Saddletree Research Blog

Saddletree Research Blog

In November of 2016, voters in Arizona approved Proposition 206 to boost the state’s minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick time.  Called the Healthy Working Family Initiative, the proposition calls for the minimum wage to gradually grow from the minimum wage in 2016 to $12 per hour by 2020.  In addition, employers with fewer than 15 employees must provide each employee 24 hours of paid sick time each year.  Employers with 15 or more employees must provide each employee 40 hours of paid sick time each year.

I have to admit I was thrown for a bit of a loop when I got the news that Jim Demarest had passed away on Thursday, June 22nd.  Jim was an analyst relations (AR) guy for Nortel for many years, then for Avaya after they acquired what was left of Nortel in 2009.  It’s not like Jim and I were great friends or anything like that, more like business acquaintances.  But I always considered Jim to be one of the good guys in an industry vendor community that isn’t populated with as many really decent people as you might expect. 

I wasn’t invited.

 

Enghouse Systems is hosting an analyst briefing next month and I wasn’t invited. As it was explained to me, only the top contact center industry analysts were invited to this briefing. I guess after 26 years of serving the industry and with a deep reach into the end-user community through my association with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi, I’m still on Enghouse’s “B” list of analysts.

Wednesday, 01 July 2015 09:41

Contact Center M&A Activity: About to Heat Up?

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There’s always one tell-tale sign that things are starting to heat up on the mergers and acquisitions front.  I start getting phone calls and e-mails from people at banks and private equity firms looking for free industry information and, usually, information about specific companies in the contact center industry.  The inquiries always come from the same types of people – junior researchers who I’m sure have been told by the senior analysts and bankers to research the market and the companies, and have been given zero budget to do so.  I used to try to courteously tell these junior people that I didn’t work for free any more than they did.  These days I don’t even respond to their inquiries.

I consider myself a bit of an authority on millennials.  I raised two of them so I feel I have the inside track when it comes to understanding the psyche of the millennial generation.  Most of these self-congratulatory assumptions I made about myself and how well I understood millennials were recently confirmed by the results of a study conducted by Aspect in conjunction with Jason Dorsey, who calls himself the Gen Y Guy.


The results of the study were released during the SXSW conference in Austin, TX earlier this month.  As a former resident of Houston and a member of the generation that embraced outlaw, Americana and Texas music, I was familiar with the SXSW event as an alt-country, indie-music sort of affair, which is what it was back in 1987 when SXSW began and I was a carefree, millennial-free graduate student.

My history with legacy Aspect goes back to the earliest days of the company. Jim Carreker, who was the founder of Aspect, had an office directly across the street from Dataquest in San Jose when I worked there from ’89 – ’93. I have followed Aspect as an analyst practically since the company’s inception.

While I have always greatly admired Aspect and the impact it has had on the worldwide contact center industry, the company has also had its share of ups and downs over the years. For example, toward the end of the ‘90s Aspect jumped on the CRM bandwagon and proclaimed itself to be a CRM company. That strategy backfired and Aspect had to go through some gyrations to get back on track.

Monday, 11 November 2013 15:11

Random Thoughts on Veteran’s Day

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In 1987, I was sitting with a career counselor in the student services office at Santa Clara University, where I had just received my MBA. She was reviewing my resume for me as I launched my job search after graduation. In the “Other” section, usually found at the bottom of a printed resume in the prehistoric, pre-Monster.com days, I had added that I was a veteran of the Vietnam era, honorably discharged after six years of service. The counselor advised me in no uncertain terms to remove any reference to my military service and veteran status from my resume.

This morning I took my truck in for service at the local auto repair shop. I was wearing the “Veteran” ball cap that I usually break out on Armed Forces Day and Veteran’s Day and a young man who I had never seen or met before came up to me, shook my hand and thanked me for my service.

I logged onto e-mail this morning and found an e-mail from my longtime industry friend and colleague, Ryan Hollenbeck, which simply and succinctly thanked me for my service on this Veteran’s Day. Ryan is a senior vice president at Verint and has incredible demands on his time, but he took the time to send me a personal note this morning.

I just submitted my November column to Contact Center Pipeline magazine.  The topic of the column was putting veterans to work in the contact center industry.  This is the third time I’ve written about this particular matter, the first time being in the March 2011 issue and the next in the July 2012 issue of the magazine.  I’ve also taken the fight to the field, so to speak, in my attempts to get the contact center industry to rally around this problem and find a solution.   The result has been deafening silence.  Companies with huge profits and expansive resources have shown no interest that I can detect in getting involved with giving back.  The singular focus is usually on a relentless pursuit of ever greater profits.   Since this narrative is beginning to sound a lot like a classic Charles Dickens novel it is time to introduce the ray of hope – a light of good in the otherwise dreary story of greed.  A few weeks ago I was introduced to a small contact center cloud company in the San Francisco Bay Area called BrightPattern.  They are taking on the problem of unemployed veterans and are taking on challenges that companies a hundred times their size don’t have the (guts? nerve? fill in the word of your choice here) to take on.   I was introduced to BrightPattern by my longtime friend John Reynolds, a Vietnam veteran and founder of the not-for-profit Veterans2Work (www.veterans2work.com).  What BrightPattern lacks in company size, they make up for in the size of their heart.   Yesterday I saw another hint of industry heart in a news release from Interactive Intelligence soliciting grant applications for the Interactive Intelligence Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to use available resources and funding to improve the lives of at risk youth around the world with a primary emphasis in their hometown of Indianapolis.  The Interactive Intelligence Foundation was born when executives at the company saw a need in the community and took the unusual step of doing something about it.  The Foundation idea was proposed to Interactive Intelligence’s CEO, Dr. Don Brown, in 2010 and an industry charity was born.   Today the Interactive Intelligence Foundation supports a diverse group of charities with missions that range from the care of abused and neglected children to a group that is fighting hunger in central Indiana.  The Foundation raises money through a variety of activities, including an annual gala that raised funds exceeding $53,000 for the Foundation this year.  Interactive Intelligence employees volunteer their time to run the foundation and Interactive Intelligence picks up the tab for the Foundation’s overhead and administration.  Aside from the direct costs of the gala, every penny raised for the Foundation goes to the charities it supports.   Last time I checked Interactive Intelligence seems to be doing pretty well.  I imagine stockholders probably don’t complain about the money the company spends on the Foundation instead of putting into dividends, and giving back to the community doesn’t seem to have had a detrimental effect on Interactive Intelligence’s industry standing or performance.   Differentiating factors are everything in today’s competitive contact center industry.  While most companies look toward product differentiation, the companies mentioned in this blog differentiate themselves in a way that will live on long past the heyday of whatever technology solutions they offer.  These companies distinguish themselves in a way that isn’t measured in quarterly profits and year-over-year financial performance.  These are companies with heart and in the long run, that’s what will really matter.

