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I recently attended a Cisco Collaboration analyst day in the U.K. and was impressed by what I heard and saw. Cisco  of course is known as a supplier of network equipment and software, and it has long provided these through a global network of partners. But Cisco also has been in the contact center market for several years and has had success with its small and enterprise contact center systems, having more than 20,000 on-premises customers and revenue in excess of US $1.5 billion. Cisco markets the contact center systems as Customer Collaboration , but the portfolio is still based on its two longstanding contact center products: Unified Contact Center Enterprise  and  Unified Contact Center Express , designed for larger and smaller centers, respectively. Two other options are  CiscoPackaged Contact Center Enterprise  and  Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution for Contact Center (HCS-CC) . These both use the Enterprise products, but the first comes packaged and so has less options, and the second is based on cloud computing; both are easier to deploy and more affordable for a wider market than the other options.

Cisco’s strategy seems clear – to keep the product portfolio as is but to add capabilities (whether through internal development, acquisitions or strategic partnerships such as eGain), to continue to support customers through its highly evolved network of global partners and to add additional supply options. Developments are driven by a four-point action plan – improve the user experience, offer high-quality product development and support services, technically support “omnichannel” customer engagement and provide more cloud-based services. Cisco has been working on the user interface and integration of its products to bring them more in line with users’ expectations. The latest versions are much improved, but I think Cisco has more to do to develop a task-oriented user interface that has point-and-click capabilities for tasks, not applications; this is much like younger users expect when using smartphones or tablets. Cisco has also been working on its development and delivery processes to improve product quality and customer satisfaction.

 From my perspective the biggest changes relate to supporting multiple channels of communication and making the applications accessible to a wider set of employees.  Our benchmark research into next-generation customer engagement  confirms what most people have come to realize: Consumers use multiple channels to engage with companies, and companies must support those channels.

  Interaction channelsThe research finds that companies now support on average seven or eight channels, and Cisco’s products now support six: telephone, email, Web, chat, social video and mobile. The analyst day showed a focus on video, and the presenters demonstrated innovative use of video to provide customer support, which although it is still in the early days of adoption (29% of companies currently support video), I expect this percentage to climb, partly as more consumers use Skype video calls for personal conversations and customer service. There also were demonstrations of innovative support for kiosks as a communication channel, including video. These, and mobility in particular, demonstrated more choice and improved experiences for customers. A key factor is that Cisco’s products are based on the same platform and so helps users provide their own customers with omnichannel experiences across the supported channels.

 Cisco’s other significant move is support for the cloud.  Our benchmark research into the contact center in the cloud  finds that to improve the handling of customer interactions, companies plan to adopt applications and communication channel management in the cloud, and from discussion forums I have participated in, more companies are now adopting cloud-based systems to improve interaction handling.

  CCC Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution for Contact Center is a version of Contact Center Enterprise packaged with the Cisco Unified Customer Voice Portal – Cisco’s version of IVR – and available through cloud computing. It provides services for companies wanting a large variety of capabilities and is scalable up to 12,000 seats. The services are available directly from Cisco through a public cloud or through Cisco-approved partners using their own cloud services. This option gives potential customers a wider choice but does create possible confusion as Cisco’s direct sales people are also compensated for selling partner services. Nevertheless it demonstrates the overall market disposition to use cloud services; its 19 approved partners delivered year-on-year growth of 182 percent during 2014, and 25 percent of Cisco’s contact center business now comes from cloud services. During a presentation one of its partners,  KCom , stated that more of its customers are looking to the cloud rather than on-premises, a trend I expect to increase across the market.

 The two primary Cisco contact center products, Enterprise and Express, offer too wide range of capabilities to cover fully in this perspective, so if you are interested please use the links above for more information. The key differences from my perspective are these:

 Express is a targeted at smaller centers and is an all-in-one product that is easy to deploy and use. Enterprise targets larger centers, is more customizable and scalable, and supports more distributed centers.

