available for a phone call, video or telephone conference or instant message chat, and then to contact them in the most appropriate way.

So the next time a customer calls your business with a question about your services, instead of playing ‘phone tag’ trying to find the person who knows the answer, they can be routed to the right employee immediately.

There can be constant pressure on a few ‘go-to’ employees, who everyone else in the organisation relies on for help and information. Because they are so important to the health of the organisation, their time is at a premium. What they need more than anything else is a tool that can help them prioritise their communications.

Managers need technology that allows them to take important calls from anywhere, and ignore the interruptions that can wait for another day. Doing that requires tools that can identify important callers, properly route critical communications, and enable collaboration from anywhere.

In most organisations, customer service is priority number one. In many companies, for example, product offered by one competitor can be easily matched by another, so what matters most is their service. Success requires features that guarantee customers get the answers they need, the minute they need them.

These same organisations need advanced communications technology to meet their business goals, but don’t always have necessary staff devoted to IT and telecommunications issues. As a result, they need technology that is easy to understand and justify, and simple to deploy, manage and use.

So by integrating voice and online communications, ‘unified communication’ technologies make it easy for your employees to identify and locate the right person at the right time, get critical information, make faster and better decisions, and deliver exceptional customer service. It can also cut the costs of communications, including voice, instant messaging and conferencing.

Unified communications can deliver a variety of benefits, including:

  • Customer Care – With skills-based routing, presence information and conferencing, unified communications makes it easier to stay in touch with customers, and ensure they get the answers and support they need;
  • Better Productivity – It can use information and click-to-communicate capabilities to get the right information to the right people as soon as they need it, which helps managers make better decisions more quickly, which in turn speeds development and production times, and fills orders faster;
  • Lowering the Cost of Communications – Unified communications may sound expensive, but it can actually help reduce your communications costs. IP telephony has been shown to save thousands of pounds on voice calls alone – throw in decreased call volumes (thanks to instant message chats) and reduced travel (thanks for audio, video and web conferencing), as well as lower costs for conferencing delivered on-site rather than via a hosted service, and you have a technology than can quickly pay for itself.

Many organisations don’t have the time or money to spend on complex, costly technology implementations. They need tools that are easy to use and deploy, cost effective, and complete.

An all-in-one appliance can deliver all those benefits and more. The right one will be easy to install, maintain and service, and it will be simple to use. It will contain a host of communications applications, all accessible through a single client. And it will be extremely cost effective.

Since the majority of knowledge-based employees spend most of their time within Outlook, for example – composing and answering emails, scheduling appointments, and managing their contacts – integrating other forms of communication into that application makes enormous sense.

This is why organisations should look for a solution that will ensure the technology is simple to deploy, manage and use, without the need for a fully staffed IT department, and without too much cost and complexity.

Unified communications is a popular buzzphrase in business today, but the fact is that with the right technology it can boost productivity, increase customer care and cut communications costs.

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Communications help for retail businesses

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Pinnacle is proud to be helping retailers who are under pressure to provide outstanding customer service in the current difficult high street trading conditions. We are providing solutions designed to improve responsiveness to customers, as well as providing greater efficiency across the business and dramatically reducing communication costs.

Your employees are busy serving in-store customers, the phones are ringing unanswered; will missed calls result in missed sales opportunities? Simple call routing allows questions relating to opening times, store locations and requests for job application forms to be routed to auto attendants. This ensures in store staff are free to assist purchasing customers.

Or, in another scenario, a customer is in a rush and has a question about a particular retail product. Sales staff are uncertain if any are still in stock. The customer needs a quick answer. Using wireless phones, staff can be contacted anywhere in the store or warehouse to quickly answer pricing or stock inquiries and consequently help close the sale.

Or Head Office needs to solicit, discuss and distribute weekly or daily updates from its regional managers concerning store activities and promotions. How do you keep everyone informed? Audio and web conferencing enables highly cost-effective and extremely flexible conferencing between remote locations removing costly outsourced conference costs.

The simple fact is that the right telephone system can make a huge difference to retailers, but these days they are about more than just voice communications.