During a recent phone conversation with Kevin Hegebarth, who is the VP of marketing at HireIQ, Inc., he brought to my attention a contact center story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t so well documented and there wasn’t a government agency behind it.  The story involves the recent establishment of a contact center in Contra Costa County, California.  It is one of three contact centers to be established in the state of California for the purpose of fielding Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, calls beginning October 1st.

In July the county advertised the availability of 152 new, full-time Obamacare contact center agent jobs.  They received 7,457 applications.  1,947 of the applicants passed the civil service exam and moved on to the next phase.  600 applicants went through the interview process before the final 152 agents were hired.  Some of the successful applicants were people emerging from a long period of unemployment, some were people coming from small home-based businesses that they started to try to weather the recession and many were people who left other full-time positions in the hope of finding greater stability in a county government contact center job.

Friday, 09 August 2013 10:13

Old School Vendors in the Next Gen Industry

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So I wasn’t going to write about Avaya for fear of sounding unnecessarily negative, but the glaring differences between the Avaya of old the Avaya of today are crying out for commentary and I just can’t resist.  Avaya is the epitome of the old school contact center vendor.

Yesterday we saw record revenues and profits announced by ShoreTel, within hours of Avaya’s announcement of revenues that went up less than three percent over the prior quarter and were down eight percent year over year.  Avaya’s announcement credited revenues to increased demand in the U.S. and the U.S. federal government.  If anyone’s spending freely anymore, it’s the U.S. government.  These are good days to be GSA approved.

The failure of Nortel marked the beginning of what I believe is a period of major upheaval in the U.S. and, for that matter, global contact center industry.  Where Avaya was once the absolute industry leader, seemingly unbeatable with their massive market muscle and product innovation, it is now more like the fading industry star.  Rather than leading the market with product ideas it is chasing the market and the innovations of smaller, more nimble specialty companies like VPI, Nexidia, Calabrio, OpenSpan and many others.

The recent announcement of Calabrio’s desktop analytics solution for their Calabrio ONE workforce optimization (WFO) suite brought the focus of my attention back to analytics and the fact that demand for analytics solutions remains high in 2013 despite being under the radar of most of the industry media.  To underscore that point, contact center analytics solutions appear in four out of the top five contact center solutions that will be evaluated for purchase in 2013 according to the end-user study that Saddletree Research conducted in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi. Among other things, this annual survey asks end-user respondents to identify which technology solutions that they will look at to purchase in the coming year.  For the second year in a row text analytics has made the top five.

 

Desktop analytics provides what is essentially a time-and-motion study of what occurs on a contact center agent’s desktop.  By analyzing activities on the agent workstation, desktop analytics reveals the differences in skills, training, adherence to rules and motivational variances among agents.  Previously identified only through random quality management recording reviews, desktop analytics ensures managers that every movement on the agent’s desktop is recorded and analyzed.

 

While desktop analytics may sound like another version of big brother watching over the agents’ shoulders, it also offers capabilities that most agents will find beneficial.  For example, desktop analytics reveals system performance issues that are usually undetectable unless reported by an individual agent.  Examples of these performance issues include error messages on the agent desktop that disrupt service flow, problems moving between applications that delay call completion, and slow page rendering that slows the rate of service delivery.

 

Calabrio Desktop Analytics brings the benefits of desktop analytics to contact centers of all sizes.  Residing on the same Web 2.0-based hosting platform as Calabrio’s price-competitive speech analytics solution, desktop analytics can be administered and used without specialized training or dedicated personnel resources.  Familiar graphics present results on analytics dashboards that provide drill-down capabilities that take users to the actual recording of the transaction.

 

Calabrio (www.calabrio.com) has built a reputation on being able to offer cost-effectively contact center solutions to contact centers of all sizes and Calabrio Desktop Analytics is no exception.  This is truly desktop analytics for the masses.

On June 27, 2013 Aspect Software announced the availability of Aspect Workforce Mobile.  This new software solution provides contact center agents mobile access to Aspect’s workforce management solution.  This makes it possible for agents to view and request changes to their own schedule using their smartphone or tablet computer.  Agents can also view their own performance metrics and productivity statistics on their mobile device from any location.  For those agents who are motivated to get ahead and/or are working toward a career in customer care, this capability will prove to be an invaluable asset.

 

For supervisors, Aspect Workforce Mobile offers the ability to look at workforce schedules and make or approve changes as necessary from their mobile device.  Supervisors with a mobile device can also view intraday statistics, forecasts, performance metrics and nearly every statistic provided by Aspect’s workforce management software.

 

What I found so extraordinary about this announcement is how stunningly practical this Aspect solution is.  With the proliferation of mobile devices in the U.S. today, which currently stands at approximately 1.1 mobile communications devices for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and all of its territories, it only makes sense to extend the usage of these communications tools to those in the customer service profession.  The next generation of workers has been raised with a mobile phone in hand and it is typically this generation’s resource of choice for nearly all information.  Contact center executives should welcome the ability to access work information on a personal mobile device with open arms.

