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GUEST COMMENT Commuters to customers: switching on to unified communications

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By Billy Haining

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the unified communications market in Europe, the Middle East and Africa is forecast to more than double over the next four years, with the market worth $16.6 billion by 2014.

The benefits of unified communications are widely known. Few would debate the distinct advantages of an easy-to-deploy system that allows you to communicate more quickly and reduce the total cost of ownership. However, there remains real, untapped potential in the market. As retailers find their way into the cloud, they are spending more time and focusing even more closely on their unified comms strategy – a tangible offering that can be delivered today. The potential of unified comms to increase revenue and drive new promotions in the retail sector is hugely significant.

Unified comms providers are developing their portfolio on a monthly basis, meaning that the offering and the way customers are using it is changing dramatically. A definition a few years ago would have been restricted to telephones and instant messaging. Now, it encompasses multiple communication channels and is part of a huge drive to reduce costs and become more collaborative. This trend is set to continue, with many communication channels yet to be fully explored and exploited, especially in the retail arena.

For retailers, the collaborative effects of unified comms are twofold. Firstly, it can be used internally to drive efficiencies. Systems such as video conferencing are already used to cut the travel time and money spent on meetings, but some more innovative retailers are harnessing it in other ways. High-definition video links allow organisations to assess the quality of materials from thousands of miles away; the standard of Indian silks has been checked from Britain in this way.

However, external applications are where unified comms can add really inventive value. South Korea’s subway platforms recently unveiled backlit billboards designed to look like supermarket shelves; QR codes next to each product can be scanned to add goods to a virtual basket, and bored commuters are turned into engaged (and spending) customers. With a massive proportion of retail customers owning smartphones, this is a vivid illustration of the potential for considered upselling through customers’ personal communication channels.

Personalisation is key to retailers embracing unified comms and can be best adopted by integrating social media within a unified comms strategy. Retailers can not only monitor what their customers are saying about them across multiple platforms simultaneously, but also tailor their customer service in response.

Virtual dressing rooms are another exciting development, allowing customers to upload photos of themselves and dress up a personal avatar in clothing from a particular range. Meanwhile, a forward-thinking retailer in India is already allowing customers to shop directly via its Facebook application as well as through its website. ‘F-commerce’ – selling through social media platforms – has enormous ‘snowball’ potential, as purchases can immediately be shared with a customer’s friends and followers.

The changing role of social media as retailers recognise its power to connect with both employees and customers is clear when we consider the massive rise in Facebook advertising costs over the past year. Where it leads, others will follow; in the retail world, the most powerful means of communication are between company and customer.

As with so much in the world of technology, the future of unified comms will be in the cloud. Many providers are working on systems in which everything is centralised into one core data centre and delivered to a desktop at any time, anywhere on any device – and, indeed, tablets and smartphones will be key. Video will also play a major part in the coming years.

Perhaps the most telling sign of things to come is Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype; it is clear that the looming cloud will mean the barriers between manufacturers and delivery becoming blurred. As one of the world’s biggest technology businesses moves into the space, it will be interesting to see what the future holds, what it will mean to consumers, and how a new, collaborative approach can be applied to the retail sector.

Billy Haining is head of the Cisco business unit at Intrinsic Technology.

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