Contact Centers Get Smarter

Contact centers have evolved consistently over the past two decades and always seem to be utilizing a mix of both old school voice technologies and newer solution elements.  My exposure to contact centers has been as a customer, product manager for related connectivity products and as a contributor to an important SIP-based IETF standard for standardizing collection of user information. I also get to hear war stories on a regular basis from people I know who work in call centers.

One of the newest trends is to add Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the mix.  Google has recently announced their Cloud Contact Center AI solution and it’s described in some detail within a blog post on the Google web site.

Google themselves aren’t in the Contact Center solution market (yet!) and this solution is designed to complement solutions from other providers. There is a rich history of solutions provided by companies such as Avaya, Genesys, Cisco and many others that were originally all premise based, but contact center solutions increasingly have been moving to the Cloud in recent years.  A review of the blog post noted above shows an interesting mix of how AI is injected into the fray.  Contact centers are a people intensive business, as agents take incoming calls and customers get queued up until an agent is available.  Google’s Diagflow development tool enables contact center providers to create automated virtual agents who can take incoming calls and use a combination of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) tools and access to databases to start interacting with incoming callers.  There are limits at this point, but the tools such as Virtual Agent (shown as being in a Beta status) can start analyzing the caller’s needs, answer some questions and determine if a handoff to a live agent is needed.

Another new tool is called Agent Assist.  Assuming that some of the incoming calls eventually do need to connect to a human agent, this tool (shown as being at Alpha level) can augment the agent’s progress through the conversation by providing tips such as relevant articles or other shortcuts.

The big picture here is fascinating. There’s been a long term debate about whether AI should replace human roles or augment human capabilities.  Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, has some interesting discussion about this from AI experts on both sides of this argument.  Google AI pursues both directions.  At the business level, contact centers employ a lot of humans and need to assist many customers via tools which can include voice, chat, speech recognition and much more.  Customers want answers or perhaps want to make a purchase. So whether AI is used to deal directly with the customer needs or help an agent to get to answers more quickly, it’s a win for the customers. For the companies who deploy contact centers, AI  offers another approach to get more productivity out of the investment they have already made in contact center solutions and in agent resources that utilize these solutions. Human call agents do add value in this equation, particularly when the issues are complex or emotions come into play, so don’t expect these virtual assistants to eliminate those roles, but over time, the trend is likely to be toward making more use of AI at various stages of the customer interaction.

If you or your company is active in the contact center eco-system, feel free to weigh in with your comments.  If your company would like advice on how trends like AI will affect strategies for providing contact center solutions, you can reach me on LinkedIn or at our web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Business Disruption in Document Communications – What Happened?

In the late 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web created massive technical disruption for the worlds of document communications and messaging. Now, nearly twenty years later, business communications looks much different than it did going into the Millennium and once major businesses such as the marketing of enterprise fax machines are deep into their long tail phase. In my last post, I noted several trends in both fax and email as the related standards communities pushed to transform these technologies for the new IP world. Let’s look at what happened.

One major driver of the success of fax in the Nineties was the classic network effect as postulated by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe. In essence, Metcalfe had stated that a network became much more compelling as the number of connected devices increased.  In the Nineties, the fax machine vendors and computer fax companies were often on opposing sides in technical battles, but all of these companies benefited from Metcalfe’s network effect as it applied to the overall fax network. But as we crossed into the 21st century, fax machines designed to run on the circuit-switched phone network (aka the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) had much less utility in an increasingly IP network connected world. As a result, physical fax machines began to disappear from larger enterprise offices and in smaller offices, they were often replaced by less expensive multi-function peripherals (MFPs), which were basically printers that also included fax and scanning features. This meant that the number of Group 3 fax devices in total at first plateaued and then began a decline. In essence, Metcalfe’s network effect played out in reverse. The fax machines and MFPs of the Nineties did not evolve to use the new IP fax standards, so as document communications moved to IP, these physical fax or MFP devices still only sent faxes over the PSTN and were less connected as IP communications became more prevalent.

If we consider the trends in computer-based fax, they played out differently. Companies like Brooktrout sold fax boards to independent software developers and the boards were incorporated in local area network solutions. These solutions also typically included tight integration with email.  By 2004, Fax over IP enabling technology started to be commercialized, using the ITU-T T.38 IP fax standards. T.38 had some technical issues, but it could use the same call control protocols — SIP, H.323 and H.248 — that were being adopted by the new Voice over IP networks, so T.38 became a popular choice for conveying fax over these VoIP networks. By contrast, the T.37 approach of Internet Fax over Email did not get much adoption, most likely because it didn’t mesh very well with Voice over IP.  The computer-based fax solutions that ran on Local Area Networks continued to have healthy growth in the first decade of the 2000s in large part due to the continued validity of fax as a legal document, perceived security compared to use of email over the Internet, a slow rampup in the use of digital signatures on other electronic documents and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which meshed well with receiving fax documents in electronic form (rather than on a paper tray).

During the same period, email use continued to grow, but rising issues such as lack of security and massive amounts of spam made the use of email outside of corporate subject to a number of hassles. As noted above, electronic signatures started to become available as a legal alternative to fax signatures, but didn’t gain widespread use until the past few years. As a result, enterprises tended to standardize on a particular commercial email package and communicate whenever possible over secured private IP networks and by making use of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Now, in 2018, the messaging world is highly fragmented. Large enterprises have tended to choose unified communications eco-systems from large players like Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya, but even these solutions are rapidly evolving as the momentum is shifting toward pushing enterprise communications into the Cloud.  Hence, Microsoft is shifting its emphasis from Lync to Skype for Business and now onto Teams and other vendors such as Cisco are doing much the same.  Upstarts such as Slack have started by offering cloud-based team communications and have forced reactions from the traditional Unified Communications players.  As messaging has evolved, voice is now becoming less important and fax is now more of a niche play.  One thing I don’t see too much of is the use of business communications that can effectively cross the boundaries between organizations. In theory, Cloud-based communications could get us there, but the vision of the late Nineties of being able to communicate documents and other types of media effectively across the entire Internet has been hobbled by security, privacy and spam issues. We’ll have to see if the Cloud and better cross-network security mechanisms could form the foundation for approaches that will be superior to today’s highly balkanized communications landscape.