 

I was particularly interested in the proactive broadcast capabilities of Aspect Workforce Mobile.  Any piece of information that can impact the workforce schedule in any way can be quickly automated and broadcast to a mobile device.  For example, if a contact center finds itself with overtime hours available this opportunity can be promptly broadcast to its agent population.  Agents can log on to the workforce management system with their mobile device and quickly check their schedule against the available overtime hours.  Again using a mobile device from any location, agents can apply for the overtime hours as appropriate.

 

Credit for Aspect Workforce Mobile belongs to an Aspect customer and Aspect’s Innovation Group, which developed the solution at the request of this specific customer. The customer has been using Aspect Workforce Mobile with its nearly 3,000 agents and estimates it will save about $500,000 per year.  I’d call that an acceptable return on investment (ROI).

 

As previously mentioned, this is a practical solution that I expect to find immediate and widespread acceptance in the worldwide contact center industry.  Beyond that, I’m happy to see that there are still contact center solutions providers that are creating solutions that directly address and impact the actual, existing productivity challenges faced by contact centers today.   With so many vendors that seem to have their head in the cloud, so to speak, it is reassuring to see that Aspect still has its feet firmly planted on the ground.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Interactive Intelligence’s Interactions 2013 global conference held at the JW Marriott hotel in Indianapolis.  I have attended one previous Interactive Intelligence analyst/customer conference several years ago and I didn’t find it to be useful in terms of getting the information I need in order to do my job.  I was hoping for a better experience this time.

I don’t have much of a relationship with Interactive Intelligence, business or otherwise, so my knowledge of the company is limited to the few phone briefings I’ve had with them over the past year.  Interactive Intelligence seems to have their favorites and Saddletree Research isn’t one of them, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I received the invitation to attend this year’s analyst/customer conference.

Overall I was favorably impressed by the event.  The venue was first class with excellent meeting facilities and exceptionally generous meals, refreshments and accommodations throughout.  I think the meeting planners at Interactive Intelligence did their best to pack as much information into the analyst day as possible although some of the presentations only skimmed the surface and left me wanting more in-depth detail.  While the subject matter was a mile wide it was only about a foot deep, but I give Interactive Intelligence credit for their efforts to make the day as diverse and interesting as possible.

If you took to heart the Interactive Intelligence conference marketing message you would get the impression that the entire contact center industry is in a mad scramble to move all their customer care solutions from the premises to the cloud.  Our research has shown that this is simply not the case.  Saddletree Research clients have in hand our April 22, 2013 report entitled “Finding the Silver Lining in the Contact Center Cloud” that details the demand and lack of demand for cloud contact center solutions by vertical market and size of contact center.  At this point the data doesn’t mesh with the Interactive Intelligence marketing message.  I got the impression that Interactive Intelligence has invested heavily in cloud solutions and now expects the market to respond, thus their conference emphasis on the benefits of the cloud-based contact center.

When I visited the conference exhibit floor it was packed with Interactive Intelligence customers and a variety of interesting exhibitors.  Among the most intriguing of these exhibitors was a company called OrgSpan (www.orgspan.com).  OrgSpan is a startup founded by a former Interactive Intelligence software engineer and funded by Interactive Intelligence founder Dr. Don Brown.  OrgSpan offers a cloud-based (what else?) employee directory and customer support tool designed to help organizations of any size find and connect with the right person at the right time.  Besides offering internal enterprise support for finding personnel resources it can also be used to allow customers to find the best customer support representative to help with their service need.  It’s something like LinkedIn for enterprise and customer support.  It’s worth a look.

My impression of Interactive Intelligence remains positive, reinforced by the company’s demonstrated commitment to the continued development of their platform solutions.  Interactions 2013 was a well-planned, well-executed and worthwhile event.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013 15:34

The ACE up Aspect’s Sleeve

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Last week I attended Aspect’s ACE 2013 customer gathering in Scottsdale, AZ.  This was Aspect’s second ACE, which stands for Aspect Customer Experience, since putting the program on hiatus four or five years ago.  If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it was certainly apparent at this event as the enthusiasm of Aspect executives was matched equally by the enthusiasm of the several hundred Aspect customers in attendance.

The mark of a good customer event is, in my opinion, the accessibility of company executives with their customers.  With a spate of new executives, Aspect ensured at the start of the event that executives were not only available, they were individually identified in the main session so attendees could find them if desired.  Aspect CEO Stew Bloom kicked off the event with an overview of Aspect that described in detail what the company has been doing to address the re-invented customer experience in a world where the relationship between consumers and organizations is undergoing radical changes. 

Stew also provided an overview of new solutions that Aspect expects to release to the market in the near future.  Although I can’t specifically discuss these solutions yet, suffice it to say that they address real industry problems and that they are or will be in high demand from contact center professionals according to the research that Saddletree has conducted in association with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi.

While adequate coverage was given to emerging technology solutions such as cloud-based contact centers, conference sessions for the most part were firmly rooted in reality.  Concentration on social media, mobility issues, customer interactions strategies, and workforce optimization (WFO) ensured that Aspect customers left the conference with practical customer care knowledge that they can immediately put to use in their contact centers.

I continue to be impressed by the caliber of executives representing the relatively new Aspect management team.  I believe the diversity of the executive staff has invigorated Aspect in terms of strategy and ability to execute while recharging longtime Aspect employees who have steadfastly stuck with the company through the various changes of recent years.

I want to say that Aspect is like a whole new company, but that’s not really true.  This is clearly an enthusiastic company, reenergized by a new management team, encouraged by renewed investment in research and development, and optimistic about the future.

Revitalized is what the company really is.  That’s the ACE up Aspect’s sleeve.

