The announcement of Microsoft Corp.'s new partnership with Aspect Software Inc. at the VoiceCon Orlando 2008 conference wasn't exactly earth-shattering news. For sometime now, vendors have been working hard to introduce unified communications to the contact-center industry. That's no surprise. Unified communications, which connects voice, email, data, IM (instant messaging) and videoconferencing in a single system, promises to help contact centers create a consistent customer experience across multiple channels.
In the case of Microsoft's multiyear alliance, Aspect will design its unified IP contact-center solution to interoperate with Microsoft's platform for software-powered voice and unified-communications solutions. Microsoft is also making an equity investment in Aspect to accelerate the development and adoption of the new solutions, although financial details weren't disclosed.
According to a recent report from Aberdeen Group Inc. , Microsoft's partnership with Aspect will help contact centers: "The bringing together of these two feature sets can only be beneficial for a contact center. By utilizing this umbrella set of features, a contact center can provide a more cohesive and comprehensive customer interaction." What's more, the alliance targets an increasing number of customers who are demanding multiple channels — including voice, email and videoconferencing — for communicating with customer-service representatives .
Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC , a firm specializing in call centers and real-time analytics, believes the Microsoft-Aspect alliance is a smart move. "Microsoft is trying to get into the unified communications area and it's working its way there," she said.
Fluss noted, though, that Microsoft isn't the first vendor to recognize the value in penetrating the unified-communications market. Cisco Systems Inc. , for example, offers a host of unified-communications solutions for the contact center. These include intelligent routing and call treatment with the blending of multiple communications channels; Cisco Unified Customer Interaction Analyzer ; computer telephony-integration applications; and contact-center reporting solutions.
Avaya Inc. recently unveiled one-X Communicator , which provides telephony features, desktop video, visual voice mail, rich presence, email, IM, conference-bridge integration, directories and contact history from a single application.
And then there's Alcatel-Lucent's OmniTouch Unified Communication . This suite lets users tailor, control and manage calls, messages, directories, collaborative work tools and information from any location, device or software interface.
But while there's no shortage of vendors promising to unify a contact center's resources, not everyone is jumping for joy. Fluss warned that much of the buzz about unified communications is nothing more than vendor hype. "Unified communications is a term that's been around for a while," she said. "Right now, it's more marketing buzz than it is anything else."
That's not to suggest, however, that there isn't an upside to unified communications' growing popularity. "Unified communications will lead to the delivery of additional channels in the contact center and that's a good thing," said Fluss. In the near future, customers may be connecting with contact centers via wikis, blogs , multimedia messaging services and discussion forums.
In the meantime, most contact-center managers still have their work cut out for them. "Some organizations are still trying to figure out how to consolidate their email and phone channels, so we're still working on the basics." Unified communications enthusiasts, stay tuned.
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