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There is a level of excitement in the call center space I haven’t witnessed since VoIP began transforming the call center into the contact center. Over the years, we have seen technology after technology change the way contact centers work, and we are at the point today where IP communications affords us the opportunity to distribute call centers and agents at will.

But VoIP seems so yesterday. The latest revolution to come to contact centers is unified communications. I recently wrote about how Aspect introduced a unified communications platform that will allow call centers to increase service, sales and first call resolution levels. (See www.tmcnet.com/1853.1)

Just a few days after my article appeared, Microsoft decided to invest in Aspect and, moreover, the two companies decided it made sense to collaborate on a suite of contact center solutions integrating the best of Microsoft OCS and Aspect’s UC solutions. (See www.tmcnet.com/1854.1)

In an interview with Mike Sheridan, SVP of Strategy for Aspect, and Microsoft’s Clint Patterson, Director of PR for Unified Communications, I had a chance to learn more about this agreement between the operating system and contact center software leaders. The duo believe that the synergies afforded by this collaboration will be great. They view it as transformational — they see peoples’ lives improving because of better call center service levels.


While on the surface it is easy to dismiss such comments as “PR speak,” one of the most frustrating experiences many of us deal with on a regular basis is communication with rock-bottom contact center agents who are still digging. An improvement of even a few percentage points in customer service quality will likely make our lives a bit easier.

The two companies have entered a five-year agreement that encompasses a collaborative roadmap between Aspect Unified IP and OCS. Microsoft will help improve the UC readiness of Aspect solutions and, in addition, will support sales and systems integration efforts, which will include an SI practice whose goal it will be to ensure end-to-end UC for contact centers. There are also significant go-to-market initiatives as part of this agreement such as PR, marketing and distribution of customer success stories.

I asked Clint Patterson how this agreement differs from the relationship with Nortel. One of the first differences is that Nortel did not receive an equity investment. In addition, Patterson was quick to point out that the agreement with Nortel is much more broad, while Aspect’s partnership is laser-focused on the contact center.

I naturally was curious about how the TellMe acquisition (see www.tmcnet.com/1855.1) fits into this overall Aspect relationship, and Patterson explained that there are great synergies between the hosted speech services company and Aspects’ solutions. It will be great to see what comes of such collaboration.

Some of our discussion focused on CEBP (communication enhanced/enabled business processes) and how call centers seem to be ideally suited to such integration. In addition, Sheridan was quick to point out the synergies between presence in the contact center and the rest of an organization.

Our conversation quickly led to the fact that some call center managers complain that IM is actually a distraction and presence-enabled solutions such as skills-based presence and collaboration help make contact center agents more productive.
Over the next few years, we can expect closer ties between the companies’ products, and by 2010, we can look forward to Aspect solutions that fully leverage the OCS voice media server, which allows the full conferencing and communications facilities of this server to come into play So is Microsoft’s commitment to the contact center for real? According to Patterson, “The power of UC is most demonstrably and tangibly felt in the contact center. It’s one of those places where UC is a no-brainer.” I guess we settled that question.

For me, this agreement brings back memories of watching the new Aspect get built with some of the best technology the contact center market had to offer. Companies like PakNetX, CellIT, Melita and Rockwell Electronic Commerce are all part of the new Aspect Software, and now the company has reached a level in the market where they have become a strategic partner to Microsoft.

I have to commend the Aspect management team for getting the company to this point and, moreover, Microsoft deserves a great deal of credit for making an investment and by doing so developing a great relationship with the premiere call center company in the market.

The installed base of Aspect customers is so vast that this agreement should pay back both companies for many years to come. Of course, this news puts competitive pressure on Cisco, Avaya and Nortel. Aspect has forged a relationship that gives the company as much clout as Cisco, and it also has a suite of software solutions that are more elaborate than those of most of the major enterprise communications companies.

It will be interesting to see what other alliances are developed in the market as a result of this one.
If you are in the contact center business and you thought you were done upgrading the technology in your center, guess again. It is now time to get back in the game and start figuring out new ways to delight your customers, and improve sales and service levels.

One final and important point is that Aspect just may be using Microsoft’s telephony solutions in a few years. If Microsoft’s solutions are good enough for contact centers, they are likely good enough for any enterprise application. This may not be great news, however, for some of the PBX players in the market.

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