Monday, 08 April 2013 10:25

Contact Centers by the Numbers

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In my research role at the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi, the two most common questions I am asked are as follows:

 

1.  How many contact centers are there in the U.S.?

2.  Can I get a directory of all the contact centers in the U.S.?

 

The second question almost always comes from some sales rep who thinks they are going to call every contact center in the U.S. and sell them his/her product (like they’re the first ones who have thought of that).  The answer to the second question is always “No,” for a couple of reasons.  First of all, NACC membership records are kept confidential.  The other reason this is a “No” is closely related to the answer to the first question.

 

The answer to the first question, the number of contact centers in the U.S., does not exist.  There is no reliable count of contact centers in the U.S. today.  The task would be overwhelming for a private firm to undertake and the only organization that has the manpower to undertake the task, the U.S. government, doesn’t count contact centers as contact centers in their economic census unless they are standalone contact centers like outsourcers.  In other words, companies like Convergys would be counted as a contact center.  Companies like Verizon, that may have a dozen contact centers, are counted as telecommunications companies.  Their contact centers are not counted as contact centers.

 

Last week I was interviewed by an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) regarding industry trends and issues for the updated Customer Service Representative job description in the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.  I was able to confirm that although there is interest in eventually getting an accurate count of contact centers in the U.S., no change in policy is imminent.  I did, however, get some other interesting insights.

 

Most interesting is the fact that according to the BLS, there are 2.2 million contact center customer service representatives in the workforce today.  Even though the economic census doesn’t ask about captive contact centers, they do ask respondents about the number of contact center CSRs they have in-house.  I find this fascinating because we have always used an approximation (guess) of about 3.5 million agents in the U.S.  We were way off, but not as far off as other estimates I’ve seen that are taken as gospel by the industry due to the name of the company purporting to know the number.

 

Here’s another interesting thought.  At the NACC we make the assumption that the average contact center is somewhere around 48 seats.  That’s based on member information we obtain and extrapolate to represent the population of all U.S. contact centers.  If we take that average and divide it into the number of known CSRs in the U.S., we’re looking at an approximation of about 45,830 contact centers nationally.  That’s less than half of the 100,000 number that’s usually thrown about in reference to the total number of contact centers in the U.S.

 

What if the average contact center size is larger or smaller than our estimate?  This idea opens the door to a lot of questions, but at this point I think it’s safe to say that the actual number of contact centers in the U.S. is closer to 50,000 than it is to 100,000.  I don’t think that has any negative bearing on potential sales for vendors or potential jobs in the future, but it does have value as a reality check in an industry that often touts fantasies and fiction as fact.

Thursday, 29 November 2012 09:05

Is the Contact Center in Microsoft's Future?

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With the introduction of the new Windows 8 operating system and the Microsoft Surface tablet, the company’s first foray into the hardware market, Microsoft has received a fair amount of media attention over the past couple of weeks.  Naturally this has led to an equally fair number of inquiries from clients and members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) wanting to know whether this is indicative of a push by Microsoft into new markets and if it will have any impact on the contact center industry.  The simple answer is yes and no.

 

Microsoft is in the throes of a major strategic shift, and it isn’t toward customer service.  Microsoft has made its fortune providing software solutions to the enterprise.  It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Microsoft has essentially owned the personal computer (PC) and enterprise software market for much of its existence.  However, all good things must come to an end.  Welcome to the post-PC era.

 

Today smartphones, tablets and cloud services are rapidly replacing laptops and desktops in the enterprise.  Demand for these mobile devices is being driven by the consumer market – a market that Microsoft has not done as good a job at cultivating as has their rival, Apple.  Apple has figured out that staying close to the customer and providing a superior customer service experience is a primary key to success in the consumer market.  Here we find Microsoft low on the learning curve.

 

So what does this have to do with the contact center?  My contention is that Microsoft is going to be obsessed by its major strategic and tactical shift from an enterprise software provider to a consumer products provider over the next several years.  Microsoft made a $15 million investment in Aspect a few years ago – a drop in the bucket for a company with $60 billion in cash among its $118 billion in assets.  While Aspect has made Microsoft a major highlight of its contact center strategy, it hasn’t been reciprocal on the part of Microsoft.  Beyond the Aspect relationship, there isn’t any evidence that Microsoft has any interest in planting its flag in the customer service industry.

 

A few years ago Microsoft hired several managers from Envision Telephony, a small contact center company in Seattle, and they hired a strategic manager to help Microsoft evaluate contact center industry opportunities.  Today those former Envision employees are working on Microsoft CRM products and the contact center strategic manager position was eliminated a couple of years ago.  This indicates to me that Microsoft’s brief infatuation with the contact center industry is long over.

 

The new reality for Microsoft involves more of a focus on better understanding consumers and creating a new customer base rather than helping someone else take care of customers.  While the contact center industry offers steady growth and stability, Microsoft won’t have time for modest market opportunities.  They need to hone their competitive skills to quickly learn how to appeal to consumers and create the kind of customer relationships that Apple has mastered.  This isn’t a bump in the road for Microsoft, it’s a major hurdle.

 

As far as Microsoft and the contact center goes, I believe it begins and ends with their partnership with Aspect to provide Lync unified communications and Lync-based applications for the customer service industry.  Don’t expect much else beyond that.  If you are still holding out for that new portfolio of contact center solutions from Microsoft, I recommend you don’t hold your breath. 

Friday, 16 November 2012 14:09

Locked and Loaded, Aspect Aims Toward the Future

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I have to admit I experienced creeping uncertainty when I got word about the management changes at Aspect a couple of months ago.  Not only were the new managers unfamiliar names, they were for the most part not from the communications industry and one of the new execs was an M&A guy.  Would Aspect be broken up and sold in pieces or was this going to be a wholesale sell-off to the highest bidder?

 

Turns out it won’t be any of those things if I can base my assessment of Aspect’s future on the words I heard from the new executive management team this week.  In a fairly atypical industry occurrence, Aspect executives gathered this week with a small group of analysts in an all day, no-holds-barred meeting to make clear the company’s commitment to corporate growth and industry influence in the future.  I left the meeting a believer.

