Collaboration Solutions

14 Posts authored by: pstockford

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Cisco’s Collaboration Summit in Boca Raton, FL. These are typically large events with attendees comprising the analyst and consultant communities as well as Cisco’s distribution partners.  As usual, Cisco held nothing back at this event including conducting the event at a first-class venue and providing no-holds-barred access to executives from Cisco’s Collaboration business units.


The overriding theme of the Collaboration Summit reminded me of a well-known acronym that originated with the U.S. Navy in 1960 and gained a
great deal of popularity during the software development days of the 1980s.  The KISS principle, which stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid” was adopted by 1980s software engineers who were looking for ways to design software that would be intuitive for the knowledge worker in the typical business setting.


The theme of the Cisco Collaboration Summit was “Keep it Simple and Pervasive,” which I have dubbed the Cisco KISP principle.  The KISP principle was pervasive at this year’s event with emphasis on the underlying theme of simplifying the collaboration infrastructure through unification, simplifying the IT experience through ease of deployment in each product family, and creating a high-value collaboration experience for users that becomes pervasive throughout the enterprise.


Since my research practice focuses on the contact center and customer collaboration fields, the sessions covering these topics were naturally of greatest interest to me. Again, Cisco made executives from these business units available during deep-dive sessions for consultants and analysts as well as in general session panel discussions.


In the contact center world, Cisco’s KISP strategy is also being expanded to serve the mid-market – a market segment that has traditionally been underserved but represents a significant opportunity for any vendor with products appropriate for the unique needs of these users.  In order to reach this market, Cisco has packaged its Contact Center Enterprise (CCE) solution, greatly simplifying deployment and administration in recognition of the limited resources of most mid-market contact centers while maintaining essential applications in demand by this segment.


If there was a second theme of the Collaboration Summit it would have been solutions delivery through the cloud.  The importance of the cloud in the contact center hasn’t been lost on Cisco although I was encouraged to see that they are still committed to premise solutions.  While the cloud has been getting the lion’s share of headlines, premise equipment still gets the lion’s share of the business. 


There have been some changes among the ranks of Cisco management in the last couple of years, but the underlying company message of the Collaboration Summit has remained remarkably consistent year over year.  Cisco is committed to the contact center industry, not as an add-on to their networking infrastructure but as a suite of solutions that stands on its own merits.


The Cisco Collaboration Summit didn’t change my opinion of Cisco.  Rather, it reinforced my opinion that Cisco is a company on the move in the contact center industry.  Compared to the other large companies serving the industry, it stands alone in its financial stability, its management
consistency, and its ability to execute on its well-defined strategy.  If the objective of the Cisco Collaboration Summit was to showcase a well-run company with an innovative vision of the future of customer collaboration and enterprise communications, the event did an outstanding job of accomplishing that objective. 

Last week I attended Cisco’s contact center/customer collaboration analyst briefing in Boston.  I have been attending these Cisco briefings on a regular basis since the reboot a few years ago.  In fact, I have been attending analyst briefings hosted by various companies for my entire analyst career, which now exceeds 20 years.  To be honest, other than location there is usually very little that distinguishes one analyst briefing from another.  This year, however, I was struck by something that made the Cisco analyst briefing stand head-and-shoulders above others I have attended in recent memory.  In a word, it was consistency.


As I sat during the opening session listening to the collaboration group executives talk about Cisco’s contact center industry vision, their execution against that vision and the results of that execution, I realized I was listening to the same executives I had heard speak on the topic last year.  And the year before.  And the year before that, and the year before that.  As unremarkable as that may sound, a record of management stability such as that is quite unusual in the contact center industry.


Executive turnover in companies that supply technology solutions to the contact center industry is the norm.  When companies hit a stumbling block, real or perceived, removal of the executive staff typically represents a quick fix to stockholders, customers and prospects.  It proves that something is being done to address the problem.  Sometimes it doesn’t even take a stumbling block to trigger executive turnover, it just happens. 


I worked as an analyst for Dataquest from 1989 to 1993.  During those four years, Dataquest had five different presidents, usually accompanied by their own executive staffs.  The company changed directions so many times in four years I got dizzy trying to keep up with the u-turns and about-faces.  The tumultuous nature of executive turnover doesn’t just affect employees – it  usually affects the company as a whole, sometimes with disastrous results.  Anyone remember Nortel?


