IP communications tools boost productivity

IP communications tools have opened up several possibilities for one North American company, giving it presence awareness and unified messaging.

Communication, whether on the road or in the office, is key to Shimano American, a maker and seller of high-end biking and fishing products.

But the company needed a way to migrate from its old telecom system to IP without disrupting operations and, more important, with a level of cost savings. Shimano wanted its road-warrior sales and marketing reps, and other on-the-go employees, to be able to communicate and message more effectively, essentially enhancing customer service through tighter collaboration and communications.

"We needed to find a way to let salespeople communicate more efficiently with customers," said Bill Crane, Shimano American's communications manager. "When they travel all the time, that's pretty difficult."

The company's previous phone system provided some basic capabilities for placing calls, but it lacked additional features that would allow customers and co-workers to reach others while on the road, and it was missing now-necessary collaboration components.

Sales and marketing reps frequently call on retailers and distributors to demo and sell products. If a salesperson is hard to reach, the company's chances of a key sale could be ruined. Teams of reps also need to collaborate with one another in real time despite constantly changing work locations. They also need to quickly and easily reach co-workers back at the home office.

Crane began looking into unified messaging systems. Having researched various vendors, he evaluated Siemens HiPath OpenScape. By the end of 2005, OpenScape, along with HiPath Xpressions and HiPath 4000, were deployed.

Siemens calls OpenScape a presence-aware, real-time unified communications software suite. It gives a single view of all users and devices and uses presence awareness to alert users to the best way to reach others. Xpressions, a unified messaging app, combines voice, fax and email messages on a Windows server. The HiPath 4000 is an IP convergence platform built with a distributed architecture.

Since deploying unified communications and messaging capabilities, Shimano American has seen a boost in collaboration among teams in the field and workers in the home office, Crane said. Mobile sales and marketing teams, the original drivers for the solutions, are easier to reach (irrespective of location), he noted, and customer service has steadily improved, acting as a catalyst for an increase in overall sales.

"We went into the whole concept as a mobility thing, but realised maybe it's connectivity that's a bigger issue," Crane said.

Because Shimano had been a Siemens user for a number of years, the process of cutting over to IP from an older communications switch was smooth. That ease of migration, Crane said, played a major role in Shimano's ultimate decision to run with HiPath.

"We looked at several other vendors' systems, but because we already had a Siemens switch in place, it involved very little change to convert over to IP," he said. "This was a logical extension of our phone system."

Crane said all of the company's voicemail, messaging, calling features and automatic call distribution systems are now housed within the same IP-based platform, making it easier to manage.

Shimano first launched a pilot program, rolling out unified communications capabilities to about 25 people. Overall, the plan is to send it out to hundreds more by year's end. Crane said he's working with Siemens to develop support and education for sales and marketing reps using the new applications.

"Unified communications allows us to forward calls automatically to cell phones so that a person on the road can get calls any time they want; they're always available," Crane said. "With the presence-aware feature, we can see if someone is available at any time to receive a call."

Presence awareness was something of a surprise, Crane said. He knew it would be useful, but now it's taken off.

"Presence awareness has become huge," he said. "Being able to know people are there before you call them, it's been very valuable."

No concrete numbers are available yet, he said, but the company expects the system to generate an increase in sales because of better contact with customers, which will increase ROI.

"Being able to take care of something right now is better than having to deal with it later," Crane said of the boosted productivity that has led to better sales. "We have a sense we're supporting customers better. We're increasing [our] availability … to our customers." Check out some additional VoIP case studies Read about Microsoft's unified communications strategy

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