 

When I say the meeting was no-holds-barred, I mean that the discussion was frank and honest, not peppered with the usual flowery marketing drivel.  Mistakes were made in the past and admitted to.  The much-hyped Aspect relationship with Microsoft was put into perspective and I finally understood where it fits into Aspect’s growth strategy.  While it makes sense from a market perspective, I hope Aspect tones down the marketing perspective.  Contact center professionals simply aren’t that enamored with Microsoft, at least not to the degree that some other industry professionals are.  Aspect’s relationship with Microsoft doesn’t do anything to win the heart and mind of the customer service professional.

 

What does win friends and influence people in the contact center industry are innovations in technology solutions that industry people know they need, like workforce optimization, mobility solutions and social media management tools.  Without giving away secrets, I’m convinced that Aspect is on the right track to win new friends.  To back up the talk, they’re walking the R & D walk with significant new investment in this area in dollars for both people and technology.  I see this level of commitment in product development as a strong proof point that Aspect as we know it is here to stay.

 

Financially, Aspect is in a relatively strong position.  Just this week they paid down another $50 million in debt leaving their outstanding debt, by order of magnitude, about a tenth of Avaya’s debt and around half of Genesys’ debt.  I discovered that Aspect’s new CFO is a fellow grad school alum, so that subjectively boosts my confidence in the company’s fiscal responsibility.

 

There are very few companies in the contact center industry that have the confidence to put their top executives in front of analysts to answer questions without a marketing or PR buffer.  Aspect is now part of this elite group and I believe the confidence Aspect has shown in itself will translate to strong and responsible growth for the company.  Aspect is well-positioned to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

The InformationWeek 500, published annually by Information Week magazine, is a list of the nation’s 500 most innovative users of business technology as determined by the editors of the magazine.  As a provider of business technology for the contact center, it appears that Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) practices what it preaches because it has earned a spot on the InformationWeek 500 list for 2012.  Plantronics has been recognized for its adoption of a cutting edge workplace strategy called “smarter working.”

 

Smarter working is a relatively new approach that places people over place and delivers flexible solutions that allow people to cooperate and collaborate across work environments.  For a global company like Plantronics the ability to work with customers, partners and employees across time zones and geographies is critical to success.  Employees can now effectively communicate with each other regardless of where they are located or which type of communications device is being used.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Plantronics’ headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA this past June and saw the construction of their new work environment in progress.  Although not technically in Silicon Valley, the Plantronics work environment should, and probably will, put to shame the work environments in what most of us think of as progressive high tech companies.  The physical environment in the workplace is as important as the work process for those who adhere to the principles of smarter working. 

 

At Plantronics, the workspaces are flexible and open, encouraging collaboration and communication.  The cube farm has been replaced by a friendly collection of work areas where it is apparent that employees share energy as well as ideas.  The beneficiaries of the smarter working initiative are not only the employees – Plantronics’ customers will benefit as well.  Here’s how. 

 

Plantronics makes headsets for the contact center industry.  Contact centers are noisy, busy places.  With the new Plantronics open work environment, part of the “buzz” is due to the fact that employees are talking to each other more frequently, creating a workplace environment that is very similar to the typical contact center.  As a result, Plantronics has just become a test bed for its own headsets. 

 

Despite its industry leadership position, Plantronics continues to innovate in more ways than one.  With the new smarter working strategy in place the employees win, the customers win and, for the icing on the cake, Plantronics gets an award.  Plantronics continues to prove that its industry vision extends well beyond the world of audio communications.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012 15:54

Contact Center Social Media Stalls

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While social media applications become pervasive in virtually all aspects of everyday life, the adoption of social media in the contact center has stalled.

 

Saddletree Research just published a research report that updates the 2010 survey of contact center professionals that was undertaken in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) at The University of Southern Mississippi.  The results reveal that even though interest in social media as a customer service tool continues to be high, there has been no significant increase in the use of social media in the contact center since 2010.

 

In the 2010 survey, 18 percent of respondents reported that they were actively using social media in the contact center.  Despite the fact that 18 percent of respondents in 2010 indicated that they were planning to add social media to their customer communications channel mix in the next year, the growth failed to materialize.  The 2012 survey revealed that 18 percent of respondents were actively using social media in the contact center.  Growth in the use of social media over two years was virtually non-existent.

 

I believe the problem lies in uncertainty concerning the management of social media once it is put into use.  It is clear that existing contact center customer service rules are not relevant in the world of social media.  For example, does a posting on a company’s Facebook page that says something to the effect of “I hate your company” deserve the time and consideration of a response, or does the business risk ignoring it and seeing the poster launch some sort of viral anti-company phenomenon that takes weeks or longer to fix?  Does the rant of a 15 year old who hates his/her cell phone warrant the time of a customer service representative and the effort of a response?

 

While attending the Verint Driving Innovation user group meeting in New Orleans last month I met someone who seems to have a unique understanding of how to handle social media channels in the contact center.  Kym Banks, Social Media manager at Telvista, has a good grip on the process of filtering the good from the bad and the ugly when it comes to social media postings.  Watch for my column in the September issue of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and read about the lessons Kym and her team have learned as they travel the social media learning curve.

Last week Aspect announced a partnership with Nexidia to provide the speech analytics component of Aspect’s Unified IP workforce optimization (WFO) solution.  I didn’t think much of it until I dug a little deeper into what this new partnership can potentially bring to the table for Aspect, and for the contact center industry as a whole.

 

Speech analytics comes in a couple of flavors.  One of the most popular flavors requires the recorded speech to be transcribed into text before the speech analytics engine searches the text for any critical phrases as defined by the user.  The other flavor translates a bit faster in that the actual voice recording is searched using phonetic indexing, which looks for key words and phrases using phonemes, the smallest discreet units of human speech.  Both flavors have their strengths and weaknesses, but Nexidia has taken speech analytics and bumped it up to the next level.  This is bound to capture the attention of the contact center industry.