Consistency of management and management direction in Cisco’s collaboration group has led to consistency in product development, consistency in product quality, consistency in market strategy and consistency in the pursuit of Cisco’s stated goal of holding the number one market share position in the contact center industry.  Cisco’s collaboration story hasn’t changed significantly over the years and while it may not be as dramatic as hearing the story of a company that changes direction as frequently as my daughters change the color of their fingernail polish, I believe it provides Cisco customers and prospects with a high degree of confidence in their decision to implement Cisco solutions.  Consistency leads to stability, which is a highly regarded vendor trait in the collective mind of the contact center buyer community.


The length of time Cisco’s collaboration group executives have worked together is an anomaly in today’s technology industry, but I believe it is paying off for the company.  Cisco is moving rapidly to displace market share leaders in the segments they don’t already lead.  The company is moving forward with a singularity of vision and a market determination that is working.  I’m already looking forward to hearing these same collaboration group executives speak at next year’s analyst briefing.

The contact center industry is an industry that thrives on trendy topics.  People will flock in droves to hear about the latest cool app or hot technology, whether at a trade show or on a webinar.  What separates the wheat from the chaff, however, is when the buying starts.  When buyers are willing to spend real dollars instead of just an hour of their time on a solution, we know something important is happening.


In mid-2012, Saddletree Research undertook a research project in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers at The University of Southern Mississippi in order to determine the viability of the burgeoning mobile customer support industry trend.  What we found was startling.


Although we knew that mobility issues were important to the contact center industry, we had no idea that they are as important to the industry as they are.  This point was underscored when we learned that 49 percent of our research subjects stated that they were willing to invest or make additional investments in new platforms and applications that will support their customers that contact the customer care center using a mobile device.  39 percent reported that they had already started investing in new applications to support mobile customer applications.


At the end of the year we included questions regarding mobile customer support in the end-user research that we conduct during the fourth quarter of every year and discovered that contact center investment in mobility solutions was accelerating.  This is clearly an issue that is at the top of the collective industry mind.


I recently recorded a podcast with John Hernandez, General Manager of Cisco’s Collaboration group, in which we discussed the trends and issues surrounding mobile customer service.  In this podcast additional survey results and details are revealed and Cisco’s mobile applications development is discussed.  We also discussed what customer service professionals should look for in a mobile support solution and the resources required to launch a mobile application, among other topics.


The podcast can be downloaded here.  I invite you to take a few minutes and listen to this informative discussion.  You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn in the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee!

The U.S. contact center industry has seen sustained growth in employment for the past 14 calendar quarters in a row.  Coming off of exceptionally strong growth in the third quarter and fourth quarter of 2011, the industry took an unexpected dip in employment during the first quarter of this year, as illustrated in the following graph.


Cisco Graph 8-12.jpg

          Source:  Saddletree Research     


While the first quarter employment number remained positive, it was the lowest growth in contact center employment the industry has seen since the second quarter of 2010, as the industry was climbing out of the depths of the recession.  While the first quarter of 2012 saw job growth of 12,687 jobs, there was a concurrent loss of 12,174 jobs leaving a net gain of only 513 jobs.


The majority of job losses were a result of the layoff of thousands of contact center workers by T-Mobile and Verizon wireless.  These contact center jobs were outsourced to offshore contact centers.  Both T-Mobile and Verizon have had contact center layoffs in the past, but the fact that they both downsized their contact centers by such large numbers and at the same time is something of a puzzle.  The answer most likely lies in pending legislative action.


In December 2011, House Resolution 3596 was introduced by Representative Tim Bishop (D-NY). Called the United States Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act, the bill required companies to disclose the physical location of business agents engaging in customer service communications.  Those companies that relocate their call center operations overseas would be ineligible for Federal grants or guaranteed loans.


HR 3596 was not the first legislation that addressed the loss of U.S. contact center jobs to overseas outsourcers.  It is actually the fourth such bill introduced since 2005.  The difference with HR 3596 was that it had legs and was moving through the six step process involved in a bill signed into law.


