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September 1998

Outsourcing Unified Messaging Delivers Best Of Breed Technologies


In the last few years, companies have learned that when they stray from their core competency, they risk becoming unfocused, inefficient and unsteady. That's why outsourcing has boomed: because a company that sells shirts should be expert in the hows and whys of shirts, not call handling, network queuing, traffic management and IP gateways.

Yes, all sorts of technologies now impact on the selling of shirts, or insurance or airline tickets. Fortunately, all or part of a company's call processing and messaging volume can be handled (or at least managed) from outside. Calls can be taken by a teleservices agency, equipped to transparently manage the entire customer transaction, or just a piece, depending on the company's needs and comfort level. Telecom carriers, from the long-distance giants to the baby Bells and down to smaller, regional specialty providers, are taking on an increasing load from corporate America.

Their role is not just to connect the call - it is to manage what happens during that call, make sure it reaches the right destination point, hold it until a call center is ready to handle it, route it to someone's in-box and, if necessary, act on the content of that call. That could mean collecting and delivering e-mail and faxes to a remote operator, translating an e-mail into a voice message or routing an electronic order to a fulfillment center. There are innumerable permutations, many of which flirt with the new technologies of the Internet, IP telephony and e-commerce. From the point of view of the company that sells shirts, being able to offload these messaging components frees them up to explore their own expertise and create new ways to please their customers. But it also introduces more complexity into their business calculus. Just as the relationship between a company and their customers needs constant attention, so does the relationship between a company and its outsourcing partners.

The typical professional can face literally hundreds of messaging inputs in a typical day. Faxes, e-mail, voice messages; on an individual level, dealing with them all requires attention and perseverance. On a companywide basis, controlling the flow of message traffic requires even greater diligence; a breakdown in attention to any of the systems that deliver messages can result in lost sales or disgruntled customers.

Unified messaging, which can be accomplished through either premise systems or, more recently, through network-based carrier service offerings can make managing messages more efficient and certainly less daunting. Outsourcing unified messaging to a service provider can save capital and operating costs while making the service more dependable.

For individual users, network-based unified messaging simplifies retrieving and managing messages by keeping them in one mailbox, and making them accessible from any telephone, fax machine or PC connected to the Internet. For a company, this is a key part of administering disparate call centers as one virtual center.

Increasingly, telecom carriers are acting as outsourcers. They are particularly well suited to this role. For one thing, they are among the most practiced at running call centers and other high-volume messaging applications that require non-stop availability 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For another, whenever they capture an event that would normally happen at the customer premise and place it in the network for processing, they are creating business for themselves as carriers, generating network minutes and using their networks more effectively.

That's not a bad thing. Placing inter-call-center traffic on the network is one of the most efficient things a company can do for its center. Research has shown that when several centers are managed as one (from the point of view of call termination and demand, and agent management), the company as a whole reaps economies of scale that outweigh the cost.

When you implement a network-based messaging solution, you also benefit from the speed with which you get up and running, service providers can provision one, or a hundred, new users the same day. There are no capital costs to speak of, and more often than not, existing technical infrastructure (voice and data networks, as well as existing premise equipment in your call centers) can be seamlessly connected to the telco outsourcer.

Once you're connected, there are no maintenance headaches, no worries about upgrades or being locked into yesterday's technology. It's in the telco's interest to stay as far ahead of the technology curve as possible (to bring down their costs, and ultimately yours). So when you're ready to add something esoteric like speech recognition or Web transaction processing to your front end, you won't have to worry about whether your existing systems tie you down.

And you have limitless scalability - no matter how large you think you might grow, it's a safe bet that you'll be able to get the level of service you want from any service providers since they design for extreme scalability and high reliability.

Outsourcing some or all of these functions may be the best way to implement new technologies and still keep costs under control. Today's full-service outsourcers offer an unprecedented level of local control, combined with a host of services undreamed of just a few years ago, and plenty more on the near horizon.

These are some of the reasons a company might choose to outsource some of the call and messaging traffic:

  • Access To Advanced Technology. Investing in the premise equipment necessary to implement unified messaging is expensive; ratcheting that up to a call-handling enterprise, through one or more call centers, is frightfully expensive. Beyond the basics of servers and the networking infrastructure (which probably already exists) are the costs of constantly upgrading applications and hardware. This is particularly terrifying considering the rate at which technology changes are expected over the next few years in telecommunications.

    When done through a service provider, you are assured of getting the highest current level of technology implementation. Service providers are in a very competitive market where price is not as much a differentiator as the kind of service they offer, reflected in the level of technology they make available to their clients. Some are very specialized, like the burgeoning fax-over-IP service bureau market, while others rely on more traditional, heavy-duty call processing systems and add technologies like Web or e-mail processing to augment those core offerings.
  • Speed And Flexibility. Going outside allows a company to respond quickly to changing market conditions. It can, for example, ramp up a new promotional campaign, confident it will be able to provide a specific measure of service to new and old customers despite a dramatic increase in call volume.

In fact, with the current boom in alternate methods of customer interaction, an outside firm may be the only way to respond to changing customer preferences. A particularly successful promotion that generated increased call flow could easily overload a premise-based system. Absent outsourcing, the overwhelmed company has two choices: either ignore the influx of messages and have calls lost or blocked, or invest in a large-scale ramp up of internal capacity. Neither option is appealing, both are expensive, and avoidable.

As business conditions and needs have changed, so have the kind of things outsourcers are capable of doing. There is much more emphasis on advanced computer-telephony integration technology, for example. Also, they are focused on linking call centers together and linking front-end customer interactions with the back-end data repository of customer information.

Outsourcing has always been seen as an option for companies in a bind: a service provider would get you over a peak, smooth out periods of high call or messaging volume, or maybe help you experiment with a new promotion or new technology. Now, in a more complex telecom and networking environment, outsourcers, and particularly telcos as outsourcers, are providing a much richer palette of enhanced applications that are designed to untangle and make sense the array of technologies available today. There's never been a better time to go outside.

Pamela Thompson is the vice president of marketing at PulsePoint Communications, a leading supplier of unified messaging systems to public carriers. For more than a decade, Thompson has worked with leading infrastructure providers, like Motorola and PulsePoint Communications, helping carriers around the globe plan and deploy their network infrastructure.

PulsePoint Communications is headquartered in Carpinteria, California, with service and support offices in Europe and Asia. The company is ISO 9001 registered.


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