Maximising unified communications ROI with business process automation


By Brendan Maree, ANZ Country Manager, Interactive Intelligence
Wednesday, 22 February, 2012


Brendan maree

Unified communications (UC) systems often consist of disparate pieces of software from multiple providers, meaning integration, management and reporting can be difficult. An alternative approach is to combine UC with business process automation (BPA) in an effort to avoid these hassles.

It’s not always easy to communicate with consumers. True, the myriad modes of communication - from phone and fax, to email, web, chat and SMS - have given today’s consumers and organisations a greater ability to reach out to each other. And research consistently shows that consumers of the 2000s are very interested in receiving pertinent, timely information and offers from their retailers and service suppliers. It would seem that opportunities abound for contact centres to attract and retain customers by providing service that supports multichannel communications.

The problem for contact centres, however, is the need to support a growing array of communication modes while maintaining service levels and minimising costs. Having different staff and different systems manage each mode isn’t the answer because customers want consistency across any and all channels. If they’ve been in contact in the past via the web, they expect to be able to seamlessly continue the conversation regardless of whether they use the phone, email or chat.

Unified communications has emerged as one potential solution. Its goal of consolidating communication applications while providing multidevice access is highly appealing, particularly at a time when analyst firm Frost & Sullivan reports that centres are switching their focus from computer telephony integration, automatic call distribution and interactive voice response to performance optimisation, quality management and multimedia applications. In Australian Unified Communications Services Report 2011, Frost & Sullivan also makes the point that, in an uncertain economy, the comparatively low cost of UC as opposed to large-scale technology deployments is another factor helping to drive interest.

That interest is now being experienced to such a degree that many contact centre solution vendors are incorporating key UC applications in their offerings. The typical inclusions combine voice over IP (VoIP) with collaboration functionality such as presence, audio/video conferencing, unified messaging (UM) and web chat/instant messaging (IM).

What organisations often fail to realise, however, is that while the term UC may have only recently been coined, a large number of UC technologies have been around for a decade or more. In fact, contact centre managers should know this better than anyone as many of the UC applications originated within the contact centre years ago.

In addition, the term UC is being used to rebrand numerous product lines while in reality most of these ‘single’ solutions are loosely integrated, multibox product portfolios. Some of the applications may offer useful productivity benefits but often the total package remains a collection of separately conceived pieces of software originating from multiple developers and vendors. In these circumstances, integration, management and reporting can become an issue.

Chasing the unified communications platform

In an effort to address these issues while still obtaining the positive benefits of UC, industry experts have begun to emphasise the role of business process automation (BPA) within UC. For example, UC Strategies (www.ucstrategies.com), an online industry resource and supplier of UC information, puts BPA front and centre defining UC as “communications integrated to optimise business processes”. Industry analyst firm Gartner also sees an important potential for BPA.

Unsurprisingly, given their history of involvement in the evolution of business communications, contact centres have been key participants in the early UC-BPA trend and their efforts have given rise to a particular approach called communications-based process automation (CBPA). It’s a concept that builds on the idea of an ‘all-in-one’, truly unified communications platform.

CBPA uses an architecture that eliminates the cost and complexity associated with multipoint, multibox approaches. It centralises interaction processing by running a host of inherent UC applications on a single platform. The functions include such essential capabilities as multichannel routing, presence and collaboration.

Tools that improve processes

CBPA takes the UC applications that enable contact centres to prioritise, route, escalate and track interactions, and uses them to automate and move work through each step of a business process.

Examples of all-in-one UC platform functionality adapted for process automation include the following:

  • Applying contact centre-style queuing and routing for accurate and flexible prioritisation and distribution of multistep business processes.
  • Using presence as a means of identifying ‘process presence’ to indicate availability for a work assignment, thus speeding processing time.
  • Recording becomes an essential part of compliance for business processes.
  • Introducing real-time supervisory monitoring provides an organisation visibility into every step of the work process including supervisory, audit and reporting functions.
  • Automated escalation functionality helps to ensure service goal levels are met.
  • VoIP provides complete location independence, enabling employees to participate in businesses processes from anywhere in the world.

Viewed in this way, it’s apparent the applications are a natural fit for BPA. On top of this, the single-platform approach dramatically reduces complexity, cost, latency and human error, resulting in the kind of measurable cost savings that contact centre managers have long been looking for to make the business case for UC.

Understand what you’re dealing with

With any emerging technology or strategy, there’s always an element of confusion in the market. With UC and BPA combinations - and more specifically, with CBPA - it’s a good idea to take the time to understand the underlying architecture, design and principles if you are to distinguish between the hype and competing vendor claims.

To clarify, the CBPA approach offers an alternative to traditional process automation systems. These latter systems are historically expensive and complex, typically requiring extensive customisation and on-site programmers to modify and maintain them. Without a loss of functionality, CBPA uses a simple process-flow definition and graphical interface to enable faster design, deployment and modification of automated business processes, thus resulting in lower overall costs. Additionally, because it is based on an all-in-one UC platform, CBPA is inherently a part of the contact centre and enterprise communications systems. This is something that traditional process automation systems simply cannot achieve.

There is, of course, another class of process-based applications on the market. Known as the communications-enabled business process (CEBP) applications, this class embeds communications into existing applications and enables triggering of notifications based on an event. The difference, however, is that CEBP applications aren’t equipped to automate processes end to end, nor do they fully address latency and human error. Thus their return on investment (ROI) is limited.

Take, for example, a customer’s database record indicating a balance due that is greater than the defined threshold. A CEBP application can generate a phone call based on this. At its most robust, it might be able to use presence to send the call to the first available person. However, because it relies on another application to actually perform the process automation, it offers no way of effectively moving the work from phase to phase, let alone track and report on it.

A CBPA application can also generate the call and use presence. Unlike CEBP it includes everything a contact centre needs to manage the process through to resolution. It allows the organisation to define and track workflows - from creating end-user interfaces and specifying detailed process logic, to monitoring and reporting.

And it is in this way, using a UC platform running multichannel services designed to automate business processes end to end, that CBPA systems can offer contact centres the ability to efficiently provide and manage customer service across myriad modes of communication.

By Brendan Maree, ANZ Country Manager for Interactive Intelligence. In this position, his main responsibilities include sales, channel development and business management. He was previously Avaya’s Channel Manager for SMB products and has also worked for a mobile phone infrastructure group, MC Solutions, as well as for Allen Telecom and Anritsu. Maree has telecommunications and RF diplomas which he gained during his nine-year tenure with the Royal Australian Navy.

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