Aspect: Contact centers to disappear in 10 years

Contact center role is increasingly embedded into more of the enterprise, and unified communication tools are helping equip all employees to handle customer service, says company CEO.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Within the next decade, contact centers as we know them will cease to exist, predicts Jim Foy, CEO of Aspect Software.



According to the executive, the role of contact centers will increasingly be absorbed into the enterprise with the help of collaboration tools. As such, contact centers will no longer be needed as the whole organization is equipped to deal with customers, said Foy.

The emergence of unified communications (UC), he added, has changed how enterprises interact with their customers.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia during a recent trip to Singapore, Foy shared what enterprises can learn from contact centers in UC usage. He also explained why he objects to UC being labeled a "scam" and discussed the journey to cloud UC.

ZDNet Asia: Aspect started out as a contact center-focused company. Was it in the company's roadmap to move into the enterprise space?
Foy: Historically, Aspect competed in niches of the contact center space. There were many companies in different niches that have come together to comprise Aspect. If you go back 10 years or more, we combined different call center technologies into one platform. A platform that provides call distribution, repeated dialing, call recording, interactive Voice Response (IVR), call logging, administration and so on. That was really quite advanced at that time.

Around four years ago, we realized how crucial UC would be to the contact center and the enterprise. We decided to embark on a program to really include UC capabilities into a platform and our products. That was really what drove our strategic relationship with Microsoft.

With the alliance, we take full advantage of Microsoft's full UC capabilities in Lync, including Sharepoint, CRM Dynamics, SQL server and with other platforms such as Silverlight. But the important thing for us is that we can take advantage of the UC capabilities but we are not dependent upon those [as we still provide contact center products]...The business community is cautious so we have to be able to serve them well.

Would you say that contact centers are more progressive than enterprises when it comes to UC?
I think the more progressive companies that have contact centers tend to be at the lower end. Being smaller, they are prepared to take a bigger risk because the consequences are less. At the lower end of the market, there is going to be a huge move toward UC. That will become proof points for larger enterprises to think, "Wow, this works so we should use it too."

The other thing is the enterprise will often implement unified communications-based solutions but do it at a department level rather than the whole corporation. Once they gain and see the benefits and utilities of such a system, they will be more likely to implement such products.

What sort of experiences do you think contact centers can teach enterprises?
There are business processes that you can implement with UC that were never before possible. For example, when you call a contact center sometimes it is less than satisfying because it may take a while to get to the agent or the agent might not able to solve your problem and they have to go to someone else in the enterprise who is more experienced or understands a different product. You are asked to call back or call a different number or if it is a really progressive contact center, they'll say, "We'll call you back."

But a more practical case now is, when a customer calls a contact center but the agent is unable to resolve the question or transaction, the agent can immediately add another party into the conversation. The person added can be in finance, legal or accounting and will have the knowledge or authority to resolve the problem.

Although the expert will eventually be involved with the customer's problem, with UC, they are now instantly involved. With this, customers get to solve their problem at the first call and enterprises are now able to involve other parts of the company in the contact center function.

Is that futuristic? It's already happening in Aspect right now...We already see this dramatic change in the value it brings to customers.

A Gartner analyst said that UC is the greatest scam after the Ponzi scheme. What are your thoughts on that?
That's interesting. Gartner might have a different view but it is committed and supportive of UC judging by the magic quadrant it publishes.

I would liken the UC collaboration revolution to the dot-com world of 15 years ago. Dot-com growth was explosive then, there was something like thousands of dot-coms that sprang up overnight. It was a period of massive confusion, companies would say "I'm a dot com" and you don't even need to say what you do, you just needed to say, "I'm a dot com" and that would get some attention. Of course, most of them failed.

But the truth is, since then Internet commerce has grown massively with companies such as Amazon and Google. In fact every commercial entity that now does business across the Web is an Internet company.

Similarly, there are a whole bunch of companies in the UC space, but most would fail. But my point is that UC is an irresistible force.

I definitely disagree that UC is a scam. Ponzi scheme sounds like it's a fake, a con or would not work. UC is going to rule the world. I think it's perfectly alright for people to be skeptical. All technologies take a while to make their impact but can you argue about the impact of the Internet or VoIP or collaboration tools or social network tools? You can't argue that.

We at Aspect completely embrace the concept of UC. We run our business using UC. We save money and we're more productive. There are a lot of people who will say, "Maybe not yet. Maybe I won't take the risk. Maybe it's a Ponzi scheme." They are just flat out wrong because there are just many proof points for UC.

One of the points the analyst said was that consumer IT are leading the way in technology such as Skype in video. How does your company compete with services that are free such as Skype or Google Voice?
If it's free, that's just how valuable it is. I don't think large financial institutions are going to use Skype. I think they're going to secured systems that they can rely upon.

When you're talking about free, Google is a huge force in the marketplace because it has a business model where a very large proportion of their revenue come from a very small percentage of their people. That part of its business is indecently profitable and therefore they can fund all sort of other things. And the company is smart.

But you know, things have to be paid for. There's cost coming from Gmail, maybe the consumers don't see it but somebody is covering it. Things are not generally free.

But I really feel that the biggest factor is industry [compliance]. With privacy laws and with regulatory controls, you can't just share sensitive information through insecure mechanisms.

Do you see a day when a single vendor leading UC?
No, it can't be because by definition unified means you have to have standards.

If you think about the database world, especially the related database world, there were at least a dozen or more reliable vendors in the database world. But in the end it shook down to Oracle, IBM and Microsoft SQL server. Of course, they become hugely optimized over the period of time but if anybody wanted to see the entire relational database market it means that…there will be competition.

I don't think anybody will be leading UC, although Microsoft and Cisco might be huge players.

At Aspect, are you seeing UC moving to the cloud?
Slowly, but the reality is that you have to design applications to run in the cloud.

Let me illustrate this: within every kind of software application, there is memory, processing power and communications. How quickly you can access memory and how quickly can you connect to processing resources is the function of the network.

If the network is in the cloud, the latency between processing and data is variable. If you are running an application, you expect an instant response. But the performance of the application changes very dramatically if you put the application and data somewhere else.

We'll get to UC in the cloud but we will be redesigning applications for it. Anyone who says: "I'll take your premise-based application and put it to the cloud and it'll work just as well" is very optimistic, but it's not practical.

UC adoption seems to be moving slow among enterprises. What do you think needs to be done to drive adoption?
I would like to challenge that enterprises are moving slowly to UC. For example, enterprises are using instant messaging because it is easy. It isn't performance critical--if I send you an IM and it takes 15 seconds to come up, it's alright. IM is just one of the communications type within UC. Presence technology is also widely used within enterprises.

The real power of enterprises is when you tie all of these elements--video, telephony voice, IM and Web chat--and commit to that. That is what will take a while for companies to be comfortable with. The way they'll do it is start from the departmental level and as it grows they will deploy more widely.

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