Unified communications (UC) is a concept that has its tendrils in all areas of business, from enterprise software to back-office applications to the Internet Protocol (IP) contact center. In fact, it has been posited that UC has its origin in the contact center, because some of the core applications -- such as presence and instant messaging (IM) -- have always essentially been the heart of the contact center. Today, UC is helping the IP contact center to increase productivity and functionality in unprecedented ways.
IP contact center origins: Similar roots for UC and the contact center
… the advancement of UC is now helping improve the IP contact center in some very interesting ways.
Unified communications includes numerous end-user productivity-enhancing applications, from the aforementioned presence and IM to video conferencing and collaboration capabilities. The purpose of UC is to use these applications to broaden and enhance end-user productivity and accessibility. Those people lucky enough to be "UC-enabled" can contact other UC users anywhere, using the communication method and endpoint device of their choice.
They can send and share documents, start conferences, access information, participate in video conferences and add parties to meetings that are already in session. This is similar to what agents or supervisors can do in a contact center.
The contact center, on the other hand, is organizationally focused. The purpose of the contact center is to field incoming calls for customer service and support, sales or other services, or to place outbound calls for similar purposes. It is focused less on the end-user agent than on the customer and business results.
However, the tools used to manage UC, as it pertains to running a business and the contact center, are the same. In the contact center, agents are essentially managed using software that, in UC, we call presence -- we know when and where agents are, how long they talk, with whom they talk, to whom they transfer calls and their current status. Within UC, presence status tells us the same information. Within contact center platforms, agents are able to consult supervisors and use chat to get help. The same is true for UC. Statistics are kept on both.
How unified communications can improve the IP contact center
The key point is not which came first, however -- it's that many of these core features create benefits for both UC and contact centers. The business world is now aware that connecting people and processes, no matter the worker's function, goes a long way toward building the productivity of an individual and group. Although UC may have its roots in contact centers, the advancement of UC is now helping improve the IP contact center in some very interesting ways.
Video, for example, was not necessarily destined to become pervasive within a standard contact center, because applications didn't demand it. Now, though, IP call center managers are looking at video as a helpful add-on to increase capability and efficiency.
The pervasiveness of video in UC, as evidenced by rising video conferencing adoption, is spilling over into IP contact centers and creating awareness of video as a business-critical tool. For example, a financial institution might use a remote agent at a video kiosk to supplement customer service at a bank, or an agent might "push" an instructional video during a customer support call to show the customer how to do something.
Another important IP contact center trend is the growing use of expert agents to assist normal agents. Expert agents are subject-matter experts who are frequently called upon by other agents to assist with specific matters, but who are not part of a formal contact center. For example, an agent booking service appointments might make a side call to a service technician for help. Traditionally, agents had to learn the right expert resources to contact when they got stuck, but today, systems that categorize and contact formal expert agents are springing up. The experts are tracked by presence, and the IP contact center monitors statistics associated to their time spent assisting calls.
Finally, the blending and borrowing of capabilities that UC and the IP contact center share is best highlighted by the growing number of new customer contact channels that are emerging. Social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn and others, are being simultaneously embraced by UC and contact center vendors at a rapid pace. For UC end users, social media access through UC builds relationships, makes users more accessible and increases productivity, among other things. Social media in the IP contact center does the same, but also acts as a valuable source of information about customers, prospects and company perception, and allows contact centers to be more proactive and reactive.
UC and the contact center were once perceived as different, but these two business functions and technologies are inextricably linked. New capabilities developed by vendors are keeping both UC and IP contact center usage in mind. Smart IT managers will recognize -- and make the most of -- the similarities.
About the author:
Nancy Jamison is an independent consultant specializing in speech technologies, voice processing, contact centers and unified communications. As principal analyst at Jamison Consulting, she provides in-depth communications technology research, analysis and insight to clients who want to explore how each technology affects the end user: from executives, contact center managers and applications developers to retail customers. She has 26 years of industry experience, including five years as a principal analyst at Gartner Group/Dataquest in the Voice Systems North America program of Dataquest's Telecommunications group.