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Microsoft's partnership with Aspect sparks interest in converged contact centers

Early promoters of converged contact centers claim the efficiencies lead to improved sales and happier customers, but the research results are less clear.

When Microsoft announced at VoiceCon 2008 a partnership with Aspect Software to push unified communications (UC) into the call center, a lot of enterprises began re-evaluating their own strategies.

Can measurable gains really be made by letting contact agents connect with customers by phone, email, chat and more? The jury is still out, but the promise of more efficient contact centers and higher customer satisfaction is hard to ignore.

Mike Jude, an analyst with Nemertes, is in the process of gathering data for a forthcoming UC study. The data is still preliminary, but he said that so far about a quarter of enterprises have begun re-evaluating their call center strategies as a result of the Microsoft announcement.

"Companies are still trying to understand the return on investment on it," Jude said. "Is a person sitting there, doing chats, emails, with calls and faxes coming in, more productive in terms of generating sales than a dedicated center with separate people taking calls and emails?"

So far, few companies have been able to provide Nemertes with hard evidence either way, though a lack of data has not stopped a few companies jumping headfirst into a converged call center.

The Philadelphia Phillies recently refitted their operations to let sales agents connect with customers not only by phone but also by fax, the Web, and at the ticket counter, with all sales information going through a common interface provided by IP communications vendor Mitel.

"Most sports teams outsource their contact center," said Doug Michaelides, vice president of marketing for Mitel. "The Phillies don't do that. They consider that the lifeblood of their team."

Michaelides said the Phillies were careful to craft the consumer experience from the very first moment to help drive and retain sales.

Giving qualified customer reps the ability to operate in whatever mode the customer prefers is a key to that strategy, as is the flexibility of having an all IP-based system that can quickly draft employees from across the company to help deal with peak customer demand if, for example, the Phillies get on a hot streak.

Because employees are not tied to any one medium, a sudden flood of calls or faxes can be addressed with all hands on deck and with no one sitting idle just because the ticket is in the fax queue and he is a phone agent.

Jude pointed out that pushing employees to move seamlessly between mediums could have drawbacks.

"Sometimes, when you're throwing a lot of different things at people, there is a reflex reaction where you shut down for a few seconds before moving to the next thing," he said. "I think personally it would drive me crazy."

Currently, Nemertes hasn't developed enough information either way to conclude a net positive or negative impact on having employees manage multiple streams of communication, Jude said. But that particular study should be finished in a month.

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