States are also getting into the act in 2012 with state level legislation directly addressing contact center workers introduced in at least five states including Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland and West Virginia.  In New Jersey, Verizon was the recipient of approximately $113 million in subsidies from the state while at the same time laying off workers in their New Jersey contact centers and sending the jobs overseas.  Verizon also posted $33.4 billion in profits over the past three years, likely prompting New Jersey legislators to wonder why the state was subsidizing a highly profitable company that was sending New Jersey jobs overseas.


With HR 3596 making its way through the approval process, I assume that the wireless companies thinking about moving their contact center operations overseas were feeling the heat.  Rather than waiting to see if HR 3596 had better luck than its three predecessors in becoming law, they made their move in the first quarter of this year.  Between T-Mobile and Verizon, thousands of contact center jobs were shipped overseas, causing a significant dip in the employment growth that the U.S. contact center industry had enjoyed since 2009.


Ironically, HR 3596 was defeated on July 19, 2012 by a vote of 56 – 42.  At least 60 votes are required in the U.S. Senate for a bill to be enacted into law.


It could be argued that the jobs were as good as lost anyway and that the possibility of HR 3596 being enacted into law just prevented prolonged industry suffering.  In fact, the U.S. contact center industry bounced back in Q2 of this year with the addition of 10,914 jobs.  In the meantime, ten new office towers designed to house call centers are currently under construction in various locations in the Philippines where outsource contact centers are expected to employ 1.3 million Filipinos by 2016.

Mobility is a topic of increasing interest in the contact center industry.  The exceptional popularity of mobile communications devices is forcing customer service professionals to consider how to make these mobile devices conducive to a complete customer care experience.  Today it is common for a mobile device user who needs personal service to have to terminate the typical mobile application in order to initiate service with a live agent.  


While the industry concentrates on mobility from the customer side of the equation, I think there is an equally important aspect of mobility that is being overlooked by much of the industry.  The overlooked aspect addresses mobility on the task side of the customer service transaction; i.e., on the contact center side.  In other words, what about bringing mobility to some of the tools and applications being used in the customer service center.


With the advent of the Web 2.0 framework and the ability to create widgets, or applets, that are browser-based and can run on any browser-enabled mobile device, the possibilities of mobilizing many contact center tasks moves from concept to reality.  The challenge now becomes creating practical applications that address contact center performance as well as customer convenience.


First thought, of course, is to provide agents with mobile access to contact center applications while they’re outside of the contact center, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Realistically speaking, it is unlikely that many hourly wage agents will be motivated to take work home after their shift is over.  The exception to this may be allowing agents access to their schedules and request changes at any time from a mobile device.  This is an agent mobility application that makes sense.


For the contact center supervisor and manager, mobility could become an essential tool.  Providing supervisors the ability to move around the contact center while monitoring performance metrics could be an industry game changer.  Providing mobility for supervisors so that they could leave their desk without having to leave performance applications behind could boost productivity exponentially.  Efficiency could also be significantly improved if, for example, supervisors had anywhere access to things like the master schedule in order to quickly address the need to attend to tasks such as shifting breaks around and other schedule adjustments.


The challenge now is for a technology supplier to step up and start working on making mobile applications on the contact center operational side a reality.  This will take a little more imagination and creativity than will creating mobile applications on the customer side, but I believe mobility applications on the inside will have just as great an impact on the industry as mobility applications on the outside.  It’s time to start thinking about contact center mobility from the inside out.

The 9th annual CRM Magazine Service Awards winners were published in the March 2012 issue of the magazine.  I like these awards.  The reason I like these awards is because no money changes hands before awards are bestowed.  I also like them because there’s only one winner in each category.  Although this may rub against the grain of the Millennials who grew up with a collection of “Participant” trophies lining the shelves in their bedrooms, I think it’s entirely appropriate for the contact center industry.  It’s a good way to recognize exemplary company performance in terms of product offerings and service to the industry.


The CRM Magazine Service Awards is one of the few award processes I’ll participate in these days.   I used to participate in the “Best of Show” award processes many years ago at trade shows like ICCM.  No money exchanged hands there either, except I suppose the money the show organizers received selling booth space.  But when it came to judging it didn’t matter if you had a tiny booth in a dark corner or a two-story extravaganza a la Nortel trade show booths back in the day.  Companies were judged on the merits of their products, not whether or not their check cleared the bank.  CRM Magazine upholds this same standard, which is why I participate and why these awards are significant achievements and not just marketing fluff.


