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Siebel dominates call center, but not without help

Experts: Siebel owes call center success, in part, to other vendors.

When you ask CRM analysts who the top provider of call center support software is today, they unwaveringly point to Siebel Systems Inc. Pushed a little further, these same experts begin to paint a different picture, wherein Siebel is the industry leader in many ways -- but not without underlying support from other applications vendors.

Ever since San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel snapped up call center specialist Scopus Technology Inc. in 1998, the enterprise software vendor has grown its presence as a top provider of integrated enterprise business applications. Offering the ability to blend data from many elements of a company's business and deliver this information to sales and customer service representatives helped Siebel create the genre of customer relationship management in the first place. To this day, the vendor's Siebel Call Center 7.5 is widely recognized as the top-selling applications package in the massive sector.

Siebel retains a laundry list of high-profile enterprise customers in the call center space, including Cigna Corp., Dow Chemical Co., IBM Corp. and Gateway Inc. The vendor has created a reputation for delivering complex functionality in lucrative vertical markets such as financial services, where it caters to users such as Charles Schwab Corp. and FleetBoston Financial Corp.

Industry analysts such as Steve Bonadio, senior program director at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group, praise the company for the breadth of its applications.

"When you look at everything [Siebel] can give a company, in terms of supporting agents in a call center for managing cases and incidents, handling trouble tickets and escalation procedures, or delivering on the multi-channel demands, they really do a good job," Bonadio said.

Experts such as Eric Schmitt, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., laud the firm's ability to integrate with telephony hardware in large, dispersed call centers. Schmitt also credits Siebel for delivering innovative tools, such as automated pop-up screens that offer detailed customer information to representatives working in call centers.

Yet some industry watchers feel it is too simplistic to label Siebel as the only true force in enterprise call center technology today. According to Michael Maoz, a vice president and research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., there are a number of products that users depend on to support shortcomings in Siebel's enterprise offering.

"If you look at a customer like Schwab, Siebel's applications are responsible for getting information such as leads out of the system," Maoz said. "This is just a piece of functionality; they don't control the desktop record."

Maoz said Schwab uses its own proprietary applications to handle call center workflow functions, such as interaction management. According to the expert, many Siebel customers in the insurance and credit card industries use software made by vendors like Pegasystems Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., to handle the "heavy lifting" necessary for their transactional backbone processes. Other companies in the space include Chordiant Software Inc., S1 Corp. and WebTone Technologies Inc.

"Siebel rides on top of these applications, providing the customer interaction process," Maoz said. "But underneath, where the real transactional work is being done, especially in banking and insurance, it's these other vendors that are syncing up with back-end systems."

Maoz believes Siebel is working hard to move down from its role as a high-level customer service applications provider, but he said the company has yet to prove that it can do this on a large scale. Maoz believes it will be a struggle for Siebel to add this core competency, because this sort of functionality often demands a good deal of proprietary work -- which stands opposite to the vendor's desire to sell packaged applications.

Looking forward, CRM experts see a number of different strategies Siebel could adopt in order to make itself increasingly important to the enterprise call center space. But not all of these directions will be easy for the company to pursue, said Forrester's Schmitt.

"Siebel really needs to take a leadership role in Web-based self services, and they seem to be headed in that direction," he said. "However, Siebel will have to rethink the way it pursues revenues to that end, since they base sales on the number of users in any given company using their software, and Web self-services is based on fuzzy numbers, like Web traffic."

According to Meta Group's Bonadio, there are other challenges for Siebel down the road. Bonadio believes the CRM software maker needs to reduce the complexity of its technology, implementation process, customization and configuration capabilities.

"Partnerships with some of the systems management vendors or testing vendors, this is what Siebel needs to do to improve and grow in the call center," Bonadio said.


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