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5 considerations when choosing a UCaaS provider

When evaluating UCaaS providers and cloud-based products, three important criteria to consider include flexibility, stability and the variety of deployment models offered.

Unified communications as a service, or UCaaS, buying decisions require a different set of purchase considerations compared to on-premises alternatives. The first step in the process considers the deployment model and the type of UC implementation process. The three main UC deployment models are cloud-hosted, on-premises and hybrid-cloud. Various forms of hosted UC have been available for years on the consumer market, but only recently has UCaaS emerged as a viable option for the enterprise.

From a broader enterprise perspective, public cloud is proving to be a dominant trend. Combined with the fact that internet connectivity is becoming increasingly reliable, unified communications technologies can now join the public cloud movement. Not only have UC vendors embraced the cloud by offering hosted options, but businesses are seeking out UCaaS for a variety of reasons. Let's look at five criteria companies can reference when choosing a UCaaS provider.

Criterion #1: Deployment models offered

Looking at a vendor's overall UC deployment portfolio is a great place to start when beginning the product evaluation process. Determine which of the three deployment models a UC provider supports, and how well they may fit within the business. Most traditional UCaaS providers support on-premises services, especially since they started out as telecom vendors.

Companies may have one of these on-premises platforms in production today. However, not all UC vendors have the same level of cloud expertise, and their hosted UC offerings may be less comprehensive than their on-premises service. Alternatively, some of the newer entrants into the enterprise UC market only offer UC through a cloud subscription model. The long-term reliability, sustainability and pedigree of certain vendors may come into question. Thus, it's important to evaluate where companies are -- and what features and functionality they desire -- in addition to the level of risk the enterprise is willing to take on a vendor.

A few UC vendors also support a hybrid option -- though these offerings are beginning to dwindle. Note that hybrid UC architectures still place services directly on the LAN like on-premises counterparts. They also can use legacy public switched telephone network connectivity if that's the only option. However, all configuration and management occur in the cloud -- then go to the on-premises components. Thus, hybrid UC is useful in highly distributed business architectures that may not have the most reliable internet connectivity for the proper transport of real-time streaming data, such as voice and video. Hybrid UC gives customers the best of both worlds and provides enough flexibility to gradually migrate fully to the cloud. When considering vendors, determine how extensively they can support hybrid UC and what options or incentives they provide to move businesses to a full UCaaS platform.

Criterion #2: Provider stability and customer support

The next evaluation is to determine the level of vendor support the business needs from a long-term perspective. Traditional network and telephony vendors offer more substantial support models that include global 24/7 year-round phone, email and web support for enterprises that require it. Other vendors offer limited support and expect that customers don't require very tight service-level agreements. Yet the cost for their services is likely to be less. It's up to IT leadership -- and the business in general -- to determine what level of support is necessary and at what price point they are willing to pay for it.

Over the years, smaller pure-play vendors have entered the UCaaS space. Because UCaaS is their sole revenue stream, they must aggressively acquire customers using lower cost models and unique features that others may not include. Yet these same companies may not be able to provide immediate support when problems occur. Conversely, UCaaS is a relatively new market for established UC vendors. While traditional vendors don't face the same growth and customer acquisition challenges as pure-play vendors have, they too are attempting to navigate new market territory. Thus, while the support foundation may be there, it's important to receive feedback as to the quality of the support a customer is likely to receive.

Criterion #3: Features and flexibility of offerings

Users of UC platforms are increasingly asking for more capabilities. As such, it's important to verify the features a company's employees demand are truly part of the UCaaS platform they're looking at. Traditional vendors commonly implement the same enterprise-grade UC features their on-premises counterparts offer. That said, pure-play vendors are likely the ones that provide outside-the-box functionality that the others don't have. Determining what features are desirable boils down to understanding the end user -- and what services they would find useful throughout a typical workday. IT teams should write up a list of "must haves" and "nice to haves" to properly compare and contrast the various vendor platforms.

Next, IT decision-makers should review each vendor platform's ability to adapt to changing needs. Flexibility is a consideration in terms of UC deployment models, cloud architectures and each individual UC service. UC is constantly evolving, and while this makes the initial value proposition difficult to gauge, it is a key characteristic of its long-term value, especially in terms of total cost of ownership (TCO). Businesses need to recognize that their UC and collaboration needs are also constantly evolving, and in that context, the UCaaS model offers many advantages.

