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Unified Communications and the Contact Center – Better Together

Enterprises tend to take a silo-based approach to operations, and technology vendors aren’t much different when it comes to their offerings. Unified Communications (UC) evolved out of the PBX market, so not surprisingly, these solutions were telephony-centric. Things have certainly progressed, but today’s UC is still built around the needs of employees as end users of communications applications. Similarly, contact center platforms serve a well-defined set of end users, namely agents and supervisors. These parallel worlds have co-existed nicely for a long time, but as businesses strive to become more customer-centric, there’s good reason to think differently now.

Technology remains a core driver for being competitive, but even more important is the overall vision of the business. Despite all the investments made in the contact center, customer satisfaction levels continue trending downward, and there are two factors to consider here. First, is the fact that most contact centers have legacy-based solutions, and simply cannot keep pace with today’s customer expectations, especially in terms of supporting their communications preferences and resolving issues promptly. Secondly, the business models driving the contact center are built more around operational performance rather than the impact on customer satisfaction and retention. In our global economy, customers have a lot of choice, and there’s little margin for error with your agents.

However, some enterprises are coming around and recognizing they’ll be more successful with a customer-centric vision rather than one only built around cost reduction or operational effectiveness. Internal performance metrics are still important, but what’s really driving business strategy is the enterprise’s ability to understand and meet customer needs. A great validation of this comes from the 2016 Global Contact Center Benchmarking Report, produced by Dimension Data. Among the many timely findings, their study shows that 82.5% of companies see the “customer experience” (CX) as a competitive differentiator, and 77.5% see it as their most important strategic performance measure. In terms of outcomes, 77.0% can cite hard cost savings as a result of improved CX.

When businesses think along these lines, building a customer-centric culture is not just about the contact center; it extends to everyone in the organization. Agents may represent the front door of CX for contact center engagement, but increasingly they must rely on data or internal experts from other parts of the organization. This may be at odds with a contact center built on legacy technology and legacy thinking, but the model today is built around the customer journey. Legacy environments simply cannot provide enough support for agents to effectively understand each customer’s journey, and a key reason lies in the silo-based approach cited earlier.

When contact centers look to make upgrades, the legacy approach is to invest in purpose-built, best-of-breed solutions. They want the right technology to streamline their operations and to better measure agent performance. Likewise, when IT decision-makers invest in UC, their focus will be on employee productivity, and not necessarily how that can support the contact center and ultimately improve customer satisfaction. In cases where the legacy mindset is still strong, it’s very possible that decisions for these two types of investments will be made independently, even if occurring at the same time.

Conversely, for enterprises that reflect the Dimension Data findings, the thought process is different. They will recognize distinct needs for each, but to fulfill the vision for being customer-centric, there will also be a strong rationale to extend UC capabilities into the contact center. This is the first step along the path to omni-channel, where there is a tight integration between these two worlds, all in the name of understanding the customer journey. While the realities of deploying omni-channel are complex, enterprises see the ultimate value, which was also reflected in the Dimension Data report. Currently, only 22.4% have omni-channel capability, but in just two short years, that level is expected to rise to 74.6%.

Extending UC into the contact center does present some integration challenges, but there’s clearly a need for enterprises with customer-centric vision, and an opportunity for the vendors. On the UC side, Microsoft’s Skype for Business (SfB) has emerged as a strong leader. Despite being ubiquitous on the desktop, their UC platform – Skype for Business – does not have a native contact center component. While SfB has certified contact center partners, most deployments are UC-only. There’s a significant opportunity here for enterprises that want to remain Microsoft-based to enhance their benefit by including the contact center as part of their UC strategy, and by extension, support the vision of being more customer-centric.

The goal is to provide businesses with a fully integrated, omni-channel solution that seamlessly connects agents with internal employees from across the organization to address customer interactions as efficiently as possible. This capability is simply not possible with legacy models, and true to the omni-channel vision, when you can cross silos to access people and data to keep the customer journey moving along your path, everyone is better off. Agents will have more powerful forms of customer engagement, employees will feel more connected to customers, the organization will become more agile, and management will be closer to realizing their vision for becoming customer-centric.

While businesses can continue to deploy UC and contact center along separate paths, given how the market is evolving, I think the case for “better together” speaks for itself.

As Principal of J Arnold & Associates, Jon is an independent research analyst providing thought leadership and go-to-market counsel with a focus on the business-level impact of disruptive communications technologies. Core areas of expertise include unified communications, cloud services, collaboration, Internet of Things, future of work, contact centers, customer experience, video, VoIP, and social media.

Published in Customer Experience Management omni-channel Unified Communications