Contact management for all

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The ease of setup and deployment, coupled to low Capex and Opex requirements, that are the stock in trade of the SaaS delivery model, making it possible for many services to be brought before a far wider and deeper marketplace than otherwise possible. A good example of this is contact management where Contactual is using SaaS to address what has largely been an unserved market—the under-200 seat contact management services operations. This target that was first identified by Contactual back 2000, when founder and CEO Mansour Salame recognised that it had been largely untouched by the big players in contact management systems.

The company has been operating in the North American market ever since, and subsequently in the Pacific Rim area, and has garnered some 1,000 long term customers. Now it is turning its attention towards Europe, initially operating indirectly through local channel partners. The key factor Salame noticed was that while the big players could offer very comprehensive facilities, the entry cost for users could be dramatic and the ability to change and adapt the contact management environment complex and time consuming. Even adding a new help desk staff member could take time.

What Contactual offers is very different from the classic contact management environments, all of which are intended for large installations. In the classic model, the user buys the switch, the EMS management system and the IBR, but the biggest costs can lie elsewhere. As much as two thirds of the cost can go in professional management services to tie the operational service together over the life time of the products that make it up.

Here, even major technology developments such as virtualisation bring only small Opex advantages. The system may use only fraction of a server, but that server only costs $5,000, so the saving is small compared to the on-going professional services costs. In addition, the change management processes involved in adding 10 or 20 seats can be such as to make it uneconomic with large contact management systems. So a growing number of large businesses are using Contactual as the scaling procedure, leaving them the option of adding new seats to the existing environment once there are enough to make it economic to upgrade, or perhaps developing along the OnDemand route.

At the low end of the market the users cannot afford to send either desk staff or line managers on long training courses, so making the system easy to set up, learn and use has been a key part of the design and development. By being SaaS-based, it also means that the seats can be located anywhere in the world, which gives businesses significant operational flexibility, as a small number of contact staff can provide 24 x 7 coverage by working from home and/or by being strategically located around the globe.

Flexibility has been one of the key drivers behind the development of Contactual’s offering, so much so that the company claims to have invented the concept of the OnDemand Contact Centre. The key to that flexibility comes from being SaaS-based, as everything from customer interactions to customer and user set up routines are all managed via the internet. That makes any set up process exactly the same regardless of the situation. For example, it is possible to set up for people working from home, a capability already exploited by some customers in difficult locations such as areas where there can be potential problems for staff coming and going at night. Then the nightshift can simply work from home rather than going to the business location.

Another common requirement being found amongst big contact management system users is the need for short-term scalability the classic “we need 100 extra seats for Christmas” scenario. This can be readily made available because the Capex is low—just a PC, a browser and an Internet connection.

It also makes it an ideal service for small businesses that otherwise could not afford their own contact management environment and would have to fight for mindshare amongst the staff of a large outsourcing operation. In fact, a recent internal study showed the average customer for Contactual’s services has 19 seats and, in practice, it can go down to just two seats and still be an economic proposition for both the company and the customer, even at a typical cost of $150/seat/month in the US.

Though targeted at the SME marketplace, the system is also finding a role with larger users looking for flexible and economically available scalability, particularly when it is required short-term. It claims that some of this is showing strong signs of turning into permanent service requirements as legacy installations reach the end of their operational lifecycle. The issue here for users is the strategic question of whether a single, large call centre and contact management service is the more appropriate solution for a large, often multi-faceted business, or whether several smaller services, dedicated to the specific needs of those facets, meets the business goals faster, with more agility and with better economics.

The company runs its own HP blade server-based datacentres running Linux and Oracle Real Application Cluster (RAC) and already has platforms in US, Canada, Australia and Japan. It opened a UK datacentre this year, with 10 customers already plus what it claims is a “very healthy” pipeline. An additional European platform will be opened in Frankfurt next year, so it is already able to provide global hosting and full operational redundancy with 4x9s and 5x9s service availability. This allows it to run the systems flat out on the service, rather than sharing resources with other processes or users in a hosted environment.

It uses an N+1 platform approach and the objective is to provide telco-quality service levels to customers. Should there be a platform failure the time taken to restore to full service provision is around 30 seconds. This ability can also be exploited for service upgrades as one platform can be taken off-line, upgraded, and selectively reloaded with customer workloads. The service has been designed to support twice as many simultaneous calls as the number of seats supported.

In operation, the system is particularly easy and straight forward to set up. In fact, as a demonstration it was shown to be possible to set up the basics of a new contact management service using a laptop, browser and a mobile phone dongle while sitting in a hotel foyer. Front line call centre staff can become productive typically within six hours, while experienced call centre managers have been known to set the system up without requiring any training.

There are over 30 standard service reports provided, such as how long calls wait at any chosen point in the call-handling sequence, how long a staff member stays on the phone with any individual call, and the number of calls accepted and abandoned. There is also the ability for users to build their own to suit their operational and business process requirements. In addition, there are a wide range of house-keeping tools and utilities provided, such as voice message management services. It provides out-of-the-box integration with many existing services, such as those provided by Oracle, NetSuite and Salesforce. Microsoft’s upcoming CRM system will be supported next year.

New individual users can be set up with all associated communications links in a matter of minutes. The users can then be grouped by work function such as sales, customer support, help desk etc. Skills sets can also be prioritised, and individual staff can be associated with multiple skills to give better operational flexibility. For example, an individual can be ranked high priority in sales and low priority in customer support. This is particularly valuable for smaller businesses where staff resources can be limited, allowing the individual to handle the initial stages of a customer support call if the primary support team is already fully committed.

When calls come in it can be routed via typical key number menus to the appropriately skilled staff group, with an indication that a call is coming in. The next available group member can then accept the call. If no appropriate message is available the call can be forwarded to an individual in another group with low level skills in the required area. Each menu selection is voice driven, and users can easily record and set up the menu messages, even when using a mobile phone in a hotel lobby.

As SaaS develops and more service providers come along, the company does see the potential for contact management to become a focal point for a wider set of interaction management services based on a service like Contactual acting as the SaaS platform. Here, other niche service providers would gain the market potential of aligning their technologies to the Contactual system, rather than trying to build market penetration on their own. It already provides a universal queue for email, chat and voicemail, for example, all of which are primary aspects of the services required for complex customer/supplier/vendor interaction management.