Express supports voice, video, chat, email, IVR and social media, and it comes with a set of APIs to common third-party products and a reporting package. It also offers options including quality monitoring and workforce management, which interestingly are not available with Enterprise.

Enterprise supports a similar number of channels but also outbound call management. It includes the Cisco collaboration platform that allows employees across the enterprise to collaborate on customer-related tasks. Enterprise also comes in a packaged version that is designed to include all the capabilities but is not as scalable.

Both include Cisco Finesse, which is what we call a smart agent desktop. This is used by customers and/or partners such as  UpstreamWorks  to create highly capable and flexible desktop systems; this is achieved by embedding customizable widgets inside a common “container”; the widgets make it easier for users to access systems and information. During the analyst day one of Cisco’s customers, , demonstrated the desktop system it has created, which is the most innovative agent desktop I have come across in more than 25 years in the contact center market.

Enterprise includes something Cisco calls precision routing. This turns routing of interactions on its head so instead of routing based on agents’ skills, it routes interactions based on the customer’s needs and the employee best placed to meet those needs. The system brings together information about the customers and the topic of the interaction and searches for the employee, who could reside outside the contact center, most likely to achieve the best outcome, thus potentially improving the customer experience and satisfaction. This can, for example, be used in conjunction with a mobile app so if the customer cannot complete the interaction, he or she can be routed to the best “agent” along with all the information collected in the app so the customer doesn’t have to start afresh.

 Despite having these impressive capabilities, Cisco doesn’t make it easy for prospective customers to find information about its contact center products. If you click on the product tab on its home page, you don’t immediately see any contact center products. You need to drill down one level, using the customer collaboration link to find the contact center systems. And the marketing of the products is not very insightful or collaborative. I think “customer collaboration” is a misnomer as I associate customer collaboration with shared Web pages, chat sessions or social media forums in which contact center agents collaborate with customers to resolve issues. The Cisco products go beyond that and, as I have said, support multichannel management, a smart desktop, knowledge management and in some cases workforce optimization and analytics – indeed it covers many of the systems I predict will have the biggest  impact on the customer experience during 2015 . I therefore recommend that organizations seeking to improve the customer experience assess how Cisco can support those efforts but will require a little extra work to actually get the information required to determine if they should be on the vendor evaluation short list.


 Richard J. Snow

 VP & Research Director

I recently wrote about customer experience lessons I learned during 2014 and the technologies required to deliver EPIC experiences. Both of these analyses focus on the people, processes, information and technologies required to improve the customer experience at every touch point, and these themes will also be at the heart of our customer technology research agenda for 2015.

Looking back at our benchmark research into next-generation customer engagement, I am reminded of the need for companies to rethink how they engage with customers, from marketing to customer support. They must realize that customers have changed the ways they communicate, and this has changed the customer engagement paradigm. I often use my 22-year-old daughter to illustrate this point. She never watches TV in real time, so she can skip those advertisements; the news she wants is delivered to her iPad so she never reads a newspaper; she doesn’t use email and opens postal mail only from people she knows. The net result is that none of the traditional marketing channels will reach her. Like almost everyone else these days, she searches for products she is interested in on the Internet and when possible will buy on the Internet as well, preferably using a chat vr_NGCE_Research_08_all_channels_for_customer_engagementwindow; that said, she does still go to shops, so at least one channel stays the same. Support is another issue. She lives on her iPhone and iPad, so she expects support to be available through one of these whenever she wants it. She is thus predisposed to use self-service technologies such as voice-activated IVR, virtual agents, corporate websites, text, chat or social media.

The impact for businesses hoping to sell to her and millions like her is threefold:

  1. Our research into next-generation customer engagement shows that organizations have to support multiple channels of engagement ranging from telephone (which 94% of companies support) to virtual agents (only 10%). All of these channels must be connected.
  2. The same research shows that in a clear majority (71%) of organizations the contact center is still the most common business unit handling interactions, but every business unit except IT must be prepared to engage with customers; they all must work from the same customer information, and their efforts have to be aligned.
  3. Providing responses requires access to multiple systems, including transaction systems such as CRM and ERP, communication management systems such as email, vr_NGCE_Research_05_who_handles_customer_interactionschat and social media, and dashboards and performance analysis.

