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Unified Communications explained

Gartner defines unified communications (UC) products (equipment, software and services) as “those that facilitate the interactive use of multiple enterprise communications methods. This can include control, management and integration of these methods. UC products integrate communications channels, networks and systems, as well as IT business applications and, in some cases, consumer applications and devices.” Unified Communications is also known as collaborative communications and Unified Collaborative Communications (UCC).

The biggest issue when selecting UCC applications or a UCC platform is that companies often overlook the importance of employees. The reality is that people within companies often use their own mobile devices for work with their own cloud apps. And this extends to the desktop too. According to a survey conducted by Stratecast and sponsored by McAfee, more than 80 percent of employees worldwide are circumventing company policy to choose and use their own SaaS applications. What happens is that instead of company policy determining mobile apps and cloud services, individuals are using what they perceive to be better. This is what is known as Shadow IT.

The reason why Shadow IT exists is because employees have not taken to traditional communications and collaboration tools which are often difficult to use, lacking the latest features and behaving differently on different devices. Employees therefor turn to mobile app stores or unvetted third party’s public cloud.

There are two main challenges with this problem: security and data.
There is a security risk for companies because these apps operate outside of the enterprise data center, company security policies, compliance requirements and business analytics.

From a data perspective, when that data is stored in a personal cloud account vs. a corporate database, what happens to that data when an employee leaves the company? Or when the cloud app is purchased by another company? Data loss and the absence of data for analytical purposes can both be damaging to a company.

Unifying the user experience
UCC is therefore about bringing users back into the corporate fold, regaining control of your data, protecting company and data privacy, avoiding non-compliance issues and, most importantly, unifying users on a standard set of tools that promote better communications and collaboration.

With the myriad of channels and methods of business communication, UCC brings communications together so that users can have a consistent experience across many devices and media types. This means integrating services such as instant messaging, voice and IP telephony, mobility, audio, web and video conferencing, data sharing, call control and speech recognition with non real-time communication services such as voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax.

The biggest success factor to a successful UCC implementation is ensuring that you provide a better experience that users will embrace rather than replace. It is about finding solutions that are simple to use, support a wide variety of devices and compare favorably with the cloud apps that employees are already using.

Employees wouldn’t seek alternatives if they already had a single UCC solution that provided the features they needed, such as unified messaging, intuitive interface, simple self-provisioning tools, file and desktop sharing, presence-aware IM/conferencing and the ability to make phone calls, video calls, send emails, start text chats and share files all from a single screen.This removes the need for employees to flip between multiple applications to do their work.

It also means teams can collaborate anywhere, on any device with the same set of tools and look and feel. In addition, collaborating with partners and customers outside the corporate firewall becomes much easier.

What features do users need from a UCC?

Unified messaging: Unified messaging allows users to access and manage their voice mail, email, and fax messages from their PCs or telephones. It allows businesses to enhance customer service with a sophisticated speech auto-attendant and call routing, and it simplifies ongoing day-to-day administrative tasks. A reliable messaging solution should fit seamlessly into your existing infrastructure and be deployed with third-party PBXs so that users on a mixed PBX network can be consolidated on a single messaging solution with a common user interface.

The Key features of a unified messaging system include:

  • The ability for message retrieval by phone or by email.
  • Voice commands where callers just say a name or department and are automatically transferred to that number.
  • Standard call flows and greetings in the same voice so that every branch office greets callers the same way.
  • Employees can easily connect with each other by speaking a name – whether they are in a conference room, in their car, or at their desk.
  • Ability for users to retrieve voice mails and faxes through the telephone or their email inbox.
  • Outlook plugin gives users the power to manage voice and fax messages from their inbox.
  • Provide fax senders with transmission status information to their email inbox.
  • For companies operating in a bilingual environment, the ability to provide service to callers in the language of their choice.

Intuitive interface: Intuitive simply means that a system is easy to use based on a user’s previous experience of similar systems they are familiar with. The user easily “intuits” or understands how the application works by seeing it and using it. While this is a subject much debated, it is really all about ensuring the UCC system you select is easy for employees to learn.

Simple self-provisioning tools: Think about self-provisioning as self-service. End users want to get tools by themselves without needing an IT person or service provider to do it for them. Giving your users some freedom, allows them to quickly download what they need without waiting for IT to respond.

File and desktop sharing: Users want to be able to share documents, applications and screen sharing on top of voice and video communications, to collaborate with others and work together on common projects. They want to do so easily on their mobile over the web without downloading any extra client applications to participate.

Presence-aware IM/conferencing: Presence-aware UCC applications allow individuals to connect quickly and easily with those they want to communicate with through a unified view of other user’s presence state; showing their availability, location and time of day across all their devices and integrating with their applications such as calendars, Instant Messaging, conferencing and telephone.

