SMBs are Call Centers Too

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director  |  March 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

There are two approaches to the small and mid-sized business (SMB) market – treat it as a unique market or as a downsized enterprise. It’s a dilemma that many telephony vendors have struggled with over the years and, while some have succeeded, many have failed to make a significant impact on the market.

The call center market mirrors this scenario. In fact, the SMB is perhaps even more at a disadvantage when it comes to call center technology than with other communications solutions, because many vendors overlook them entirely, ignoring the thoughts of TMC (News - Alert) Founder and Chairman Nadji Tehrani: Every company is a call center, no matter how small.

I had a chance to talk to a call center technology vendor founded on this very principle. In fact, my conversation with Jim Southwell, general manager at Infratel, started off by discussing the need for SMBs to have access to their own set of call center technologies that offer cost effective alternatives to enterprise products without sacrificing feature richness or sacrificing the latest market trends.

In fact, Infratel has taken to heart an idea that some vendors have, to their detriment, overlooked: The SMB market is unique and is difficult to serve simply by downsizing a large enterprise product. In fact, that very fundamental is what prompted a group of former Genesys (News - Alert) employees to launch Infratel back in 1999, understanding that, while SMBs need many of the same capabilities as large enterprises, they have neither the budgets nor the personnel to manage and maintain the same systems.

Enter Infratel with its software-based call center that runs on a standard Windows server, eliminating the need for additional infrastructure while providing all the functionality most SMBs require. In addition, while it integrates easily with existing PBXs, for those that require it, Infratel includes an integrated IP PBX, further simplifying the communications infrastructure. Southwell says about a third of its customers leverage Infradapt’s (News - Alert) PBX.

Taking it a step further (and line with one of the hottest trends in technology), Southwell noted that Infratel is also working with Parallels and its Automation product to deliver a full turnkey cloud-based call center for the SMB, further driving down costs and management requirements.

“The cloud is exciting and it’s going to be a factor,” he says. “It’s a good alternative for SMBs so they don’t have to bear the burden of infrastructure.”

We are still in the very early adopter stage – “brave and pioneering,” Southwell calls them. But, he is also confident they are headed in the right direction and, in the next two to three years, cloud will have become standard practice.

Birger Steen, Parallels CEO, agrees the cloud model is appealing to SMBs, but suggests the market is further along, already emerging as a mainstream strategy as a driving force behind the growth of the cloud industry.

“Why should you buy infrastructure, if you can have someone else do it?” Southwell asks.

When it comes to saving on calling costs, nothing beats free. Just look at the growth of Skype over the years – as of Q4 2010, it boasted 663 million user accounts (more than Facebook).

While SMBs are always seeking new ways to reduce costs, their customers are likely just as keen on reducing recurring costs. To that end, Infratel has initiated the certification process for its platform with Skype, which will allow its customers to leverage Skype as another inbound trunk.

Southwell firmly believes the SMB market recognizes the value of connecting via Skype, thanks to its ease of use in addition to the cost savings. Still, he doesn’t necessarily see it as a major game changer, though says it is worth doing, considering the minimal cost and effort involved.

Initially, he may be right. But, as LTE (News - Alert) networks continue to be built out and as VoIP over 4G becomes prevalent, he may find the integration of Skype calling a competitive advantage.

And as for social media, Infratel has its sights set on being able to route social media request as routine work items, with a longer term vision of routing via sentiment. He agrees, though, that social media integration is still a work in progress, as most businesses are not yet sure of exactly what role social media interaction should play.

What he does believe is that it is only a matter of time before SMBs – along with the rest of the business world – will have figured it out and will be looking for technologies that will make social media just another contact.

“It’s not unlike chat and multichannel – how long did it take for those to be adopted by call centers?” he notes. “We’re in that space where it’s still unfolding and, in the next 24 months, we’re going to see something meaningful come of it.”

Much of what Infratel is doing isn’t necessarily unique – it is seeking for the best ways to solve the problems its customers face in their daily business operations. What it is doing, though, is looking at if from the perspective of a customer base that doesn’t always get the targeted attention it deserves.

By designing its call center solution specifically for the SMB – and with its fingers on the pulse of that market – Infratel will be able to deliver innovation, incorporating the latest trends and demands, with the simplicity and price point that is within the means of even the smallest businesses, which need to provide at least the same levels of customer service as their larger competitors – if not higher, just to remain competitive.

Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Group Editorial Director of TMC, which brings news and compelling feature articles, podcasts, and videos to 2,000,000 visitors each month. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi