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Stop Unifying Your Communications

For years enterprises have been encouraged to deploy unified communications, under the promise that integrating together different channels of communication will lead to a more efficient workforce, with a vaguely defined but unmeasurable business case. We have continued to see vendors tout the benefits of UC, from those selling cloud PBX capabilities to carriers, to those ex-PBX vendors moving to UCaaS.

UC capabilities make for fantastic technology demos, but solutions don't solve an actual problem. As a UC customer, calls to your work number can reach you on a variety of devices, follow you wherever I go, jump between devices, and all sorts of other shiny capabilities that there really is no need for. But when you answer the call, you still have no idea who the caller is, the reason for the call, or access to any relevant history.

This is because unified communications unifies the wrong things. The traditional phone call has always been a siloed experience -- divorced from any context. Adding more channels of communication to that same silo does not in any way improve the experience; it simply provides more blind communication options.

A great communication experience instead unifies the mode of communication with the context of the interaction. While a unified communications solution might display the caller ID, a contextual communications solution shows you the reason for the call: what the person was working on or struggling with before making the call as well as account history details. Contextual communications includes all the information that helps a conversation dive straight into providing value, rather than wasting time establishing base information that should already be known.

And it doesn't just stop with information from the time before the call is placed. The best communication experiences allow for interaction between the callers during the conversation. Home improvement companies can enable customers to share real-time video of their projects with contractors. Real estate companies can show prospective buyers around a property virtually. Insurance companies can let users collaboratively file the details for claims within an app while talking.

This brings me to another benefit of building contextual communications versus buying unified communications. While UC is extremely focused on improving interactions between employees within an enterprise, it always falls back to the lowest common denominator for the most valuable of all interactions - those with customers. The best UC services out there are still just a dumb phone call when a customer calls. Contextual communications can provide both a better way of communicating within an enterprise and, critically, a way to have better interactions with customers.

Take as an example. Porch is building the home network, a home services marketplace that is free for homeowners and home professionals. With over 2.8 million professionals and over 120 million projects, Porch enables homeowners to make smart home improvement decisions by giving them the information they need to find the right professionals, become inspired, and manage their home.

Porch recently released its first mobile offering, the Porch App, to provide homeowners a seamless and innovative way to connect with professionals their neighbors have used and loved. To achieve this goal, Porch has included two interesting features, both of which are examples of embedding communications in-app as a means of creating a more contextual experience: Porch Concierge and Pro Dial.

With a single tap, Concierge launches an in-app interactive audio call with a Porch representative, who provides consultation for homeowners to help them determine which professional type to use. Reps then directly connect callers with a home professional who has done similar work in their neighborhood. With Pro Dial, customers who know what type of pro they need can simply tap the Pro Dial button and get connected to the right professional in less than 60 seconds.

With both Concierge and Pro Dial, because the communication stays within the app, while they wait, users can browse through relevant design concepts. Once connected, each person will immediately see the picture and name of who they are talking to. These capabilities help make the connection more seamless between homeowners and professionals, without some of the friction that exists today -- and this really is just the tip of the iceberg for what is possible.

WebRTC is one of the technology components that makes these kind of capabilities possible. It provides a media 'stack' that can run in a browser or in a mobile app, giving access to the microphone and camera capabilities, providing the foundation for embedding communications into the context of an interaction. However, WebRTC leaves a lot left to the developers. They have to build the global registration, authentication and signaling aspects, as well as critical media functions such as network traversal when going between two WebRTC endpoints, or media transcoding when connecting a WebRTC endpoint to the regular telephone network.

This is the heavy lifting required for WebRTC, and while building yourself is always an option, Porch chose Twilio to power this, charging them with the responsibility of ensuring quality and resiliency so Porch can focus on delivering a great customer experience.

Porch is just one example of a company embedding and contextualizing communications, but I am expecting an impending onslaught of other companies taking this path as more people experience the benefits of great customer experience and efficiency.

Stop unifying your communications. Start contextualizing them.

Al Cook is Director of Product Marketing at Twilio.