As the pandemic wears on, the term “contact center” is becoming increasingly anachronistic. Touchless has replaced in-person, and the only “contact” people want to have these days is contact tracing. When it comes to “center,” there’s no such thing as a physical location anymore. Many facilities-based contact centers are sitting empty, much like the office towers in downtown cores that could now serve as sets for a post-apocalyptic movie.
Perhaps more importantly, even when operating in a distributed manner with agents working from home, there’s a case to be made that the contact center is no longer the center of customer service. While it’s true that what constitutes a contact center in 2021 – a largely virtual operation of remote agents where most customer interactions are handled – it’s not the only place where customer service happens. Just as the multichannel “contact center” moniker emerged to replace the telephony-centric “call center” moniker, the forces of digital transformation are heralding in a new era for the customer service space.
In whatever way a contact center is built and operated, its primary function has always been to serve customers—hence the term customer service. That remains true today, but the contact center seems en route to become more of a spoke in the wheel rather than the hub when it comes to the ever-broadening definition of customer service.
There’s Something Happening Here… But what it is ain’t exactly clear
A lyric from the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth” reflects my view of the shifting sands for what I’ll call customer service – at least for the moment – and I’ll come back to that later. Digital transformation is hitting its stride now as cloud, mobility, and artificial intelligence (AI) are concurrently driving change on the technology side, while the prolonged pandemic keeps the anxiety level high among consumers. This anxiety adds up to lots of disruption, and while we’ve been living this way for over a year, lots of opportunities have also been created.
Much of the contact center market remain anchored to premises-based systems that have various limitations for meeting today’s customer experience (CX)-driven customer needs. These systems can still meet conventional needs very well, but they constrain operations in two key areas. First is the limited ability to support multi and/or omnichannel service – especially digital channels like social media, webchat, text/SMS, video. The second is to support remote agents, which has now become the norm. As a result of these limitations, contact centers have been open to new technologies, new deployment models, and new vendors.
The established contact center players continue to dominate in helping premises-based customers get the most out of their deployments, in addition to hybrid migration offerings that include contact-center-as-a-service (CCaaS). Because the cloud has opened the market to new players, dominance has diminished, and we now have a messy mix of vendors in this space. The contact center space – as we know it – has never been more competitive, and while choice makes for a healthier market, it has never been more challenging to make purchasing decisions.
There’s Definitely Something Happening Here
The cloud infrastructure market seems to be a case of a rising tide lifting all boats. As mentioned above, the anxiety of consumers during pandemic times has driven contact center traffic higher, so when demand grows, supply invariably follows. In time, COVID-19 will pass, and these volumes will revert to more predictable levels. That aside, another force comes into play that will have a longer-term and probably larger impact on what’s needed now to properly support customers.
In this context, digital transformation is giving rise to new ways of engaging with customers and creating new forms of CX. No blueprint exists for this, and everyone is figuring it out as they go along. That means different types of vendors are bringing different types of value propositions to market – all in the name of improving CX, customer service, customer engagement, etc. Some are focused solely on the contact center environment, while others cater more to lines of business that have their own forms of customer engagement. Additionally, some try to integrate everything into a pan-enterprise solution.
The net result is that the customer service pie is now larger, much the way that first-generation voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) platforms like Skype made the overall voice market bigger. Otherwise, how can you explain the fact that most all players in this crowded space are doing well? Whether it’s sales growth, profitability, customer acquisition, pace of innovation, or geographic expansion, there are plenty of performance metrics showing that contact center players are having continued success.
Your Challenge: Navigating the Vendor Landscape
To illustrate the vendor landscape, I’ll touch on some leading players across the ever-expanding vendor ecosystem. Among the pure plays: Five9 recently reported stellar Q1 results, Talkdesk newly branded to mark its second decade, and Genesys is seeing record growth in the cloud business. We must then consider how majors like Cisco and Avaya have made big moves to strengthen their cloud offerings—with a lot of AI and analytics—and a more comprehensive vision to make CX an enterprise-wide concern rather than just a contact center story.
There are other concentric circles to consider as well, and each seems to be doing well, if not thriving. For example, many cloud providers rooted in UCaaS have added various flavors of CCaaS and look to be getting good traction with integrated offerings. Notable players here include RingCentral, Vonage, 8×8, Fuze, and Dialpad.
Another variation is cloud players like CoreDial, that cater to managed service providers (MSPs) and communications service providers (CSPs), many of which are looking for new revenue streams. The latest iteration of its CoreNexa platform, version 7.0, provides these players with a turnkey CCaaS offering for a relatively easy entry into the contact center market. Add to that developer-driven platforms that provide extensive capabilities for customization and programmable communications. Twilio Flex and Amazon Connect lead the way along with Vonage Nexmo, along with a host of smaller communications-platform-as-a-service (CPaaS) players and their CCaaS offerings, such as Bandwidth, IntelePeer and Telestax.
If that’s not enough variety to choose from, a few other major players in the cloud space bear mentioning. For example, while Microsoft isn’t a direct CCaaS player, its footprint is too big to ignore. Also, given how strong its financial performance has been lately, Microsoft is in a good position to impact how this space evolves via its strong partnerships with major contact center players.
Google also isn’t a direct contact center player, but its contact center AI (CCAI) service powers AI capabilities for many leading CCaaS vendors, so they have a hand in where this space goes as well. The same can be said for Salesforce, but with their dominance in CRM and possibilities that come with Slack, they can’t be ruled out as a future CCaaS option if they pursue that path.
Zoom is in a similar position, as it looks to leverage brand power beyond video and collaboration. In terms of contact center, Zoom has relied on partners for CCaaS, but it has the means to make acquisitions if it wants to jump in as a direct competitor. Zoom’s lack of pedigree in this space may make channels and end buyers wary, but this hasn’t stopped the company from pushing into new markets. Given the potential growth opportunity with CCaaS, it’s easy to see why Zoom would want to be a direct player. There are several pure-play CCaaS vendors out there, and as the UCaaS space becomes more saturated and commodified, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zoom make a move if this space continues its momentum.
Rethinking the Customer Service Paradigm
COVID-19 caused us to do a reset on everything. In some ways, it has made us more responsible citizens and consumers, and that’s a good thing. With work from home, enterprises and businesses have had to fundamentally rethink operations, which has spurred a lot of innovation from technology companies, including those in the contact center space.
The variety of choices for decision-makers is now vast. Rather than being too overwhelmed to make any changes, the current state of things should be viewed as an opportunity to rethink customer service. Nothing is wrong with maintaining the conventional model where customer service is something that the business provides to its customers, primarily via the contact center. In mature markets where things don’t change much, this approach remains valid; in which case many of the contact center and CCaaS offerings cited above are perfectly fine choices.
Other markets, however, are changing quickly in many ways, by adopting new technology, and intense competition. They’re also shifting towards a younger demographic, and more demanding customer expectations. In this world, CX has emerged as the value driver, and it’s quite different from customer service.
Rather than service being something you provide the customer, CX is about the experience of the customer – they define this narrative. Their CX could be defined by interactions with your contact center, but it could also be defined by any other journey they have with your marketing organization, or sales department, or technical support team, etc.
In this model, customer service is one form of CX, and it’s not confined to the contact center. Supporting this requires a more holistic approach, and chances are you’ll need to go beyond conventional contact center offerings – either entirely or in concert with them. There’s no singular way to do that, which largely explains why there are so many different types of choices now.
As such, when thinking about CCaaS, the options may be broader than expected, but could also present a timely opportunity to rethink CX from the customer’s perspective, and for something bigger than the contact center.