The hybrid solution: Enticing enterprise UC customers through social media integration


By Mariko Hewer

Enterprises both large and small are always looking for ways to entice new customers as well as keep their existing ones. Now there's a new hybrid weapon in the battle—an integrated set of solutions featuring unified communications (UC) and social media.

Hybrid UC solutions

(Image source: iStockphoto)

Companies are using sites like Facebook, Yelp and Twitter to reach out to consumers and gather information about them. This allows them to target specific market segments and reach users effectively, both in terms of cost and penetration. And there are other perks as well.

Within the business environment itself, managers and IT departments are using tools like desktop videoconferencing and IM to help their employees share information more easily and become more connected. Here too, social media can be a powerful tool.

One example of a new UC product aimed at streamlining business communications is the ShoreTel Contact Center Instant Override, a message application designed to let administrators "remotely and dynamically modify a message that is used by the Contact Center IVR [interactive voice response] to play an emergency announcement to callers that 'overrides' all others." This application, which can reach many employees with one real-time command, could be a boon to managers in industries where emergencies or urgent alerts are frequent.

As FierceEnterpriseCommunications Senior Editor Fred Donovan noted in a recent column, enterprises are incorporating various types of social media into their business strategies more frequently and more extensively than ever before. Some companies are using components of social media to help employees communicate more effectively within the enterprise, while others are integrating it into their UC solutions to increase and improve their interactions with customers—but it is clear most are using it in some form.

Companies that use social media or offer it as part of their products expect this trend to continue for some time to come, and industry analysts agree with them.

"It's going to fundamentally impact the way information workers go about doing their jobs," says Henry Dewing, principal analyst of Service Infrastructure and Operations Professionals at research firm Forrester. "It's going to be a bit of a sneaking incrementalism and all of a sudden it'll just be the way things get done. Much of it will happen organically."

In this report, FierceEnterpriseCommunications takes a look at why companies are finding it so important to move into the social media sphere and incorporate aspects of it into their plans for the future.

Connecting with customers: Do or die

Many enterprises have for some time been using well-known forms of social media, such as IM and LinkedIn, to facilitate communication among employees and create more opportunities for real-time interactions. But it is only recently that firms have begun to realize the benefits of reaching out to their customers with similar methods to create a dialogue.

"You have to establish a rich, two-way communication channel… between people on social networks and a corporation or enterprise," says Doree Seligmann, director of collaborative applications research at Avaya Labs.

Bernard Gutnick, senior director of product marketing at ShoreTel, says the importance of effective marketing through social media can hardly be overstated.

"People are being influenced by total strangers… What they read about on social media sites from people they barely know, if at all, might entice [them] to click on a link to bring [them] to a site which then results in a purchase being made," he says. "Human integration into the social experience is adding substantial company value."

Zayo's colocation provider subsidiary, zColo, provides an example of a successful effort by a company to communicate with its customers in a time of crisis. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the company reached out to those without power by any means possible, including email updates and notices on Zayo's website. They also provided a conference bridge at least once an hour to put customers in touch with Zayo's CTO and help them get the newest information.

Effective dialogue: Getting it right

Companies can only capitalize on any value gained from social media interactions, however, if they make an effort to keep the lines of communication open. For example, if a consumer makes a complaint on a company's Twitter feed or Facebook page, that company will only get credit if it responds—and quickly.

"When you start dealing with people asking you for help, they expect an answer within three minutes, five minutes," says Valentine Matula, director of multimedia technology research at Avaya Labs. "The more you can respond within these minutes, [the more] you're setting the expectation within the industry."

And that expectation is rising fast. Stories abound of frustrated and irate customers bashing companies like Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) for their slow response time or lack of any response at all.

In a very public Twitter incident in September 2012, actor Patrick Stewart tweeted he had "lost the will to live" after waiting 36 hours for Time Warner Cable to help him set up a new account. The message was retweeted more than 1,782 times, with several other users commenting on similar experiences. Stewart's complaint garnered enough attention for the cable company to reply—but not until the next day, at which point Stewart replied it was too late.

Other companies have success stories. "Dell very actively follows what's going on on the Internet, and they follow up on it," relates Dewing. "Best Buy is another example of that notion of going beyond, 'Just sit there and look for our name.' [They] see what other words are associated with them and take a temperature, if you will."

James Lawton, vice president of Strategic Portfolio Integration at Siemens Enterprise Communications, agrees it's important for companies to actively take part in maintaining a positive online presence.

"If I tweet that I've got a problem with my dishwasher, what should happen?" Lawton asks. "I may just be complaining to everyone who follows [me], but if your organization is monitoring the Twitterverse and listening for" keywords, they can respond directly.

Successful results: Finding the right partner

Companies that endeavor to integrate social media into their UC solutions should be clear about what they hope to achieve with the changes they want to make.

"They should start with a business objective and then look at places where the wisdom of the crowd can help [them] out," says Dewing. He compares the process to the TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire: "If you would either ask the audience or phone a friend, there's probably a social solution to the problem."

Once enterprises have decided what is most important to them, they should seek out a company which uses similar methods to the ones they themselves want to employ.  ShoreTel's Gutnick says his company incorporates its clients into future research.

"Customers we've been able to gather feedback from, like Yelp, influence directly the solutions we use that get used by people," he says. "They are more influential in the purchase decision [of potential buyers] than our own campaigns… Social media will actually drive business."

ShoreTel is one company that has created UC products featuring social media capabilities with a specific set of customers in mind. In July 2012, the company released the ShoreTel 13 software platform, which offers "enhanced capabilities for video communications and instant messaging (IM) for overall employee productivity" for customers including Polycom, LifeSize and many others, according to the press release. Those solutions providers undoubtedly chose ShoreTel's platform partly because it was tailored to their unique needs.

Other companies form partnerships that allow for close collaboration on UC solutions with social media components. In November 2012, Avaya chose fiber-based service provider Lumos Networks (Nasdaq: LMOS) as an Avaya DevConnect Technology Partner and said Lumos' SIP trunking product, which allows businesses to automatically reroute calls during natural or man-made disasters, was compliant with Avaya IP Office. Both companies benefit from this arrangement: Lumos' UC solution is supported by a well-known and respected company, while Avaya can promote one more product to its customers. The partnership also means Lumos can submit products to be tested for compliance at the Avaya Solution & Interoperability Lab, meaning customers of Avaya and Lumos may benefit from a broader portfolio of ideas and suggestions.

Lawton adds that enterprises hoping to move into the social media sphere shouldn't have to hire extra employees to do so. On the contrary, by choosing the right UC solution, "you should actually be able to reduce your need for fully qualified IT people [and] should be able to use any device that you might have… That type of skill is being brought into your enterprise work life."

With all the different angles and components concerning the integration of social media and UC solutions, perhaps Dewing sums it up best. "Within five years, almost everybody who is an information worker is going to be accessing their information via a social layer," he predicts. "It's that important."