For the second year in a row Cisco has been awarded a CRM Magazine Service Award in the Service Leaders category.  After being named "The One to Watch” in the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) category in 2010, Cisco captured the top spot in 2011.  This is a particularly noteworthy achievement in that Cisco didn’t even place in this category just two short years ago


A year or so ago I heard Cisco’s John Hernandez specifically point to IVR as a market Cisco had targeted for industry leadership.  I wasn’t sure how they were going to accomplish this feat but as Cisco’s Web 2.0 strategy, which underlies the Customer Collaboration Suite, became clearer, so did the reasons behind Hernandez’s assertion that Cisco could capture IVR market leadership.


Competition will remain tough for Cisco in the IVR market and there are companies nipping at Cisco’s heels, but the fact that Cisco has made such noteworthy advances in its IVR strategy that it convinced the panel of objective judges to award this recognition is a significant accomplishment in itself. 


The CRM Magazine Service Leader is one of the few industry awards worth having.  Most of the contact center industry awards floating around the industry today aren’t worth the plastic they’re molded out of.  Any company that receives an award given by a panel of unbiased judges has a reason to be proud.  Cisco should be proud to fall into this category.


Blue Sky and Terra Firma

Posted by pstockford Nov 22, 2011

Returning last week from the Cisco consultant, analyst and partner meeting in Miami, I was struck by the thought of how well the company seems to straddle the line between blue sky futures and the reality of today.  This was particularly true with the presentations that related to the contact center industry.


Let me make it clear that I’m a big fan of the futuristic videos that many companies routinely produce to demonstrate how visionary they are.  I remember seeing videos 10 or more years ago at analyst events with Nortel and Avaya that did nothing short of amaze me in terms of their vision of how we would be communicating in the future.  I couldn’t wait.  Of course, none of that stuff came true but it sure was fun to watch at the time.


Cisco had some pretty cool videos and demos too.  I particularly liked the one with the golf course and the video white board that you can move images around on with just a touch of your finger.  Would a contact center ever pay for something like that?  Not a chance, but it looked cool.


John Hernandez seemed to keep his feet on the ground when it came time to talk about customer collaboration.  It seems to me that Cisco has made huge strides in its commitment to the customer contact market, no longer relying on the IT department to make the decision to go with Cisco in the customer care function.  Cisco is now going directly to the market and as a result, strategic executives with customer care responsibility are making the decision to buy Cisco solutions.  I think this has a lot to do with Cisco’s ability to communicate a comprehensive, meat-and-potatoes contact center strategy to the people tasked with taking care of a company’s customers.  Going with Cisco is no longer an exclusively IT decision.


Ironically, it is quite possible that Cisco’s commitment to customer collaboration may represent a potentially seismic shift in the company’s future sales and marketing strategies.  In the past, Cisco was heavily IT focused.  Historically, Cisco led with information technology solutions that dazzled the IT guys, then came in with complementary products that allowed Cisco to penetrate the enterprise from the back door and work its way up to the front office.  Sometimes this included the contact center.


Cisco’s current emphasis on solutions such as unified communications and telepresence will force the company to find a different way into the enterprise.  I submit that the natural enterprise entry point for these advanced communications solutions will be the contact center.  Companies looking for a tangible return on investment (ROI) for these solutions will find it in the contact center in the form of accelerated first call resolution (FCR) and improved customer sat scores.  Once collaborative applications prove themselves in the customer care function, it will be a natural progression for these applications to find their way into the rest of the enterprise.


While some of the collaboration solutions Cisco has for the enterprise will likely appeal to top tier companies and forward thinkers, I foresee the contact center collaboration solutions holding mass market appeal.  Futuristic thinking combined with real-world applications – blue sky and terra firma – will likely be the winning combination for Cisco and its partners in the contact center.

If you haven’t already seen this clip from ABC World News, it’s worth watching.

It underscores the fact that despite an overall unemployment rate that exceeds nine percent in the U.S. as of this writing, the U.S. contact center industry continues to enjoy a record of employment growth that includes a net gain in employment every quarter for the past nine quarters.  I am not aware of any other industry or market segment that can boast this sort of growth as the U.S. continues to struggle through a very difficult period of post-recession economic recovery.


Through our association with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi, Saddletree Research has access to employment data gathered at the University’s Call Center Lab and compiled by students.  This highly accurate data lists, on a company-by-company basis, which organizations are hiring and which are downsizing, and by how many employees.


