The good news is that nearly every sexy technology that has been available to large companies in years past: speech recognition, IP contact center solutions, call recording, analytics, skills-based routing, customer self-help solutions and CRM, is now available to smaller companies. In fact, the marketplace has been paying so much attention to SMBs as of late, these companies may feel they went from a lack of choice just a few years ago to too many choices today.
To help SMBs and their call centers choose wisely, we asked several companies — all experienced providers of contact center solutions to smaller companies — for helpful tips and guidelines that SMBs shopping for technologies and services for their call centers should keep in mind.
Stephen R. Kowarsky, Executive Vice President and Co-founder
When selecting a contact center platform, it is important to ask yourself and your prospective vendors some basic questions to ensure that your investment works for you now and in the future. Here are just a few things to keep in mind:
• Does the product offer a complete, consolidated solution for all of your call center’s needs, so there is no need to buy multiple point solutions from different vendors and integrate them together via CTI middleware and a costly professional services project?
• Does the vendor support all channels — including voice, video, Web chat and e-mail — into the call center in a unified fashion using common business rules?
• Can the solution easily integrate with third-party business applications like CRM?
• How scalable is the technology — can it scale gracefully as your business grows?
• Is the technology location independent and flexible enough to support workers anywhere in your organization, including multiple locations, home workers and even outsourcers?
• Does the solution enable location-independent reporting, supervision and management, regardless of where the agents are?
• Is it a software solution that works on readily-available standard hardware, or does it require expensive proprietary equipment?
• Is the solution available in both hosted and premise-based (CPE) forms?
Tracy Tufillaro, Vice President of Marketing
Choosing a technology provider can be a challenge and a chore. For SMBs shaped by speed, flexibility and customer demand, the selection process offers a focused time-out to assess the capabilities and competitive edge of the firm. Many SMBs use informal methods and low-cost tools to run their business. Others use installed systems that are not keeping up with changes in their business environments. Whether the contact center scenario is greenfield or replacement, SMBs should search for a solution provider that is aligned with their vision, business goals and pace for change.
To find this provider, the SMB needs to develop criteria for selection that balances customer needs, business practices and operational goals. Within this framework, the SMB can identify several options for evaluation and engage in discussions with vendors.
Vendors that offer fast, affordable and easy-to use solutions, in bite-size chunks over time — should be attractive. Through a subscription service, these vendors can provide access to new technology that is updated and refreshed on a regular basis. As the SMB business grows and changes, the aligned contact center solution adapts to the new conditions. What remains constant is a positive customer experience with the SMB.
Ralph Manno, Vice President of North American SMB Sales
SMBs have many of the same communications technology needs as their larger enterprise counterparts, however they typically must meet these needs with a smaller budget and fewer resources. As a result, SMBs should look for communications solutions that are easy to deploy, manage, administer and customize.
Solutions that offer these attributes increasingly come in the form of “all-in-one” suites versus “point” products. These suites reduce cost and complexity by reducing equipment requirements and integration, and eliminating multiple interfaces for administration, customization and reporting. With faster start-up, these solutions also offer faster ROI — a key point of interest for SMBs.
Another important selection criterion for SMBs is the solution’s ability to grow. Solutions that are software-based and built in a modular fashion so applications can be added with simple license purchases protect against costly forklift upgrades in the future.
Due to their price-sensitivity, SMBs should also explore hosted (software-as-a-service or SaaS) and managed options. A key selection criterion for SaaS offerings is their ability to be brought in-house to support growing SMBs without a total application re-write.
Finally, SMBs should look for solutions from vendors that demonstrate responsiveness. SMBs typically can’t compete for attention based on brand recognition, so they must be sure that the vendor they select has a proven track record of accessibility and adaptability regardless the size of the customer.
Chris Harrick, Senior Director, Product Marketing
The rise of the Internet as a channel for evaluating and purchasing software, coupled with a shaky economy, gives contact center buyers in small to medium-sized organizations more negotiating power when it comes to purchasing new software.
Following are a few hints for making a smart selection:
Pricing. The Internet has made software pricing more transparent. With competitive solutions a Web page away and the rise of subscription pricing for enterprise software, companies are increasingly becoming more open about the price of their solutions. Ask your prospective vendor their prices and if the software can be offered under a subscription. A warning flag should come up if the answer to either question is no.
Trial. Many customers got burned during the Internet bubble, purchasing expensive software on a handshake and watching the solution fail to deliver on promises. Demand the ability to see and try the software before you purchase to ensure it meets your use case. If the vendor is reluctant, it most likely means bigger problems for the actual implementation.
Open. The Internet works because it is open and interoperable. This same concept is increasingly being demanded by customers of enterprise software. Is the software a proprietary blackbox or can it be extended to fit specific-use cases and integrated with other technologies? Ask vendors if you can see and modify the source code. A “yes” answer will mean more control over your implementation. A “no” answer means you will most likely be locked into the vendors solution and roadmap. If the answer is the latter, keep looking.
Robert Kapela, President
In searching for the right solutions for your business needs, it is imperative that you find vendors that are willing to partner with you — offering your business the opportunity to evolve. Options like software-as-a service (SaaS) or subscription-based licensing allow you the flexibility to “pay as you grow,” or remove licenses with the seasonality of your business.
Business relationships, especially customer references, are important in assessing the health of your technology partners. Are customers reluctant to speak on the vendor’s behalf? Did any of the customers experience the same business pains as you? Does your vendor have intimate knowledge of your environment and needs?
Your technology partners should be equipped to support you through flexible technical support options that fit with your critical operating hours. In addition, your telephony vendors should have a strong network of reputable resellers and partners. Products that interoperate with other solutions should be certified, and should have a formal business partnership so that you can leverage their technology and relationships to receive the best solutions available.
Partnering with technology vendors who have a strong reputation, great working relationships and flexible pricing and support options will give you a leg-up on your competition and set you up for success.
Peter Bailey, Senior Vice President Business Development and Product Management
The myth about call center technology is that it is a tool for a large dedicated call center organization. Today’s integrated IP communications systems enable SMBs to affordably embrace contact center technologies within their organizations. Any customer service, AR, AP or other customer-facing professional should have access to the full power of call center capabilities such as skills-based routing, call recording and coach/monitor/join to be more efficient and productive.
When looking at phone system options, look for solutions that offer integrated ad hoc call center seats that can be deployed on a targeted basis very affordably within the organization. Today’s integrated IP telephony solutions offer a host of powerful contact center features that can be acquired and deployed inexpensively:
Built-in technology. Does the application function as a built-in application within the phone system or is it a separate piece of hardware requiring “integration”? An all-in-one solution can reduce the headaches associated with managing multiple pieces of equipment.
Robust GUI /queue monitor. Check for ease of use and integration of the user interface. Does the user interface work and act like the interface for non-contact center agents? Does it display call queues, caller wait times, agents logged in, etc.? Does it allow the supervisor to add agents on an ad hoc basis?
Integrated call recording. This is a must-have for every company! Call recording should allow SMBs to record any way desired — all calls, calls to a specific agent, every nth call, etc. Mechanisms for searching and retrieving recordings should be fast and easy.
Reporting. Any solution purchased should include integrated reporting for tracking productivity and workforce data.
Teleworker agent solutions. Today’s IP technology should enable workers to log into queues from home or the road — providing maximum flexibility.
Skills-based routing. The ability to set up different queues for organizational experts so calls are directed to the appropriate agent/employee faster should be present.