For example, as a retailer, customer service contact requirements vary dramatically from season to season. The right system need to be able to perform workforce scheduling providing management, forecasting, and monitoring tools that allows retailers to effectively plan ahead and control costs.

Remote contact centre agents can also be added quickly and easily to address unforeseen needs. Customer service staff can be mobile to ensure they can direct customers around a store and stay in touch. Mobile applications running on tablet devices, for example, can allow sales staff to direct shoppers around a store using mobile store maps, which also removes the need for excessive fixed signs and store directories.

On the one hand, business costs must be kept to a minimum, on the other, the pressure to provide outstanding customer service has never been greater. Striking a balance between the two is critical for success. That’s where Pinnacle can help.

When implementing new solutions, retailers needed to benefit from new technology and protect investment in traditional technology. Our approach enables retailers to benefit from the latest technology and protect investment in traditional telephony wherever it makes sense. Benefits include:

  • Reduced communication and management costs.
  • Improved information exchange through conferencing and collaboration tools.
  • Increased customer loyalty and revenue through improved marketing messaging and responsiveness.
  • Rapid access to sales staff through easy-to-use retail telephone features.
  • Meeting customer demand 24/7 with scalable, flexible contact centres that can be set up at any location.
  • Improved staff productivity via a full range of phones.
  • Creating a personalised shopping experience incorporating mobile store applications.

We are helping retailers succeed in a challenging economic environment with a suite of powerful communication solutions that support today’s dynamic retail environment. We help to reduce the cost of installing state-of-the-art communications at new and older stores, and provide the flexibility to update old phone systems across stores at a pace to suit the business.

Our systems reduce costs, improve responsiveness and enhances customer service and the shoppers shopping experience. Employees productivity can be enhanced whether in the store, warehouse, distribution centre, head office or when mobile and teleworking.

Depending on the nature of the retail business, studies show that customers who call the store in advance can spend up to five times as much when they subsequently visit the store. These customers are ready to spend and quick response times are paramount to maximising their experience.

So where a number of sales staff within a department are called at the same time, enabling whoever picks up the phone first to answer the call thus reducing wait times for customers is an extremely important issue.

In addition, you can use your customer’s time on hold to listen to an in-store promotion, or some music. ‘On hold’ features enables stores to change the music, or promotional message, as often as they like without incurring additional costs.

Integrated communications that can transform your retail business using Pinnacle’s integrated approach to communications is transforming the delivery of retail services, providing the foundation for superior customer service and increasing efficiencies for our retail clients.

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How small businesses can increase sales and retain customers through communications

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This week we are showing small businesses how to increase sales and retain customers through better communications.

We constantly help our small business clients implement some basic technology to help them make the most out of one of their most critical business tools: the phone system.

Increasing sales while keeping the bottom line intact two things that all businesses, especially small businesses, struggle with on a daily basis.

As a small business, you constantly compete with larger businesses and other small businesses for customer share. Competition is fierce, as customers know they can look at many different options to purchase their goods and services.

So how do you attract new business without decreasing the level of support you currently provide your customers? Better yet, how can you improve your level of service to existing customers so they become repeat customers and “tell-a-friend” about the great service that they have received from you? How can your sales staff or mobile workers become better connected to the office so they can be on top of situations as they occur?

And perhaps most important of all, how can you control costs while doing all of this?

Imagine a potential customer who is calling in order to get hold of pricing information for a particular item of interest. The first hurdle they must overcome is getting someone to answer the phone. Unfortunately lunch hour, coffee or bathroom breaks, and office administrative tasks can interfere with this.

As a result phones can remain unanswered, ringing endlessly, or callers are dropped into the operator’s or admin’s voicemail. These days, people expect better. They demand a very high level of customer service, more than 9 to 5 support, and immediate resolutions to  queries.

Those callers who are used to instant answers hang up the phone and try the next company on the search engine page. The odds are you’ve lost a customer forever.

But what about those who do get past the first hurdle? The phone’s been answered. The admin may know to whom the call is routed, but then the same issue arises. Now, the phone on someone else’s desk rings and if they aren’t there it is dropped right back to voicemail. Again your customer more than likely has moved on to another company – looking for that immediate response.

