By Brian Ferguson

The term Unified Communications (UC) has been poorly defined by the industry and clouded by mixed marketing messages. But for small and midsized businesses (SMBs), it simply means the merging of many different communication methods, including voice, email, video and instant messaging, into one unified system. To help further lift that fog of confusion, here are the five core benefits of UC for SMBs:

1.      Presence and Instant Messaging – Presence and instant messaging features allow businesses to stay connected in real-time, regardless of distance. Presence allows users to update personal status and make it visible across the company in several different places; even if that user is on a mobile phone. Presence makes it very simple for receptionists and assistants to know who’s available and who’s busy by glancing at the computer screen or phone display. Ever wonder if a specific employee is in the building and working, or out of the office for the day? How about knowing the status of your employees who work at a remote site or out in the field? Many of today’s UC systems can publish status across several locations and platforms as well as manage status in third-party instant messaging systems.

Tired of sifting through thousands of emails? Instant messaging, or chat, provides a real-time method of communication that can significantly limit inbox headaches by handling day-to-day communication instantly.

2.     Unified Messaging – No longer will users have to interact with at least three different pieces of software or devices to view their messages. Unified Messaging transforms email clients like Outlook, Gmail and MacMail into the hub of all communication, including voicemail, email, faxes and even recorded phone calls. If a user receives an important message and needs to call that person back immediately, Unified Messaging gives them click-to-dial functionality with phone numbers readily available in the emails or from contact lists.

3.     Mobile Device Integration – UC systems allow mobile users the ability to communicate with tools that are just as powerful as those available to internal users. Mobile apps allow for a user to have number connectivity, or the ability to have calls find them regardless of where they happen to be working. Easy access to voicemail and company directories arm remote employees with information and tools to be more productive than ever before. Today’s mobile features also allow for companies to protect their brand by ensuring that no matter what device is used, the company’s caller ID information is passed to the client even when an employee is dialing out from their smartphone.

4.     Video and Collaboration Integration – The demand for video communications is increasing rapidly. UC systems allow for integration with Web conferencing systems, video calls and audioconferencing.

5.     Third-party Integration – Truly advanced UC systems allow companies to “think outside the box” with their communication platforms, and integrate with their CRM, ERP or other information systems. Imagine being able to have CRM records, or other customer or client database records appear on the computer monitor or phone display when that caller calls the office? How much better armed will employees be to help that customer quickly and effectively?

Brian Ferguson is a product marketing manager at Digium, which provides Asterisk® software, telephony hardware and Switchvox business phone systems that deliver enterprise-class Unified Communications. Follow Digium on Twitter @digium.