Do Contact Centers Need a Unified Front?

Contact center directors and managers are often looking for any way to improve the state of their customer service and their interactions with consumers. According to a new study released by Aberdeen Group, unified communications (UC) in the contact center is quickly becoming top-of-mind, with 23 percent of respondents currently implementing UC and an additional 50 percent in the midst of evaluating solutions.

It should come as no surprise then that, according to the study, the top pressure driving the use of UC in the contact center is “enhancing the customer interaction” (cited by 45 percent of respondents). The other top pressures -- “increasing revenue from the contact center” and “using customer services as a competitive differentiator” -- were cited by 35 percent and 30 percent of respondents, respectively.

For the purposes of the study, “Unified Communications: Lifeblood of the Contact Center,” Aberdeen defines UC as: “The convergence of such technologies as instant messaging, email, Web conferencing, voicemail, Voice over Internet Protocol, presence, and e-commerce in real time or near-real time.” And the concept of working together is the basic foundation of UC, according to David Boulanger, a co-author of the study and Aberdeen's research director of customer management strategies. “There is a move from monolithic contact centers in India to a collection of agents very much focused on a business or business process,” he says. That trend, he adds, requires having groups of specially trained agents be connected even if they are spread apart geographically.

Unified communications seems to be having a positive impact under those circumstances, accoridng to the report. Best-in-Class (BIC) companies (Aberdeen's label for the top-performing 20 percent of all respondents) utilizing UC in their contact centers are realizing a 14 percent year-over-year improvement in customer satisfaction, while only 7 percent of Industry Average firms (middle 50 percent) and no Laggards (bottom 30 percent) report any change. In fact, BICs also report 95 percent customer satisfaction overall, 30 percentage points higher than their Laggard counterparts.

With such wide disparities, why aren't more companies hopping on the UC bandwagon? One possible explanation, according to Boulanger, may be failing to make a clear case for UC in the contact center rather than for what Boulanger calls “general purpose enterprise UC." “One of the battles the contact center director is having today is…[with] the CEO or CFO[, who] say they already have some sort of enterprisewide UC technology in place, like [IBM Lotus] SameTime, instant messaging, or buddy lists,” he says. “However, that’s not the same thing as a specific combination of technology for UC in the contact center.”

According to the study, the technologies used to support UC in the contact center include:

  • email;
  • text messaging (SMS);
  • mobile phones, cell phones, and smartphones;
  • workflow; and
  • business process management.

Knowledge management (KM) tools and the cohesion of internal and external knowledge bases are also crucial, according to the study.

Boulanger says providers have to help elucidate the case for implementing UC. “It’s incumbent on vendors to come in -- just like we’ve seen with other CRM applications -- and say, ‘Here’s the business case, the [return on investment], and what you need to do to enable this,' ” he explains.

Steve Lawrence, research associate at Aberdeen and the other co-author of the study, points out that nly 49 percent of Industry Average and 37 percent of Laggards are utilizing text messaging for UC support. “It can be quicker and easier for an expert to reply via text messaging,” he explains, raising the point that companies not paying for messaging plans may be a point of contention. “They don’t necessarily have to pay for this service for employees, but they do need to recognize the opportunity here.”

Taking a step back, though, both Boulanger and Lawrence contend that getting bogged down in the technology may be putting the cart before the horse. The results from their study jibe with this view: While 29 percent of respondents say that “not fully understanding the technology” is a UC implementation challenge, it's the top hurdle: That title belongs to “improper/misaligned policies and procedures,” cited by 46 percent of respondents. “We really need to back up and ask, ‘What’s the business problem...and process, and who provides me with the best solution?’ ” Boulanger explains.

Executive buy-in throughout the organization is also critical. “For Laggards, the issue is that you come back to governance, to authority, and it’s just not clear,” Lawrence adds, noting that 63 percent of BICs have a governance board specifically for contact centers as opposed to only 29 percent for Laggards. Governance boards “make sure that the right people have the right access at the right time to the right information and expert resources,” according to the study.  

Companies must make sure they have all their processes in place, because those that do will be able to differentiate competitively, according to Lawrence. “We’re not just talking about unified messaging," he says. "This includes presence -- knowing when a particular resource is available -- and the fact that companies may have contacts spread worldwide in a virtual setting. UC is going to give the same real-time access to agents whether they are homeshored, in India, Ireland, or the Philippines. For those who implement it correctly, including the [KM] and process capabilities, it will give them a huge advantage over companies that simply don’t have UC.”

News relevant to the customer relationship management industry is posted several times a day on destinationCRM.com, in addition to the news section Insight that appears every month in the pages of CRM magazine. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top; to contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com.

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