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Updated Apr 22, 2024

What are Unified Communications Systems?

You might be surprised by the myriad features your business phone system offers.

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Chad Brooks, Business Ownership Insider and Managing Editor
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Gone are the days when businesses relied on their phone systems solely to make and receive calls. Today’s best business phone systems have expanded their services, giving employees the ability to connect with team members, partners and customers all from one place. It’s thanks to the growth of voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) and cloud-hosted services that unified communications (UC) is now the norm for modern businesses. This advancement in digital communications enables users to access the same telecommunications tools whether they’re in the office, working from home or on the road. This guide to UC explains what makes them so useful and how your business can take advantage of these all-encompassing tools.

Editor’s note: Looking for information on business phone systems? Use the questionnaire below, and our vendor partners will contact you to provide you with the information you need.

What is a UC system?

A UC system is a cloud-hosted business communications system that merges multiple services, such as email, telephone, internet browsers and video conferencing, through a combination of hardware, software and network solutions. The beauty of a UC system is that it gives you a consolidated, affordable, flexible way to talk to your team through any computer or mobile device — from anywhere with an internet connection.

John Pope, co-founder and former CEO of Jive Communications, said the typical setup of a traditional phone system included a computer server, a manual control board and multiple lines that connected to the public system. Those lines then connected to an internal switching system that directed calls to everyone’s individual phone lines. 

“If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is,” Pope said.

Since all the communication tools in these systems rely on the internet to move data back and forth, Pope said, the only things UC requires are an internet connection and a computer or an IP phone. “This simplified and unified offering drives down costs while providing powerful features that extend beyond simple dial tone.”

TipTip
Small businesses have a wide range of excellent UC systems to choose from, giving your team some great options to meet virtually, share files or message colleagues instantly. Read our Dialpad review or 8×8 review for some excellent examples.

Benefits of UC systems

Today’s increasingly mobile workforce requires easy ways for employees to communicate with both peers and customers from anywhere. As a result, remote and hybrid work is a major factor driving the popularity of UC systems. Whether it’s video conferencing with customers or instant messaging with co-workers, UC systems offer a wide selection of tools to keep the lines of communication flowing for workers. [Check out our buyer’s guide to see options for video conferencing services for your small business]

“Unlike a traditional business phone system that only offers the ability to make and receive calls, UC combines phone service, video conferencing, team messaging, SMS, fax and other communications tools on a single integrated platform,” said Jose Pastor, former senior vice president of product management at RingCentral.

Access on any device

Since the traditional 9-to-5 workday at an office desk is largely a thing of the past, tools that allow communication from any device at any time are critical in today’s fast-moving, tech-driven world.

“Between mobile and advanced collaboration technologies, now more than ever, people are working away from the office easily and successfully,” Pope said. “It’s allowing more flexibility, more globalization and, most importantly, better communication.”

Flexibility

While having all these communication tools is highly beneficial to workers, offering them all in one package is what makes UC systems appealing.

“Providing flexibility and choice in how workers communicate is important, but it’s key to wrap these communications tools in a unified experience to provide today’s digital workforce a seamless user experience,” Pastor said.

TipTip
As you consider switching to a UC system, think about how to transition gracefully from systems and apps users are already using. Consider whether you'll need to migrate or archive data like contact lists and chat logs and whether employees will need training on the new system.

Improved productivity

Research from RingCentral revealed the level of “app overload” many employees experience. The study found that workers today regularly use four communication apps on average, with nearly 70 percent of workers wasting up to 60 minutes a day ― the equivalent of 32 days per year ― toggling between those apps.

The research found that workers realize how valuable having access to all their communication tools on one platform is. Two-thirds of those surveyed want a single platform for all their communications, citing better workflow, increased productivity and reduction in chaos as the top benefits.

Pope believes that access to all these communication tools from one location has a positive impact on a company’s innovation, productivity and efficiency.

“Some of the benefits that can overhaul your culture and communications and lead to hyper-growth for your business include streamlined communications, increased mobility, superior reliability, improved customer interactions, enhanced security, a positive employee culture, advanced functionality and access to important data and tools that will impact development,” he said.

Lower cost

Cost savings is another advantage of UC systems. Instead of your company paying for each of these tools separately, UC providers bundle them together for a significantly lower cost.

“Businesses can save upward of tens of thousands of dollars by investing in unified communications systems,” Pastor said.

Did You Know?Did you know
Getting a business phone number is simple with a UC system. Most have an easy-to-use online portal that allows you to add new lines quickly when new employees join your company.

