FRAMINGHAM, 15 APRIL 2011 - It seems nearly every technology vendor is selling some sort of service "in the cloud"-the ubiquitous suffix has been attached to everything from critical systems like ERP to mundane processes like printing. The latest pitch is for the cloud-based call center.
If you're picturing a heavenly host of agents manning the phones from high above, you may not be far from reality. A soup-to-nuts call center in the cloud is largely the stuff of fantasy-so far.
"No single software vendor has yet to really demonstrate a fully-integrated solution that can be described as a full-service contact center, let alone a 'call center in the cloud,'" says Phil Fersht, founder of outsourcing analyst firm HfS Research.
A number of niche providers offer single services like call routing, live chat or workforce management. Some even connect them by way of the virtual dashboards that have been available for several years.
"But we're not at a stage where the full service call center solution is available in a pure cloud-based model," Fersht says. "It's the difficulty of integrating this multitude of applications into one full-service solution that makes this almost impossible in the near future."
The potential benefits of an actual cloud offering for the call center are very tangible, however. "Rather than incur a large capital expenditure to stand up a center or centers, a company can use and pay for only the hardware and supporting software applications needed," says Tony Zmudzin, director for outsourcing consultancy TPI.
The land of cloud-based call center offerings is largely populated by specialty providers today like Liveops, Global Response, inContact and Transera. Some, like Interactive Intelligence, offer more integrated technology packages, but they are far from being cloud-enabled, Fersht says.
"When these call center applications are increasingly provisioned on shared-platforms it will cut down the deployment cycles, cut the capital investments and reduce the cost of support, which is when I anticipate greater momentum from the more traditional providers," he adds.
Even the early cloud offerings for the call center may be an attractive proposition for some companies, particularly small to midsize enterprises with less complex call center needs. And eventually, "agents, whether they work from home or from an offshore or onshore call center, will be able to access call center applications on a pay-per-use basis via a browser and tap into the benefits of what the cloud model can offer," says Fersht.
"The initial entry into cloud services is about freeing an enterprise from resourcing the technical solution," says Zmudzin. "The basic goal is to match your cost to your need. However, a buyer needs to think beyond this basic idea to the overall strategy objective and how the cloud solution supports it."
Here are five questions to ask before buying any on-demand call center solution:
1. How much have I already invested in my call center? Enterprises that have purchased "Cadillac versions" of call center software and hardware will see little benefit in migrating to the cloud, says Fersht.
2. Do I have the skills in-house to manage a partial cloud solution? In a traditional call center deal, you contract for everything: people, processes and technology. With these initial cloud-based solutions, you may subscribe to just a portion of a technical solution while retaining your own agents and management. Companies must have the right management skills to succeed in that kind of hybrid environment, says Zmudzin.
3. Can the solution handle peaks in demand? Fersht advises buyers to examine the vendor's architecture to ensure the application has been architected specifically for as-a-service delivery. Find out whether the pricing structure and methodology will tolerate quick-even emergency-adjustments to business needs, warns Zmudzin.
4. Will the software play nice? If the as-a-service option you're eyeing can't feed data into the analytics system you use to measure customer care and marketing efforts, for example, that may be a problem.
5. Is it safe? "If there is a [call center system] failure, it is very visible because it is customer-facing," says Zmudzin. "It also, in so many cases, impacts revenue. It drives a more detailed planning phase and demands a deeper strategic and capabilities analysis." Conduct due diligence on data handling, risk management, redundancy and service assurance.
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