This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions
If the most recent wave to wash over enterprises and contact centers is and has been IP telephony, taking PSTN/TDM-connected PBXs away in the undertow, the next one that is starting to make landfall and in doing so impacting service quality and costs, is unified communications (UC), gradually washing away IP-PBXs.
UC draws its momentum and force from several key sources. It enables improved customer service and retention via presence: the ability to determine availability of and to connect subject matter experts who can readily and directly solve customers’ problems. It makes external and internal collaboration such as via conferencing and IM easier and less expensive by having everyone on a single platform as opposed to installing and supporting multiple applications.
“Yes there has always been ‘unified communications’ in contact centers via multimedia routing and agent state a.k.a. presence via the ACDs that permit agents and supervisors see who is available,” explains Ernie Wallerstein Jr., president, Americas, Zeacom. “What UC does is enable contact centers to easily leverage the rest of the organization for customer service, sales and support.”
The UC wave in contact centers could not land at a better time. Agents are handling increasingly complex calls and contacts from demanding customers; the simpler ones have been managed by IVR and web self-service. Yet it is not viable or cost-effective to train every agent to expertly respond to each issue, even with the help of sophisticated knowledgebases.
“For the most part, contact centers have had the technology to confer with other resources within the contact center using IM-like applications as well as putting callers on hold and conferencing supervisors,” explains George Despinic, global contact center marketing manager of Siemens Enterprise Networks. ”UC allows agents to expand their support network into the rest of the organization.”
The UC ROI
These attributes can generate strong potential ROI. Aspect sliced its costs by nearly $2 million annually by going from the PBX (News - Alert) to UC for its 1,900 employees that are located worldwide at 20 sites including in its contact centers. The totaled gains have come, it says, from conference calling and PBX support savings alone; without even considering productivity benefits such as avoiding call transfers and achieving higher first contact resolution (FCR) rates.
UC-enabled presence saves money by shaving total interaction time, resulting in lower labor costs. That attribute gives UC a unique and powerful business case in contact centers.
“In a contact center every second counts,” points out Eric LeBow, Spanlink (News - Alert) vice president of professional services. “Even if presence saves five seconds per call, you are talking about massive savings.”
Venky Raman, senior product manager at ShoreTel sees another UC benefit: the ability to integrate a mobile workforce into the contact centers that avoids having them being tethered to their desks and enables them to respond quicker to issues. ShoreTel recently acquired Agito Networks (News - Alert), which permits users to communicate on any device–desk, mobile phone or computer, at offices, homes or temporary sites, on cellular and/or Wi-Fi networks. The Agito solution is integrated with ShoreTel’s UC products. It also offers support for other UC and for IP and TDM PBXs.
“The first individuals in the contact centers to really use mobility are the call center supervisors/customer service managers, who are on the move with their smart phones,” Raman points out. “Giving them the ability to easily use their wireless phones for escalations while providing critical call center statistics on the move are extremely important for them in carrying out their tasks.”
The UC ROI and payback will depend on contact centers’ current FCR rates and the percentage of calls where agents require a real-time resources via presence to resolve the contacts, explains Siemens’ Despinic. The requirement to tie in subject matter experts and other informal agents to contact centers varies wildly from company to company, contact center to contact center.
While presence takeup has been slow— Despinic estimates that less than 20 percent of their customers presently use the feature that has been part of the OpenScape Contact Center solution for years—he expects this figure will increase.“I project that more and more of our customers will start using the built-in UC features as contacts coming into the contact center become more complex,” he predicts.
There are issues with UC deployments. TMC blogger Peter Radizeski of RAD-INFO pointed in his Nov.24, 2010 entry, “UC Won’t Last”, that UC is not a one size fits all package. Instead it is a forklift upgrade with many moving parts and scale will be difficult. “UC [is] a concept that you can’t clearly define for the prospect,” says Radizeski. “And in some cases, the vendor cannot deliver on the promise due to business process hurdles that handcuff the solution. Those hurdles can include security measures, regulations, policies, interdepartmental politics, and software integration.”
Employing UC in the contact center poses a major people challenge: obtaining and keeping buy-in by non-contact center employees such as accountants, engineers and product specialists who have not been hired, trained or had their performance evaluated on customer service skills. They often see taking on such calls and contacts as “not my job”.
To manage that issue, Zeacom’s Wallerstein recommends having contact centers agents as customer interfaces. They can transcribe voice or cut-and-paste text questions to available experts via e-mail or IM in language these individuals understand, get answers and then translate them back if need be to customers. UC tools allow the agents to prioritize calls to these expert workers by sending over only those screens that they need, instead of what the agents see, which simplifies their tasks.
“The average chemist will be happy to talk to you about molecular chemistry but may not be great in customer service,” Wallerstein points out.
Silo mentality is another issue amongst too many managers that is holding them back from adopting UC and benefitting from core features such as presence. Firms must tear them down ASAP if they hope to make productivity and profitability gains. They need to engage their resources all throughout their organizations, argues Eric Tamblyn, product marketing vice president for Alcatel-Lucent Genesys solutions. While contact centers will still operate as primary customer relationship hubs, customers will expect the agents to be enabled to solve any level of customer service issue.
“The cost of not integrating UC throughout the enterprise and not allowing contact centers to leverage and extend UC for customer service can be measured in brand dilution, customer experience and service interaction costs,” warns Tamblyn. “Service interaction costs can be measured based on call lengths, first call resolution, revenue per call and customer loyalty. Brand dilution and customer experience costs are difficult to measure but are at the top of most CEOs’ agendas.”