With these needs in mind, our customer technology research agenda for 2015 will focus on benchmark research addressing three themes:

  1. Optimizing the customer experience across all touch points.

This research will examine how organizations are using and intend to use cloud computing to accelerate omnichannel customer engagement. It will investigate how organizations can improve alignment between marketing, sales and service to make the customer experience consistent and how big data analytics can help optimize interaction handling and the customer journey.

  1. Improving the effectiveness of interactions through innovative technology.

This research will examine how innovative technology can improve interaction handling and employee and customer satisfaction. It will investigate technologies such as smart agent desktop systems to optimize interaction handling and employee satisfaction, mobility-enabled workforce optimization systems that managers and supervisors can use to work away from their desks and respond faster to alerts, and collaboration to improve alignment between business units.

  1. Establishing the next generation of customer self-service.

This research will examine how organizations are planning to improve customer self-service. It will investigate how mobile apps can improve self-service and integration with the contact center, the use of voice recognition, real-time voice analytics and virtual agents to empower customer self-service, and replacing FAQs with interactive, Web-based self-service, visual IVR and smart mobile apps.

Each of these research projects will include analysis of how organizations are using or will use innovative technologies to improve customer engagement.

Cloud Computing – Our benchmark research shows organizations increasingly prefer cloud-based systems as they strive to improve customer engagement, especially integrated communications management (often called the contact center in the cloud), workforce optimization and analytics. We will follow this trend and determine whether it is extending into other systems such as self-service. Our new contact center in the cloud research in 2015 will specifically examine this trend and how organizations are advancing their interactions and operations to the cloud.

Big Data and Analytics – These related technologies have become critical to customer engagement because more channels produce more data types and greater volumes of data. Customer engagement typically happens in real time so organizations need big data analytics systems that can process all customer data sources (structured and unstructured) and provide to any employee handling a customer interaction vr_NGCE_Research_06_changes_to_improve_engagementa full picture of the customer, do it in real or near real time, visualize the information in forms and on devices specific to different users, and provide the ability to drill down to the root causes behind the data and produce predictive models of potential future customer behavior. Our research into next generation of customer analytics has found that analytics is essential to optimizing all customer related processes.

Business and Social Collaboration – In our research into next-generation customer engagement the largest percentage (19%) of participants cited deploying an internal collaboration system as the action most likely to improve customer engagement. Such systems can enhance communication between employees, enable managers and supervisors to coach agents in near real time to improve responses to customers, and enable agents to collaborate with subject-matter experts to improve the likelihood of resolving customer issues at the first attempt. Collaboration with customers through social media forums is also becoming popular not just to improve customer service but also to research potential products and service improvements.

Mobile and Wearable Computing – Mobile computing is having a double impact on customer engagement. One is the “bring your own device” (BYOD) movement as more organizations look for systems that its employees can access on mobile devices. This includes enabling more employees to handle customer interactions such as supervisors away from their desks, mobile customer service employees and home workers. The second is customer demand for self-service using mobile apps. Organizations must consider systems that help them build smart mobile apps that can automatically connect to a contact center agent at the click of a button without losing the context of what the customers was doing in the app. By their nature, wearables are likely to impact customer engagement, so we will seek to understand what organizations expect the impact to be and how they will address it.

Much has happened in customer engagement in the last 12 months, and I expect those changes to continue and perhaps accelerate. We will continue to assess customer engagement market maturity to gain insight into how many organizations intend to maintain the status quo and how many have adopted and will adopt innovations in people, processes, information and technology. We will identify best practices that can help organizations grow in maturity. I am excited about tracking how customer engagement is evolving and how companies are using innovative technology to keep up with customer expectations. Do not forget to come and download our customer technology research agenda for 2015. So please connect with me and share your insights.


Richard J. Snow

VP & Research Director

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