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Giving machines a voice: what’s next for unified communications?

As Mitel closes its acquisition of ShoreTel, creating a new unified communications and collaboration powerhouse, CEO Rich McBee reveals what’s coming next in the sector

Persistence has paid off for Mitel CEO Rich McBee, who recently closed the $350m acquisition of SME unified communications and collaboration (UCC) supplier ShoreTel after almost three years of trying and more than one patient rebuff.

As a graduate of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, McBee started his technology career in the armed services developing satellite communications control systems, before spending nearly two decades at Tektronix, and subsequently its parent Danaher, before joining Mitel in 2011.

After such a lengthy period spent around comms technology, maybe it’s no surprise McBee is rather adept at staying the course.

The acquisition of ShoreTel by midmarket-focused Mitel has created a significant force in the UCC world – catapulting the combined organisation into a market-leading position in a number of geographies, McBee tells Computer Weekly at the firm’s Liverpool Street offices overlooking London’s East End.

But for McBee, this was about more than bringing scale to the sector, or attempting to unseat the likes of Avaya or Cisco, but bringing UCC to bear on the wider processes of digital transformation that are happening across virtually every vertical.

“Digital transformation is really about combining people, information and data to fundamentally change your business model,” he says. “We are using our technology to provide our customers with a way to change and evolve their businesses by connecting people, things and data.”

This already puts the UCC business at the forefront of technology, or so McBee reckons. He has spent the past few years rushing headlong into the cloud to match his customers’ ambitions in that space.

Hosted unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) is (obviously) not a new concept, but what comes next is an area Mitel is trying to get down to a fine art.

“Once you’ve got them in the cloud, the next stage is selling them applications that help them digitally transform their company,” says McBee. “So you start to see things like our secure collaboration products for emergency first responders or connected guest capabilities for the hospitality sector.

“We spend a lot of time now looking at vertical applications, taking a very specific horizontal capability and making it super specific to what an industry cares about – how they want to see their data, how they want to collaborate, even their work environment.

“We see all our customer bases looking for very specific solutions. Take lawyers – many bill in five-minute increments, so what they want on the phone is a button they can push and start the timer, log what number they have called, bill in five-minute increments, and send it to finance to invoice the customer. We have phones that will do that specifically for that vertical.”

IoT a chance to diversify in UCC

Bespoke handsets for the legal profession may have kept Mitel in beer money, but it is the emergence of connected things – or, more usually, the internet of things (IoT) – that is giving the telephony-centric firm an opportunity to diversify its business by, as McBee puts it, “giving machines a voice”.

“Say if you take an IoT sensor and take all the technology we have for IVR [interactive voice response] and contact centres, when that sensor is tripped, now the machine has a voice,” he says. “It can send a text or an email, or even a synthesised voice message, and say, ‘what do you want me to do?’, and that’s just off a very simple sensor.”

Giving things the ability to communicate their needs or questions to their human operators ultimately has the effect of making enterprises more productive by streamlining workflows and driving costs out of the business, says McBee. Put simply, this requires marrying workflow software with communications software, and hosting the result in the cloud.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Mitel has given public access defibrillator paddles (Pads) their own virtual contact centre – or, more accurately, it has used the same software it uses in a regular contact centre to improve the safety and functionality of this critical system for its human users.

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If a Pad is removed from its station, it will now automatically trigger a CCTV camera to see if there is a genuine medical emergency in progress, and feed this footage to the device of the nearest available emergency medical technician so he or she can respond.

“That is skills management, tied together with workflow software and simple sensors, connecting people and things to information,” says McBee.

McBee reckons he has yet to find a use case where the IoT can’t benefit from having a contact centre backing it up. For example, in Paris Mitel may be saving lives, but at one pest control customer in North America, it is taking them away.

When one of its rat traps is triggered, the company’s traps can now literally telephone the closest service technician to come and empty and reset them. For McBee, this neatly demonstrates how a business can improve its customer service metrics using something as simple as an IoT sensor. The pest control company responds more quickly, so is perceived as caring more for the customer, who, in turn, is less likely to churn and more likely to tell a friend or neighbour.

“This speaks to my excitement about the future of the company,” he says. “Communication and collaboration is what we do and I don’t think people today necessarily think about all the things we can collaborate with, because once you’ve put IoT devices in the mix, that’s a huge differentiator, and that’s what we are doing every day.”

Future of the contact centre

McBee adds: “I always say the contact centre is a good indicator of the future because whatever they do, it’s where companies intersect with their customers, and if you have no customers, you have no business.

“The contact centre is usually where order-taking or problem-solving is critical, which is why I think the term omnichannel is really about the contact centre. Innovators are going to innovate there first and then it’s going to flow out into the mainstream.”

The immediacy of this kind of customer-centric world, and the move from reactive to proactive to predictive models of customer engagement, requires further innovation around technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) – which McBee reckons will become a vital component of a UCC deployment relatively soon.

The future contact centre may not even be much of a contact centre at all – at least not in terms of ranks of technical advisers with headsets sitting in a big room. And why should it be, when the system can see your problem emerging and route a solution to you – whether that be a plumber, a paramedic, or perhaps even a lawyer – before you know there is an issue.

This means change for Mitel as well. Gone are the days of selling a PBX, installing it, providing some maintenance services through the channel, and then not interacting with the customer again for the best part of a decade. In the new world, it is in contact with its customers every month when it bills them and, in turn, its customers give Mitel a monthly report card.

“The advantage of that is that we can bring new features out faster,” says McBee. “There is a new sense of urgency, and a lot of transformation has to happen if you want to talk about being truly customer-centric.”

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