I have been involved in the call center market for around 30 years, first as a consultant building call centers for organizations and later as an analyst covering developments in organizations’ customer engagement best practices and vendor product developments. Looking back over the first 20, maybe even 25 years, it has been a slowly developing market. Early call centers essentially included an on-premises ACD or PBX, call routing software, computer telephony integration (CTI) software that could identify the caller and display a page from a selected system – typically CRM – on the screen of the agent handling the call. For the most part, agents were left to their own devices to handle the call, although some organizations developed scripts. Such centers were so successful, organizations began to see the true cost of handling all these interactions, so many started to deploy “call avoidance” systems such as IVR and FAQs on the corporate website to try and cut down costs.
The next big change happened when organizations decided that agents should handle other forms of interactions – emails, faxes and scanned postal mail – so the call center evolved into the contact center. This required more complex routing systems, but otherwise the principles remained the same. Over time, organizations added even more channels of interaction, including calls over the internet, text messages, chat, social media and video. This led to the development of more sophisticated routing systems, the softphone, the agent desktop and, inevitably, the ACD/PBX in the cloud, software systems that took over the role of the proprietary on-premises ACD and PBX systems. This shift resulted in software vendors developing a “contact center in the cloud” – all the systems required to manage every aspect of handling customer interactions, including workforce optimization and analytics, integrated into a single customer engagement platform and provided as cloud-based services. This is gaining momentum as public cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) allow organizations of all sizes and across multiple locations to set up and run a multichannel contact center using their contact center in the cloud services.
AWS threw its hat into the contact center market earlier this year, releasing Amazon Connect. This move raises two questions: How will vendors that already run or plan to run contact centers on AWS react, and how much of a customer engagement platform does the new Amazon offering support? I can’t predict vendors’ reactions, but my initial assessment of the service is that it is quite basic. It supports calls made over the internet and includes a softphone, call recording and skills-based routing. There is a tool that uses point-and-click capabilities to create contact flows, which AWS says can be used to anticipate customer interactions and take proactive action, as well as voice recognition software that allows users to develop voice-activated call flows and tools to produce real-time and historic performance dashboards. Recognizing that such systems cannot operate alone, AWS offers a set of APIs so users can integrate the systems with other Amazon products and third-party products such as CRM and WFO.
Overall, the message on the Amazon Connect website focuses on ease of use – sign up, log on and away you go. In my experience, setting up a successful call center – let alone a multichannel contact center – is not as easy as that. I have written several times that handling customer interactions is a complex task that, in a multi-channel world, has become even more complex. It is not just about software, but more about process and people. This is reflected in our research into next generation customer engagement, which shows inconsistent responses to customers and a lack of skilled employees are two of the top five challenges facing organizations providing omnichannel customer engagement. The research shows it has become a must to support multiple channels of engagement, something AWS Connect does not do today, and when doing so it is important that all channels are managed based on the same rules and there is tight integration between all the systems needed to handle interactions.
Amazon joins a long list of vendors – 21 at my last count – providing contact center systems in the cloud. They are all different, of course, and offer highly variable sets of capabilities. The more established vendors such as Genesys and NICE offer a full suite of customer engagement systems (including extensive analytics and WFO capabilities), whereas others such as Amazon offer a much narrower set of capabilities. Furthermore, established vendors that have been in the market much longer have professional service teams with considerably more experience that can advise not only on how to set up and use the software but also how to manage enterprise-wide customer engagement. Therefore, I advise all organizations looking to improve their handling of customer interactions to look beyond the marketing hype of Amazon Connect, check out in detail what capabilities vendors support, and make sure to work with a vendor that can provide the support that likely will be needed.
VP & Research Director, Customer Engagement