Josie Sephton, IT Analysis

Unified Communications (UC) hasn’t really captivated the market in the way that vendors had originally hoped, and whilst it has enjoyed moderate success in some areas, by and large it hasn’t gained the much-needed traction to make it mainstream. This is largely because enterprises don’t really understand what UC is, and more importantly, they don’t have a genuine, defined requirement for it, as they are unable to identify a compelling location where it will make a real difference – one big enough to warrant investment. And this has proved no small challenge for vendors to overcome.

But maybe UC has at last found a place where it can really make an impact – in the contact centre. Certainly, there is an increasing interest in the market around this, with all the major vendors – Avaya, Cisco, Siemens, Nortel – having offerings in one guise or another in this space.

So why is focussing on UC in this way, rather than as a horizontal enterprise application likely to capture the attention of the enterprise which is so badly needed? Contacts centres provide an all-important interface between a company and the outside world – typically customers and prospects. In order to deal with the various queries coming in, agents in the contact centre need to tap into expertise located at different parts of the company. The implementation of UC in the contact centre will lead to more seamless communication with other people in the company, providing agents with both presence and skills data that is key for quick and successful call handling. So, an agent will be able to identify which experts are able to assist with a particular query, based on their expertise, and, more importantly, which of those experts are available.

For example, a contact centre agent has identified two experts, Pete and Sue, who are qualified to answer a customer query. The agent can see that Pete isn’t available as he is in a meeting, but Sue is at her desk and is available to be contacted via phone, email or IM. The agent can then engage with Sue in whichever way is most effective, based on a pre-determined set of contact criteria. A response can then be delivered back to the caller, or, if necessary, the caller can be directly linked to Sue. The outcome is that the caller has had his query dealt with during the one call in an apparently seamless fashion. This delivers two core benefits. From the point of view of the company, first call resolution – that all important goal of contact centres – is much easier to achieve. From the perspective of the person calling in, their interface with the company is much quicker and smoother, and much more likely to improve their overall perception of the company.

Of course, this is good news all round. Isn’t it? After all, the benefits of UC in the contact centre really do make sense, and are easy to envisage. But of course, as with any nirvana, you have to go through some serious hurdles before you get there. One of these hurdles is stumping up the necessary investment. Contact centres tend to be treated as cost rather than profit centres, and this classification makes the business case much more difficult to get approved, particularly in the current climate. This suggests the need for innovative thinking around how UC in the contact centre can create competitive advantage that will result in an uplift in revenues. It is beyond the scope of the discussion here to say where this thinking should be driven from, and what it might suggest, etc, but at the very least, it needs to be on an agenda somewhere.

Even when a company decides to implement UC in the contact centre, its success isn’t guaranteed. A lot of groundwork needs to be done, to deal with communications processes between the contact centre and the rest of the organisation. Agents have to have clear guidelines about who they can contact, and what conditions exist around that contact. Similarly, nominated experts need to be fully au fait with their role, including how and when they make themselves available. In short, collaborative working practices within the enterprise need to be water-tight. Failure to do this can lead to mistakes being made in contact handling, which could be visible externally. This in turn can have a very negative impact on how the company is perceived by its customers and prospects. At a more company-wide level, customer-centricity needs to be embedded in the culture, so that everyone understands its importance and works towards achieving it.

I suspect there is still some way to go before UC in the contact centre really takes hold. But I also believe that it provides a logical home for UC. Undoubtedly, and rightly so, the buzz in the industry is there, and perhaps UC vendors will finally achieve what they were hoping for.

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