In a recent Client Satisfaction report on UK law firms, one of the key barometers by which clients measured performance was ‘personal relationships’.  Other factors that were considered important included quality of advice and cost.  The report also found that firms that were more efficient and innovative were more successful at winning new business as clients become increasingly concerned with how law firms control their cost base.

With greater pressure on the IT department to deliver more with less budget and still make a difference to the overall success of the business, the adoption of Unified Communications  is naturally suited to the legal profession and can improve client relationships and reduce operating costs.

Key communication challenges

Whether you manage just a single site or multiple branches across the country, one of the main obstacles to providing effective and responsive service for clients are the limitations of the phone system. If you still rely on a traditional PBX, then it’s likely that you will be facing some common day to day problems that will affect the quality of your client communication.

Managing high volumes of callsSimply dealing with large volumes of calls can be real source of frustration for you and your clients. For instance if you receive hundreds of calls every day it can be difficult to manage and distribute these effectively so that a) the call is answered and b) they get put through to the right person (regardless of location), with access to the right information to resolve their query.

Costly & slow MACsMaintenance of a traditional PBX can also be expensive, especially if you have to constantly add or change users to the system. A busy practice for example may be looking at between 10-15 changes every month, which means you not only have to call upon the services of an external engineer who may take several days or weeks to turn up, but  delays in MACs (moves and changes) can further exacerbate clients’ ability to reach the right people.

No facility to record or analyse callsWith an old-fashioned PBX  there may be limited functionality included as standard so you may need to pay extra for options such as call recording or easy access to call detail records (CDRs). Without these features it is difficult to prove what’s been agreed with clients and without CDRs you could be missing out on additional fee generation for time spent on the phone. Over a year, adhoc calls that are NOT logged to particular clients can add up to £thousands in lost potential profits.

Being available wherever you areWith increased mobility of staff, whether they are on the road, at another site or working from home can help firms to work smarter with lower overheads, but it can often hamper client communication. Because the phone system does not have the intelligence to re-direct a call dependent on location this results in telephone tag and a less responsive service for clients.

Introducing software-based unified communications

All of the above challenges can be addressed using software-based unified communications, which represents just another application on your network that can easily integrated with any relevant back-office systems such as ‘case management’ or ‘CRM’. Unlike hardware-based UC alternatives, software-based solutions such as Swyx simply run on an existing Windows server.

One firm that moved to a software-based UC solution is Barnsley based Raleys Solicitors. For the past seven years the company relied on an outsourced managed telephony service based on Centrex. However the running costs including call charges were very high incurring total fees of up to £64,000 per year. Raleys’ Chief Technology Officer Richard Hilton explained why they decided to look for a UC-based solution, “Not only were the rental costs expensive, we were frustrated by the lack of response from our supplier when we asked for any moves or changes to be done.”

The company reviewed a large number of solutions on the market including Lucent, Panasonic, Samsung and Cisco but none of these gave them the flexibility and cost-savings they were looking for. Richard Hilton says, “After our experience of the Centrex service which meant we had to wait days or weeks for an engineer to add a new user or alter a routing configuration, we wanted the independence to manage the solution in-house, so that even non-technical personnel could make changes themselves.”

He continued, “Finally, a local supplier, Digital Exchange (Yorkshire) Ltd recommended SwyxWare which ticked all the boxes. It had a user-friendly web interface that was easy to understand and because it is software and is IP based we had the additional advantages of an affordable licence model and the ability to integrate our telephony with our other IT systems. Everyone instantly liked Swyx and it has been one of the most positively received systems we have ever had”

“In the legal sector the majority of our work is conducted over the phone and it’s imperative that our customers have the option of talking to a human rather than a machine. Using Swyx’s ‘presence’ functionality, it’s possible to route calls dependent on someone’s diary movements and secretaries now have the ability to pick up group calls so we can reduce the number of times the phone rings before the caller can speak to someone. Therefore if a customer calls a direct number to one of the partners, but they are not available then a secretary can pick up the call instead. We were also aware that new alternative VoIP unified comms offerings on the market could give us more flexibility and features allowing us to integrate ‘voice’ with our other applications giving our clients better customer service as well as securing substantial cost-savings.”

Raleys is a good example of how a single site operation can take advantage of UC to reduce costs and enhance communication, but the technology is also ideal in tackling the communication challenges of firms with multiple sites so that any person can contacted directly independent of their location. Wards Solicitors based in the South-west with 11 branch offices had no way of transferring calls from one site to another, meaning that clients often had to re-dial another number to get through to the right department or person with the right expertise. ICT manager at Wards, Hugh Cooper explains, “Like many businesses that grow organically over time, our offices has a complete mixture of systems from many different telephony vendors. Many of the systems were incompatible with each other and therefore could only serve an individual branch.” Another problem faced by Wards was dealing with busy periods when they would receive a high influx of calls. The existing phone system could only be answered by the receptionists so if they were busy, both the call and potentially the client were both lost.

By moving to a software-based IP telephony Wards has vastly improved its client communication and with integration with Microsoft Outlook they can even play a personalised greeting to the caller dependent on their CLI (call line identity). Wards’ Hugh Cooper says, “The system has done everything it promised and more, connecting all or our offices through a distributed and integrated telephony system. All of our professional resources are available to our clients with just one inbound phone call, making our business far more responsive, efficient and professional.”

Selecting the right solution – software v. hardware

It’s clear that investing in UC can provide both improvements in service as well as substantial cost-savings, yet there still some confusion over what type of UC system to choose.  All claim to offer the same benefits but in reality some offer more flexibility than others.

With hybrid or hardware-based offerings you will need to invest in separate hardware dependent on the level of functionality. For instance, if you require integrated fax into your new phone system, the ability to link in to employees’ mobiles or perhaps the need to enable conference calls, you are going to need a separate IT server for each of these options.  You may also want to control your telephone from the PC (also known as CTI or computer telephony integration), set up voice mail or introduce a touch-tone system such as press 1 for sales and so on. Already with a hardware-based system you are going to need three further servers.

So, as well as the server for the main phone system, at least a handful of other servers will be required depending on the scope of applications used.  Not only that, but if you buy servers from different manufacturers, then each will have a different type of administration and user interface… a simple username change rapidly becomes a small IT project.

With purely software based solutions you only require a single server so there is less capital required for hardware and you spend less time on administration.

The other advantage of a software-based solution is that if you want staff to automatically have the relevant information on single screen, it is easier to integrate the phone system because it is simply just another application on the network.  So if an important customer calls in and need to see their corresponding notes or case history then you can configure the system to do this automatically.

With increased competition across the legal landscape, software-based unified communications is a cost-effective way to differentiate yourself, in what has become an over-crowded marketplace.  Not only does it help to improve customer retention through better service but due to its inherent flexibility you can constantly change the way you operate, both now and in the future.

Author:  Ralf Ebbinghaus. Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing & Service at unified communications specialist, Swyx www.swyx.com