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What Is Real-Time Communications?

This article was updated on July 13, 2021

For businesses, real-time communications represent a chance to meet customers in the now — with fewer of the delays they're increasingly unlikely to accept. Advice, analysis, and insight ahead.

Icons of SMS, phone, online, email communications

Real-time communications (RTC) are the near simultaneous exchange of information over any type of telecommunications service from the sender to the receiver in a connection with negligible latency, according to SearchUnified Communications. Examples of real-time communications include:

  • Voice over landlines and mobile phones
  • VoIP
  • Instant messaging (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger)
  • Video and teleconferencing
  • Robotic telepresence

It may not use the term "real-time communications," but Vonage's most recent Global Customer Engagement Report nevertheless has a lot of good to say about the concept. It's easy to see areas in the report — which breaks down customer preferences in 11 different communication mediums — where RTC stands out. First, consider the biggest positive changes noted in the chart below.

Data table of top-ranked comms methods by channel (Global Customer Engagement Report, 2020)
Data table of top-ranked comms methods by channel (Global Customer Engagement Report, 2020)

While customers have trended away from mobile and landline calls, that doesn't mean their preferences have also moved away from real-time contact. Indeed, every item that saw an increase on the list included a real-time component. And yes, that statement includes chatbots, since you're still communicating with something in real time.

However, real-time communications does not include email, bulletin boards, blogs or other forms of internet communication where users read content without regard to the time the sender posts it, which can create a significant delay between data transmission and reception.

In addition, real-time communications is never stored in an interim state anywhere between the transmitter and the receiver, as defined by Techopedia. Within that context, think of “real-time communications” as a synonym for “live communications.”

In a communication of this type, there is a return path where the receiver can also communicate with the sender in real time. Real-time communications can take place in half duplex or full duplex:

  • Half duplex—communications in one channel in one direction at a time. Sender or receiver can send but not receive at the same time (think of an old-style walkie-talkie where the user has to say “over” to tell the person on the other end that she can speak)
  • Full duplex—sender and receiver can send and receive messages simultaneously in two parallel communication pathways

Why Are Real-Time Communications Important?

In short, customers today expect immediacy. That's true whether the customer comes to the company seeking information, support, or sales engagement, and no matter what the format. For example, a passenger who has missed a connecting flight may contact the reservations center via the airline's app or a phone call while stranded at the intervening hub. But they likely won't send an email and hang around waiting for a reply.

RTC also stands out because of its ability to provide information, service, or sales engagement in the right context and with the right timing. In the above example, for instance, measures that push context-important data to agents as the customer calls in can reduce the number of times the customer must repeat their story before achieving resolution. And this matters: Consumers told Vonage that one of their biggest communications hurdles was repeating themselves to different people. 

In this context, those systems could:

  • Show what section of the app the customer placed a call from
  • Automatically populate relevant data, especially that on a timer, such as the customer's flight agenda
  • Allow agents to chat — another RTC medium — in real time during handoff, ensuring the right information is available quickly

Naturally, achieving this level of responsiveness in any field takes some time, planning, and investment. 

Real-Time Communications for Business

Fast Wi-Fi and mobile data options (and the powerful phones that run on the networks) have made possible a new generation of business apps: network- and provider-agnostic services that allow customers to chat and call directly within the app, with voice data traveling over the data network the device happens to be connected to at the time.

We've seen the market use these expanded capabilities in increasingly creative ways. In Southeast Asia, a real-time ride-hailing app called Grab goes over the top of unreliable local carrier infrastructure, allowing customers to interact directly with the business through voice messages delivered over a Voice API. In turn, this allows the data to travel over a worldwide, low-latency cloud network, adding a greater layer of reliability and service quality and helping overcome the market's unique challenges by proxy.

Of course, there are plenty more business use cases for RTC. In workplaces without a traditional office space, such as restaurants and retailers, RTC can help on-the-go employees, who probably don't have time to respond to a traditional email but can do a quick IM or call from the floor if needed. In other workplaces, real-time messaging within a company app can replace mass-emailing staff organizational announcements, a move Vonage's report indicates could increase employee engagement. Remember, employees are consumers, too, and their preferences don't exist in a commerce-only vacuum.

The Future of RTC

As the Grab example above shows, the impact of RTC can be measured in two varieties: technologies that end users interface with (apps) and technologies that allow those end-user products to do the things they do by enabling communication on the backend (APIs; cloud).

That last point is important because it gives RTC a strong appeal among developers, IT managers, product managers, and entrepreneurs, among others. APIs and their popularity among businesses are one reflection of this trend; so, too, is the rise of unified communications platforms, which enable companies to build RTC directly into existing systems and workflows.

Because of this, it's (again) important not to think of RTC as solely a business- or customer-facing concept. In general, the faster we can share information with someone requesting it, the happier, more productive, and more efficient they'll be. In the workplace, this could mean small differences, such as an employee choosing to use IM instead of email for a quick question, or large ones, such as a company overhauling its contact center's unified communications platform.

It's ultimately up to the individual business to decide how it can benefit from RTC — but the use cases are almost certainly there. How would your organization look with a renewed focus on real time?

Written by Vonage Staff


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