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Like many other observers with a business perspective, I have been skeptical of unified communications, but a day I spent at the recent Unified Communications Expo 2012 went a long way to convincing me that unified communications has entered the mainstream. At this point I think organizations should consider it as a viable option to improve the efficiency of their communications systems, the ability to collaborate internally and with customers, and the effectiveness of their multimedia contact centers. 

The exhibit hall featured well-known communications vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Aspect, AT&T, Avaya, NEC and Nokia, some well-known computing brands such as Dell, IBM and Microsoft that are not widely recognized as being in the communications market, and a host of other vendors demonstrating all manner of communications products. The offerings ranged from fully integrated unified communications systems to communication services, headsets, mobile devices, video systems, and consulting and implementation services, and one or two specialist contact center system suppliers were on hand.

The three broad observations I took away from the show are these:

  • Although there was a lot of specialist hardware on display, software now rules the world of communications.
  • Unified communications is often associated with presence and collaboration, and although these were evident, a stronger focus was multimedia communications.
  • Hard-wired communications is giving way to demand for supporting out-of-office and mobile workers, and customers on the move or in remote locations.

Typifying these trends was the presence of many Microsoft partners offering products and services based on Microsoft Lync. This is a software-only product that unites audio, instant messaging, video, voice and Web-based conferencing. It includes presence so users can easily find and connect with other parties logged onto the system and collaboration tools so users can share data and information such as documents, presentations and spreadsheets. Due to the overwhelming presence Microsoft has in many organizations, Lync offers the possibility of replacing traditional on-premises PBXs with a software system based on non-proprietary hardware; however, several vendors I spoke to predicted this won’t happen for a few years as Lync still lacks some of the capabilities required to manage a large contact center. One major player, Dell UK, has spotted this potential andpresented itself as the leading provider of services to implement unified communications based on Lync.

My primary interest was to assess the impact of unified communications in the contact center. I didn’t have to wander far from the Lync section to find Zeacom, which offers a software-only multimedia contact center product and recently announced full integration with Lync. In the same area I also found two vendors new to me, Aastra and Vocalcom. Among several unified communications products, Aastra was demonstrating Solidus eCare, its own multimedia contact center system. And Vocalcom was launching its Hermes.Net, also a software-based multimedia contact center product. My recent research into the maturity of customer relationships shows that providing multiple channels of communication to support customer interactions is now a must for companies, and with these emerging vendors and the ones I already cover, organizations now have a broad choice of suitable products to support their efforts.

My last observation isn’t about the show as such but about its organizers. They showed they are on top of current developments, and as well as all the usual channels of communications, by providing a mobile app for the show, available on all smart mobile devices. It allowed me to register, find information about the exhibitors, see a floor plan and the schedule of all the presentations, and download videos and presentations; I was pleased to have all that in the palm of my hand. I urge other conference organizers and companies that put on their own events to consider providing something similar; I predict that their audiences will like it as much as I did.

Has your company adopted unified communications? Have you seen how it could benefit your contact center and the way you interact with customers? If so please tell us more and collaborate with me further.

Regards

Richard Snow – VP & Research Director

Businesses have long struggled to build ongoing, profitable relationships with their customers.  Our new benchmark research into customer relationship maturity shows that this is not getting easier. 

One reason is that consumers now want to interact with organizations through various channels of their choice. This creates pressures on organizations to support instant messaging, text messaging, video, social media and others; the research shows organizations on average support four or five channels. Another pressure point is to resolve more interactions at the first attempt. To meet this requirement, the most mature organizations use expert employees in several business units to handle interactions. The research shows organizations on average use four or five business units to handle inbound interactions, and four  also handle outbound interactions. With multiple business units using multiple communication channels, organizations struggle to provide consistent information and experiences to customers.

The research uncovers three fundamental issues companies must address to provide consistent information and experiences. The first is to create a single source of customer data. Fewer than half of the organizations we looked at (45%) have a single source of customer data. Just over half (52%) have to struggle with three or four sources, while nearly one-quarter (22%) have to deal with 10 or more. Not having a single source of data leads to the second issue: The majority of organizations struggle to produce a single set of reports and analysis that everyone can use in handling interactions at any touch point. The research shows that fewer than one-third (31%) have such a set of reports and analysis. On average organizations have three groups producing customer reports and analysis. Inevitably, this means that some customer information is not up-to-date; for one-fifth (21%) of organizations the information is more than a week old, so decisions are made using inaccurate information. 

The third challenge is to personalize interactions. Increasingly, consumers want to be recognized as individuals and want responses to be made within the context of their current circumstances, not generic replies. The research shows that while organizations are good at personalizing email, telephone-based and written responses, fewer can personalize responses to social media (31%), e-commerce (29%), self-service (25%), text messages (17%) and IVR (13%). All of these challenges are compounded for organizations that deal with customers through third parties. The research shows that such organizations are more comfortable providing marketing and sales support than customer service.

Mature companies are more customer-focused than others, and this disposition starts at the top. Just over one-third (36%) of organizations involve the executive team when defining their customer relationship strategy, and one-quarter involve the CEO. In the most mature companies, this involvement leads to creation of a cross-business-unit group that interacts directly with customers and supports other teams in their efforts. 

Mature organizations also are early adopters of three process-based techniques that support building customer relationships: personas, customer journey maps and customer feedback, all of which are used by around two-thirds of organizations participating in the research. Personas support the definition of more granular customer segments and allow organizations to build views of different customer groups. Customer journey maps support the production of process-like maps that define how and when different customer groups are likely to interact with an organization throughout the entire life cycle, and so allow organizations to plan the experience at each touch point. Organizations may also collect feedback from customers at the time of interaction and through the channel of customer choice, and from it produce “the voice of the customer,” which can be taken into account as they try to improve the customer experience. Each of these techniques can be put to different uses; the most common is to develop better interaction-handling processes.

Another significant development impacting customer relationships is the growing use of social media. The research shows that while most companies have created a presence on Facebook (89%), Twitter (68%), LinkedIn (57%) and YouTube (45%), they use them mainly for marketing. Few companies use social media to provide proactive customer service, although many have taken initial steps to respond to complaints posted on social media. But 69 percent do not personalize these responses, and an inappropriate response can cause more issues than the original problem. Only the most mature 13 percent of companies have realized the impact that high influencers can have through social media and have begun to differentiate customer service to these individuals. 

Building customer relationships is never easy. Organizations need to look at the maturity of their people, processes, information and systems and how these can be synchronized to become more customer-focused. The key is information. Ventana Research recommends that companies evaluate how analytics can help them derive more insights about customers and their likely behaviors. Using this information, organizations can address the people, process and technology issues that will improve the customer experience and lead to improved customer relationships.

How customer-focused is your organization? Have you got to grips with how social media is changing your customers’ behaviors? How is the use of mobile devices impacting the way customers interact with your organization?  Please tell us by collaborating with me. 

Regards

Richard Snow – VP & Research Director

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