As BusinessWeek recently reported,
But even if an enterprise is not clamoring to outfit its virtual outposts with the latest and greatest in virtual calling gear, it can still take advantage of embedded unified communications.
"There's two different ways to look at [embedded UC] within the enterprise," said Jayanth Angl, a senior research analyst with Info-Tech.
The first is improving external, often customer-facing aspects of communications.
For example, by embedding unified communications into customer relationship management (CRM) or customer support software, an agent at a call center can have a clear sense of who he is talking to and what he is likely to need before even picking up the phone, without having to waste time or risk confusion by switching applications or manually looking up customer data.
"That's certainly something that can help streamline customer contact and eliminate wasted cycles spent switching between user applications," Angl said. "Also, from a management perspective, having better information about who's on the call can be useful."
Traditionally, such integration was often a costly, custom affair, but leading vendors have been working hard to let enterprises integrate communications suites and business software with a minimum of fuss.
Angl pointed to Cisco's Call Connectors, which can integrate Cisco telephony products with Salesforce.com or Microsoft's CRM.
"The ability to do this is more commonplace, so the investment and risk is certainly mitigated," he said.
But beyond embedding communications in the software that employees use, Angl said, more and more vendors are seeing value in communication-enabled business processes clearly in the ways customers can now reach them. While Lenovo's virtual lounge is an extreme example, it is by no means an outlier.
"[Embedded communications] is definitely something that's pervasive today," he said. "There are a number of vendors that can offer this type of service and in terms of complexity."
Angl said enterprises do not even have to fully embrace voice features like click-to-call to see major benefits: Often, a simple one-on-one live chat will be as -- or even more -- effective in improving customer service.
"In most cases, customers could be better served by the chat function that lets them quickly ask a question," he said. "Providing the ability to call via Skype has a very limited, if large, audience of customers."
Including such live chat features, or even just using a blog, Twitter or Facebook account, increases the "stickiness" of a brand and improves the perception of customer service at only an incremental cost, Angl said -- particularly as these features become standard add-ons to the products that enterprises already use to manage customer service.
Improving internal communications
Angl said properly embedded unified communications could also deliver benefits for internal communications, particularly since, with everyone on the same system, more consistent presence information is available.
"That would be the case of having presence capability, knowing whether my colleagues are on the phone or are in a meeting or are available," he said. Once an employee has that information, he can follow up via email or IM, or phone for an immediate response, as appropriate.
While the correlating improvements in productivity have often been labeled "soft savings," Angl said, each passing generation of communications platform makes it more affordable to take advantage of these technologies, and even soft savings are hard to pass up in a down economy.
"A lot of our customers right now, of course, are financially constrained," he said. "The ability is becoming more common, and the hurdles to implementing are [lower] than they were in the past."
Whatever route enterprises decide to take with embedding unified communications, however, Angl urged strategic thinking rather than looking at UC as a tactical step.
For customer-facing UC, for example, he suggested that businesses determine whether it can help the service they offer be a differentiator in a tough market.
"Customer service is one way in which businesses are differentiating themselves, and that's part of the argument for implementing this type of feature," Angl said. "We're hearing from clients of ours that budgets are tight, so we're not seeing a lot of new investments here, but there's a way to experiment with limited incremental costs to them."