If you have gone through the trouble of setting up a business to sell a product or service, you owe it to yourself to ensure that you make it as easy as possible for people to do business with you. Making it easy for people to contact your company is essential and puts you a step closer to selling your products and providing exceptional service.

What you need is to implement some basic technology to help your company make the most out of one of your most critical business tools: the phone system. And this is where Pinnacle can really help.

There are a whole range of areas that smaller businesses should look at to improve the customer experience through things such as call distribution, mobile communications, roaming, and innovative networking solutions.

To start with, when your phone rings, there is no reason why that call shouldn’t be immediately and automatically routed to the appropriate person or group, eliminating the time needed for someone to manually complete the task.

An easy way to determine the best routes for your automated system is to set up a simple chart. Write the date along the horizontal axis and leave space for the reason for the call on the vertical.

For a week or two have your front line staff quickly jot down the reason for each call: those answered and those dropped to the admin or operator voicemail. At the end of the monitoring period you should have a fairly good idea of what people are calling about. From there, you can develop your automated attendant by grouping and tallying the results.

It’s a very simple exercise, but now you have a situation where callers can bypass the endless ringing at the front desk and route themselves to their area of interest: be it customer-based or personal calls. If a caller does have a request that is out of the ordinary, they still have the option of speaking to a live operator by pressing “0”.

What this means for you is that the front line staff who was previously spending a significant portion of their day routing calls is now free to concentrate on other tasks. Essentially, you’ve gained a more productive employee with more time for other company business. This can only benefit your bottom line.

What if your needs are greater? Your auto attendant can forward to a department, but what if that department has more than one person who can respond to a call?

Call distribution solves this problem for you. Ring groups can be programmed to have termination points, such as if the call is not answered in a certain amount of rings it should be sent to voicemail or another answer point. This increases the chances of someone being available to answer the call.

Or there is ‘hunting’ where a call can search through a pre-programmed sequence of telephone extensions, terminating at the first free one it finds.

There are many such communications issues that especially small businesses struggle with on a daily basis. But the easiest and most cost-effective way to change is by unifying your communications. We offer numerous options for small businesses, allowing them to compete and excel in a competitive market.

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The increasingly powerful ‘Presence’ features in communications technology

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‘Presence’ features in telephone systems are becoming increasingly more powerful. Knowing whether someone is available before you try to reach them dramatically improves communications effectiveness, and ‘presence’ is gradually spreading into messaging systems.

What isn’t always recognised is that a type of enterprise ‘presence’ functionality has existed for a long time in the form of traditional phone features. A busy lamp on a phone indicating that a colleague is engaged is a well established form of presence information that improves communications performance – you know up front to try someone else or that you’ll need to leave a message, for example.

Similarly call waiting tones, redirection to voicemail, do not disturb features, call forward, etc all represent communications functions influenced by what other users are doing at any given time. These capabilities – and more – are already embedded into standard telephone systems, but the exciting part is how the next generation of ‘presence’ information is being brought into a unified communications environment.

We are now looking at incredibly powerful features which, for example, can take information about a user’s availability from a variety of sources including electronic calendars, GPS or bluetooth enabled devices and even intelligent systems that recognise trends in behaviour.

This means that systems can see what you are doing, who you’re with, your location and your next scheduled activities, and intelligently decide on the best course of action for call or message actions, and provide confirmation feedback to people trying to reach you, for example giving a response indicating your next available calendar slot or an alternative way to reach you.

In addition to automatically updating call routing policy – for example, which device should receive calls or messages – certain unified communications applications can use presence information to optimise performance – for example ‘out of office’ presence information advises a unified messaging system to send the user an email if a voice message has been received.

A user’s presence status provides information to others about the ability or willingness to communicate and should also determine the preferred mode of communications. Even with rich presence information and the resulting sophistication in policies, the user still requires ultimate control to customise their communications. Our approach is to enable users to control both how their presence information is displayed and which communications modes are to be used.

The user’s preference settings determine which devices are contacted and how calls are handled – for example forwarded to another user, sent to voicemail, or delivered a custom greeting based on presence status, caller’s identity, time of day or calendar information.

