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August 2009 | Volume 28 / Number 3
Visioning UC in Rough Waters

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By Brendan B. Read,
Senior Contributing Editor


Identifying and tracking trends in this economy is akin to plotting courses in very rough waters. One is so intently focused on keeping afloat while being battered by the currents and winds that it is challenging in determining and keeping a direction that will lead to one ´s destination in smoother seas.


One of the major trends in contact centers is the development and adoption of unified communications (UC). These tools allows experts, or anyone else in the organization, to let others know of their availability and how they like to be contacted: voice, IM, SMS, or e-mail without having to log into an ACD or CTI.


We contacted several UC solutions firms to get their vision on the trends and affecting issues and drivers on applying this technology in the contact centers. These companies, and their owners/shareholders, have a big stake in the success of this technology, and practice. If anyone knows where US is going it is them. We posed several questions on topics including:


  • Top trends and drivers
  • A speedup or slowdown in UC adoption in contact centers resulting from today´s economy?
  • Challenges encountered in UC (including presence): adoption, installation, and applications
  • Directions they see UC application in contact centers going in the future

Aspect (www.aspect.com)
Michael Kropidlowski, Senior Product Marketing Manager


Today, contact centers are being squeezed on several different fronts. They have fewer people to work with and budgets have been slashed, yet they still have to provide a positive customer experience. These are all key drivers in the upcoming trends I see in the UC space:


  1. It looks like the contact center is converging with the enterprise thanks to UC
    Contact center agents can now access the availability of experts within the enterprise according to a presence engine. When an available expert is found, the connection is established according to the preferred media type. The agent can discuss the inquiry with the knowledge worker by phone or IM and if necessary conference in the customer. This whole process can improve first-call resolution and the ultimately enhance the customer experience.
  2. There will also be a major focus on knowledge management in the contact center
    Most employees wouldn´t define themselves as having specific skillsets. They might say they have expertise in a certain area or knowledge of a certain type of function. So, as IT starts to think about UC for knowledge management, some questions emerge: (a) how to define people´s expertise and (b) how to manage that expertise? Companies may identify expertise through self assessments or enterprise search and data mining can be used to scan e-mails, blogs and collaboration tools. Managing the knowledge of experts throughout the enterprise is going to be essential to the ultimate success of every UC deployment.
  3. As companies leverage UC strategies that encompass the contact center, they´ll look to workforce optimization technologies to schedule experts accordingly

One of the contact center´s best practices is to have groups of experts available during particular periods of the day. This pooling of resources enables better service, improves first call resolution and also eases the burden from any one individual to be constantly available to answer all questions.


The same concepts might apply in the enterprise. For example, a solution could track and analyze calls, e-mails or IMs to individuals in a defined group (such as accounts payable), and determine that they tend to receive a barrage of inquiries on Friday at 2 p.m. regarding expense reports. Because people want to get in their reports before the weekend, they tend to call the accounts payable group regarding questions that require additional help from an expert. So if an organization can use technology to predict when these calls are coming in, this makes it easier to schedule experts to ensure they have someone available to take those calls during those key hours.


In today´s volatile economic climate, many companies are looking to streamline processes that will have direct impact on the bottom line, and UC can have a profound impact on these activities such as a simplified contract-to-order process and cutting, even completely eliminating, order rejections. Many organizations can improve these processes and see benefits from a UC strategy with the right guidance, strategy, and executive support. Any company that is looking to increase productivity, lower telephony costs, and streamline communications within a single site, or across a distributed or virtual workforce, or multisite organization, should be looking at unified communications. CIOs and decision makers are seriously evaluating different UC technologies and adoption requirements. Unified communications, when deployed correctly and with the right portfolio of solutions, can result in significant benefits for all types of organizations, from multi-national corporations to single site, small businesses.


Any time new technology capabilities are deployed to the enterprise, especially when they´re communications capabilities, it ´s critical to consider the impact on the overall enterprise architecture and network design. Factors such as managing and improving performance can be a challenge when you´re looking at unified communications. Site survivability and disaster recovery are also critical to consider as you implement a new communications capability throughout the contact center and the enterprise that is based upon software versus traditional hardware technology.


Even third-party contracts for vendors such as telecommunications carriers must be examined. In many cases, even though organizations have contracted for certain amounts of bandwidth, their contracts may actually have specific requirements in there that limit certain kinds of traffic such as voice over IP (VoIP) or video. That is more of the technical side. On a more human side, you really must consider user adoption along the way and bake that into your plan.


By analyzing roles of individuals and the requirements that they have for different communications capabilities, an organization is far more likely to deploy functionality that will be used in the appropriate manner to deliver the benefits throughout the enterprise. By analyzing roles, for example, an executive might have different communication needs and different requirements than say a remote worker who might be a sales person or a contact center agent. Carefully planning out what functionality those individuals need will help ensure a high level of adoption and hence a high degree of benefits realization.


Companies deploying UC need to have solutions tailored toward their specific business processes. In response to this need for targeted contact center capabilities, Aspect has built UC applications for the contact center on a Microsoft.Net web services platform. Each of these unified communications applications bring specific functionality from our platform products, Aspect Unified IP and PerformanceEdge.


