Thursday, 29 November 2012 09:05

Is the Contact Center in Microsoft's Future?

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. 

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.

For the last two issues of this magazine I’ve harped on about Web 2.0, social media and social networking.  As much as I like that stuff, it’s time to shift gears and talk about an issue that is the polar opposite of a discussion regarding the latest trendy software.  In this issue I’m going to harp on about the contact center industry’s opportunity, and responsibility, to help our veterans get back to work.