Prior to coronavirus, many housing providers were already rethinking their communications and telephony services to increase efficiency, promote ‘cloud first’, offer flexible working arrangements, save costs, and reduce complexity. The question that I constantly heard was, “Why do we need these large office-based telephony systems that cost a fortune to manage and maintain?”
Unified communications as a service (UCaaS) is the answer to that question, blurring the boundaries of telephony and merging it with instant messaging, video conferencing and a plethora of different applications, such as CRM systems, contact centres and reporting.
Since its release in 2017, Microsoft Teams has significantly impacted this UCaaS market thanks to its ease of use, free inclusion in most Microsoft business licences and slick desktop integration. In the past months, mostly owing to the impact of coronavirus and the subsequent uptake in remote working, daily users of Teams have skyrocketed to over 115 million people (October 2020).
As an integral part of Microsoft 365 E3 and E5 business licences, many organisations have chosen Teams as their preferred collaboration solution. With its free instant messaging, meeting and video features, Teams is a no-brainer for many housing providers wanting to simplify their internal communications.
How important is voice to your organisation?
The housing sector’s communications ecosystem is broad and complex. While instant messaging, content sharing and virtual meetings are becoming increasingly popular among employees, voice is still the key to wider business operations. In the housing sector, choosing the right UCaaS solution is vital to ensure the best possible service to tenants while also increasing the efficiency of your business operations.
When considering the best UCaaS solution for you, it’s important to first understand your requirements and how these compare to potential solutions’ capabilities.
Out of the box, Teams supports voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls to any other member of the organisation using the applications, but it doesn’t connect to your external telephone network. This means that in its most basic form, Teams can only be used as an internal collaboration tool so you’d still need a separate telephony solution for external calling. For organisations struggling to cope with too many ineffective internal communications tools, Teams offers the perfect single platform to enable collaboration across the board.
Can we use Teams as our external telephony system?
Teams offers a telephone system replacement and to fully unlock Teams’ external telephony capabilities, organisations must either adopt Microsoft Calling Plans or Microsoft Direct Routing. At the time of writing, both options require a phone system licence for every user who wants external voice calls. While Microsoft Phone System is included in E5 licences, E3 and E1 versions will require additional licences and professional service support, which can make it more expensive than comparable solutions in certain circumstances. When we take a closer look at Microsoft Calling Plans and Direct Routing, it’s important to note and evaluate some operational and commercial differences.
Microsoft Calling Plans is a fully cloud-deployed solution provided entirely by Microsoft. Calling Plans comes in different sizes depending upon the number of minutes needed. While this might seem an ideal solution for smaller organisations, Microsoft’s ‘minutes bundles’ are inflexible and expensive when compared to a telco carrier’s direct-routing offering or a fully-integrated UCaaS solution. Moreover, minutes bundles can’t be shared nor carried over, and your organisation will need communications credits if you run out of minutes in your calling plans or if you receive toll-free calls. In this example, an empty communications credit balance would stop you from making calls altogether. To overcome this issue, Microsoft suggests setting up an auto-recharge amount with a minimum balance that will trigger a purchase for that recharge amount – a recommendation that could easily promote ‘bill shock’ if you’re not keeping track of the additional expenditure.
Microsoft Direct Routing is a more flexible, accessible and cost-effective alternative to Microsoft Calling Plans, enabling users to make and receive calls using your existing telecom provider (it’s currently our fastest-growing product ever). This option is particularly beneficial to leverage existing contracts with service providers and to ensure interoperability with on-premise telephony equipment and desk phones. Moreover, while Direct Routing’s costs depend largely on the carrier rates, it’s fair to say that it will almost always cost less per user than Calling Plans, with many providers offering unlimited and flexible minutes bundles to landlines and mobiles.
Are you looking for a complete integrated solution?
Any organisation debating whether Microsoft Teams is the answer to its external telephony needs will also need to consider how important it is for their operations to have a single, cost-effective supplier.
As we’ve discussed, Direct Routing generally overcomes the worry of bill shock and inflexible minutes but does come at the cost of working with two different suppliers. On the other hand, Calling Plans has the benefit of being deployed entirely by Microsoft, but the downfalls of additional licence costs, complex number porting (to keep your existing telephone numbers) and limited minute bundles make it less desirable for some organisations. Also, organisations will need to bear in mind that Microsoft is a software company, not a UK telco (at the risk of stating the obvious!); it is a very complex environment and sometimes choosing telco specialists is the answer to de-risk any telephony transformation projects.
Of course, if neither option is exactly what your organisation requires, it’s worth considering a fully-integrated UCaaS solution from a different service provider. Depending on your structure, this sometimes makes sense.
A fully-integrated UCaaS solution, such as Gamma’s Horizon Collaborate, encompasses the power of voice, video, conferencing, instant messaging and presence from a single supplier, combined with a robust support structure.
Having a single supplier can help overcome those inevitable operational issues quickly and smoothly, without having to jump through hoops and to pass through different departments or organisations. You should also consider the importance of having an end-to-end SLA, not just on the core cloud platform but also to the user. Choosing a service provider who owns the network means issues are not pushed around but have single ownership, critical for your important UCaaS services.
Having a single supplier will also reduce additional challenges and costs related to deployment and support; while integrating the basic version of Microsoft Teams might be easy, enabling external calls will require additional professional support. Simple things such as buying, configuring and deploying end-user devices can be an additional overhead your organisation can do without, and that can be avoided with a single service provider. Reviewing priorities and how the solution will be managed and supported is vital to match the right UCaaS tool to your requirements.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many organisations adopted Teams as the easiest option for their sudden remote working requirements. However, many are now re-evaluating their long-term communications strategies to understand which solution is best for business continuity and permanent remote or flexible working.
While Teams is integrated into most Microsoft business licences as an internal collaboration platform, enabling external calls requires additional costs, including Microsoft Phone System licence and minute bundles. Microsoft Calling Plans and Direct Routing differentiate in terms of cost-effectiveness, number of suppliers and flexibility of bundles. Alternatively, organisations might also want to consider adopting a fully-integrated UCaaS solution from a different single supplier.
Ultimately, any solution you choose primarily depends on your organisation’s current and future needs, such as whether want to retain your current telephony supplier, whether Teams has all the features that you need, how important an end-to-end SLA is to your business, and how cost-effective each option is for your mode of operation.
Sam Winterbottom is the public sector director at Gamma.