If you or your company have participated in the massive changes to the communications eco-system since the 1990s, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services to better address the rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

Virtual Software: Changing Business Models

One of the best texts I’ve ever read about business models was written by Cory Doctorow, a famous writer and entrepreneur. His novel Makers was not only a great story, but virtually a doctoral thesis on how business models can change and have a radical impact on everything they touch.

A couple years ago, I helped launch a new virtualized software product line for Dialogic. The PowerVille™ Load Balancer was different in many ways from other products I’d managed. The software was totally agnostic to the underlying hardware, courtesy of a Java code base which was highly portable to multiple topologies. As a result, it fit nicely into a variety of virtual environments and also was poised to make the leap into emerging Cloud architectures, in line with trends like the emerging Virtualized Network Function (VNF) and approaches like the use of HEAT templates for configuration.

A few months into the launch, my manager and I talked about how to take this product to the next level and realized that we needed different business models for this kind of product. The traditional load balancer provided by industry leaders such as F5 was built on top of proprietary hardware platforms, and the business model followed suit. Pricing was typically based on a purchase, where all of the hardware (and software) was purchased upfront, accompanied by a service agreement which was renewed year by year.  This approach is often called the perpetual model.

But with the Cloud taking over, customers were looking for different answers. Cloud Services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and lots of industry software had moved to subscription or usage based business models. For example, if you buy a subscription to to a software product like Adobe Acrobat, you get the right to use the product so long as you keep paying the monthly subscription fees. Amazon went further. You can buy rights to AWS services and only pay for the usage of the Cloud infrastructure you have purchased. In the world of virtual services, this permits customers to scale up for high usage events—think of the capacity need to support online voting via text for a television program like American Idol—and then scale back down as needed, perhaps even to zero.

We considered these kinds of changes for the Dialogic load balancer, but other virtual software products at the company ended up taking the lead in becoming available under subscription or usage based models. The implications were huge. Salesreps loved the perpetual model, since they’d get a big chunk of commissions every time they sold a big box.  In a subscription or usage based model, the revenue—and the commissions—move to a “pay as you go” model. Hence, no big upfront commissions payout and you need to keep the customer happy to get that recurring revenue stream. By contrast, finance executives now had a revenue stream which was less bumpy, since there was somewhat less incentive for Sales to go out and close those end of quarter deals. Customers also like the flexibility of subscription models. Typically, they may pay more over the long haul vs. the perpetual model, but they also have the option to change to a new product or service mid-stream. In summary, the move to virtual software and related technical innovations such as Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or by extension Anything as a Service is likely to drag in new business models.  These new business models change the finances both on the customer and vendor side and not everybody will be pleased with the results, but momentum for these trends continues to grow.

If your organization has participated in the evolution from perpetual to subscription or usage based business models, please  weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

 

Paradigm Shift: Virtual to the Cloud

We live in a world where communication solutions can be hardware-based, run in a virtual machine on a local server or be situated in the Cloud. The paradigm for communications solutions has been shifting from hardware to software to virtualization as I’ve discussed in my recent posts. Once a solution is virtual, in principle, customers have the flexibility to control their own destiny. They can run solutions on their own premises, in the Cloud, or with a hybrid model that uses both approaches.

Let’s consider an example. Dialogic has traced this type of evolution in its SBC products.  In 2013, the company positioned two products as SBCs. The BorderNet™ 2020 IMG provided both SBC and media gateway capabilities and found an audience that wanted an IP gateway between different networks or an enterprise edge device. The BorderNet™ 4000 was a new product which focused on SBC interconnect functions and ran on an internally-managed COTS platform. Five years later, both products have changed significantly.  The IMG 2020 continues to run its core functions on a purpose-built platform, but its management can be either virtual or web-based.  The BorderNet™ 4000 has morphed into a re-branded BorderNet™ SBC product offering. The product has evolved from its initial hardware focus to being a more portable software offering.  Customers can now run the software on a hardware server, in a choice of virtual machines or by deploying on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. Whereas the original BorderNet 4000 only supported signaling, the BorderNet SBC can optionally also support transcoding of media, either in hardware (using a COTS platform) or in software. The journey of these products has offered customers more choices. The original concepts of both products are still supported, but the products now have elements of virtualization which have enhanced their portability. So as a result, the full functionality of the BorderNet SBC can run in the Amazon cloud and in the other business models.

Once a product has been virtualized, it can be deployed numerous ways and can be deployed using a variety of business models. As customers want to move solutions to the Cloud, being able to run one or more instances of software in virtual machines is essential. The term Cloud tends to be used generically, but in telecom, there are multiple ways the evolution to the cloud is playing out. One example is the OpenStack movement, where open source has helped drive what is sometimes called the Public Cloud. The various forms of private clouds have also been popular, with variations being offered   by Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Oracle, IBM and others.

In my next post, we’ll consider how the technical changes we’ve been describing here have also been coupled with changes to business models.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products / services in this rapidly changing technical and business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn.