In-depth: The unified comms opportunity in the call centre part I

MicroScope recently hosted a round table debate concerning how the channel can profit from unified communications. Avaya and its channel partners discussed the potential impact of unified communications on the contact centre.

MicroScope recently hosted a round table debate concerning how the channel can profit from unified communications. Avaya and its channel partners discussed the potential impact of unified communications on the contact centre.

Who's who at the round table

  • Chris Barrow EMEA product marketing manager at Avaya
  • Gene Reynolds Senior consultant at Corporate Communications
  • Adam Faulkner Founding director at Sabio
  • Tony Corlett Product development director at Azzurri
  • Tony Parish Co-founder and MD at G3
  • Dave Glasgow Sales director at IP integration
  • Russell Attwood CEO at CCT
  • Dave du Toit Chief technical officer at Datapoint
  • Dan Harding Avaya Solutions Architect at Dimension Data
  • John Howard EMEA enterprise channel director at Avaya
  • Gordon Loader EMEA senior manager for solutions marketing at Avaya

Q. What does unified communications mean? There is a lot of confusion around the definition so what are the key attributes to the solution?

Chris Barrow: I usually start with saying what it's not and it is not a technology. As soon as you start applying the technology label to UC then people get instantly scared and start seeing dollar signs in front of their eyes. It is about new and smarter ways of communicating you can either build in manually or automatically into a business process to speed that business process.

Gene Reynolds: It is a concept where it leverages the user's choice of communicating at the time they need to communicate and the medium they want to use. It translates into the preferred method of communication for the customer in a very effective and productive way.

Adam Faulkner: Customers are referring to it as the whole UC layer that underpins a whole series of applications. Historically I may have considered UC as to be number of different things to do with messaging, conferencing and mobility but I am now seeing it viewed as a much broader topic, which is the whole converged layer with applications that sit on top of that.

Tony Corlett: It is the next natural phase of convergence where the communications infrastructure is being converged with business applications. Secondly, it is taking selectively elements of the communications applications and turning them into communication tools for the business.

Tony Parish: I see it as an aggregation of messaging, mobility and presence You can see the benefits of that in improved communications round the office and how that translates with the way people want to communicate with contact centres and how those agents will become more effective.

Dave Glasgow: It is an umbrella term for a host of applications and components that drive efficiency through ease of communication. It is a wonderful opportunity for system integrators with software expertise and skills.

Russell Attwood: I can understand why so many people are confused. UC within contact centres has been around for quite sometime unifying e-mail, voice interaction to create a UC experience. But actually it is a broader framework, involving business process and connectivity outside of the contact centre itself.

Dave du Toit: I see UC as the CRM of communications. CRM had a confusing start in the market when it was blanketed to cover everything. To me, I see UC as the communications equivalent of CRM in the market today. There is still confusion, but over time it will crystallise into core areas within the market.

Dan Harding: A catch-all term for a whole suite of products, vendors and solutions that is about enveloping the communication process, making efficient communication between the front office and the back office. How you tee it up for the customer so they understand it in one sentence is the tricky part, but that's what we all get paid to do.

John Howard: It is about better communications and, from an end-user, it is about how they want to communicate to give their customers the best quality of service. UC allows the users to tailor how they go out to their customers and manage not only internal collaboration but how customers come into their business.

Gordon Loader: We are moving from the world of the past with stovepipe solutions, the telephone and e-mail all working in their independent way. Now we have reached a point where we can't manage these individual stovepipe applications anymore and need a framework to help us use these communications tools more productively. The unified communications layer where we can achieve these things rather than the phone controls voice and the e-mail client controls e-mail. That's the world we are building.

CB: We have talked about this umbrella term but still spoken about the applications like silos, but it is about the ability to begin on one form of communication, moving seamlessly to another as the situation dictates rather than having to start on another client or application. It is about bringing together communication and the portability of communication and the way that you want to communicate at that moment in time in a mode that suits your situation.

JH: If the channel can grasp the business benefits to their customers then there is a huge opportunity, even in this market, which is all about reductions in cost and headcount consolidation. In this market people will go to better brands and buy better quality products and the opportunity for the channel to go back to those customers they have sold WANs and LANs, and talk at a business level how they can help at this time, is pretty immense.

Q. Some resellers might continue to sell on the basis of applications: how easy is it to focus on the business processes pitch?