As illustrated in the table below, there have been two spikes in employment during the last six quarters, the most recent occurring in the second quarter of this year.  These employment spikes are likely indicators of the return of business to third party outsourcers that may have been suspended or reduced during the recession.  If we look at the top ten contact centers adding agents during the second quarter of 2011, 60 percent are third party outsourcers.


Figure 1: U.S. Contact Center Industry Growth by Quarter, 2010 – First Half 2011



    Calendar Quarter                                               Jobs Gained


Q1 ’10                                                             1,643

Q2 ’10                                                                649

Q3 ’10                                                             3,929

Q4 ’10                                                             9,695

Q1 ’11                                                             1,740

Q2 ’11                                                            11,787


There is no indication at this point that a slowdown in hiring should be expected anytime soon.  In a study of end-user intentions for 2012 that Saddletree Research is conducting with the NACC, early results indicate over 40 percent of respondents intend to add agents to their headcount in 2012.  51 percent of respondents intend to keep headcount steady and replace agents as they leave during the course of normal turnover.  Fewer than six percent of respondent companies plan to reduce headcount in 2012.


This expected growth bodes well for contact center solutions suppliers.  Unlike the recession of 2002, the recent recession did not result in surplus equipment for most contact centers.  Having learned a hard lesson about neglecting and downsizing the customer service function during the 2002 recession, contact centers did not make the same mistake in ’07 – ’09.  As a result, we expect to see demand for solutions such as workforce optimization (WFO) and analytics increase along with the growth in industry employment.


As the rest of the economy continues to struggle, it is clear that the contact center industry has turned the corner and is in expansion mode.  We believe the industry’s employment growth is an indicator of a strong year ahead for the contact center industry as a whole.

It has happened again.  News of a slowdown in job growth and manufacturing output this week sent Wall Street into a panic attack.  The Dow Jones industrial average plunged nearly 280 points in a single day, wiping out nearly a quarter of this year’s gains.  It was the biggest point drop since June 4the of last year.  Do I sense a trend taking shape here?


As Wall Street goes into its knee-j*rk over-reaction, it is important to note that many of the problems that had a negative effect on economic growth during this quarter such as high oil prices, natural disasters and supply disruptions from events such as Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, are TEMPORARY.  Of course economic growth will be stunted, but it is likely not long-term.  The economy appears to be settling into an annual growth pattern of 2.5 to 3 percent, which is not the 4 percent growth the economy enjoyed pre-recession, but it is growth nonetheless.  So why the panic?


I prefer to see cooler heads prevail, like those heads in the contact center industry.  The contact center industry seems to be enjoying unprecedented growth while Wall Street focuses on the U.S. economy’s overall much slower growth rate.  In my other job, working under contract as research director for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a not-for-profit industry research and membership organization based at The University of Southern Mississippi, I have access to industry job data that is rarely compiled due simply to the enormity of the labor involved in doing so.  Since we are lucky enough to have students to do the labor we are able to track much more strategic industry data, such as job and labor market movements, than are other organizations.


The U.S. contact center industry has seen job growth for the past seven quarters in a row.  Job growth in 2010 was startling.  During the first half of 2010 the contact center industry saw a net gain of 2,292 jobs, which is pretty impressive.  But this number was blown out of the water by a net job gain of 3,929 jobs in the third quarter alone followed by a net gain of 9,695 jobs in the fourth quarter.  If you put these numbers together, you’ll see net job growth of nearly 500 percent from first half to second half 2010.


I recently came across research conducted by, an online career portal, that listed the top ten “comeback” jobs of 2010.  Comeback jobs are defined as those jobs or careers that have experienced the greatest growth in demand and in salary compensation over the last two years.  These are the jobs that have, in essence, seen the greatest comeback since the height of the recession in 2009.


At the top of the heap of comeback jobs is tax preparer.  That makes sense given economic conditions for the past couple of years.  We can assume people wanted to squeeze as much as possible out of their income tax return.  Following closely behind tax preparer is, believe it or not, customer service representative.  When you think about it, this makes sense as well.  Companies did their best to hang on to their customer base during the worst of the recession, and the best way to do that was through exemplary customer service.  Now that we are climbing out of the recession, albeit slowly, companies are ramping up growth strategies.  Apparently customer service is playing a role here too as evidenced by the enormous industry job growth the contact center industry experienced during the second half of last year.