 

Although there hasn’t been any flag waving or chest pounding on the part of Nexidia, they have developed technology that allows the analysis of a voice conversation in real time.  What this means for the contact center is that all conversations, not just select or random conversations, can be monitored as they are occurring.  It will be possible to conduct root cause analysis and trigger alerts as the call is in progress.  This is pretty heady stuff.

 

Consider, for example, the integration of real time speech analytics with agent screen pops.  In this case, anytime a word related to a particular topic is spoken it triggers an agent screen pop reminding the agent of the procedure for these types of calls.  Or, perhaps the call is from an important customer and a keyword is spoken that automatically triggers a real time alert and bridges the call to an account manager, or it notifies the supervisor that this important customer call is in progress and offers an option to silent monitor the call.  Given a little imagination, the possibilities for real time speech analytics in the contact center are endless.

 

The problem for Nexidia has been that although they have the real-time speech analytics engine, it’s not much of an application by itself.  That’s where the Aspect partnership comes in.  Aspect has the applications and the experience to take real-time speech analytics, make it an integral part of their workforce optimization suite and potentially shake up the industry.  Aspect will be tasked with taking this new technology from Nexidia and creating applications with a practical use in the contact center.  It will be a complex undertaking but if history is any indicator, Aspect is up to the challenge.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011 17:13

Must See TV: Contact Center Industry Growth

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Just in case you haven’t seen this news segment from ABC World News a few weeks ago, it is worth a couple of minutes of your time.

 

http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/jobs-call-centers-back-us-14243481

 

Underscoring this story are employment numbers that Saddletree Research reported in a recently published research note.  As illustrated below, the U.S. contact center industry has experienced employment growth for the entire year of 2010 and thus far in 2011.

 

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

 

It should be noted that industry employment has actually grown for the past nine quarters in a row.  We think employment growth is a testament to the value of the customer service function regardless of economic conditions.  In the worst of times, the customer service function can be a powerful weapon in the fight for customer retention and loyalty.  In the best of times, the customer service function can be a significant contributor to sales and business growth efforts.

 

We foresee no reason why this growth will not continue in the future.  Although there is no clear pattern apparent in the graph above, we still expect to see positive growth numbers in contact center employment for the remainder of 2011 and into 2012.

 

There was a story on a local Phoenix TV news station this week about homeless veterans.  There are now over 10,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the U.S. that are unemployed and homeless.  The government has conducted a census of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans three times since 2006.  With each census, the number of homeless vets has doubled.

 I volunteer as the editor for Veterans to Work (www.veterans2work.org), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to find jobs for veterans and service-disabled veterans.  Veterans to Work (V2W) has a roster of 2,000 customer service-qualified veterans set up in home offices and ready to go to work.  97 percent have a high school diploma and most of them have additional training such as the specialty training they received during their military service.  28 percent have a bachelors degree or higher.  V2W has an additional 112,000 veteran resumes on file.

 I’ve written about V2W in my column in Contact Center Pipeline and in the NACC newsletter In Queue that goes to 32,000 contact center professionals.  I’ve provided a laundry list of reasons why contact centers should look toward veterans as potential employees and have tried to steer companies to V2W when there has been hiring to do.  Net result so far has been zip.

 A couple of months ago I was at an analyst briefing in Boston and at dinner I was telling some of the people seated near me about V2W and the goal of putting our veterans to work, particularly in the contact center industry.  Two vendor representatives, one from CDW and one from Convergys, immediately reached into their pockets and presented me with their business cards and a request to contact them regarding the hiring of veterans.

 I was more than happy to oblige.  The problem was nothing happened after I contacted these individuals.  I didn’t even get an acknowledgement from the woman at CDW, who happened to be a vice president.  The guy from Convergys at least strung me along through a few e-mail exchanges before finally ignoring me as CDW did.

Then last Friday I got an e-mail from one of the news services I subscribe to with the following headlines:

  • Convergys Hiring 500 at Florida Contact Center
  • Convergys Hiring 225 Agents in Cincinnati Metro Area

 Maybe CDW isn’t hiring but Convergys definitely is and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention at Convergys to talk about the benefit of hiring veterans. 

Today President Obama proposed tax credits to help companies hire unemployed veterans.  Noting that among the 1 million unemployed veterans, 260,000 are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s proposal would offer two tax credits for companies that hire unemployed veterans.  Any company hiring an unemployed veteran would receive a $2,400 tax credit.  If the hired veteran has been unemployed for six months or more, the tax credit would increase to $4,800.

The contact center industry has a spectacular opportunity here to create community goodwill and set an example that other industries would have to follow.  This is an opportunity to craft a new public perception of the contact center industry and the people who man the phones.  So often the butt of jokes (see my blog entry of June 10, 2011) this is an opportunity for the industry to exchange ridicule for admiration.

Someone has to step up to the plate and be a leader, which is not a strong suit among most contact center organizations.  In his remarks Obama challenged private companies to hire or train 100,000 veterans by the end of 2013.  I wish I had that kind of pull, but I don’t.  I’m not a politician but I am a veteran and in that capacity I’m asking the contact center industry as a whole to no longer ignore the need to put our veterans back to work.  If you don’t know where to start, contact V2W.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011 12:13

Not Your Average Acquisition

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I got word yesterday afternoon that Verint had acquired Vovici Corporation, the company that pioneered the concept of enterprise feedback management (EFM).  EFM essentially gathers customer insights through the use of various survey and feedback mechanisms on the web, in chat sessions and via social media applications.  Perfect complement, I thought, to Verint’s IVR-based telephone survey tool on its Impact 360 workforce optimization (WFO) suite.