The “3 Cs” of effective enterprise presence solutions are Context, Control and Confirmation:

  • ‘Context’ recognises that a user’s availability status really depends both on what they’re doing and on who is trying to contact them.
  • ‘Control’ refers to the ability of the user to maintain presence policies with the minimum of overhead and effort.
  • ‘Confirmation’ is the negotiation and acknowledgement process that is an inherent part of human interaction. When you’re behind closed doors, I peek through the window next to your office door and wave to get your attention. If you’re talking to someone else you give me the “just a minute” signal (or you wave me off). Regardless of the outcome, I know you received my request for communication and were able to make an informed decision about its relative importance in light of your current activities (context and control).

At the most basic level, presence information is a status indicator that conveys the ability and willingness to communicate. A user’s desktop client provides presence information which can be made available to other users to convey their availability for communication. The most common use of presence in an instant messaging client is to display an indicator icon along with a text description of the state. States exist in many variations across different clients but common ones are “free”, “busy”, “away”, “do not disturb” and “out to lunch”.

But we can now go one stage further and put these states in context for the user. For example, VIP lists, in which a caller is pre-authorised by the user to over-ride presence-driven policies, is particularly relevant to the fast-paced enterprise environment. Good teamwork is essential to most organisations. However, in today’s complex business environment, team members are often scattered around the world, working in different time zones, different departments and different offices, some working from home and others on the road.

Teams often extend beyond the boundaries of the business as part of a community of interest of partners, suppliers and other collaborators. Each individual team member may also work with several other teams and communities of interest. With unified communications and presence tools that let each individual indicate whether they are available to communicate at any given time and what device they can communicate with, team members can collaborate with their colleagues without wasting time with messages and telephone tag.

Our vision of unified communications provides a converged infrastructure that streamlines communications between people and organisations, regardless of the medium, mode, platform, device or location. This leads to improved productivity, enhanced customer service, reduced costs, and ultimately improved business process integration.

This converged infrastructure brings together voice communications, presence and availability, instant messaging, conferencing, collaboration, unified messaging, mobility, and business applications into a seamless environment to enhance the user experience and the effectiveness of “in the moment” communications that is a critical element of business success.

A robust and flexible presence infrastructure, that leverages the strengths of IP Telephony call status information as well as presence information, presents dramatic opportunities for more effective enterprise communications.

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Pinnacle Telecom Urges Organisations To Join The IP Telephone Revolution

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This week we are urging organisations to join the ‘IP telephone revolution’ to get free voice calls along with the ability to combine it with sophisticated software.

By routing telephone calls through IP – Internet Protocol – telephony is currently undergoing its biggest evolution since Alexander Graham Bell invented the first prototype telephone in 1875.

Telephony has historically been based on analogue ‘circuit-switched’ technology. Imagine an old-fashioned switchboard operator plugging in wires to establish a connection, and you get a pretty good idea of what circuit-switching means.

Over the last decade, however, a new digital communications ‘architecture’ has been rapidly maturing and is transforming telephony. The development of the World Wide Web has made Internet Protocol – or IP – a familiar household term. IP is essentially a digital language that allows computing devices to exchange information over a network.

IP telephony today is mature and reliable, and the business benefits it delivers are compelling. The fundamental advantages of IP telephony over analogue systems are lower telephone bills and smarter business communications.

Most corporate data networks are IP-based and can support IP telephony. This means that voice traffic can be sent over the same network and effectively ‘rides for free’. This is known as ‘voice and data convergence’ – or just ‘convergence’. Maintaining a single converged network, rather than separate voice and data networks, can deliver massive cost savings.

And since voice calls are now data, you can manage voice traffic with sophisticated software applications to deliver some very clever features and functionality.

For example, phones can be plugged into standard data ports, meaning your building only requires a single set of cabling. IP telephony also eases future growth as it’s simple to add extensions or integrate new sites into an existing network.

Regardless of where remote workers are located, they will be able to access the same key services and functionality as their colleagues based in the office enabling you to offer the same seamless service and customer care across your entire organisation.

IP telephony also makes it easy and cost-effective to include temporary workers or even a temporary office for ad-hoc projects, and consolidate resources such as operator positions in one central place.