In terms of compensation, reported that the average customer service representative salary increased 26.17 percent over the past two years, from $29,335 to $39,732 annually.  For a job that doesn’t get a lot of respect, that’s a pretty respectable jump in salary.


It appears that all of this growth hasn’t been lost on Cisco as the company rolls out its suite of customer collaboration solutions.  Cisco has been getting a little Wall Street press itself lately, but Wall Street is likely missing the formidable threat that Cisco's customer collaboration suite represents to the company’s competition.  Aimed specifically at all segments of the high-growth customer care industry, Cisco’s solutions aren’t just new products, they’re game-changers.  I’m not sure even Cisco itself realizes the magnitude of the opportunity that lies ahead.  Before Wall Street pushes the panic button again, they ought to take a closer look at what Cisco is doing with this exceptional growth market opportunity. 

In case you haven’t noticed, awards in the contact center industry now come thirteen to the dozen.  Over the past few weeks I’ve received an avalanche of e-mails informing me that one vendor or another has “won” the “Product of the Year” award from a company that publishes industry trade magazines.  Suspiciously, each e-mailed press release cited the same award and contained very similar quotes from the same person who, apparently, bestowed these identical awards upon various companies.


I don’t think it’s a secret these days that if you’re a contact center equipment supplier you can get as many awards as you can afford.  The whole award business has become a sham but, as an industry friend once told me, buyers love awards and as long as buyers love awards, vendors will keep purchasing them.


Fortunately there is still some integrity left in the contact center awards business.  CRM Magazine makes vendors earn rather than buy their Market Service Leader award.  For this reason, I believe this is one of the few credible awards left in the industry today.


Similar to the way “Best of Show” recognition used to be awarded at trade shows back in the day, CRM Magazine still uses this same method to determine which companies deserve to be recognized in their annual Service Leaders award.  CRM Magazine goes out to industry analysts and asks for an opinion.  No money changes hands and there are no deals being made in smoke-filled back rooms.  Vendors don’t nominate themselves and they have no say in the process.  The end result is credible recognition that buyers should pay attention to.


This year’s contact center infrastructure Service Leader award went to Cisco.  Perennial analyst favorite Avaya took a hit in the “company direction” rating as many analysts, myself included, wondered how the massive market share grab disguised as the Nortel acquisition will affect the company in the long run. 


I believe the factor that pushed Cisco to the head of the pack this year is the company’s stated commitment to Web 2.0 infrastructure for the contact center.  Unless you live under the proverbial rock, you’ve seen how quickly customer service has been impacted by social media applications, and that impact isn’t likely to lessen in the future.  Cisco has planted a stake in the social media ground and has embraced Web 2.0 as an application platform for the future.  Backed by a portfolio of innovative products introduced as the Customer Collaboration suite last November, Cisco is shaking up the contact center market and I’m glad that CRM Magazine recognized that without insisting on an award fee.  


Well done Cisco, and well done CRM Magazine.

I just realized I may have evoked a character not familiar to all readers.  Frankly I’m not surprised that many of you may not be familiar with Buck Rogers because he was a fictional character originally introduced to American culture in a 1929 comic strip called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  Buck migrated to radio in 1932 and then showed up as a movie serial in 1939 and again in the early 1950s.  I probably wouldn’t know about Buck myself if he hadn’t been resurrected for a short-lived TV series in 1979 when I was, in fact, alive.


The premise of Buck Rogers is that he enters a state of suspended animation caused in 1927 by radioactive gas and caused in 1979 by becoming frozen in space during a mission.  In both cases, he wakes up 504 years later thinking that he has only slept for a few hours and is faced with a plethora of everyday living phenomena that he can’t understand.  Thus, stuff that is viewed as being very futuristic is often referred to by people like me, who were old enough to watch TV in 1979, as being “Buck Rogers stuff.” 


Last week I saw some Buck Rogers stuff for the contact center in the form of Cisco Finesse.  Finesse was announced earlier this month and is a Web 2.0-based desktop for contact center agents that puts needed information in a single, customizable view that best serves the needs of the agent and the customer.  This in itself is pretty cool and very futuristic, but it gets better.


