Cloud communications - what is it and why do you need it?

From UCaaS to plain old VoIP, here are some of the cloud communications options available to you

No matter what kind of business you're running, communications will be a vital part of it. While face-to-face conversations are undoubtedly important, the value of telephone and online interactions cannot be underestimated.

In the past, implementing these technologies could be both complicated and expensive. Depending on the size and type of your business, telephone trunking may have been needed along with on-premise infrastructure to support that, as well as expensive specialist tools such as customer relationship management software. As the internet grew in importance, dedicated lines would need to be installed in order to ensure computers could be connected while keeping the telephones free.

Over the years, these layers of complexity have gradually been removed and with the advent of cloud computing, keeping your business connected over multiple platforms couldn't be simpler - or cheaper.

Here we explain what some of the more popular cloud communications options are to help you decide which is right for your business.

What is cloud communications?

"Cloud communications" is a term that covers a multitude of things. Broadly speaking, it's any voice and data service where the entirety of its processes - the software, switching and storage - are hosted remotely by a third party, which is to say in the cloud.

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Under this umbrella, there are many different offerings with varying levels of comprehensiveness (or complications, if you prefer) - from basic chat platforms to unified communications as a service (UCaaS).

What is VoIP?

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP as it's more commonly known, is one of the oldest forms of cloud communications.

VoIP pretty much does what it says on the tin: It lets users make telephone calls over the internet, rather than using traditional phone lines.

There are various benefits to VoIP - initially, it removed the need for trunking and simplified the installation of phones on desks. In some cases, VoIP services also use "soft phones" - handsets with no fixed number associated with them. Instead, users enter a pin at the beginning of the working day to associate the phone to them.

This has now branched out further, with apps that allow business calls to come to a user's personal smartphone, without them having to give out their personal phone number. Typically, these apps can be turned to busy during meetings or outside work hours and if the user is on long-term leave, such a maternity leave or a sabbatical, the app can be temporarily deleted.

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Furthermore, if the individual leaves the company, they won't be receiving unwanted or potentially sensitive calls, as their mobile number will remain private.

What are chat clients?

Chat clients are another form of cloud communications, but are based on text rather than voice.

Commonly known as live chat in business, these hosted services are particularly useful in frontline customer services where they can be used to help answer less complex queries. They can also be integrated with chatbots - a type of AI that can answer the most straightforward questions, such as those you may find in an FAQ. This frees up customer service operatives to deal with more complex situations that require a human touch, whether that's also via chat or over the phone.

Another use of chat clients is for internal communications. Products like Slack enable employees to collaborate with each other in dedicated channels set by the business, as well as instant messaging between two individuals or a small group.

Some chat clients, such as Skype, also incorporate voice and video calling. While these aren't a full unified communications service (as laid out below), they may be suitable for some organisations' needs as a halfway house between the two.

What is Unified Communications as a Service?

Unified Communications as a Service, also known as UCaaS, is probably the most comprehensive form of cloud communications. It pulls together what would previously been separate services, including voice telephony and its accoutrements such as voicemail and call recording, SMS and MMS messaging, and chat clients.

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Some products also have the option of integration with other cloud based platforms, such as Salesforce or Microsoft Office 365, to provide services like one-click dialling or incoming call notifications.

Not all UCaaS products are created equal - some will offer greater functionality than others, some may be targeted primarily at call centres, some may specialise in services for small businesses and so on. It pays to do your research in order to find the one that's best suited to your needs, but as there's no infrastructure to install or move away from, you can always move onto another provider if the one you originally chose doesn't work out as well as you had hoped.

There are also numerous channel businesses providing UCaaS services, so it's worth checking out what any resellers you already work with can offer you.

How much does cloud communications cost?

As you would expect, the answer to this depends on the complexity of the service. Plain VoIP can often be acquired from your existing communications provider - for example, BT Business or Virgin Media Business - for a relatively small additional fee, particularly if you're running a small business.

A full-fat UCaaS offering will cost more whatever the size your business, purely because it has more features to offer.

Other influences will include the number of seats, the service level offered (24 hour customer service versus working hours only, or 99.99999% uptime as opposed to 80% uptime, for example) and any deals available. As always, it pays to shop around to see the best deal you can negotiate.

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