It’s because of reasons such as these that IP telephony has been gaining significant traction with businesses of all sizes, and sales of IP-enabled systems are now outstripping sales of traditional analogue ones. Indeed, the number of IP extensions has exceeded the 2 million mark, and will account for 74% of the market in 2013.

Through IP telephony, organisations will be better able to implement remote or mobile working, advanced messaging, networking and contact centre functionality, dramatically improving the way people communicate, work and collaborate.

There are some amazing features that can be incorporated into an IP telephone system, for example ‘one number access’ where each member of staff can be allocated a number and all calls automatically are routed to wherever they are and whatever handset they’re using – wireless, desktop or IP ‘soft phone’, which is a piece of software which turns a laptop into an IP phone. This ‘follow me’ roaming helps customers, suppliers and other members of staff get through to the right person first time.

There is also ‘unified messaging’ where staff can have ‘anywhere, anytime’ access to all their messages – voicemail, e-mail and fax – through one single interface. This makes it easier for users to manage messages without the need to juggle different devices and they benefit from having a record of communications in one place. Remote workers, or those on the move, can also retrieve messages remotely or have them forwarded automatically, wherever they may be.

Or there is a raft of remote working features, where IP telephony seamlessly supports remote workers, allowing businesses to offer more flexible working practices to ensure they get the best from their staff. Armed with a laptop, a headset and an IP soft phone, remote workers can use all the same features and functionality as if they were sitting at their desk.

IP telephony is an ideal solution for companies wanting to save space by using ‘hot-desks’. Users can simply log onto a phone wherever they feel like sitting down and their number will be instantly assigned to that desk.

IP Telephony, however, will not provide sound business benefits for all organisations. For this reason, Pinnacle Telecom will ensure that we advise you on the best solution for you, which is easily and cost-effectively amended to implement new technology when it’s right for your business.

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How we help organisations through the mire of remote employee management

mobile_phone_6.16.14Technology and business pressures have led to more and more managers needing to lead teams that work off-site or are constantly in the field. Though a manager may no longer be able to simply walk down the hall to talk to team members, employees’ need for management is no less real.

In fact, good management is even more important in remote environments than in traditional cubicles, conference rooms, and break rooms. A distributed workforce requires different management techniques and skills to keep them motivated, productive, on track, and trained.

Although many management techniques and skills parallel those used in managing a centrally based workforce, managers need to apply an additional six key techniques to be successful in the remote environment.

Often managers assume they will have less communication with their employees when they are remote – in fact, the reverse is true. Managers of a distributed workforce need more communication with these employees.

Employees who work off-site can feel isolated, and can have trouble adopting company standards and procedures. They can have higher turnover, and even develop into “lone wolves”, who are unwilling to work in teams.

Increased communication counteracts this tendency and helps each employee cohere with the rest of the company. Whether it comes by email, text message, or phone, communication is essential. Remote managers need to make sure they are accessible to their employees by multiple avenues.

Here at Pinnacle we offer two important things: sage advice, and the resources to put in place the right employee mobile management plan. For example, we provide organisations with a location-based service that runs as an app on employee smartphones and can be administered by a manager from a browser-based web tool.

Key features that could be incorporated into a mobile management solution include:

  • Google Earth views displaying real-time, precise location of a mobile workforce
  • Identify nearest member of staff to customer locations
  • Alert on arrival and departure at customer sites
  • Automated Privacy for employees outside of working hours
  • Works with GPS-enabled smartphones
  • No hardware cost, no installation costs, no maintenance costs
  • Automatically generates on-site expenses, time sheets and mileage reports

Managing employees in the field has always been a challenge, especially for small businesses offering delivery or in-home services. Mobile devices provide employers with ever-expanding options for tracking and checking on the status of employees.

But the be-everywhere-your-employees-are ethic raises issues about Big Brother in the workplace. When it comes to “mobile management,” you’ll have to decide on how tight the electronic leash should be.

Simply put, in addition to other features like time tracking, you will be able to see you where your employees are, where they’ve been, and where they should be next. The goal is to make organisations more efficient through, for example, smarter dispatching, better customer service, and even fuel savings. And yes, to also help businesses keep tabs on employee productivity.

