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The inevitability of cloud-based contact centers

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 22, 2013
Contact center software that can't rapidly integrate social media and other cloud resources is doomed, says Jonathan Gale, CEO of up-and-coming cloud-based provider NewVoiceMedia

Jonathan Gale, NewVoiceMedia

The purpose of contact center software is to help agents field customer calls as efficiently and promptly as possible by putting relevant information on screen when it's needed. In the past, that meant fetching data from an enterprise's core customer relationship management (CRM) system.

In a world when CRM is becoming increasingly social, connection into internal data stores is no longer enough to provide excellence in customer service. External data — especially from social media — is increasingly relevant and important in evaluating how best to route and resolve a call.

That in turn puts pressure on contact center systems to add connectors to a broad range of social media sources. Traditional on-premise systems lack the flexibility to let administrators do this as a configuration option, says Jonathan Gale, CEO of cloud-based contact center provider NewVoiceMedia:

"People will expect to pick something as a source of data, click on it and say, right I want to route [calls] based on Foursquare, LinkedIn, Twitter, and not want to get a systems integrator in and wait six months."

That leads Gale to conclude that the on-premise systems his company competes against have had their day in the contact center. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But his argument is founded on an incontrovertible assertion. A provider like NewVoiceMedia only has to implement a single connection to each social media system and all its customers can instantly share that connection as a multi-tenant cloud service. In on-premise systems, each customer has to separately install and implement their own connections.

"I cannot see how in the long term CRM and contact center systems are going to work on-premise. I can't see that — you've got to integrate each instance each time with the data you're going to integrate to. [Going cloud] seems to be an inevitable thing."

Replacing incumbents

Gale, whose career before joining NewVoiceMedia in 2010 included stints at SaaS email management providers MessageLabs and Mimecast, sees contact center software emulating the consolidation of functionality that has already occurred in email management. Whereas once enterprises bought separate packages for email add-ons such as security, archiving, business continuity and compliance, today they can obtain all of those functions from a single cloud-based provider.

"Exactly the same thing's going to happen in the contact center market. And we're trying to drive that ... The winner in the contact center space will be people like us that have a multi-tenant platform and have built everything themselves."

Where NewVoiceMedia replaces an existing on-premise system, it will typically replace up to five to six pre-existing contracts. This is because its software replaces functionality that was previously implemented as separate hardware-based systems, such as switches and routers, IVR systems and integration servers.

"[When] people look at cloud within a contact center context, initially they look at it from a financial consolidation point of view," says Gale.

"We've made CTI accessible at an acceptable price point, made it a configuration issue ... People can configure within the admin console in Salesforce, they don't even need to call us up."

Another driver is location independence.

"We become this massive extra source of DR resilience. You get that location independence, you can keep the contact center functioning if people can't get into the office."

But Gale is going after bigger fish, aiming to replace incumbent systems from the likes of Avaya, Mitel and others. He doesn't want to be sidelined into selling only to organizations that are budget constrained or who want the flexibility to support teleworking.

"To me that's just a by-product that you're being religious about delivering stuff into a browser over the Internet ... it's not about people working from home, it's about having a leading contact center product that takes the on-premise vendors head-on."

Social gamechanger

Gale believes the gamechanger that will enable NewVoiceMedia to challenge these established giants is the ability to do a better job of determining intent — working out why the caller has picked up the phone even before answering — by tapping into social media and other online resources.

"The phone is the last resort, people only use it when it's urgent," he explains. Less pressing requests go via email and simple matters are often resolved by consulting self-service pages on a website.

Working out who is calling and why makes sure that the most valued and urgent callers are dealt with first.

"We think of it as a waiting room rather than a line. If your most important customer comes into the waiting room, their bottom doesn't even need to hit the seat, you want to escort them out to see someone straight away."

In the past, the data that determines which calls are most important has come from the internal CRM system, but today, says Gale, social media can contribute valuable information too.

"We've already registered a patent on the ability to use Internet search data in real time to decide what you do with a call in real-time in a call center. If we know who's calling, once we've identified somebody, we can then, as soon as the call hits the system, we can search the Internet about that person. Or we could talk to another system such as Twitter or LinkedIn and establish that person's influence in real-time."

Gale is convinced that the ability to assess someone's influence, status or intent by consulting social media and other online resources will become a critical differentiation for contact center systems:

"There's a whole generation of people for whom the normal state is to share everything. So increasingly as you move forward, anyone who's looking at customer service or a sales environment, anyone who isn't able to very quickly incorporate a feed from another cloud platform that's pertinent to what they're doing and make routing decisions based on that data — anyone not able to offer that is doomed."

At first glance this sounds like a privacy nightmare, but many people will feel that the convenience of having calls answered more efficiently far outweighs any downside to this trawling of publicly available information. Gale points out that the social dimension of cellphone use has already completely changed attitudes to caller line identity (CLI). When CLI first became available, landline users often opted to turn the function off so that they were not identified when calling others. Today, more and more calls into contact centers are coming in from mobile devices and the default is for CLI to be turned on.

"Attitudes to privacy have completely reversed. If you block your CLI the likelihood is you won't be answered. That whole voice channel self-identification has completely reversed."

NewVoiceMedia customers typically port their numbers to the provider's infrastructure, which allows the calls to be delivered to any endpoint. This also means the provider can collect metrics about call origin and CLI use. Around two thirds of incoming calls to its customers' contact centers are made from mobile devices, says Gale, and 85 percent of those have CLI enabled.

All-cloud mantra

Most vendors in the industry have taken the view that using local hardware and software was essential to deliver the speed and availability that contact center operators demand. Although it has competition from cloud-based vendors such as InContact, Five9s and LiveOps, NewVoiceMedia says its insistence on an all-cloud mantra makes its offering distinctive. Gale believes the company is reaping the dividend now that high Internet bandwidth is becoming a commonplace commodity.

"Right from the start we said no browser plug-ins, no gateway box, nothing that takes the easy way out. We will deliver this over the Internet and get the connectivity between the UI and the infrastructure.

"There were various times it would have been easier to make that quicker by putting something on site or on the agent's machine and we didn't. You just work at it. This is just this religious edict that we have internally on [co-founder and CTO Ashley Unitt]'s rules around cloud."

The development team uses agile methodology, with two teams working in parallel on two-week cycles so that new features and modifications can be dropped in weekly.

"We just keep iterating away at the problem. A lot of these performance issues, you can get there, you just keep chipping away.

"We can upgrade the platform live in the middle of the day with everyone live on the phone, it doesn't affect agents' calls."

Last week, NewVoiceMedia announced a $35 million round of venture funding led by Bessemer Venture Partners, which together with a $20 million round closed in January brings its total funding to $61.3 million, most of it raised this year.

The new funding will fuel international expansion, mostly in the US market. Currently NewVoiceMedia's customers are largely UK-based, although with many of them operating internationally, almost a third of agents are outside the UK.

"This just accelerates the plan. We're not going to go on a mad hiring spree, but we can hire faster. One of the reasons Bessemer put the money into it was they want to take advantage of the market opportunity in the US. There really isn't anyone operating architecturally the way we are."

Disclosure: is a diginomica premium partner.

Photo credit: Phones in sky feature image by urbancow © iStockphoto; Jonathan Gale portrait courtesy of NewVoiceMedia

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