Cisco makes unified communications more accessible to SMBs

To further its reach into the small and medium business space, Cisco Systems has introduced several enhancements to its unified communications suite of voice, data and video products.

As a way of improving customer service, increasing business efficiencies and reducing operational costs, the company said SMBs can now utilize features such as the Cisco Unified CallConnector, an application that allows users to connect and collaborate in their preferred method of communication – mobile, instant messaging or landline.

CallConnector, which is supported on Cisco Unified CallManager Express 4.0 and integrated with Microsoft Outlook, provides the ability to automatically view the information of an incoming caller, answer, transfer and conference calls with one click, perform name and number searches as well as view the availability status of users.

“We’re now bringing screen pop and click-to-dial capability and integrating them tightly with the wealth of information in Microsoft Outlook,” said Richard McLeod, Cisco’s director of unified communications solutions for worldwide channels.

Another development for SMBs is in the Cisco MeetingPlace Express, which now supports up to 250 concurrent users, up from 120. According to Cisco, MeetingPlace Express will offer Outlook integration and Adhoc Video later this year.

For CallManager Express customers, Cisco also released the ARC Express Operator Console to help receptionists and operators perform quick searches by name, extension or department, handle multiple call queues, prioritize queued calls and also features a Busy Lamp Field window which shows the phone status of work personnel.

“The ARC Express has up to four separate operator consoles using a common directory database,” McLeod added.

To help streamline business processes for large and multi-site customers, Cisco has introduced Cisco Unified Applications Environment (CUAE), an application that enables rapid development, execution and automated management of applications that combine voice and video with enterprise applications and data.

According to McLeod, CUAE acts as an interface between voice and video applications and gives partners an opportunity to create value add solutions that link to back office applications such as databases and workflow tools.

Also new are Cisco Unified Operations Manager 2.0 and Cisco Unified Service Monitor 2.0. Both products provide additional tools for simplifying communications systems management.

Philip Stone, president of Boardwalk Communications, a Vancouver-based unified communications specialist and Cisco Premier partner, is most interested about the operations manager and service monitor piece of the announcement.

“Most SMBs customers,” which make up 75 per cent of Boardwalk’s client base, “are looking to us to manage their IP environments post-implementation,” said Stone.

“We have a remote network operating centre and we built a couple of management tools but these (Unified Operations Manager 2.0 and Unified Service Monitor 2.0) have surpassed our tools, making the remote monitoring piece a lot easier for us,” he added.

For resellers, Cisco has also unveiled some new and enhanced tools and services to help support customers with unified communications implementations.

Quote Builder is a new solution-based quoting application, which McLeod said reduces time to quote from three hours to approximately 15 minutes.

“We’re also building into this designs that have been tested and validated so there’s no margin for error by the sales person guessing what should be done,” he said.

In addition, enhanced features are being added to the Cisco Unified Communications Express Quick Configuration Tool to incorporate Session Initiation Protocol trunking. Using this application, a partner can perform a standard Cisco Unified Communications SMB configuration with 50 phones or less in under an hour, according to the company.

But Boardwalk’s Stone said these tools wouldn’t be essential for his business.

“It’s good for partners that don’t live and breathe the stuff day in and day out like we do, we don’t struggle with quotes like others because we do a lot of Cisco business,” he said. “They are good tools for resellers that are more generalist.”

However, another channel development that Stone likes is Cisco’s zero per cent progress payment promotion to help partners improve cash flow management. Through it, capital resellers will incur no finance charges for the first 120 days of a unified communications implementation.

“This allows partners the ability to place an order with Cisco under Cisco capital lease, have the equipment shipped, install it for the customer with zero lease payments required until deployment is completed,” McLeod explained.

Stone said this is a big advantage for a small company like Boardwalk Communications, which has 12 employees.

“The biggest issue with integrators like ourselves is cash flow. Currently, we’re overseeing a multi-office, multi-month project in which the distributor was paid long ago for Cisco product but the customer has yet to pay us,” said Stone. “Having Cisco pay the distributor on our behalf is a great thing when you have a few projects on the go and money gets tied up.”

The current interest rate for a Cisco lease after 120 days is nine per cent.

Stone said the one missing piece in Cisco’s unified communications for SMBs is video. “Part of that is because people really haven’t figured out how to use those tools. But high quality video products aren’t really there on the low end just yet,” he said. “I’m anxious to see that final piece fall into place.”</P

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