 

At first glance, the acquisition of Vovici’s EFM solution seems to round out the capabilities of Verint’s Voice of the Customer (VoC) Analytics Platform that was announced this past May.  Adding EFM to Verint’s industry-leading text analytics solution creates a dynamic duo of VoC tools for contact centers with an eye toward understanding social media, and this is not an insignificant market segment.

 

According to the survey Saddletree Research undertook with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) last summer, 36 percent of respondents are currently monitoring social media or plan to monitor social media in their contact center before the end of this year.  If we apply that to our estimate of approximately 68,000 contact centers in the U.S., that’s a prospect base of around 24,500 contact centers in this year alone.

 

An additional 27 percent of survey respondents reported that they will be monitoring social media applications in their contact center over the next two-to-four years.  We are talking big numbers, and these numbers are coming from the users and buyers, not from the over-active imagination of a flash-in-the-pan industry analyst who may or may not still be in the industry when it comes time to be called on the carpet over their forecast.  In other words, these are real numbers.

 

Obviously Verint did its homework before it set out on the path to achieve domination in the contact center social media market segment.  As I thought about this further, the strategic significance of this acquisition dawned on me.  This acquisition is about more than feedback management.  This acquisition puts Verint in a very strong position when it comes to moving from the front office and back office and into the rest of the enterprise.

 

This acquisition has the potential to open doors for Verint that simply may not have been open before.  The thought struck me that even if Verint can’t get into a prospect’s contact center due to competitive placement or whatever other reason, they now have the opportunity to get into that same company through the front door via the EFM offering.  If the back door to the contact center is closed, go through the front door to the rest of the enterprise.  If the front door is closed, go through the back door to the contact center.  In either case, Verint gets in.

 

This acquisition is a brilliant move on Verint’s part.  I think the competition will have a tough time matching this strategy, or coming up with something better.  In the meantime, Verint stands alone in a very strong position relative to enterprise VoC initiatives regardless of where in the enterprise those initiatives originate.

Friday, 10 June 2011 16:03

Keeping the Comedians Employed

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As I was unwinding from a later-than-average evening last night, I happened to catch some of the David Letterman show on TV.  Since the show featured the finale of “Drum Solo Week” I thought I’d stay up late enough to watch the featured drummer.  That meant sitting through the brief act of a comedian who preceded the drum solo extravaganza.

 

The comedian’s name was Mike Birbiglia and he owes the contact center industry a big debt of gratitude.  His entire routine, about five minutes or so, was about his experience contacting the call center of his mobile phone provider.  The clichés were coming fast and furious – hundreds of incoming calls and five agents on duty, send all the calls to a voice mail “machine” so no one has to talk to customers, send the calls to Indians (“Native Americans?  No, Indian Indians”), leave the calls on hold while we go play golf, etc. etc.  For comedians, the contact center still seems to hold a wealth of material even if it’s been recycled a hundred times or more.

 

It occurred to me as I watched this comedian that the contact center industry is itself a little like a comedian – Rodney Dangerfield.  Like Rodney, the industry “don’t get no respect.”  I’m betting you already have a visual image of the late Mr. Dangerfield in your mind right now, seeing him straightening his tie, sort of rocking on his feet and saying something like, “A girl phoned me and said, ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home.’  I went over – nobody was home.”

 

According to a recent study I read and wrote about in the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) In Queue newsletter this month (www.nationalcallcenters.org) and which is also the topic of my column in the upcoming July issue of Contact Center Pipeline magazine, customer service representative is number two in the top ten post-recession comeback jobs.  These are jobs that have seen the greatest increase in demand and in salary over the past two years.  Number one on the list is tax preparer.  Right behind tax preparer with a 26 percent increase in average salary since 2009, is the much-maligned job of customer service representative.

 

As contact center jobs continue to be repatriated and we look back and see eight consecutive quarters of job growth in the contact center industry, why is the industry still the butt of late night comedians’ jokes?  These bad experiences may have been commonplace in the past but today’s reality is different.  No one can afford provide bad service and not many agents will risk joining the ranks of the unemployed these days.  Yet these bad customer service experiences appear to be fresh in the memory of many people – fresh enough that they can still relate to them and laugh along with the comedian.

 

Remember when phone company employees were the butt of comedians’ jokes?  They’re not anymore.  Today it’s the cable guy who will show up, maybe, sometime between noon and dark, who is the target of jokes.  I guess the best we can hope for is that the jokes about the bad customer service rep will fade away like the jokes about lazy phone company employees did.  In the meantime, concerned organizations can help the industry by recognizing the importance of the contact center as a profit center and as the front line of defense in the battle to get and keep customers, and invest in it accordingly.  Otherwise the contact center industry might, as Rodney would have said, look up the family tree and discover it was the sap.

Enterprise workforce management is not a new concept.  I’ve been writing about it since 2007.  Lots of companies make back office workforce management solutions, but not very many do it well.

 

I recently conducted a survey with members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a not-for-profit industry organization that offers strategic research and advice to its members.  Based at The University of Southern Mississippi, the NACC strives to offer relevant, clear, demand-based research as an alternative to all the noise an information clutter that permeates the industry.  I function as research director at the NACC, as I have since 2008.

 

This research brought a touch of reality to the idea of back office or enterprise workforce management.  We simply asked end-users what they thought of the idea and what they were doing in their own contact center.  Not surprisingly, the industry isn’t as far along as many vendors would have you believe.

 

Our survey revealed that 61 percent of our respondents have their front office contact center and the back office report to the same internal organization.  This sounds promising for providers of back office workforce management.  However, only 24 percent or our respondents combine the scheduling of back office personnel with front office personnel and only 15 percent of respondents use the same scheduling software for both back and front office even though, as noted, 24 percent schedule them together.

 

It seems to me there is still quite a bit of missionary work to do when it comes to migrating front office workforce management to the back office.  While it appears that much of the ground work has been laid given that 61 percent of organizations have their front and back offices reporting to the same internal organization, it is obvious that the idea of also combining their scheduling still has a ways to go.

