Recently, I attended Enterprise Connect, the most focused show for Contact Center and Unified Communication.
I’ve been participating in the evolution of the Contact Center, Unified Communication and IT worlds for 15 years. Years of overexposure to hype cycles, marketectures1, premature technology, and “lipstick on a pig” repackaging have left me numb.
This year, Enterprise Connect felt different. Much of what has been hyped forever has, as they say, “crossed the chasm”. And, there are serious winds of change in the way IT is bought and sold. Here’s a few snapshots to show what I mean.
Unified Communication Is Replacing the Phone System, For Real
I never really got Unified Communication (a.k.a. UC). Initially, it was promoted as connecting co-workers at their desk, using their computers as voice/video phones, with a side of presence and chat. Then, conferencing got thrown in, and we were all “collaborating”. It seemed a convenient bucket for the flavor of the month that was supposed to help us hold hands and sing Kumbaya together.2
From the early days of UC some promoted it as a replacement for the phone system (PBX). However, it wasn’t that long ago that UC needed a carefully QOS3 tuned network and a powered up computer. Computer off, no communication – unified or otherwise.
What’s Different Now?
With time, Darwinism kicks in, the stupid dies out and we’re left with useful tools. That has happened. More importantly:
- High performance wireless networking is a workplace or campus requirement
- It’s assumed that everyone is carrying a computer in their pocket, a.k.a. their smartphone
- Web based UC solutions are good enough. They remove the security burden from the IT department, and can safely extend the reach off campus/premise
- Many legacy PBXs have been pushed way beyond their lifespan, and something has to be done
The other shoe dropped for me during a hallway conversation at Enterprise Connect. I talked with someone responsible for replacing every wired phone at her large Eastern college with a UC endpoint. Not just for the staff and the dorms, but for every student, on and off campus. She said they were planning on 15,000 endpoints.
She wasn’t exploring viability, she was selecting vendors.
From her perspective, it was replacing their Avaya PBX. The wired phone is replaced by the user’s personal device and a bespoke application.
Of course, the college wants to take advantage of the other UC capabilities. But without their big Avaya investment going end of life, the project doesn’t happen. And without the networking, personal smartphones, and good enough Web UC, the project isn’t practical.
I had two other conversations with people who had enterprise phones systems that were end of life, and the replacement will likely be UC.
Web Contact Center is Prime Time, For Real
Well, duh? No, this is different.
A customer wandering the hallways would be left with the perception that web contact center is the only viable option. Old standbys Genesys, Avaya and Cisco downplayed their premise offerings in deference to their web solutions, and I was taken aback by the number of web only vendors. Sure, Five9, 8×8, InContact and the rest of the usual SaaS suspects were there. But, there was easily 10 more web solutions that I had never heard of until Enterprise Connect.
This does make product differentiation tough, and my usual question of “what makes you different” helped less than I thought it would. It feels like a commodity.
Contact Center as a Platform Is Real
Amazon Connect has company in the Contact Center as a Platform space.
At Enterprise Connect, Twillio launched Twillio Flex to great fanfare, and it does look serious. Their splashy announcement combined Flex with existing third party apps, and was carefully designed to leave the viewer with the impression that it’s all there. A personal demo provided a dose of reality (much of it is still in preview), but I stand by my “looks serious” statement. Notably, omnichannel routing is smartly supported out of the chute. BTW, I’ll be looking at it more closely in the upcoming months.
They, like Amazon, tout the large size of their developer community, and the ability to build exactly what you want yourself. I’ve already expressed my doubts that an internal tech group on their own can build a supportable system for anything but the smallest of centers. In private conversations with others that have been through the contact center wars, I found that I’m not alone with that belief. However, there is a willing partner community with war-hardened experience that is evolving.
The Millennial Takeover is Real
Most of the booths were manned by Millennials. And most of the prospects walking the halls were Millennials. This didn’t strike me as significant at the time.
A few weeks post conference, I attended a seminar about the dramatic changes in the Reseller channels given by Jay McBain, Forrester’s principal analyst for global channels. He dropped the following statistics:
- 36% drop in the number of IT channel firms since 2008
- 40% of channel firm owners plan to retire in five years, and they are not finding buyers for their businesses nor have succession plans
- 75% of channels will be made up of Millennials shortly
- 65% of tech purchasing decisions are made outside of IT by business, and this is estimated to be 80% shortly
- 29% of tech purchasing decisions today do not involve IT at all! They often use external experts to advise them, instead of their own people
- 68% of business users prefer to do the research themselves, and 73% prefer to buy from the web
And another data point – for the first time ever, in 2017 the number of agent positions decreased.
Now, nothing changes overnight, and taken as a group, contact centers still are the 4th largest employer in the US. But, the generation that doesn’t like making phone calls, shops online and lives and dies by the web is firmly in the driver seat.
1A portmanteau of marketing and architecture, referring to a (usually truth stretched) technical architecture diagram that has been put together for marketing purposes.
2Read the Wikipedia article to see exactly how scattered the term Unified Communication is. One of the many attempts to define it in the article is “Unified communications is an evolving set of technologies that automates and unifies human and device communications in a common context and experience.” Kumbaya, y’all.
3QOS – Quality of Service. If you’re trying to have a voice or video call on an IP network, you can’t have too much delay or lost packets, or else the experience “goes to total crap” (technical term). QOS lets you set aside capacity for those services you deem critical, so that someone else streaming cat videos doesn’t wreck your call.