JH: If you go back around IPT and contact centres, we have been doing this for years and our channel has sold some of the largest contact centres in the UK. Now it's about taking the UC piece and integrating it into the call centre. Our channel has an advantage and there is a general opportunity for the channel, if they can make quite small investments in training and developing sales people. This is a totally different skill because you have to sell something that is not always tangible and does not have a SKU number. It is also not always the IT manager you are selling to.

GR: That's right. These people are the strategy managers and the business directors who have a much wider view across the whole business. They are looking at what their competitors are doing and at the same time trying to get more communication among themselves in the business. Where to sell this is not the IT people, this is a much higher-end, business sale.

TC: I have always considered comms as sophisticated plumbing because that's how boards view it. If there is a choice at a board level between investing £1m in infrastructure or a new ERP system then there is no contest. What UC has the potential to do is raise the game for us and put it on a par with mission-critical business applications.

RA: There is a danger in confusing the back office and the front office. There is a danger today that in deploying UC, the practical ability to deploy UC within a contact centre is about providing a consistent customer experience, whether they are calling a contact centre or engaging with an organisation through web chat. To us, who have been doing this for years, we wouldn't call that UC, we would call it old-school multi-channel

TC: The debate about UC and contact centres has been brought in by a rival vendor that thinks that one way to push its own products in the contact centre is by changing the rules of the game.

TP: There is a huge skills gap and a lot of people out there are still coming to terms with convergence. There are a lot of partners out there struggling with LANs, let alone UC and applications and tying things into a unified directory.

JH: The interesting thing is our customers want us to be there because they can feel and taste it, because of all the information that's coming to them.
We have to articulate that in to an ROI model and a productivity model. Their customers are ageing and younger people want to communicate differently - text, voice, e-mail and video - and if you can't interact with your end-users desired ways of communicating, you are not going to keep those customers.

TC: The bright young things coming out of university are choosing where to go based on the technology the firms are using. That is part of the generation Y that lives and breathes the instant world of technology and gratification. When they hit the workforce they are going to demand it and not go back to using ageing technology.

DdT: We could see the trend already happening and the generation coming through will insist on having this capability in their business community, but the recession is going to play a big role in the speed of adoption for this technology in the future. This is going to put a big onus on us promoting the business benefits, which is not a trivial task, to get UC benefits out there.

TP: A lot of business owners that we are trying to sell to see these as soft fluffy benefits and not ones that are tangible.

GL: One of the things we can help partners with when they skill up is explain that we are not doing anything that we have not been doing for years. The agent state is presence and with skills and roles built in. If they are already implementing call centres for people, then they already have a lot of knowledge and it's about taking the concepts and bringing them into the world of wider communications.

AF: The problem for us selling into contact centres is that a lot of corporates are looking at UC first as a strategy and then looking at the contact centre. Historically they would have brought a call centre and something for the back office, but those lines have blurred and that makes a challenge for us.

DH: Effectively UC is your infrastructure.

Q. From a reseller perspective who do you start the conversation with?

AF: You have to be in with IT because those are the people driving the decision and, as the owner of the decisions, you have to include them, particularly in recessionary times.

DdT: Lets take one good example, which is conferencing. Travel is one of the biggest costs for companies in the world today and companies are looking at cutting costs. Notwithstanding this drive, what level of penetration and influence does conferencing have in the market today? Why are IT managers not mandating down that people have to have a conferencing strategy in the next quarter? Those are the types of things that should be happening in the market that will drive benefit.

TP: It is a culture thing. The financial director can tell you that you can cut travel but unless the line manager says that, by using presence, you can make efficiencies (because when someone calls in you can get the issue resolved in one call) but until you engender that habit in your employees, it won't happen and people don't see the benefits.

GR: It is also about the companies you interact with and what their preferences are, because if it is their preference to get on a plane and if it mismatches with the way you do business, you have to get on a plane.

DdT: It remains a balance where face to face meetings are required for certain discussions, but most internally focused meetings could be performed across some sort of conferencing system. I am not convinced that the level of penetration is where it should be.

DH: VC is tarred with its previous incarnation of ISDN with jerky pictures and delayed sound but if you look at what you can do over the LAN and the WAN it is better than it has been, even from two years ago.

TC: We are seeing VC being driven by boards trying to get green credentials. It is generally not to save money but it's a green agenda that's pushing it.

