Breaking down the barriers between contact centres and the business

Gary Blough, executive vice president for worldwide sales, and Rachel Wentink, senior director of product management, spoke to TechTarget in late April.

Scalability is on Gary Blough's mind, with Interactive Intelligence seeking to target larger users than its traditional base. "We used to target the small to medium implementation, and we till do that, but we have been able to scale up. That means focussing on reliability, on expanding the capabilities of the product, and adding things like workforce automation and screen recording that larger users need."

The SME market was Interactive Intelligence's genesis, Blough said, but the company now hopes to perform the high-wire trick of moving upscale without losing touch with its original customer base.

This will be important in countries like Australia, where smaller environments hugely outnumber the large businesses.

"In 2007-2008 Australia was one of our largest growing foreign markets in the world. we do have installations in larger environments such as Sensis and ComputerShare. In Australia, ComputerShare has around 1,100 IP telephony users and 340 call centre agents on our software.

"And there's Charles Sturt University - they have implemented Interactive Intelligence not for the contact centre but for the IP telephony, with 5,000 users now, expected to grow to about 7,500 users."

However, Blough said, the smaller environments remain important. "We have worked a lot in 20 to 50 agent environments, and we also have success targeting local councils."

Although Blough says that "92% of the contact centres in the world are under 100 agents", the work done since the early part of the decade to enhance the scalability of the company's systems will have its payoff with companies looking to tighten their belts.

With a number of the "big iron" telecommunications systems companies suffering in the downturn, Blough said companies are more willing to consider alternative platforms - not only in contact centres, but across the whole IP telephony environment.

"Both from an end user perspective, as well as in the appeal to our partners, we're gaining both recognition and sales," he said.

"A downturn economy always sorts out some of the less stable companies that are not as well financed or funded. There are a lot of companies who have been trying to flood the market with low-priced product."

While this is to some degree a threat, he said that Interactive Intelligence's long record of profitable growth since it was first floated in 1999 means "we're well positioned to take advantage of this market." Blough cited the company's ability to maintain growth of 12% last year, when the downturn was beginning to bite, following growth around 35% in the two previous years.

"When the upturn comes, the companies that have been able to weather the storm will be the ones able to take advantage of it." 

There is, however, another challenge that all IP telephony systems have to address: the growing popularity of the high-profile open source Asterisk project.

"We do see a fair bit of Asterisk around," he said. Even some of Interactive Intelligence 's bigger customers had looked at it, but so far decided not to switch.

In addressing whether Asterisk poses a threat, Interactive Intelligence believes usability will be the battleground.

Asterisk can be imposing, both in its learning curve and its longer-term admin load, and this provides the opportunity to position the advantage of the commercial product.

Users often find that the open source system demands a lot of intervention from consultants supporting the product - "Any time I need something done, I need to pay for a consultant."

To build and maintain a usability advantage over systems like Asterisk has seen a strong focus on building a single, simple, Windows-based user interface for Interactive Intelligence, Blough said.

"One of our customers, Visy, had one of their IT administrators take two weeks' training on the product. With that, they can now set up users, set up new queues, and remake the IVR, without having to spend weeks on hard coding.

"We have worked hard to make it easy for the customer to take in-house control of the environment." 

According to Rachel Wentink, the greatest emerging trend Interactive Intelligence sees in its products is an accelerating adoption of SIP, the Session Initiation Protocol.

"The industry is moving very strongly towards SIP, and we have had an all-SIP contact centre and all-SIP IP PABX for some time," she said.

She emphasised that the company also avoids one of the greatest pitfalls of SIP - the temptation to depart from the standard and add proprietary extensions in its implementation.

The roadshow that brought the Interactive Intelligence luminaries to Australia was also designed to showcase the company's current and coming enhancements to business process automation.

It's based on a unification of the process design and the communications systems, and Wenkel believes this will enable new ways of creating processes.

"The idea behind communication-based business process automation, on a single platform, is that you will have the ability to model the business process in a graphical environment, build the different steps of the process, including what information you might want to store and retrieve in the process.

"Them using the contact centre technology, you can stage the process, view all the various work tasks that might occur, decide who is the most skilled person, and assign the calls appropriately.

"Then you could work on how long tasks are taking, and get visibility into how the process is running. You can see the costs, and drive down the delays that cost money for an organisation."

Ultimately, Wenkel said, the aim is to break down what can be seen as an artificial division between the organisation and its contact centres. "The contact centre technology can apply throughout an organisation - to see what's happening in all of the steps in a process, what is going on at any point, reply to a customer, work out how much longer a given process might take.

"All of these provide better customer service," she said.

And, of course, there's a collateral benefit to Interactive Intelligence. In today's typical customer environment, a customer may have many more IP telephony users than contact centre seats; to provide an environment that unifies the two sides of the customer's operations would also expand the company's penetration into its customers.

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