The business communications market has been through a rapid transformation in recent years, with new functionalities and evolving platforms making a lasting mark on how individuals communicate and collaborate with colleagues, customers, and other stakeholders.
Unified communications (UC), contact centre (CC), collaboration and conferencing technologies have been distinct offerings in the past. Yet the lines between each have become increasingly hard to define as vendors and their partners create offerings that actively solve the challenges faced by businesses and other types of organisations.
These technologies are progressing at pace. Neal McMahon, regional sales lead, Avaya, explained what he is seeing in the UC space. He said, “The UC market continues to grow, and I can see a clear step-change in terms of customer requirements and expectations.
During the pandemic many organisations adopted UC solutions to quickly enable remote working because they had no real choice, or time to be selective. While those solutions served a purpose, largely as a sticking plaster, customers now understand that many fall short in terms of functionality and, often, also reliability.
“Currently, we see many customers who are adopting a no compromise approach to purchasing when it comes to reliability, capability and the ability to innovate without disrupting business processes – and that’s exactly the right approach.”
The market is also increasingly dominated by service-based offerings, with ‘as-a-service’ pinned onto many UC, CC and collaboration solutions.
Keith Jackson, vice president of channel sales in EMEA, 8x8, discussed why his company focuses on XCaaS, or experience communications as a service. He said, “We’ve been saying it for a while now. The combining of CCaaS and UCaaS on a single platform is where the future is.”
That combination, he explained, creates XCaaS. He said, “XCaaS eliminates communications silos, brings the employee experience and customer experience back together, and helps drive the cloud communications industry forward significantly.”
He added, “You can’t argue with the data. According to Metrigy Research, companies that utilise integrated UC and CC solutions from a single vendor reported a nearly 100 per cent revenue increase, a 14 per cent cost decrease, a 57 per cent customer ratings improvement, and a 37 per cent agent efficiency improvement.
“That’s the numbers resellers should be going out there with. Who doesn’t want more revenue, less cost and other benefits? But equally, go out there and tell people that as companies look to focus on employee experience – which we see as being the big spend in 2023.”
Andrew Jones, CRO, TelXL, pointed out the third-party ecosystem that exists around UC, CC and collaboration technologies. He said, “This emerging third-party ecosystem has helped offload some of the more complex challenges – such as local voice, call recording and analytics – away from these vendors so they can focus on different functionality.
“It’s also enabled businesses to un-silo their CC data and connect customers with the wider skills of the back-office team.”
UC and CC are converging primarily because the technology is so similar, according to Mark Pillow, managing director, Voip Unlimited.
He said the “sweet spot” for developing an offering is to find “somewhere in between”, adding this could be “a system that provides the usability of UC with the bespoke nature of CC – so that end users can take advantage of that expected functionality without having to pay through the nose for a true CC platform”.
Pillow added, “This convergence doesn’t mean there aren’t definite lines between products. Vendors may be attempting to blur the lines, but some of these platforms enter that market immaturely, trying to be everything to everyone in a basic fashion, while not satisfying any of the more advanced requisites.
“That may be fine for smaller customers that simply want to make and take calls, but they won’t facilitate smooth growth over time. No matter whether UC or CC, platforms need to be able to handle the increasing complexity of workflows and data journeys as customer needs mature.”
Jones, from TelXL, added, “UC is borrowing elements of intelligence from CC, and CC is working towards the simple UIs, collaboration and usability functions of UC.”
He emphasised his belief that “there will always be an amount of separation due to their differing application”, adding that “UC is primarily for internal or person specific communications, while CC exists to enable wider conversing with the outside world”.
He explained, “Having one seamless system for businesses that entirely supports both use cases is our goal. Then agents can seamlessly dip-in and interact with a system, data set or technical expert from the back office, to resolve the customers query or issue.
“This in turn enables contact centres to deliver better results on primary KPIs that contact centres should prioritise, such as first-time resolution and time-to-resolution, ultimately providing a better customer experience!