For example, Seamless Customer Service enables companies to enhance a customer's experience as that customer moves from self-service through to live-agent assist. And even engage an expert in the enterprise to assist if that's necessary. Also, with Seamless Customer Service, that contact center manager can control the entire customer experience from console, from self-service to live-agent assist in real time. Another example is Streamlined Collections where collections managers, and today, of course, collections managers are very busy. They can segment early stage debtors from later stage and apply with the appropriate treatment with one system.





Interactive Intelligence(www.inin.com)

Brad Herrington, Product Marketing Manager


Initially some of the drivers for UC were the savings of having a consolidated infrastructure, reducing the maintenance and administration costs, as well as the industry migration to a VoIP model. With those advantages being common across all industries as well as offered by many vendors, specific UC applications/enablers are now important earlier in the sales cycle. These include customer feedback, process automation and location-independence.


Companies are realizing that enabling customers to interact with them through phone, e-mail, fax, Web chat, and other media types, while made easier by UC, is also exposing them to the pitfalls of "interaction overload." That is leading them to look for solutions that can not only record and manage what their employees are doing, but proactively survey their customer base to get real world data on how service is being delivered, and in turn being able to quickly act on the data provided.


Process automation is the next phase in the evolution of UC. As companies have embraced a model where the contact center is the front door to the enterprise, using their existing communications infrastructure to effectively manage a business process end-to-end is the logical next step for UC. The act of answering a call, collecting some information and hanging up used to be the only part measured in the contact center. Now, organizations want to track where a process started, who worked on it, and how well it was handled. This is where all parts of the enterprise start to absorb some of the UC features that were once contained only in the contact center.


Location-independence is also on the minds of most organizations wading into the UC pond. Taking many different forms – such as mobility, branch support, and home-based employees its advantages are even greater given the current economic conditions. Deploying UC is enabling an enterprise to keep and attract quality employees in locations within which they don´t have a physical presence. Consolidating operations across multiple locations is made easier with UC where presence of an employee is a core part of the technology.


While the current economy may cause some companies to delay a purchase, the interest level in UC has not slowed, but has maintained the level seen prior to the current economic conditions. Some of the advantages that UC provides, such as handling more interactions with the same or less staff, have always provided a compelling reason to investigate UC products. That factor resonates very strong in today's environment.


Some of the challenges with adopting UC are in the planning process. Years ago you bought a PBX and it served a specific purpose and had a capped set of features. Then you bought an ACD, IVR, voice mail, and so on, each with a specific purpose and a feature limit. With the use of the old technology came old procedures. For example, a customer calls an 800#, the IVR answers, gives "X " options, transfers to the ACD, then delivers to the agent or voice mail. When installing a new UC solution some organizations tend to try and rebuild that procedure in the new system. Why? Because "that´s how we´ve always done it". With UC there needs to be a step back and the question should be asked: "How do you want the process to work?" Most arguments about new procedures are political, not technical.


The integration of business processes and not just the consolidation of communications will allow an enterprise to treat all people and departments as one cohesive unit. Most organizations still see the contact center as an entity that drops off a form with information they gathered for others to handle from that point forward. Occasionally, someone may step back and ask the contact center to perform an additional task such as notifying the client and gathering more information. As they realize the benefits of merging business processes into UC, the contact center will sit at the executive table as an equal, bringing with it the ability to help streamline the way organizations handle long-standing or even new processes.


Toshiba America Information Systems, Telecommunication Systems Division( www.telecom.toshiba.com)
Jon Nelson, Product Marketing Manager


The most common UC application in contact centers is still screen-pops from a CRM application keyed by the caller ID of the caller. This is a continuing phenomenon more than a trend because it was made popular in the 1990´s using basic TAPI CTI integration and is still huge today. The driver is the pure efficiency and time savings the agent gets by immediately knowing who is calling and the superior customer service that results. A UC capability growing in popularity is the agent use of white-boarding and desktop sharing collaboration features that help them explain procedures on a help desk or demonstrate products and concepts in a sales environment.


Another growing trend is the number of remote agents deployed. IP technology enables remote connection with all the capabilities of onsite agents.


We haven´t seen either a speedup or slowdown in UC adoption in contact centers lately. Certainly, current economic conditions have slowed overall sales to contact centers, and all phases of general business, but the adoption of UC applications has been steady. This means UC adoption is gaining overall. We think the reason is that companies have less money, but still have some money to spend on telecommunications technology, but only if it can prove itself to produce a positive ROI.


We have not experienced resistance to presence applications. Presence seems to go hand in hand with IM/Chat capabilities. Agents find it valuable to see if someone is available before bothering to initiate a chat session with them.


Integrating products from other suppliers to our own is always a challenge, but not too difficult to overcome. For example, our Net Phone call control application integrates with CRM applications to provide screen pops to agents, and working with the CRM application suppliers is usually a positive experience.


Security has not been an issue. Our presence capabilities are enclosed within our system, so security is not an issue. Presence client applications span IP networks to connect users wherever they are in various locations, but the IP security is handled the same as any IP communication.


UC applications in the future will enable agents to communicate with customers in more and different ways. We already answer calls, answer e-mails, and IM/chat online. We can collaborate over the network with white-boarding and desktop sharing. We will be constantly challenged to find more effective ways to communicate with our customers.


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