Q. Some of the analysts have said that UC will benefit from the recession but from the sound of it that is not happening on the ground. Isn't that disturbing?

AF: What is the front office, back office or middle office? There is a lot of blurring between these environments and the requirements for these users. A lot of the benefits associated with the use of UC have been realised in the contact centre for a long time.

For example, agents have always had to log in and therefore we know their status. Presence for expert workers is important and can help with first call resolution, but it is a small example.

DH: if you bring someone into a call on an IM session you can track that information so you have an audit trail if there is an argument downstream. Embedding that in the data you are recording and measuring is probably the key thing with UC going forward.

TC: An example of where I could see it working in a contact centre is where specialist knowledge is required. Take a financial services contact centre where they need to refer to an underwriter, presence would let the agent know if the underwriter was available.

DdT: I liked the original Avaya definition that classifies it as enterprise enablement. Things are changing and the market analysts are debating what the definition will be. We are currently staying with the original Avaya definition which was mobility, conferencing, modular messaging and collaboration tools. This will complement the contact centre applications that have been around for many years.

GL: Do you think we are falling into a trap of looking at this new technology and new way of doing things and trying to force it into an existing business model and not being able to do it when we should be looking at establishing different business models?

TP: The analysts say that UC is going to be big and they know what they are talking about but it takes two or three years between what they say is going to be big and when it happens because it takes that long to educate the user.

GR: In a call centre things are micro managed down to the minute whereas in the business it is not.

CB: The call centre manager has spent years being in charge of the interaction of the customer and you have to convince him that he will still be in control and the quality of that call will not be lost if the call extends beyond the call centre.

GL: I am thinking of alternative business models. We have a customer that uses UC to drive their whole customer contact. They had a call centre that drove calls out to home-based agents. Now they say each franchisee has their own number for people to contact them on but they use UC to build a team, so people know who is there and they have used it to build a new model of customer service.

Q. That sounds like it might be the opportunity?

RA: I am quite happy for people to analyse the opportunities that exist in the contact centre with UC, for me the greater opportunity is workforce optimisation, doing more with less to focus agents on more proactive and profitable lines of business. This is where the opportunity exists to win business, if you can just get your head round that.

TC: You can take 40% of low-cost transactions into a self-service environment, and that frees up resources in the contact centre to make them efficient. You don't have to deploy expensive and cutting edge presence technology to do that.

RA: The concept of UC sounds hugely complicated to try to win the hearts and minds of the business. Meanwhile, in the 40% example that Tony gave, if you have a contact centre with 1,000 agents and you can redirect 40% of those calls to a self-service application, that is a cost reduction of 400 FTE at an average cost of £20,000 a year. You will get a return on investment on that solution in a matter of months.

DG: There is an ROI that you can attach to those technologies. Go back ten years and everyone was interested in VoIP but not many people were adopting it. There is a danger we will spend a lot of time educating people about it but the way they will buy it is if there is an ROI attached to it.

TP: It is going to be massive and it will go across all call centres and across the back office. We use it and it has definitely improved communication. There are the early adopters now but it will become more accepted.

RA: For some time, in the contact centre, we have been trying to sell the principle and concept of remote agents. We know we can record all calls that a remote agent makes and see every keystroke they take and the cursor moving across the screen. We know what they are doing, yet we have still found it a challenge to sell the concept of home working to a call centre manager.

If the definition of UC within the contact centre is to be believed and we are genuinely talking about handing off responsibility for calls to the front office and the back office, if contact centre managers don't like the idea of agents taking calls at home, how are they going to support calls being handed off outside the contact centre?

AF: The amount of home working will definitely get bigger but a lot of the benefits of UC are about mobility and a mobile workforce. Call centre agents are not mobile and stay at their desks even if working from home.

DdT: The benefits are in the enterprise, particularly productivity benefits.

DH: When you try to bring people from outside the call centre, the managers are obsessed with quality. They bring in someone from the outside who might know the answers, but their customer skills are awful so the customer satisfaction is impacted. It is also about encouraging the call centre managers to let go of that.

TC: With the recession there will be some places that make some brave decisions of reducing agents and using UC to fill that gap using presence technology to automate that technology. But it will be a brave decision.

DH: Everyone can see the benefits of what it does but you can't put a number on it and it is seen as a soft skill.

Read part II of the discussion.

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