The Contact Center and the Infrastructure

When we think about contact centers getting smarter, we tend to think about all the data, structured and unstructured, that the enterprise possesses about the customer: What has she bought from us in the past? When was his last purchase? Is he a Gold-/Platinum-/etc.-level customer? Get that information to the agent and let the agent go to work on him or her.

In the last year or so, the buzz phrase "customer journey" has become ubiquitous in contact center circles -- beloved of marketers for its heroic connotations, I'm sure. But it's also a useful metaphor to describe what the enterprise is trying to understand about the customer: Where has this person been to, and where is he trying to go? And while CRM-level data may be useful in answering these questions, it's actually data from the infrastructure itself that may, unsurprisingly, be more helpful to us in trying to trace the wanderings of the epic hero known as the Customer.

I say unsurprisingly because the "where" of that journey is, in general, real (i.e., virtual) "places" in the customer contact system: He's been to the IVR; he's been to the website and to Twitter (but he's never been to Me.) When there were two sets of footprints in the sand, it was because the agent was with him; when there was just one set, it was because systems integration had proven unwieldy and ultimately unsuccessful, and he was left alone in his time of greatest need.

In a way, we're going deeper into the core model of computer-telephony integration, or CTI. Except that in CTI, we relied on just one interface -- the voice telephone -- to gather information that could be used to fetch data from the database and display it on the agent computer. All this input had to be able to be done via either a phone keypad, the PSTN's ANI channel, and/or (eventually) voice recognition software.

But now that customers are using "data" channels like the Web for customer service, there's a need for greater backend integration. Now the "CTI" system has to collect data from all of the sources from which the customer is approaching the enterprise -- phone call into IVR with its various inputs; entries into online chat windows or request forms; Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts.

The ability to collect this data is making its way into various infrastructure elements that didn't used to have such a role. Analyst Zeus Kerravala writes in No Jitter this week that Sonus Networks is adding some of this functionality into its session border controllers (SBCs). That makes sense because SBCs sit at the network edge and are particularly critical in SIP trunking implementations, which themselves are especially cost-effective for deploying as access into contact centers.

It's also something that contact center-focused software companies are creating products to satisfy. Startups like Altocloud are focused on the "customer journey," and companies like Aspect Software, with a deep heritage in ACDs and other contact center intelligence, are likewise building this "journey" functionality into their products. Aspect has come up with the concept of a "continuity server," which can be a physical box or a function of a larger product; its role is to create and store "context cookies" on sessions across media --IVR, website, etc. -- which then let the system retain awareness of what the customer has done, so as to provide more complete information to the agent who may wind up handling a live interaction.

It's too early to tell (for me, at least) how duplicative these types of implementations might become. Will the "customer journey" integration software be a key element of the contact center buy? Will the integrations with infrastructure elements like the SBC be more useful for companies with lighter customer contact demands, where such enhancements are a "nice to have" but not worthy of an investment in dedicated systems?

We'll be addressing these issues in various forms at Enterprise Connect 2015 in Orlando March 16 to 19. We've got a session dedicated to the customer journey, which is going to be led by Aphrodite Brinsmead of Ovum Research; panelists will include our contact center guru, Sheila McGee-Smith. I hope you can join us in Orlando.

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