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SIP and the cloud are main targets for contact center upgrades

As companies seek to develop more mature multichannel communication strategies, upgrading contact center infrastructure has become a top concern.

Customers are clamoring for new ways to interact and communicate with companies. As customers now communicate via phone, email, chat, text and social platforms, companies have a new responsibility to meet customer needs wherever they are.

But companies aren't always set up to address the multichannel universe. Companies are often inundated with the volume and various sources of this information and face the challenge of how to connect this data into a seamless view -- even as these channels multiply or as customers mix their communications between channels.

As a result, integrating and upgrading contact center infrastructure has become a top concern for contact center managers, recent research says. According to a Gartner study, cloud may serve as a potential solution, but plenty of contact centers have their infrastructure on-premises. Experts advise assessing goals and gaps before upgrading, whether it's to the cloud or to new technology standards.

Many companies fall particularly short in the area of channel technology, said Pam Plyler, executive practice lead for customer experience and contact center management at the Rosemont, Illinois-based consultancy The Northridge Group. Companies want to provide a seamless experience across various channels -- such as voice, social media and even video -- but their technology often isn't where it needs to be, she said.

In many cases, companies can assess the end-to-end experience from the customer's point of view, starting with the customer's initial entry point of communication and moving through the Web experience to phone calls, emails and chat. The next step is assessing whether the company can deliver that seamless experience and identifying gaps in the infrastructure, Plyler said. For example, that could mean examining transfer rates and customer survey data to find customer pain points, then integrating back-end data so the customer doesn't have to be transferred to another representative.

"Identify where those break points in end-to-end processes are that need to be shored up, and as they're shored up, what the technology solutions [are] to support that enhanced process," she said.

The Northridge Group now sees a big push toward speech analytics and making sense of unstructured data so that companies can understand their customers' needs and proactively respond, Plyler said. "Customer surveys are becoming much less relevant because customers are time-starved. … Using that unstructured data is instrumental," she added.

Start SIPing when upgrading internal infrastructure

If a contact center still runs on time division multiplexing (TDM)-based equipment, all these overlaying technologies mean nothing. "Given that most of these solutions are now [Simple Internet Protocol] SIP-based … investing in another TDM solution doesn't make sense," said Donna Fluss, president of West Orange, New Jersey-based DMG Consulting LLC.

"Everything doesn't have to be SIP-based -- but it should be," Fluss said. The selling point is transport, because SIP is agnostic about what it moves -- whether it's voice or data. For TDM-based contact centers, that means making sure they have the telephony or unified communications infrastructure to support a SIP-based contact center. Additionally, companies moving to SIP need to ensure they have the bandwidth and quality of service, which may require changing carriers, she said.

But while SIP isn't a magic bullet, it allows for presence-enabled phones that can detect a speaker's presence and location, allowing staff to see where their peers are, where their expertise lies and whether the colleague is actually in the office, according to Fluss. "SIP enables all types of other [technologies]. If you're going to be putting in a new core infrastructure, you want to go with SIP," she said.

Don't forget CRM

But SIP isn't the only thing contact centers need to evaluate.

"Enterprises, truthfully, are in desperate need of new CRM applications," Fluss said, noting that 20% to 30% are still using green-screen or mainframe applications. The challenge, however, is that since CRM isn't as trendy as it once was, there hasn't been enough innovation in the software itself. Companies are also gun-shy after failed implementations in the 2000s, she said.

However, a holistic view of the customer is critical, as is moving to a true multichannel contact center instead of contact centers that handle multiple channels. The difference, according to Fluss, is that a true multichannel contact center routes all interactions through one routing engine. "It's another mega-infrastructure challenge that people need to address when thinking about enhancing operating environments," she said.

Consider the cloud for speed

More frequently, companies are viewing technology as what can enable better service, the competitive differentiator, according to David Hadobas, president and CEO of contact center industry organization CCNG International Inc. This has included analytics, hiring and remote workforces, all areas that dovetail neatly with the cloud, he said.

"They're really focusing on workforce management and remote agents," Hadobas said. "The cloud seems to be a consistent theme with them in terms of understanding how they could get there sooner rather than wait for a complete legacy refresh."

Security and culture are two barriers to moving to the cloud, according to Hadobas. "We hear [about security] mostly from organizations, including outsourcers, who have compliance issues," he said. But most of these organizations have strict cell phone policies that forbid employees to use their phones on the job due to the camera -- a compliance issue -- but have not addressed the remote workforce. The security objection appears to come from the compliance side mainly, he added.

As for culture, many organizations believe strongly in keeping legacy systems -- yet a recent study conducted by CCNG and Evolve IP found that 70% of organizations surveyed plan to move from premises-based contact centers to the cloud. "When we start asking, 'Where's the CRM?' … we start seeing a trend toward being more comfortable with confidential company and client data being housed elsewhere," Hadobas said.

Contact centers have options -- upgrading their on-premises systems, moving wholeheartedly into the cloud or choosing a combination of both. However, any upgrade strategy needs mapping to the overall plan for customer care.

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