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Why WebRTC May Not Matter

WebRTC is on the horizon, and it is approaching quickly. Just last week, a WebRTC call was placed between two separately developed browsers; Chrome and FireFox. WebRTC promises real time, client-less communication via web browser. A degree of real-time interoperability that hasn't been seen since the creation of the PSTN itself, but this time around it will be a much grander scale. There are far more web browsers out there than telephones, and WebRTC supports presence, video, and screen views as well as voice communications.

WebRTC enthusiasts promise the technology will change everything. Every desktop becomes a rich UC-capable endpoint. Click to talk on a global scale.

The potential ramifications for customer interactions are huge. Imagine having a question while visiting a web page and simply being able to click for a live interactive session with an expert. WebRTC will pass the contextual information (such as the specific web page in question) and establish immediate voice, video or other connection. WebRTC could very quickly change how businesses interact with their customers.

Or it won't.

WebRTC promises contextual real time conversations. But there are multiple barriers to success. First, let's look at the client-side issues that could prevent communications. The client may not be on a WebRTC enabled browser. Or, if he/she is, then perhaps they don't have a webcam, or a suitable microphone or speakers. Perhaps the caller doesn't want to engage in real-time communications, or is in a location (like a library or theater) where speaking is inappropriate. It is also possible that a location has too much background noise for effective communications.

Those are all legitimate and realistic situations, but the bigger barriers lie within the contact center. You see, all that stuff about "your call is important to us" is generally a bunch of malarky. The fact is that real-time agent interaction is very expensive and does not scale. Contact centers are increasingly designed to minimize agent interaction rather than promote it.

Microsoft, Google, and Apple don't seem to be in agreement over WebRTC--therefore how, or if it gets implemented, is far from clear. Not included within the specification is any form of interoperability with the PSTN or even SIP, and it isn't yet known if/when the standard will even be ratified. But that will all work itself out. The bigger issue of why WebRTC may not matter is no one wants to "talk" anymore.

While WebRTC may promise a new means to real time communications, it doesn't necessarily offer contact centers new capabilities. For example, contact centers today can embed a "click for assistance" feature within web pages. It is possible to provide plugin-free contextual web page support by simply asking the client to enter their call-back number. This feature is indeed found in the wild, it is inexpensive and avoids many potential pitfalls, yet it is not widespread. Why is that?

Modern contact centers are all about operator efficiencies. Even if that means "longer hold times than usual" or asking clients to restate account numbers. There's been tremendous technical progress that improves agent efficiencies, but not so many that return time to the caller. One great customer feature is virtual queuing, that releases the caller from music-on-hold jail and instead keeps the call in virtual queue and calls back the customer when the agent becomes available--again a feature that's not particularly common in the real world. WebRTC may make real-time communications easier on a technical level, but that doesn't mean customer interaction will improve--because the barrier to great service has not been the technology.

Contact centers looking to improve engagement can turn to something as simple as Skype or even create their own real time applications. In addition to the broad portfolio of industry contact center vendors, there's also several smaller firms with specialized offerings such as Fonolo. Simply answering the calls would be an improvement for many contact centers.

WebRTC is, without doubt, an exciting new technology. In many ways it represents the natural expected evolution of the web browser and will dramatically improve real time interoperability. It is not, however, a panacea to today's customer interaction frustrations.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Principal Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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