 

Verint recently released their fifth generation Impact 360 workforce optimization solution.  Part of this release is a revamped back office workforce management component that addresses the unique scheduling needs of the back office while still maintaining the efficiency of its front office solution.  It’s worth taking a look at.

 

I recently did a podcast with Oscar Alban of Verint that discusses the topic of back office workforce management.  If you have a few minutes, please give it a listen or download it for later listening.  You can find it at: http://verint.com/contact_center/misc/WFM_Recording-04.27.11.wmv

 

Last week I wrote a research note for Saddletree clients covering contact center industry employment numbers for the second half of 2010.  In the first half of 2010 there was a net gain of 2,292 jobs in the U.S. contact center industry.  That news in itself was pretty exciting, but it was blown away by second half employment figures.

The third quarter of 2010 saw a net gain of 3,929 jobs – more than the net gain of jobs in the first two quarters of 2010 combined.  It was the fourth quarter numbers, however, that blew expectations out of the water.  During the fourth quarter the industry realized a net gain of 9,695 jobs for a grand total of 15,916 contact center jobs gained during 2010.  Growth in the fourth quarter also mirrored normal pre-recession industry growth patterns, so it appears that the industry is on the right track.  Incidentally, all these employment numbers are gathered by the Call Center Lab at The University of Southern Mississippi.

 And speaking of blowing away expectations, Verint Systems released their fourth quarter numbers this week.  Earnings per share (EPS) were sharply ahead of consensus forecasts with workforce optimization playing a major part in these earnings.  As a category, Verint’s workforce optimization sales performance was up nearly 20 percent over last year.  Financial analysts expect to see a continuation of this strong performance into FY 2011 and have increased revenue expectations accordingly.

 All of this is good news for an industry that not only proved its value during the toughest of economic times, but is clearly demonstrating leadership in shepherding the U.S. economy out of its doldrums.  It is apparent that confidence has returned to much of the U.S. contact center industry, led by companies like Verint that have figured out the magic formula of delivering value for the money in order to increase revenues.

Awards are not that difficult to come by in the contact center industry.  There are several offered each year.  If you’re a contact center technology vendor and the check you send in for your application fee doesn’t bounce, chances are pretty good that you’ll get one.  This helps explain why so many companies get exactly the same award in any given year.  I don’t think it’s a secret these days that vendors can get as many awards as they can afford. Receiving such an award may sound like a rather hollow victory but, as an industry friend once pointed out to me, buyers like vendors who have awards.  As long as their customers like awards, vendors will keep buying them.

There are, however, some awards that offer a sense of dignity and achievement for the handful of companies that receive them.  One such award is the CRM Magazine Service Leader Awards.  These awards are bestowed upon companies that analysts consider to be the leaders in their field.  Several analysts participate in each award category so there can be no claims of favoritism.  No money changes hands and no deals are struck in smoke-filled back rooms.

This year it was particularly gratifying to see Cisco come out on top in the Infrastructure Service Leader award.  Although Cisco probably doesn’t need any help from any of the analyst judges in terms of maintaining an industry profile, it’s good to see that Cisco’s thought leadership is recognized.  They’re doing some really creative stuff built upon a Web 2.0 infrastructure.  I’m glad to see their vision for the future wasn’t obscured by the cloud of confusion that emanates from the competition.

And speaking of Web 2.0 innovation, Calabrio went from obscurity in last year’s results to challenge the leaders in this year’s award.  This is another company that is quickly establishing itself as a thought leader in the deployment of the Web 2.0 framework in a workforce optimization (WFO) suite.  Aspect also remained on the leader board in recognition of its consistent, industry-leading reputation for customer care and a company direction that is well-defined.

Verint took the top slot in WFO for the fourth year in a row.  With a consistently evolving suite of solutions, Verint led the market in embracing social media as an equally important customer communications channel.  The company has an excellent reputation among buyers and possesses a keen sense of what it takes to be a leader among leaders.  Verint seems to have it all.

If I were a buyer, the CRM Magazine Service Leader Awards would be the ones I paid attention to.  These are the companies and products that came out on top after being evaluated by judges with nothing to gain or lose based upon the results.  You can’t buy that kind of recognition.  Literally.

I admit I used to be a trade show junkie.  I loved seeing all the new contact center products in one place and meeting with company executives that I rarely got to see otherwise.  I met with customer service professionals from many different industries and never failed to learn something.  It was time well spent.

I used to chair conferences in London, Amsterdam and Toronto every year and was a regular speaker at conferences all over the country.  I hosted or attended dinners every night and made the most of every minute running from appointment to appointment and meeting as many people as I could.  Those were productive and educational times.  Then they went away.

Monday, 21 February 2011 15:01

Welcome to Saddletree Research 2.0

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Over the past few months I’ve written about Web 2.0 and what companies like Calabrio and Cisco are doing to take Web 2.0 beyond the realm of social media applications.  I’ve written about how Aspect is addressing what they refer to as Customer 2.0 and the way we will be conducting business in the post-recessionary economy, commonly referred to as Business 2.0.  So I guess it’s time I talk about Saddletree Research 2.0.

 

I founded Saddletree Research on November 1, 1999.  The establishment of the business was carefully crafted, built upon a solid business plan combined with sage advice from the late Jack Beedle, who founded In-Stat and eventually sold it to Cahners Publishing, where it became Cahners In-Stat Group and recruited me to start their telecommunications research practice in 1996.  Saddletree Research was founded as a boutique research house, tightly focused on the contact center industry, and that’s what it still is today.  I didn’t start Saddletree because I lost my job and needed something to do until the next job came along.  I founded Saddletree to be an alternative to the mega-research houses with their layers of admin and high price tag services.  12 years later we’re still at it.

 

In a classic case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes, I have neglected