The best UC systems

Nextiva

Nextiva is a business phone system that specializes in phone systems for customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, offering multiple options that can integrate the best CRM software easily. By streamlining processes like account history, sales pipeline management and case routing, Nextiva offers tools to help sales representatives and customer service managers.

Nextiva also offers leading phone services, including voicemail-to-email and call recording while collaboration tools like audio conferencing and team messaging can improve productivity and keep your business running. With a reported 99.999% uptime, Nextiva can ensure your company’s continuous 24/7 service throughout the United States. 

Nextiva’s costs run from $17.95 to $37.95 per user, per month, depending on the type of plan you need and how many users will require access to the system. You can learn more in our full Nextiva review

RingCentral

Easy to integrate, simple to use and featuring wide functionality, RingCentral offers businesses of any size a reliable, cloud-hosted VoIP UC platform. Features include virtual receptionists to guide callers, call recording and call screening while a 99.9999% uptime enables RingCentral to provide reliable 24/7 service.

RingCentral has deployed a series of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered tools, giving users the capability to transcribe calls or analyze sales conversations automatically. It also offers a virtual whiteboard that lets you map out ideas through drawings, notes and annotations. Available for both desktop and mobile devices, RingCentral can easily keep teams connected, both in and out of the office.

RingCentral’s costs range from $20 to $35 per user, per month, when paid annually. Read our full RingCentral review to learn more.

Ooma

Ooma offers a powerful platform for teams to communicate from virtually anywhere through a desktop or mobile device, with the capability to host a video conference with up to 25 users in Pro plans or 100 in Pro Plus plans. Although it may not have the full feature set of other UC systems, Ooma is a great choice for small and midsize businesses that need to communicate quickly without all the bells and whistles.

All of the essential features of a UC system are accounted for on the Ooma platform, including voicemail, call logs and even virtual extensions for remote workers. Better yet, for organizations using Ooma from within an office, the system supports both IP and analog phones. With responsive customer service and tech support, Ooma offers a simple way to set up a UC system without an information technology expert.

Ooma offers three subscriptions: Essentials, which is $19.95 per user, per month; Pro, which is $24.95 per user, per month; and Pro Plus, which is $29.95 per month. Learn more in our full Ooma review.

Did You Know?Did you know
We’ve thoroughly reviewed the best VoIP business phone systems. So, if you’re looking for more options and in-depth reviews to help you decide which is best for your business, we have you covered.

The future of UC systems

While UC systems offer a wide range of functionality, there is still room for growth. 

Expanded integrations

One way Pastor sees these services evolving in the future is by having more built-in integrations with other business programs and apps. As an example, he points to the RingCentral integration with Salesforce that allows the software’s users to initiate calls with one click, without ever leaving Salesforce.

“UC systems will continue to evolve to make business communications more seamless and tightly integrated into existing business workflows,” he said.

Remote and hybrid work tools

The growth of remote and hybrid work has made UC systems more essential than ever and the rapid development of AI technology has made it possible for systems to include features for tracking calls, transcribing recordings and aid in customer service. That’s likely to only continue as AI grows more advanced and affordable.

Increased international business activity

The expansion of these types of systems will also change the way businesses grow. Pope suggested that UC will lead to more global expansion.

“As the globalization of business escalates, UC will grow proportionately, creating opportunities for businesses to go global,” he said. “As the remote workforce continues to expand, we’ll see video and web conferencing rise in popularity and necessity.”

UC can give your business a boost

UC systems are more than traditional office phone networks. They’re powerful systems that employees can access from the office or on the road and can support more than just ordinary calling. Team messaging, external texting and video calls are all supported by modern UC systems.

Many increasingly provide integrations with other software, including sales CRM packages and AI tools that can save you time by transcribing phone calls. UC systems are designed to be set up and used to support your business operations. When you’re choosing one, don’t only think about making phone calls. Think about your business processes and how your business might grow and all the ways your UC system might be able to support you.

Steven Melendez and Eduardo Vasconcellos contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Chad Brooks, Business Ownership Insider and Managing Editor
Chad Brooks is the author of How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business. He has spent more than 10 years guiding prospective entrepreneurs and business owners on the ins and outs of launching a startup, scaling a company and maintaining profitable growth. Within the world of entrepreneurship, he is particularly passionate about small business communications tools, such as unified communications systems, video conferencing solutions and conference call services. Brooks, who holds a degree in journalism from Indiana University, has lent his business expertise to a number of esteemed publications, including Huffington Post, CNBC, Fox Business and Laptop Mag. He regularly consults with B2B companies to stay on top of the latest business trends and direct growing enterprises toward the modern-day business technology required in today's digitally advanced world.
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