Our clients can have a handful of mobile workers and one office, or a multi-site infrastructure with thousands of employees, but we provide a simple application that sits on their employees’ GPS-enabled mobile device.  This means can choose a solution that meets their specific requirements which is cost-effective and scalable, without having to invest in new technology.

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Companies should look to internet-based communications to transform their operations

imagesCompanies need to look at internet-based communications to transform their operations. Internet Protocol – or IP – communications provide businesses with tools and capabilities for making business processes work better, and connect everyone in and organisation to collaborate, identify and implement business process improvements.

It is not often that a real opportunity comes along for dramatically transforming the way you do business – making it more cohesive, effective, productive and profitable, all with a single approach. But such an opportunity is now within the reach of almost any business.

This opportunity for improving business processes comes from a new development that both simplifies and enhances business communications in many significant ways. It involves putting phone calls on the same IP network as email and other data communications. This bridges the gap between two hitherto separate worlds of communication, linking your phone with your computer, your voice mail with your email,and enabling new ways to sort, mix and manage information and communications on a single network.

By integrating telephone systems with the technology of the Internet – Internet Protocol, or IP – companies can now give employees a new set of powerful communications tools that are as easy to use as email and the World Wide Web. These new communications tools have arrived on the scene just in time to answer the call of businesses that are grappling with the new realities of the global economy. They provide easy and economical ways of sharing information to make quicker decisions. They help businesses and individuals communicate efficiently with suppliers, customers, partners and other collaborators. They meet the needs of a mobile workforce, making everyone in the organisation accessible anywhere and at any time.

The business case for moving to an integrated IP communications solution is irrefutable. The challenge facing businesspeople today is how to rethink their business processes and strategies to make the most of these innovations. Every business has innumerable processes to help get things done. These processes may be as simple as a list of mobile phone numbers kept by receptionists so that customers can keep in touch with key people when they don’t answer their phones, or they can be as elaborate as the tools used by a contact centre to ensure that customer queries are directed to the correct agent first time.
Hundreds of business processes such as these, in almost every aspect of any operation, need to be reconsidered in light of the new possibilities that are made possible using IP communications.

Many organisations hope they can achieve improvements in their business processes by making technology investments in products such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and similar software. The problem with this approach is that although the software may provide a company with better information about its operations, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier for employees to collaborate and communicate with each other to share information and act upon it.

IP communications fills these gaps and in the process create improvements that increases the effectiveness of previous business process improvement investments. Organisations need to look at how they do things now, what they want to achieve and how they can improve their processes to achieve their goals more successfully. In many cases, technology may provide the means to do this, but it should never become an end in itself.
A good starting point for seeing how IP communications can transform business processes is to ask how your business would change if everyone were in one location. Imagine you had a company of 25 people all working in the same office. You answer the phone and there is a key customer on the line with a question you can’t answer.

You know that there are two or three people in the company who have the information the customer needs. All you need to do is stand up, look around to see if they’re there and whether they are busy. If one of them is free, you simply signal to them to pick up the phone or you simply ask them for the information you need.

If they are busy and the customer call is important enough, you have the option of walking over to their desk and interrupting them. It is likely that in this environment you will be able to provide the customer with first contact resolution – linking them immediately and directly with the person or information they need – leaving the customer satisfied and allowing you to move on.

This first contact resolution is the key to business success and typically provides small businesses with a strong competitive advantage. Now consider what happens in a company with a workforce scattered around different locations, perhaps in different parts of building or some people working remotely.

The two or three people with the information you need are not in the same office. You have no idea whether they are in their offices, on the road or on holiday. You have to tell the customer you’ll get back to them. You try calling people who might help and you get voicemail for each one. You send emails, but you don’t know when or if they will respond.

Maybe you can reach them through instant messaging or maybe they’ll see the message on their Blackberries. You might get lucky, but you could spend a day or two playing telephone tag before you finally get an answer to the customer’s question. Then you need to call the customer back, which could result in another round of telephone tag. The customer gets frustrated and your other tasks have been put on hold by a slew of phone calls, voice messages and emails – all because of a simple question that should have been answered in thirty seconds.

In many businesses this cycle happens every day. On the other hand, with an IP communications solution in place you’re able to answer the same questions and resolve customer issues in the moment and with first call resolution.

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