Cisco Connecting Channels
Cisco works with partners to create a communication system to handle customer interactions from all channels.
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You may think Internet infrastructure giant Cisco Systems only worries about moving vast quantities of data from Point A to Point B across worldwide networks. But it's also busy thinking of ways to solve the sticky CRM problems of the Internet age.

Cisco believes that the fundamental problem facing customer service and interaction is the vast disconnect between each channel of customer contact. Some companies integrate voice, fax, e-mail and Web chat into a unified "contact center" but although the net result of the communication may be stored in a central database, the contacts are queued separately.

Cisco's newly formed Internet Communications Software Group is in the midst of developing a system called uOne that will seamlessly blend traditional telephone interaction with the e-contact center. But don't confuse uOne with an Internet telephony or Voice-over IP strategy. The purpose of the new architecture is to make the method of communication irrelevant to both customers and businesses, giving the customer the same quality of service and the company the same view of the customer, regardless of the contact channel.

When complete, uOne will allow customers nearly unlimited flexibility in choosing the time, place and delivery channel of their transactions and inquiries, while saving companies the need to construct custom interfaces and content to suit every possible point of contact. If everything goes according to plan, "It gets companies closer to a 360-degree view, whether the customers come through e-mail, a chat session, call center session, it's all synchronized in real time," says Sheryl Kingstone, program manager at analyst firm Yankee Group.

If Cisco's vision is realized, everything from a high-end desktop-running custom interaction application to a lowly four-line LCD wireless phone will be able to communicate on equal footing with the eCRM systems of the near future. Rather than attempting to develop its own end-to-end CRM system, Cisco is focusing on developing the uOne software layer in conjunction with a variety of partners, from network infrastructure providers like WorldCom and GTE to CRM firms such as Oracle, Kana and PeopleSoft/Vantive. "Cisco can handle the multimedia interaction. What they bring to the table is the actual voice and data communications," says Kingstone. "And they should have enough partners to gain acceptance."

Although Cisco's ICSG has a great deal of work ahead, the most immediate and inspiring vision in the plan is a world in which the delivery medium of a message is truly irrelevant, thanks to on-the-fly text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology from Cisco partners that can operate inside the uOne software layer. In essence, a voicemail box and an e-mail inbox become one and the same.

The initial phases of uOne's development, offering IP messaging and IP communications, are already available, with access and delivery for advanced corporate content, transaction services and additional third-party integration in development on an unannounced timetable. Cisco plans to market the uOne infrastructure through resellers and integrators for inclusion in CRM systems, and to gain acceptance in the application service provider market by approaching ASPs directly through their existing sales relationships.

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