One of the problems with contact center agent desktops is that they are typically clumsy, cluttered, overloaded affairs that require agents to toggle through stacks of open applications to get to the information needed to service the customer during the course of a conversation.  How many times have you been on the phone with a customer service representative and heard the words, “I’m just waiting for that screen to come up,” or something to that effect?  Happens all the time and it can have a severely negative impact on such key performance metrics as average handle time (AHT) and first call resolution (FCR).  Agents often have to ask the customer for a call-back after they’ve toggled through enough screens to find the information the customer needs.


Finesse takes care of that problem by working in conjunction with the real-time processing of customer conversations inherent in Cisco’s recently-announced multimedia capture capability and leveraging third party applications to dynamically change the agent desktop based upon the course of the conversation.  In other words, agents no longer have to toggle through dozens of open applications to get to the information they need.  Speech analytics provides dynamic, real-time screen changes automatically, without a keystroke or mouse click on the part of the agent.


All the agent has to do is wait for the appropriate information to automatically appear on the screen rather than manually hunt for it.  Speech is analyzed as it is spoken and agent’s desktop changes in response in real-time.  Is that cool, or what?  The implications for improving agent training and AHT are huge, not to mention the potential improvements in customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores.  No manual intervention on the part of the agent is required.  Finesse does all the work.


If Buck Rogers was a customer service rep, he might say, “Look ma, no hands!” 


I say, “Finesse rocks!” 

I don’t think anyone took me seriously when I wrote my first report about the potential impact of social networking and Web 2.0 applications in the contact center back in 2008.  Maybe it was a bit of a stretch at the time, so over the past couple of years I’ve taken the question of social media in the contact center to the buyers.  The results have provided me with interesting insights into the collective thoughts of the end-user community. 


Besides my job as an analyst with Saddletree Research, I also work under contract as research director at the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), which is an offshoot of the Call Center Lab at The University of Southern Mississippi (  The NACC is a non-profit contact center membership organization with the lofty goal of serving the North American industry and in particular, NACC members with research, business development, trend analysis and advisory services.


Because the NACC is a university-based organization, my research work for them has to adhere to university-level research standards.  In other words, I can’t just make stuff up, which often puts me at a disadvantage relative to other analysts but that’s a topic for another posting.  Suffice it to say that I get called to the carpet if I can’t back up my statements with statistically valid data.


With that in mind, I’ve gone to the contact center end-user community for the past two years to gauge the industry’s interest in social media.  Again, this isn’t stuff that I made up.  I’m not looking into my analyst crystal ball and telling you what I think might happen because I’m so smart, I’m asking customer service professionals what their attitudes and intentions toward social media are and reporting, in statistically valid numbers, what is actually happening in the industry.


In a survey I conducted with 110 contact center professionals in 2009, only 12.7 percent of respondents were actively preparing plans to incorporate social networking and other Web 2.0 applications in their contact center.  Fully 25 percent of respondents didn’t know what social networking was.  The full response results to the social media question were as follows:


            Actively preparing to incorporate social networking in the contact center              12.7%

            Studying the potential impact of social networking in the contact center                 37.3%

            Social networking will have no impact on our contact center                                 24.5%

            What’s social networking?                                                                                   25.5%


I asked a similar question about social networking in the contact center to those 110 customer service professionals this year and the results reveal a clearly shifting trend regarding social networking in the contact center.  Responses to the same question this year are as follows:

Actively using social networking in the contact center                                            16.5%

We expect to incorporate social networking in the next 12 months                         17.5%

            We expect to incorporate social networking in the next 24 – 48 months                 25.8%

            Social networking will have no impact on our contact center                                  17.5%

            What’s social networking?                                                                                    22.7%


These survey results are representative of the U.S. contact center industry with a confidence level of 95% and a confidence interval of 10.


While there is clearly a shift toward using social media as a customer contact tool in the contact center, I believe the shift to social media dependence will be careful and measured on the part of the user.  Unlike the CRM-mania that we witnessed a decade ago, customer service professionals will be a little more skeptical when it comes to interacting with their customers via social networking.  Those who hope to provide contact centers with the technology they’ll need to take advantage of the social networking trend will also need to understand and work with this buyer skepticism.


