Twilio Flex takes on legacy giants of the contact center

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 12, 2018
Communications service provider Twilio takes on legacy giants with Twilio Flex, an enterprise PaaS for the contact center

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Communications service platform Twilio yesterday announced its entry into the enterprise contact center market, going up against the likes of Avaya, Genesys and Cisco. Twilio Flex is a cloud-based platform-as-a-service (PaaS) that adds a highly programmable contact center application infrastructure on top of Twilio's existing set of cloud-based communications service API infrastructure.

Twilio believes there's a gap in the current market between cloud contact centers, which are effectively SaaS solutions packaged to cater to smaller businesses, and larger on-premise solutions, which like all traditional enterprise systems are highly customizable but costly and time-consuming to implement and update. Al Cook, Head of Contact Centre Business at Twilio, who briefed us late last week ahead of the announcement, sums up the current choice:

Businesses have had to choose between customization and speed. To get customization, you pretty much have to go with a premise-based contact center. You can get the features you need if you have the time and the money, but it's incredibly slow and expensive to make those changes.

Cloud-based contact centers, there's not that many that scale beyond a couple of thousand seats.

Contact center platform

Twilio Flex, which is currently in preview with general availability slated for later this year, bridges that gap, says Cook, with the ability to scale up to 50,000 seats:

This is a fundamentally different way to deliver a contact center and for enterprises to consume software whatever. Unlike a SaaS solution, you can fully customize everything at every layer of the stack.

It is orders of magnitude greater in terms of what kind of scale it can support. It's built on the Twilio platform that already supports the equivalent of 40 billion interactions per year.

The functionality built into Flex is a new departure for Twilio, which first rose to prominence providing the text messaging and notification services that popular applications such as Uber and Airbnb rely on to communicate with customers. It has since rounded out its platform to provide a broad range of communications services APIs for developers, ranging across voice, SMS, email, chat, video, Facebook Messenger and other channels. Last year Twilio started moving further into application tooling, adding a series of pre-built components and a drag-and-drop visual editor.

Control over the user experience

Twilio Flex is a far more ambitious advance than these earlier steps into the world of application functionality. Building on its work with existing customers — Twilio's enterprise customer base and partner network means there are already some 300,000 agents on the Twilio platform — Flex provides all of the capabilities expected in an advanced call center application suite, says Cook. There are full desktop clients provided for agent, administration and supervisors. But what's unique is that customers have complete control over the user experience — any element can be changed or removed, says Cook:

The thing that does not exist anywhere else is the programmable user interface. These are built as micro components. Every UI is assembled from a huge list of individual components. If you want to change what happens when you click on a button, or what it says on the button, or if the button exists — there is nothing you cannot change. This is a user interface designed from the ground up to be torn apart ...

We've got to the point where you can just make the decisions you care about. All of those best practices and best design principles we've built, but it doesn't constrain you. If you want to change anything you can change anything.

Microservices design

That microservices approach to application design runs throughout the platform. Cook cites five different levels at which customization can take place:

  • Choice of channels — the platform is "instantly omnichannel," with built-in support for voice, SMS, email, chat, video, Facebook Messenger and the ability to add any custom channel through integration.
  • Drag-and-drop application builder — Twilio Studio provides the ability to easily customize any part of the application logic.
  • Contextual intelligence — Twilio's automated workflow manager Taskrouter can do "incredibly sophisticated routing" based on machine intelligence.
  • Programmable UI — as noted above, there are no constraints on how functionality is presented to the user, whether in a standalone UI or integrated into another application. "With Flex there should never be a reason why the IT team should say no to the CRM team," says Cook.
  • Marketplace add-ons — the platform can be extended via an ecosystem of third party applications and cloud services.

Twilio says it will continue to support cloud contact center partners such as Zendesk, NewVoiceMedia or Serenova that rely on its platform to power their own pre-built solutions. Twilio Flex is firmly aimed at extending its reach in the enterprise contact center market, where Twilio already works with customers such as ING Bank, Zillow, Simply Business and National Debt Relief.

My take

When I first met Twilio VP of Product Pat Malatack last year, he likened Twilio to Amazon Web Services: "What AWS is for compute and storage, Twilio is that for communication."

Now we can liken Twilio to another cloud leader. What Salesforce has become for CRM, Twilio Flex aims to be for contact centers. And just as Salesforce proved to be nemesis for Siebel, there are plenty of lumbering Goliaths in the contact center infrastructure market waiting to be slain by a nimble David.

Twilio has proven itself as a cloud communications platform and that infrastructure gives it a firm foundation from which to launch this new initiative. This is the start of a new journey during which Twilio must to prove that it can now deliver the application functionality that the enterprise market demands. That's not a quick or an easy sell, but it's a huge and still largely untapped market opportunity.

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