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How Context Sits at Intersection of CRM, ACD

I have recently been helping one of the world's largest healthcare providers replace its contact center telephony infrastructure, a system that, once completed, will be deployed to 3,000 employees. The project team keeps asking if the new real-time engagement system is a customer relationship management (CRM) solution -- a question I commonly get from clients once they've seen a demonstration of how context can be stored and utilized to create rich information for contact center agents. To me such a consideration is a non sequitur, but many of the context-dependent and metadata-based functions offered by modern real-time engagement platforms do tend to mimic CRM functions. Or, is that vice versa?

Context Is Key
CRM creates value by retaining context and using this information to trigger events or processes. On the other hand, modern engagement systems have been trying to incorporate context for decades, but with limited success. Traditionally, context in the telephony world came in the form of automatic number identification and Dialed Number Identification Service -- and many traditional telecom carriers are still clinging to this antiquated infrastructure. Modern real-time solutions have the ability to tap into a session and attach vast amounts of information and metadata to it. Given the opportunity to create REST APIs in hours or days, this information and data can be bonded to communications sessions in ways that telecom engineers had never contemplated.

In the case of my healthcare client, the CRM vs. real-time engagement question comes from its use of an electronic medical records (EMR) solution from Epic -- it does not have a CRM platform. Epic historically has not offered many CRM-like features, but this year finally took a step beyond HL7 information exchange standards with new Web services interfaces. In essence, outside vendors are augmenting Epic's EMR solutions with real-time systems to create CRM-like features. But in this information systems architecture the metadata, routing rules, and patient records are all stored in different locations and in different formats, making the sustainability of this approach highly dependent on upgrades or new software releases that do not break anything. This is not a strategy for long-term success.

Continuity of Experience
Real-time access to stored metadata was what put Genesys in the contact center business in the early 1990s. At that time, we were storing information about the last agent to whom a customer spoke so we could route him back to that agent should he call again within 48 hours of the first interaction. CRM systems tend to have longer memories these days, but the goal is the same -- continuity of experience.

When Tom Siebel founded his CRM company, Siebel Systems (now Oracle) in 1993, he was focused on the same types of issues surrounding customer engagement. Since his canvas was not limited by the telephony oligopoly, he was free to develop solutions to real-world issues surrounding customer engagement. What has evolved is a $26 billion CRM industry, according to 2015 data from Gartner (the latest published), that grew 12.3% from 2014.

WebRTC and gateway technologies have enabled CRM and telephony solution providers to create automated customer engagement solutions for functions such as setting and canceling appointments, receiving appointment reminders, follow-up communications, shipping notifications, address updates, agent-specific routing, skills-based routing, debt collection, payments, payment plans, and so on.

The limitations of the legacy telecom infrastructure are fading, and telephony solutions providers are embracing this opportunity to expand their portfolios. In competition, the CRM folks are building API-based solutions that use gateways and WebRTC to add real-time engagement tools to their solutions without the need to partner with telephony vendors. My customers are seeing this trend, too, as indicative in their "Is that CRM?" question. The next question is: If you own both a CRM and real-time engagement system, then which should you use to support your future customer engagement strategies?

The telephony side of the contact center industry is in disarray. Avaya is reportedly seeking to sell off its contact center business and declare bankruptcy. Interactive Intelligence is now a Genesys property. NICE Systems purchased InContact, and Aspect was forced into a court-ordered reorganization.

The CRM industry is the polar opposite. Salesforce is rolling out WebRTC engagement solutions, SAP Cloud For Customers has partnered with Genband for real-time engagement, Microsoft Dynamics has partnered with CafeX for its collaboration solutions, and Oracle owns Acme Packet (and, by the way, all their stocks are trading at or near 10-year highs).

The traditional barriers that the telecom carrier oligopoly imposed on the software industry are crumbling. This is what is blurring the lines between CRM and real-time customer engagement. "Legacy" may soon be the way we describe contact center solutions that cannot support rich context and real-time engagement at the same time. My opinion, both industries will provide rich engagement solutions in the short run. Long run, my money is on the CRM industry.