SpanLink’s LeBow thinks that corporate misperception around security and the ability to manage and monitor how agents are using presence applications are restraining firms from adopting UC. Not every department is used to making everyone in an organization into a contact center agent. Getting people used to keeping their presence engine up-to-date so that when an agent connects with them they respond quickly is a challenge. “The benefits are that once you do overcome those challenges you speed up decision making and solve customer problems more quickly—with a better chance of solving it on the first call,” says LeBow. “As more companies are able to demonstrate the value-add, more will adopt the technology.”
ShoreTel’s Raman recommends building a strong ROI tool to prove to customer service managers and CFOs the cost savings and customer experience from UC. The UC solution should be integrated into the contact center applications to show supervisors an integrated view of the agents and experts, thereby showing FCR status: and improvement.
“We have always seen UC as a great application for call/contact centers,” says Raman. “We have a few customers who use the UC feature of presence effectively. We see that this resistance will gradually fade within call centers but it has been challenging thus far.”
“The “M” Wave
Acting like gale force winds on the UC wave is Microsoft’s (News - Alert) introduction and rollout of its Lync 2010 UC server in November 2010. It combines telephony with the presence and collaboration functionality present in the earlier Office Communications Server R2 (OCS) solution. It enables firms to replace their IP-PBXs while permitting by definition out of the box integration with other Microsoft tools firms may have, such as Outlook and Access, and Sharepoint.
Microsoft Lync appears, however, as a complement to contact center-specific routing solutions. Suppliers are following suit by integrating their switches with Lync.
In Aspect’s Unified IP 7 with Lync one of the new features is “Ask an Expert” functionality that leverages knowledge workers to increase first call resolution for customers. There will also be increased opportunities for multichannel collaboration between agents.
The Interactive Intelligence Customer Interaction Center (CIC) and Lync integration will enable both solutions’ users to communicate by phone, or by Lync IM or video call from within a single interface. They will also receive synchronized presence, along with a common company-wide directory that can be viewed from within the CIC desktop client.
“Many voice decisions for corporate America are made via their IT departments and as such Microsoft is immediately a player in the UC marketplace,” says Ernie Wallerstein Jr., president of Americas Zeacom. Today, Lync will very much be part of almost all RFPs and UC conversations. Either the ability to work with Lync today–or insuring that an investment today will allow for a compatible solution with Lync in the future–is going to be imperative to the current market players.”
The Hosted UC Option
Unified communications (UC) solutions are also available hosted as well as via premises licenses. It offer similar lower-capital-outlay and shorter-lead-time benefits and greater affordability and increased business continuity as other hosted products. The UC functionality is tightly integrated with routing, messaging and other features.
BroadSoft is one such hosted supplier. Its hosted UC solutions blends its BroadWorks business telephony and trunking, ACD/contact center, conferencing and messaging features and functionality with integration with Microsoft, IBM (News - Alert) and Google applications with CRM and ERP tools and with mobile devices. There is also built-in video telephony.
“What has in some cases been lacking within the call/contact center is a fuller and more seamless integration of voice with UC services such as unified messaging, conferencing, CRM and other business applications, ACD and video,” says Leslie Ferry, vice president of marketing at BroadSoft. “Through this integration–as well as the mobility enabled by a hosted solution–users can easily transition between different environments (home, office, remote), while organizations can ensure a more consistent customer experience and more effectively management of customer-agent interactions.”
Going to VoIP for UC
To optimize unified communications (UC) investments whether for contact centers and/or enterprisewide, the voice communications that hit the application should be VoIP rather than TDM, carried by SIP trunking. The sooner that TDM circuit-switched calls get converted to voice packets at gateways closest to where inbound calls originate and outbound calls terminate the lower the total communications costs due to unlimited local calls with most carriers’ rate centers.
And while PSTN has long been lauded for impeccable reliability when compared to VoIP, Ben Navon, CEO of Optimized Business, which supplies T1 and VoIP including SIP trunking services, reports that his customers have instead found that VoIP-transporting SIP trunking is more stable as well as less expensive, if structured configured correctly. He says IP bandwidth is increasing and quality of service improving with greater redundancy while the prices are dropping.
Be careful though when selecting SIP offerings, warns Navon. Traditional TDM/PSTN-based carriers, i.e. the phone companies, are moving into SIP markets but are charging for it at close to the same prices with the same high setup rates and long-term commitment requirements as they do for TDM.
“On SIP trunking, there is no difference between InterLATA and IntraLATA costs,” says Navon. “Therefore, the rate per minute should be the same.”
In contrast, many independent SIP carriers such as Optimized Business charge much less on a pay-as-you-go basis with no setup costs while providing excellent built-from-the-ground reliability and quality, with no legacy TDM technology to work around. There are often also no lengthy commitments such as through Optimized Business. Some SIP providers are charging various fees and asking for commitments, Navon points out because their offerings are still better and more competitive than standard T1 voice circuit providers.
“The traditional carriers are getting away with this because right now there is not much awareness of VoIP services,” explains Navon. “Contact centers want to go VoIP but they are unsure of its reliability and whether it is for them, so they go to the ones that have been supplying them with the TDM for VoIP. As soon as they become knowledgeable about the benefits of independent SIP services they will switch over to them.”
The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:
Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi