Unified communications brings together all shapes and sizes of communication tools and makes them better. Ironically, presence is still an emerging, passive form of communication that ties other forms together. At first glance, presence doesn't seem to "communicate" much at all: It's just a quiet status icon that may (or may not) include a short message about what a person is doing. But analysts and vendors agree that presence is the glue that holds unified communications together and, if leveraged correctly, could mean the difference between a successful UC deployment and one that misses UC's potential altogether.
"You would lose about 50% of the effectiveness of unified communications," said Sara Radicati, president of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Radicati Group. "It's a small thing, but the point is that, like a lot of things, once you get used to it, you can't get rid of it."
The definition of presence is, at its simplest, any type of application that makes it possible to identify the status of a computing device or user wherever it or he may be, as soon as the device or user connects to the network. In practice, however, it has come to mean much more, thanks in no small part to the ways presence has quietly transformed aspects of communication.
The connection between presence and IM
According to industry experts, presence's first memorable foray into communications was in instant messaging (IM) applications. IM applications, though then very rudimentary, actually predated the Internet. These early applications originally indicated only whether someone was available or not, and slowly evolved to provide more information, such as away messages and mobility indicators (if, for example, the user is logged in via a cell phone).
For many users and even enterprises, traditional IM clients are still the first real introduction to presence, whether that be a consumer-oriented service like AOL IM or an enterprise-grade deployment like IBM Lotus Sametime.
Eventually, presence evolved beyond its IM origins. While these simple status updates were a big advance over a ringing phone, demand quickly grew for more advanced features and more in-depth information. Rich presence was born, or evolved, to include a person's location, device information and a variety of other data to help better connect people.
Presence in the call center
When data is properly coordinated and presented, it has the potential to transform the call center, through both incremental improvements and fundamental operation shifts.
For example, presence can be used to make distributed call centers work better: A manager can monitor which remote employees are on the phone, and employees can conversely flag their manager if they need a quick turnaround on a customer question. In real time via instant messaging, managers and employees can exchange information and resolve an issue often without even placing the customer on hold.
A deeper level of integrated presence could also be harnessed as a training tool. Managers can "click into" live customer service calls and prompt trainees silently via instant message when necessary.
This kind of presence technology is quickly working its way into call centers, bringing with it a number of other benefits. For one, it helps improve the accuracy and speed of escalations: A call center agent can quickly see whether a specific expert is available via his presence status, IM the expert with a brief rundown of the customer's issue, and then patch the caller through with minimal downtime.
Before presence can be utilized effectively, call centers should be merged to enable them to function more effectively and share resources. The next step is to allow agents to control calls on screen: Escalate, hold and transfer functionalities can all be available at the agent's fingertips, and the phone can be coordinated with their logged-in status. Next, presence and IM can be linked with intra-office capabilities. It's here that call agents can see one another and their managers, and managers can see who is on a call and listen in on the fly.
The future of presence
Today, presence is mostly individual-based -- John Smith and Jane Doe each have their own, unique presence identities. But process-driven use cases are pushing presence to take on role-based aspects: A call agent at a financial firm, for example, might need an expert on fixed annuities, but any fixed annuities expert will do.
Instead of scanning presence indicators for 20 different names, he can simply ping "Fixed Annuities Expert," which would then intelligently forward the call to the right expert outside the call center.
Presence is also bringing the call center out into the field. Products like Motorola's CA-50 VoIP phone, for example, let in-store employees scan a product's barcode and be directed instantly to a product's call center for technical information to answer customer questions.
"It's in the starting phases," Radicati said of these advanced presence usages. "We're definitely seeing enterprises begin to move in that direction, as well as vendors providing that."