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Unified communications and the call center: Navigating a fractured vendor landscape

Implementing unified communications within the call center is complicated by the diversity of vendors and integration needs.

Implementing unified communications in the call center means negotiating a young and confusing vendor landscape, according to industry observers.

It also requires clearing a significant internal hurdle.

"You have to remember that call centers are one of the most conservative groups in all of business," said Keith Dawson, senior analyst with San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm. "A lot of time, when there are exciting and beneficial technologies for them to use, they're slow to adopt. The hype, the buzzword has gotten ahead -- not of the technology but of the willingness and readiness of call center managers to do something different."

It's a phenomenon not unique to unified communications, Dawson added. Unified communications qualifies as an exciting and beneficial technology, he said. Yet speech analytics and performance management, other technologies proven to provide real results in the call center, have also seen low adoption rates.

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Unified communications in the call center promises to improve the customer experience by extending the customer service operation beyond the walls of the call center and into the greater enterprise through the use of presence and collaboration tools -- all from one platform. Under the model, when a customer calls with a question beyond the expertise of a call center agent, the agent simply identifies a subject-matter expert from within the organization -- be it an engineer or an accountant -- determines who is available, and then transfers the customer to the person best prepared to answer the question.

Market reports point to the early stages of unified communications adoption

While there has been some adoption of unified communications within service operations, it's still in the early stages, according to industry observers. To date, most of the interest and use of unified communications has taken place outside the call center.

In a Web-based survey of 800 members of Nortel Networks Corp.'s user groups that was published last June, 59% of respondents said enhanced customer service through improved responsiveness was one of the benefits they expected to receive from unified communications. That trailed enhanced workforce productivity through accelerated communications, cited by 74% of respondents, and enhanced workflow productivity, cited by 65%.

Respondents were also asked about the high-priority areas for deploying unified communications. Again, 85% of respondents chose internal collaboration, while just 34% selected customer-facing applications.

In another survey of call centers -- the Global Call Center Benchmarking Report -- issued annually by Dimension Data, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based IT services firm, unified communications trends still ranked below things like service availability, self-service and process optimization. For example, when asked to identify the top-three market trends affecting the call center, 9.7% of respondents said voice and data convergence was the top trend, compared with 28% citing process optimization, and 22.6% citing use of self-service channels.

"Call centers will probably lag in adoption of unified communications, although some of the most important areas are the ability to see the availability of subject-matter experts and bring them into the transaction," said Elizabeth Herrell, vice president and principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "The initial rollout in a lot of corporations is for pilots and special groups testing and evaluating -- knowledge workers, remote employees, groups that have need to collaborate regularly."

Unified communications and the call center vendor landscape

There has been some adoption of unified communications in the call center, particularly with companies that have high-value customers or highly technical products, according to Michael Maoz, vice president and distinguished analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

Organizations that are ready to bring unified communications to the call center are generally turning to their infrastructure providers for answers -- companies such as Nortel, Cisco, Avaya, Genesys, Aspect and Siemens.

"When they're looking for this capability, they're looking to the person supporting their underlying automatic call distribution (ACD) and contract center infrastructure," Herrell said. "We're always [saying that] the next level of unified communications is having it embedded in the application, but I have not seen that come out."

There has, however, been some action by vendors, Maoz noted. SAP and Oracle have both taken a step toward unified communications technology for the call center with their acquisitions of Wicom and Telephony@Work, respectively.

"You see the beginnings," Maoz said. "The vendors are saying, 'How do we bridge this gap?' We know there's a business case, but closing the gap between Cisco and SAP or Cisco and Oracle within product sets is no simple task. The likelihood for the short term is that communications providers will work with business application providers rather than one company own both sides."

That has already happened with Microsoft and Chelmsford, Mass.-based Aspect Software, which in March announced an alliance bringing together Aspect call center technology with Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007.

Yet the market for unified communications technology itself is an immature one, and the call center aspect only makes it harder to peg, particularly when it comes to the complexities in licensing call center software for the broader enterprise.

"Really, the product is still evolving from the vendor perspective," said Paul Stockford, president and chief analyst with Saddletree Research Inc. in Cave City, Ariz. "There are very few products out there ready to go. There are some products out there in beta, but in terms of picking up the phone and saying, 'Bring me a box of unified communications,' it's not widespread in the industry."

Frost & Sullivan's Dawson believes the tools and functionality are there; it's the message that isn't getting out.

"I think unified communications in the call center suffers from a haziness of vision," he said. "It is a robust and demonstrably beneficial set of technologies that has not been adopted as well as it could be because of an uncertainty about its value to the call center."

Yet Dawson sees potential for unified communications to transform the call center software market, if not the call center itself.

"There's been a slowdown in investments in call centers," he said. "There hasn't really been anything exciting in the market in about five years. We've been in sort of a lull. Unified communications may be just what the market needs to get it kick-started and get some interest rolling."

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