They’ve Got Your Number

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The recent fight over the Google Voice application for the Apple iPhone has the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) scrutinizing competition in the high-tech and telecommunications sectors. No resolution had been reached at press time; the FCC is still investigating.  

Whatever the outcome, the stakes are high for CRM players as well: Google Voice — along with other telephone-enabling technologies that utilize cloud computing — has the potential to fundamentally alter how businesses act upon the voice of the customer, a topic gaining traction in the business community.

It’s about time, says Greg Goldfarb, general manager of enterprise applications for Ribbit, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of voice and telephony solutions. “There’s all this data and content that has been locked up in the telephone networks — voice calls, messages, and SMS,” Goldfarb says. “The SaaS community is really picking up on what can be done, especially when business is becoming more mobile…and enabling people to do more with telephony.”

With Ribbit — which calls itself “Silicon Valley’s First Telephone Company — developers combine voice calls with Web 2.0 experiences. Voice, messaging, and other forms of communication can be added as programmable features to any Web page, application, or online community—a SaaS play in a traditionally hardwired space. In fact, when the Google Wave collaboration platform debuted in late September, Ribbit — one of CRM’s Rising Stars in last year’s Market Awards (September 2008) — already had plugins to enable conferencing and messaging. 

“There’s a new stream of data — [which] has never been available to things like SaaS applications — to get to businesses much faster, and with more visibility,” Goldfarb continues. “It’s a stark contrast. One day a customer calls and leaves a voicemail for someone in customer or field service…. In the old days, that was stuck on one individual’s voicemail system and the person wouldn’t retrieve the message until the end of the day, only to scribble it down on a notepad. Now, that same message can flow into a CRM system, be converted from voice to text, and create an activity in the CRM [system] so it can be acted upon in a matter of minutes.”

Google Voice is what became of GrandCentral, a buzzed-about telephony startup that Google acquired for $95 million in 2007 — and then promptly tucked away for further development. Like many telephony solutions, GrandCentral—and, having emerged from its redevelopment cocoon in March 2009, Google Voice — was built on the Voice over Internet Protocol standard to consolidate a user’s multiple phone numbers under one issued by the service. Benefits include customizable call-routing and the ability to access and manage via the Web a vast amount of data in a variety of formats—including SMS and voicemail. 

Google Voice isn’t yet a threat to vendors of telephony, switch, and unified communications solutions, says Daniel Hong, an analyst at Ovum—but that may change. “When a call goes through to Google [Voice], it can be transferred or routed wherever,” he says. “If a contact center likes that service, [and] believes Google has a great infrastructure…, then it could pay [Google] to do routing across different centers. It’s going to take a while…[but] if Google can target the enterprise, it can change the [competitive] landscape.”

Hong says Google must improve its routing and logic before enterprises will buy in, but that Google Voice may be just a precursor to what’s in store. “Google still doesn’t show [an] absolute expertise in telephony yet,” he says. “There’s a lot more complexity when it comes to customer service operations.”

Google Voice will be in the enterprise within three to five years, Hong says. “[It’s] more of a consumer play than an enterprise one, but [Google has] the technology now to potentially attack the enterprise market,” he says. “It’s kind of like a basketball player at the age of 13 being able to slam dunk. There’s something special there.”

Telephone-enabling technologies, Hong notes, are already helping contact centers make the most of cloud computing. “The hosted contact center is an area of growth,” he says, “and I think all companies are looking at that because the shift from capital to operating expense is real.”  


For the rest of the November 2009 issue of CRM magazine — a look back at the first 10 years of Salesforce.com — please click here.


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