Single screen: A user wants to get the job done quickly and simply. Having one single screen to make phone calls, video calls, send emails, start text chats and share files, makes employees work faster – no more toggling between applications!

UCC in a single solution
Companies can deliver these features, and more, in a single solution, provided they choose the right UCC platform. In doing so, you will not only reduce the risks associated with Shadow IT, but also deliver on the promise of UCC:

  • Compete more effectively
  • Execute go-to-market strategies faster
  • Increase visibility into coworkers’ availability so issues get resolved faster
  • Connect subject-matter experts across the company
  • Improve communications with partners and customers
  • Provide better security that’s simpler to manage

In the past, companies that wanted a rich UCC experience needed to piece together various best-of-breed applications. This approach was expensive, time-consuming and, as Shadow IT has revealed, often less than complete. Today you have the option of choosing a pre-built and pre-integrated UCC platform that addresses all your needs, or that fits seamlessly with existing components to create a complete UCC solution. This pre-integrated, pre-validated approach frees IT departments to focus on what they do best, driving business innovation and productivity through new technology, rather than piecing together communications applications from different vendors.

An all-in-one UCC platform, such as the one offered by Zinia and Mitel, enables your IT department to be far more strategic, focusing on efforts that enhance the UCC experience to drive revenue and improve customer service. These efforts include:

  • Creating and managing enforceable security policies.
  • Migrating applications onto public, private or hybrid cloud platforms to optimize scalability and performance.
  • Consolidating UCC services to reduce costs.
  • Ensuring consistent access to UC apps from any location/device.
  • Providing training and troubleshooting as needed—but spending far less time on it than they do today.

Choosing the right platform
To be effective, a UCC platform must address the shortcomings of today’s communications and collaboration tools. Without a compelling experience, user adoption of any UCC solution will be inconsistent, and true unification will never happen. Your goal should be to ensure that employees are connected to the right people at the right time, regardless of where they are located or what network they are connected to.

Frost & Sullivan research shows that companies that use advanced unified communications and collaboration technologies gain a clear competitive advantage. Of those companies that have deployed unified communications and collaboration tools, 72 percent say that they have experienced better performance; 77 percent believe UCC technologies enhance employee mobility; and 86 percent say the tools have improved innovation within the organization.

A compelling UCC experience can be boiled down to several key requirements:

A complete solution
Users turn to additional applications to fill a perceived productivity or functionality gap. It’s critical that you fill those gaps with a complete UCC solution: one that offers a complete suite of applications including enterprise-grade voice, video, conferencing, web collaboration, email and calendar integration, instant messaging, presence, team collaboration, unified messaging and file sharing. Providing a complete solution ensures your users don’t have to trade in functionality for simplicity and security. Mitel’s UCC platform delivers all of these features, and more, in one solution with one intuitive interface for every device.

Open standards and integration
Proprietary UCC platforms place limitations on the way companies work and interact. An “open” platform allows you to get maximum value from legacy investments including third-party applications from vendors like Microsoft, IVR systems and all major phone/ mobile devices. This integration also makes it simple to embed communications capabilities into existing business applications, such as customer relationship management and service logistics.

Built for mobile first
UCC solutions should be built around mobile, real- time communications as more employees work remotely. This “mobile first” approach is designed around the belief that mobile communications will be the first choice for your users, particularly as the majority of the global workforce shifts to mobile-centric millennials.

Implementing UCC
Communications and collaboration are mission-critical applications for any company. Your decision to change, update or enhance UCC capabilities requires a strategic and thorough approach. From planning through implementation, there are steps that every company should follow to help ensure that their UCC implementation is successful:

  1. Assemble a cross-functional UCC project team including representatives from sales, marketing, customer service, risk management and human resources.
  2. Choose a project leader from IT to drive the project.
  3. Create an implementation roadmap and timeline.
  4. Identify your requirements (and nice-to-haves) for UCC and turn them into a checklist for your request for proposals (RFPs).
  5. Select a cross-functional workgroup that will serve as beta users for the new UCC solution.
  6. Launch pilot programs in various departments as a way to gather user feedback.
  7. Develop an implementation plan that aligns with both user requirements and broader business goals.
  8. Use “mentors” and Help Desk resources to streamline training and user adoption.
  9. Add new applications incrementally and ensure that users promote these applications internally.
  10. In conjunction with the HR department, post technical support resources on the corporate intranet including training materials, FAQs, user testimonials and user support forums.
  11. Regularly update management on project status and any measured improvements in Shadow IT reduction.
  12. Maintain an ongoing dialog with users to keep them abreast of new UCC features on the horizon.

Having a UCC solution in place that serves the needs of a diverse internal user group can help address the pitfalls in communications and collaboration, provided that employees are unified in their adoption of the UCC platform. In order for that to happen, you need to offer a robust UCC solution that is simple to use, rich in features and delivers a consistent user experience across multiple devices, including desk phones, laptops, smartphones and tablets.



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