Unified Communications Featured Article

2012: Will 'Mobile Apps' Drive the 'UC Contact Center?'


December 30, 2011

As the year 2011 ends and mission-critical business communications technologies increasingly shift to personalized, multimodal, and mobile communications, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with all the technology announcements and blogs that cover various components of “unified communications” (UC). My perspective of UC was never limited to just “person-to-person” collaborative contacts, but included the greater potential of automated, proactive “notifications” that efficiently tie specific end users directly into time-sensitive interactive business processes.

Such time-sensitive business processes can be found in many vertical markets, including health care, financial services, field services, education, and even retail sales. Because multi-modal smartphones and tablets enable greater accessibility and interface flexibility to individual end users, proactive outbound contacts can now be more effectively used than traditional telephony-based call center technologies that generated interruptive voice calls and heavy use of live agents to handle calls.

Flexible UC interoperability and end user choice of interfaces for contact initiation and contact reception/response will be the hallmark of mobile applications that business organizations will increasingly exploit. While “person-to-person” business contacts will still be important and necessary to support real-time “collaboration” activities, interactions with automated business process applications will now extend to all end users who carry smartphones for their personal communications.

First Things First – UC For Individual End Users Will Pay Off For Business Processes

When people communicate more efficiently within the context of a business process, they also make those business processes more efficient, not just as individual productivity, but as part of the process or the group of individuals involved with the process. In effect, UC benefits for business (UC-B) expand on the communication efficiencies of UC benefits for individual end users (UC-U). 

Because UC encompasses the integration and interoperability of a variety of both person-to-person contacts and business process-to-person applications (CEBP), implementation planning is both complex and difficult. With the rapid consumer adoption of multimodal smartphones and BYOD by business users, the pressure is now on organizations to implement and support UC for all types of end users both inside and outside of the organization. My colleagues at UC Strategies.com have been discussing the new complexities and challenges of cost-efficiently migrating organizations from legacy endpoint devices (desktop telephones and PCs) to a virtual, mobile UC environment.

Now that Web portals and mobile devices (handheld smartphones and tablets) are making access to information and people more dynamic and location- independent, UC is becoming both more important and more doable. Before we move old infrastructure technologies to UC-based environments, we better come up with a label for the target result that everyone -- including end-users and management (not just IT) -- can recognize and understand. “UC” alone doesn’t do it! 

A recent article on mobility for banking and “context-aware computing” quoted technology provider Openstream on its mobility offerings for the banking industry that enables important notifications to mobile end users/customers to dynamically switch from text to voice messages “based on context, location, orientation, motion and the environment. ….Openstream’s software connects with the technology embedded in new mobile phones, tablets, PCs and laptops to sense the devices location and circumstances. That software then serves as a layer between the computing device and the bank.”

While not mentioning “UC” in their product description, Openstream is obviously exploiting the UC concept of “transmodal” communications for outbound notifications. With the mushrooming growth of “mobile apps,” however, we should start to see more use of UC software infrastructure in various types of business process applications. Time–sensitive information delivery and “notifications” to mobile devices will increase business process performance because of increased accessibility to key people in a process, anywhere, anytime.    

Step 2: Let’s Call a Spade a Spade – The “UC Contact Center” Is For All Business Contacts

With the consolidation of all forms of contact, the UC Contact Center will subsume traditional telephony real-time incoming call-handling functions, whether direct connections (e.g., mobile extension, DID) or via live assistance. When a synchronous live connection with a particular person or persons cannot be realized, availability information (presence) and messaging alternatives for the caller can be offered to the caller.

When the traditional call center,” based on real-time telephony interactions between an organization and its customers (consumers) shifted to the “contact center,” to try to include email, fax, and online applications, nothing significant really changed operationally. This was simply because consumers were still stuck with the physical separation of endpoint devices (namely telephones and personal computers), network connectivity (wired, wireless, internal, public), and the lack of consistent, self-service application user interfaces.

With the advent of IP connectivity, those barriers are disappearing and, and in addition to traditional person-to-person contacts, will particularly affect self-service applications that legacy call centers supported through IVR technologies. The limitations of IVR are primarily the need to use voice for both input and output to telephones. While voice input is very convenient and efficient for the end user, speech output is inefficient and therefore limited to short amounts of simple information. The output problem can be easily resolved with the selective use of screen outputs to a multimedia smartphone. In addition, mobile users will also need the flexibility to use screen/keyboard inputs when in a public or noisy environment or in a meeting environment where speaking would be disruptive.

With speech recognition technology that is now much more efficient and accurate, mobile self-service online applications are now becoming more practical and multimodal, witness Apple’s latest iPhone 4S with its Siri “Personal Assistant.” Self-service applications will be able to flexibly use handheld smartphones for input and output as their circumstances demand. However, it will now be necessary for self-service applications to support different user interfaces for the same functions.

Note that mobile self-service applications include all applications that end users will need, whether they are internal (staff) or external (partner, customer, consumer) users. As long as they are carrying multi-modal mobile devices, they must all be supported with “mobile apps” that exploit multi-modal interfaces. In addition, it goes without saying, self-service applications will require UC’s ability to change contact modalities, i.e., “click-to-contact” live assistance.

Bottom Line For UC Planning

Even though there has been greater emphasis placed upon person-to-person business contacts under the label of “collaboration,” self-service applications offer the greatest opportunity for cost-efficient business process improvements. The technology benefits of the “contact center” concept can now be extended to all types of end users, both inside and outside of an organization, as well as to all forms of communication contact.

The “UC Contact Center” provides a practical starting point for UC implementation planning, and by focusing on mobile users with multimodal smartphones, can provide the path to improved business processes and CEBP through self-service applications and “mobile apps.” This will not only help reduce costs but also increase user satisfaction and productivity in very direct and manageable ways.    



Art Rosenberg, a veteran of the computer and communications industry, contributes his column, The Unified-View to unified communications. To read more of Art’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves




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