Unlike the on-premises capital expenditure model, which requires a certain level of investment regardless of how many features users employ, UCaaS is on-demand: The business only pays as needed. Given the inherent deployment challenges posed by on-premises unified communications, UCaaS is an easier model for consuming services and keeping costs under control.

As businesses' UC needs evolve, they can decide which applications to add or drop without worrying about the impact on their network infrastructure. In this regard, decision-makers need to determine the range of options available from UCaaS providers, along with how easily applications can be adapted to the UCaaS platform. Some providers may natively offer all those applications, so it's easier to add or drop apps as necessary. Others may not and instead support third-party integrations or vendor partnerships to fill the gaps, and that can add complexity.

Another form of flexibility will be the ability of a UCaaS platform -- and its vendor -- to support change requests once the initial SaaS platform has been deployed in production. For example, a business may realize the ongoing UCaaS Opex costs are higher than expected, making it an expensive TCO decision. Thus, one request could be that the company would want to augment some UCaaS customers with on-premises or hybrid cloud options. Of course, given the pay-as-you-go nature of UCaaS, the business could always walk away and start anew with a different provider. However, this type of flexibility makes it much easier to stay with one provider for an overall resolution that works for both parties.

Criterion #4: Contact center capabilities

Many businesses host their own contact centers, or call centers, to provide customer support services. Contact centers possess inbound and outbound dialing capabilities, advanced customer relationship management integrations and other forms of customer communication, such as email, chat and SMS. No matter what type of contact center functionality the business requires, note that some -- but not all -- UCaaS providers offer these added capabilities.

UCaaS providers offer contact center licenses -- but with varying levels of functionality. Some only offer the basics, such as call accounting, interactive voice response and quality management tools -- while others include advanced features, such as multimedia queuing, speech analytics and predictive AI. Thus, it's important to understand the enterprise's specific contact center needs when choosing a UCaaS provider.

Criterion #5: Third-party integration

Integrating a UCaaS system with third-party applications is a useful feature. In many cases, it's mandatory. Most UCaaS providers offer integration with third-party applications via an API. Alternatively, they may provide special plugins that allows connectivity with various applications. Additionally, a few products offer ways to connect to legacy voice over IP and UC platforms to offer a seamless migration path for their customers.

Traditional vendors with a long history in the UC space tend to have better third-party support compared to the smaller vendors. Avaya, Cisco and Mitel are probably the best bet if companies want to integrate various apps -- such as Salesforce, Zendesk, ServiceNow or Dropbox -- into their UCaaS. Alternatively, some vendors offer seamless integration with their own suite of enterprise applications and services. Microsoft Teams, for example, is fully integrated by default with a slew of Office 365 applications, including Outlook and SharePoint. Similarly, Google Hangouts works with the other G Suite tools and apps. Thus, if an organization's end users work extensively with Microsoft or Google business apps, it may be enough to justify choosing one of these service providers to handle UC services as well.

Factor in qualitative benefits of UCaaS

UCaaS will be a new option for most businesses and many UC vendors. UC's value proposition is difficult to articulate, and the cloud is still a relatively new deployment model for UC. That said, businesses can't rely solely on legacy metrics like ROI or TCO for UCaaS.

Decision-makers should also consider more qualitative factors, such as how UCaaS providers do business and how well their UCaaS offerings align with present and future business objectives. At the time of this writing, there is no hardened decision checklist for UCaaS providers, but the five criteria addressed here will go a long way to providing a strategic assessment of the right types of vendors a business should be considering for UCaaS.

Some of the top enterprise-grade UCaaS providers and their products include: 8x8 X Series, Avaya IP Office, Cisco Webex Calling, Dialpad, Fuze Enterprise Voice, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Mitel MiCloud, RingCentral Office and Unify Circuit.

Andrew Froehlich contributed to this report.

Next Steps

Test your knowledge of UCaaS with our quiz.

How to evaluate and choose the right UCaaS provider.

Ensure your public cloud UC deployment is secure.

This ROI template helps calculate UCaaS costs and benefits.

This was last published in May 2019

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