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Customer Service Gets SaaSy
The contact center can finally benefit from software-as-a-service.
For the rest of the April 2010 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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For sales force automation, the leading software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms are attractive options even within large enterprises. Simply put, SaaS works quite well in the lead-through-opportunity space. SaaS platforms have found substantially less uptake in the contact center, however, due to process- and technology-based challenges.  

The difficulties stem from the complexity involved in receiving messages from multiple channels—voice, text message, fax, email, chat, and Web inquiries—and routing them to the agents with the availability and requisite skills. The traditional approach involved heavy investment in hardware and software to integrate systems and applications. The infrastructure has been costly to maintain and enhance, and has hampered reporting. Recently, however, SaaS software vendors have demonstrated success in engaging and overcoming those challenges.

SaaS provides an alternative approach: essentially, a contact center in the cloud. The leading SaaS vendors have already established a contact center infrastructure, made available to customers on a monthly subscription basis. The leading platforms include sophisticated capabilities such as interactive voice recognition, automatic call distribution, and computer-telephony integration as part of the base package. These capabilities come with prebuilt integration to the CRM applications for logging service requests and managing customer information. 

A company can deploy a multichannel contact center on a SaaS platform within a matter of weeks (assuming none of the complexities below). The contact center becomes a virtual workplace, with agents able to execute their support responsibilities remotely (even from home offices), with no more than a phone, a PC, and an Internet connection.

SaaS also allows contact centers to reach beyond traditional platforms by offering the ability to bring so-called social CRM channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) onto the agent desktop. This enables a better connection to—and a better experience for—the customer.

This array of contact center capabilities creates intriguing possibilities in driving business value. Foremost, perhaps, is the opportunity to seize the core SaaS value proposition—rapid deployment of robust functionality at low cost with limited risk—for customer service operations.

The range of capabilities can be impressive: strong supervisory and operational control, including call recording and reporting; variable capacity to respond to peaks and troughs in volume; cloud-based infrastructure for ready deployment across geographies; and even prebuilt integration across applications to enable end-to-end customer service automation. 

The suitability of any SaaS platform depends considerably on the size of the organization. For small and midsize companies, SaaS offers the chance to enhance customer service dramatically, making enterprise-scale capabilities rapidly (and affordably) achievable.

For enterprise-scale organizations, the question is, as usual, more complex. SaaS for the contact center can drive real—even dramatic—value. Large organizations, however, possess established infrastructures, legacy knowledge bases, complex processes, sophisticated integrations to third-party providers, and global footprints. These considerations (and others) create an imperative for judicious planning, with the most likely outcome being adoption of a hybrid architecture combining SaaS and traditional on-premises components.

This effort can increase operational efficiencies and improve service. Marketing, sales, and service can be consolidated onto a single platform that yields a true 360-degree customer view. Some parts of the organization can remain on traditional heavy-duty toolsets, while other parts can be migrated to lighter-weight but highly capable toolsets. Spikes in demand—due either to predictable factors such as seasonality or to unpredictable ones such as supply-chain disruptions or product recalls—can be handled with on-demand capacity.

For smaller organizations, SaaS for customer service is an uncompromised boon; larger organizations may require a hybrid architecture. The value proposition, as always with SaaS, is the ability to get the right applications to the right users at the right economics for the organization. SaaS allows it to happen—even in the contact center. 


J. David Lashar (dlashar@us.ibm.com) is an associate partner in the CRM practice of IBM Global Business Services and the leader of the IBM CRM SaaS Center of Excellence.


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