It's been an amazing couple of years for hosted/cloud-based contact center solutions. Vendors from most of the contact center technology sectors have entered the market. End users can now acquire all types of contact center solutions and applications on a hosted basis.
While most of the midsized and small vendors jumped into the fray, many larger vendors dragged their feet, considering hosting a threat to their traditional revenue stream. But the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term impact of switching from up-front revenue recognition to an annuity where revenue is recognized over a two- to three-year period.
Crowded and Confusing
The hosted contact center infrastructure market is confusing, and growing in complexity. Based on vendor messaging, it would appear that many of the solutions perform similar functions. Certainly, all of the hosted contact center infrastructure competitors can route and queue calls. However, this is where the similarity ends.
Like their premises-based counterparts, hosted contact center infrastructure solutions have highly differentiated technology, capabilities, offerings, and commercial terms. They also have some advantages over the premises-based market, including the pace of innovation and not having to be concerned about backwards compatibility, a huge burden for premises-based vendors.
However, as with any market, prospects should look very carefully at each of the offerings, and ask for references. If a vendor cannot provide a reference for a claimed functionality, it's either new and unproven or does not yet exist. This need not be a deal-breaker, but the prospect will essentially be testing the functionality and should plan accordingly.
A Vendor Rundown
The following guide outlines the high-level hosted contact center infrastructure solutions currently available.
8x8: In September 2011, this provider of cloud communications and computing solutions, including PBX, acquired Contactual, a pioneer in the hosted contact center infrastructure market that had concentrated on selling a predominantly inbound solution to small organizations. Contactual's solution covers many functional areas, including a light CRM application.
Cisco: In June 2010, Cisco debuted its Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS), which includes hosted PBX capabilities, unified messaging, presence and instant messaging, and mobility and conferencing, but not hosted contact center functionality. Cisco HCS is based on Cisco Unified Communications Manager and is offered through select carriers. Cisco had planned to include hosted contact center capabilities in HCS in early 2012, but the time frames have not yet been finalized.
Convergys: One of the world's largest providers of business and corporate outsourcers, Convergys is in the process of productizing and marketing a hosted contact center infrastructure solution that has been used by its business process outsourcing clients over the past eight years. The initial release of Convergys Customer Interaction became generally available at the end of 2011.
Echopass: Built on a Genesys engine that has been enhanced to address multitenancy, provisioning, and usability, Echopass's solution gives users the combined benefits of all of Genesys's and Echopass's capabilities. The company sells primarily to large contact center environments that are complex and require integration.
Enghouse: This Canada-based holding company acquired CosmoCom in April 2011, the assets of which will become part of the Enghouse hosted cloud offerings. Enghouse's offerings also include an IVR solution originally acquired from Syntellect (which had previously acquired Envox). Enghouse plans to use its CosmoCom assets to deliver both a premises-based solution to sell to network service providers and Cosmo Contact, a new cloud-based offering designed for SMB contact centers with 10 to 50 agents.
Five9: Originally a provider of hosted outbound solutions to small organizations, Five9 has recently enhanced its solution to address inbound and blended calls. The company is investing in its product and has started to pick up momentum in midsized and larger contact center environments.
inContact: The company's core routing and queuing capabilities are built from the ground up and have been complemented with a combination of purchased and partnered applications. Its broad solution includes IVR, CTI, and recording, as well as add-on modules for surveying, workforce management, quality assurance, and more. In 2011, inContact established distribution and product partnerships with Siemens and Verizon.
Interactive Intelligence: Built on the same product stack as its all-in-one PBX/contact center offering, Interactive Intelligence's hosted offering uses virtualization software to separate each end user's processing environment from the others. The solution is functionally broad, and is deployed via three different hosted options, with the most popular using server hardware at the customer site.
Leads360: This vendor provides a hosted sales lead management solution and recently began offering its own dialing capability to complement its core functionality. The solution, based on Asterisk technology, includes click-to-dial, progressive, and power dialing. Leads360 initially concentrated on providing outbound capabilities; it started to offer limited inbound and blending functionality as of the end of 2011.
LiveOps: A contact center outsourcer specializing in providing at-home agents to handle direct response inbound calls, LiveOps built a contact center solution for its own customers, the foundation for its hosted offering. The company is investing in its solution, and competing with a strategy that combines its contact center solution and talent management (contact center outsourcing).
NewVoiceMedia: This U.K.-based contact center infrastructure vendor has greatly enhanced the capabilities of its solution and invested in marketing. Its new "Trust" capabilities are a differentiator, providing real-time visibility into the performance of its computing environment.
Noble: In April 2011, Noble announced its hosted contact center infrastructure offering for inbound, outbound, and blended communications, using the same technology and SIP-based platform as its premises-based solution. The solution addresses multitenancy by using VMWare, which allows logical partitioning on physical servers.
Transera: The company has concentrated on delivering sophisticated routing and queuing capabilities, and has partnered to provide IVR and recording. It also offers connectors to enable users to integrate workforce management and CRM solutions. Transera is focusing on selling inbound capabilities to high-volume sales and service organizations.
USAN: The company offers VoiceNet, a full-featured contact center system for small to midsized (200-seat) call centers, delivered either as a hosted or on-premises solution. A second offering, USAN ACD, provided through a partnership with Aspect, is a suite of contact center applications that includes inbound, dialing, workforce management, recording, quality assurance, and inbound/outbound IVR. Customers can use the entire suite or individual modules.
Verizon: Verizon has long been effective in selling hosted IVR systems but did not aggressively pursue hosted contact center infrastructure deals. In the past, Verizon offered hosted contact center infrastructure through a partnership with Telephony@Work, which was acquired by Oracle a few years ago. In November 2011, Verizon announced that it was partnering with inContact to offer hosted contact center functionality.
VoltDelta: A subsidiary of Volt Information Sciences, this company delivers hosted contact center infrastructure solutions through its OnDemand Solutions business unit. VoltDelta has leveraged the technology, domain expertise, and resources of its market-leading operator services business to build DeltaTouch, its hosted contact center platform, a high-availability, scalable on-demand, IP-based, multichannel contact center solution that includes speech recognition technology.
West Interactive: The technology arm of West Corporation, West Interactive offers technology-enabled voice-centric services, including IVR and speech-enabled self-service solutions, and competes in the hosted contact center infrastructure market. Its primary offering, West Hosted Contact Center Solution, for enterprises that want to use at-home agents, is the same solution West uses to support its contact center outsourcing services.
The key to successful implementations has always been hands-on experience and proven best practices. Prospects are strongly encouraged to check carefully to make sure that their preferred vendor has relevant contact center implementation and, if necessary, integration experience. Cost is important, but is only one of the factors to consider when selecting a hosted contact center infrastructure solution. If the price of an offering is too low, the vendor may be trying to buy its way into the market, and it could be an effort to distract prospects from weaknesses in its functionality and implementation experience.
Donna Fluss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder and president of DMG Consulting, a leading provider of contact center and analytics research, market analysis, and consulting.