The age of the one way communication street - where brands controlled the manner in which their customers communicated with them – has passed. Today's customers want to communicate using a channel that suits them, and that could be Facebook, Twitter, Skype, video calls, SMS, email, fax or regular phone calls, depending on the demographic profile of the customer. Within this context, brands unable to understand the communications needs of their customers and put appropriate channels in place are losing ground to more flexible rivals – hence the rapid emergence of multichannel contact centres.
The technology exists to cater to any type of customer interaction, but choosing which mediums to use, and how to use them, requires strong strategic and operational skills. It is particularly important to ensure that once a new channel is introduced it is effectively managed. Opening a Facebook channel is relatively simple, but managing what happens within that channel once customers start using it can turn out to be very complex. In the shift to multichannel contact centres, brands without a detailed understanding of their consumers' behaviour patterns could get caught out, as could those without the necessary skills in place to support the opening of new channels.
There is no doubt that hosted solutions have the potential to cut capital costs and the resource demands associated with communication infrastructure. South African companies will need to tread cautiously, however, if they are going to ensure that a move to the cloud doesn't open up an unexpected set of issues.
An important concern is understanding the implications of shifting an infrastructure that was previously under full in-house control to an off-site set-up that involves additional parties and business partners. Such a decision needs to be carefully assessed if it's going to actually add value to the organisation. Security is the oft-cited issue here, but actually it's the lack of centralised control that could prove to be the sticking point for many organisations.
In addition, important infrastructure considerations must be factored in. In 2010 South Africa experienced repeated Internet outages. A company 100% 'on the cloud' could face some nasty operational shocks were these kinds of outages could occur in the future.
And finally, there's bandwidth. Cost effective bandwidth is a baseline requirement for hosted services. Until South Africa's bandwidth issues are fully resolved, cloud solutions could remain the sole prerogative of companies large enough to pay hefty sums for the necessary Internet access.
More and more organisations are exploring how they can use their contact centre infrastructure to service multiple business areas. Whether a holding company is operating several distinct businesses or a single company is running different divisions, utilising a single piece of technology across the full business structure can deliver immediate cost benefits.
Costs aside, the helicopter view created through a central zone of measurement and reporting is a very powerful strategic tool. This view is particularly important when a single brand is delivering different types of services to the market. While the delivery of each service can be a stand alone exercise from an operational point of view, customers perceive and interact with the brand as a singular entity. This makes it crucial for brand decision makers to understand all relationships with customers. A consolidated communications structure creates this umbrella view, while, conversely, parallel communications systems conspire to create an ongoing reporting and measurement nightmare.
Transcontinental fibre optic cables are coming online with increasing frequency, which means that in theory South Africa should be enjoying rapidly falling bandwidth costs and much improved line quality. The reality, however, is that savings are not being passed down the line fast enough by telecoms operators. As a result bandwidth remains the country's number one business development killer.
While other economies are operating in a virtually unlimited bandwidth context, currently we can only dream of the possibilities that would open up if local businesses had access to unlimited bandwidth. From cloud computing to the freedom to decide where the business is geographically located, we are being denied a great deal of choice.
It looks likely that local companies will have to stand up and demand appropriate cost reductions – in a similar fashion to the recent forced drop in mobile interconnect rates. Telecom companies have to be held accountable, and that will only happen if local business people make their voices heard. Throats are being cleared as we speak.
The death of proprietary systems
Traditionally, contact centre technology has been hardware intensive. This legacy sees many local decision makers still anticipating the need for a massive LAN room to house proprietary contact centre components, including multiple servers and so on. But this is no longer an accurate perception of how a contact centre should be structured. Today's contact centres can be housed on just a few servers and crucially, can be scaled up and down in a highly modular fashion. Extra seats and licenses can be added and removed via a few clicks, and hardware hardly enters the equation. Good contact centre technology is open, user friendly, modular and scalable.
The watchwords are flexibility and choice. With new generation technologies, companies are able to launch a limited time frame outbound sales campaign, for example, and then either close the campaign down or change its structure fundamentally. All of this can be achieved without any intensive hardware upgrades or downgrades.
The global market has already moved decisively in this software-centric direction. In 2011, South African companies will follow suit as they realise the extent of the flexibility on offer.