Cisco is clearly moving in tandem with the pace of the user community relative to social media in the contact center.  In terms of understanding the impact of social media in the customer care function, the race will be a marathon rather than a sprint.

With all due respect to Cisco’s commitment to the contact center market over the years, I don’t think I’m going to surprise anyone by stating that the contact center industry was not central to Cisco’s business strategy in the past.  While always a market participant, Cisco did not hold the same sort of commanding presence in the contact center world as it did in, say, the networking and communications infrastructure world.  The contact center was something akin to a side business for Cisco.  Not any more.


While Cisco as an entity has migrated toward a more collaborative style of management, company resources have also been realigned to enable a pan-corporate go-to-market strategy that can best be described as “One Cisco.”  Rather than having a dominant product business unit complemented by a number of lesser business units, Cisco is pursuing a holistic approach that is realigning company resources and enabling Cisco to offer an entire solution rather than piece parts of a solution.  Cisco’s contact center business unit is included in this mainstreaming strategy.


Cisco’s contact center business unit has now been fully integrated into the Cisco Collaboration Suite.  That’s good news for those tasked with moving Cisco’s contact center products in that the contact center business is no longer a poor cousin to Cisco's high profile business.  It’s also good news for customers in that Cisco’s contact center development organization now has at its disposal an arsenal of resources that were, until recently, not available because they belonged to another business unit.  The One Cisco concept means that success will be measured at the solutions level rather than at the individual product level.


This represents quite a shift in business strategy for Cisco but it appears to be one that is embraced wholeheartedly by management.  Cisco has been able to implement their new strategy without the industry-typical management shake-out that companies often point to as proof of their commitment to change. Cisco management remains stable.


For a large company, Cisco has always been able to move quickly.  That speed has recently been turbocharged by the formation of small work groups or teams that are tasked with working through and solving product marketing or development challenges in a short period of time.  If the team can’t solve the issue among themselves it is passed to the team leader who has to resolve the issue within an equally short period of time so as not to impede progress.  I’ve seen these groups in action and I was impressed.  These groups are the definition of efficiency in action.


Cisco’s timing for the One Cisco strategy is also ideal.  With one major competitor now relegated to the annals of history and the other major competitor in a state of relative disarray, the market is ready for a fresh approach.  The One Cisco strategy offers such an approach.     



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This past weekend Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) proposed legislation that will require companies to inform their customers when their calls are being transferred to a location outside of the U.S.  The companies that transfer those calls to an offshore call center will be charged an excise tax of $0.25 per call.  The result of the bill, according to Senator Schumer, will be to keep call center jobs in the U.S. as well as to provide incentive for those companies that have already outsourced jobs overseas to bring those jobs back home.


The use of off-shore contact centers has had its share of controversy over the years and legislators have not missed the opportunity to tap into public sentiment.  Several years ago it was discovered that a few agents in an off-shore contact center were using callers’ personal information to run an identity theft ring.  Once the ring was discovered and broken up there was a great deal of public concern regarding the safety of information provided to call centers.  As a result, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) introduced Senate Bill S.2553, known at the time as the “Call Center Consumer’s Right to Know Act of 2006.”


Senate Bill S.2553 required employees at a call center to disclose their physical location and offer a domestic alternative to an offshore customer service agent.  In other words, callers had to be told that their call was being transferred to an offshore facility but if they wanted to wait, their call would be transferred to a domestic agent.  The expected trade-off was timeliness in that it was thought that the queue would always be shorter to speak to an offshore agent.


Despite public pressure for more legislation to protect private information, Senate Bill S.2553 never became law.  The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation but no further action was taken and it was eventually cleared from the books.


In March of 2007 a similar bill was introduced in Congress.  H.R. 1776, the “Call Center Consumer’s Right to Know Act” was worded almost exactly the same as Senate Bill S.2553.  H.R. 1776 was brought before subcommittee for hearings in September of 2007 but failed to be referred to the house for vote.  Similar to its Senate predecessor, H.R. 1776 was eventually abandoned.


The bill introduced this week by Senator Schumer may stand a better chance of a different outcome than previous bills.  With U.S. unemployment hovering at around ten percent, contact center jobs have much greater appeal than they once did.  Senator Schumer may find himself with the power of a recession-weary population supporting this bill to bring American jobs back to the U.S.  In the case of call center legislation, the third time may truly be a charm. 

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