Face off: Are contact centers ready for IoT?

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There will be 15 billion IoT-connected devices sold this year. Are contact centers ready? It depends on whom you ask.


The Internet of Things promises all kinds of wonderful scenarios for companies and their customers.

But are contact centers really ready for this change?

Certainly contact centers are used to change – they have seen, survived and thrived such major shifts as the smartphone revolution and retailers' determination to move to an omnichannel service model.

This says a lot right there about the industry considering how it started, PanTerra Networks CEO Arthur Chang says.

Contact centers used to be commonly referred to as call centers that handled well, calls, from, well, human beings and distributed these calls using various algorithms to available agents, he tells me. Then they morphed into the contact centers as tech advances allowed them to handle multiple media sessions such as IM, video and messaging.

Providers then began differentiating themselves not so much on the technology they could support but on how sophisticated their session routing and business analytics were. For that reason alone there is a case to be made that this current generation of contact centers can handle the data deluge promised by IoT.

Chang gives the example of a "smart" refrigerator that figures out the condenser coil is failing and sends a message to the manufacturer's contact center. "Routing algorithms will then -- in theory -- determine who should process the repair, business analytics and CRM connectors will allow the agent to pull up the refrigerator's owner information, allowing the agent to proactively call the owner to prevent the pending refrigerator's disaster," he says. (Or to put it more succinctly, customers will get called before they even know there is a problem.)

But there are a lot of "ifs" to these rosy scenarios.

For example, contact centers will be able to handle the data inflow if the process of receiving, analyzing, classifying and assigning it into the correct action bucket is fully or nearly fully automated with little need for human intervention, Cahit Akin, CEO of Mushroom Networks, tells me.

Here's another "if" he says: Contact centers will be able to handle IoT if IP pipes that connect IoT to the backend have evolved and expanded to sustain the increasing flow of data.

I caught up with two tech executives who have evaluated these and others "ifs" to get their take on whether contact centers are ready for IoT. Here is what they say:

Absolutely not

Arnab Mishra, president and COO at contact center analytics provider Transera, is, to say the least, quite bearish on contact centers' IoT readiness.

The reality is that call centers are absolutely not equipped for the growing influx of data created by the Internet of Things. As this trend expands, it will require call centers to make significant investments in their infrastructure to ingest all of the new data, analyze it, and develop real-time systems that can recommend actions based on the analytics performed.

Call centers aren't capable of doing this today, because they function in more of a demand-response paradigm. Agents are responding to the initial outreach from customers, but as more IoT-connected devices are sending a steady stream of information on their performance, it will become the call center's responsibility to interpret this data and proactively reach out to provide a better customer experience.

Contact center solutions have evolved

Liz Osborn, VP of product and solution marketing at Five9, a cloud contact center software provider, is on the other end of the opinion spectrum and believes that technology will keep up with this next iteration of the contact center.

Contact center solutions have evolved to enable technology such as natural language processing (NLP) combined with other tools and applications to automatically identify the problem, decide the next best action, and resolve the issue.

The ability to intelligently route these interactions across channels is a capability of many contact centers, providing they have an flexible routing system in place.

What companies can gain

B2B companies also stand to gain from IoT, as it will give them the ability, according to D&B Connectors, "to personalize content and customize offers in totally new and exciting ways."

The backbone to this exciting world is the contact center. And while this particular piece of the IoT ecosystem is not as sexy as, say, a connected television that has the potential to spy on you, it will be a major player, writes Hans Hwang, vice president of Advanced Services at Cisco, who is understandably excited about how IoT will rejuvenate and re-energize the contact center.

For Cisco, IoT -- or the Internet of Everything, as CEO John Chambers refers to it -- represents a new market to conquer and fuel for the company's future growth. Cisco recently reported a 7 percent year-over-year jump in revenue for the quarter ending in January, and attributed some of that to IoT. Cisco's goal is to become a leading IT solutions provider for IoT.

So here's hoping Liz Osborne is right, and that contact centers can handle the challenges of IoT. Because it is here not only for businesses but consumers as well -- IDC recently estimated that nearly 15 billion IoT-connected devices will be sold this year.

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