“Voice services themselves are also driving the convergence, as businesses don’t want siloed providers for front- and-back-office systems. Not only does a joined-up platform deliver a more seamless experience than flicking between four or five different disparate applications, but it puts all the information in one source, again optimising those key KPIs.”
In terms of what this convergence means for the offerings that are ultimately proposed to customers, McMahon, from Avaya, said, “Customers want simplicity. In recent years many organisations have adopted standalone solutions to address a specific requirement.
“While in the short term, this can serve its purpose, in the medium-to-long term it’s actually very common to see that approach “snowball” into a set of disparate technologies that are not only difficult to manage, but ultimately result in “broken” customer journeys and an increase in overall friction for employees and customers alike.
“Consolidating, or adopting a strategy that moves towards overall simplification, helps to control costs, reduces complexity and increases overall satisfaction, enables innovation without disruption. So, whether it’s within the contact centre itself, or as a drive to improve better collaboration between customer facing teams and the rest of the organisation, simplification is a key priority for customers.”
No clear boundaries
The lines are blurring across the business communications landscape, spanning UC, CC, collaboration and conferencing technologies. Avaya’s McMahon said this is being driven by the “ongoing consumerisation of technology”. He explained, “In our personal lives we are very comfortable in using messaging, WhatsApp, and social media to interact with friends and family – because it’s simple!
“Therefore, as consumers, we naturally expect that our interactions with organisations should be as easy and when they aren’t, our patience wears thin very quickly.
“Robust and flexible UC and CC solutions allow businesses to flex and innovate without having to disrupt what may be working well. There are many UC only or CC only vendors in the market that are struggling to truly help customers who need the ability to have tight collaboration between “front office staff and subject matter expert colleagues who may be in the back office.”
This disruption within the market has opened up a wealth of opportunities for resellers and MSPs. Jones, from TelXL, said, “If resellers are UC only or CC only, the time is now to cover the grey area between the two, and open new revenue cross-sell opportunities. This is especially true in the SMB CC market, which is expected to triple by 2030 after being historically underserved due to a lack of innovative solutions at a lower cost of adoption!
“From the end-user’s perspective, they want a trusted partner they can consult with on these changes and make sense of the technology available. Taking a more consultative approach, and constantly asking yourself “how can I make this simpler for the customer?” will always drive opportunities.”
These technologies are creating a huge amount of data, and resellers have an opportunity to help their customers use that data to drive progress within their organisations.
8x8’s Jackson explained, “It’s a golden opportunity but for resellers it’s not the same golden opportunity as it is for a customer. The simplicity of management, training benefits, potential IT savings, connecting your front office and back end is all great from a customer perspective, but it’s slightly less relevant from a reseller standpoint.
“The most pivotal part of XCaaS for resellers is the data lake that sits underneath the entire platform. From a professional services standpoint they can present a lot back to the customer in a very simplistic format because of the way APIs are utilised.
“The data backend to the customer can be absolutely critical to their critical success so the partners that are starting to get this and see what they can do from an XCaaS standpoint, those are the ones who are going to make a big difference in the marketplace for the likes of us.”
When asked what channel companies should look for when choosing business communications vendors to partner with, Jackson, from 8x8, said, “Companies should be looking for those who are pushing the boundaries because those will be the ones who understand what is possible in this new era.
“Additionally, and I say this as someone in an organisation that wants to be channel first and partner-led, you have to make sure that the vendor has the channel companies’ back. A great platform is a starting point, but it’s the other elements that will make you know if it is right for you.”
Jackson explained that some channel companies might, for example, require a “relatively local level of support”. He added this “doesn’t need to be on your doorstep but you do need it to be available when suits you – and if you can get a hold of senior people with relative ease”.
Taking the time to review your current vendor portfolio can also be beneficial. Pillow, from Voip Unlimited, said, “Many MSPs are dependent on a small number of vendors, which can severely limit a portfolio’s capabilities and the quality of support offered to end users. The more vendors at a reseller’s disposal, the more consultative approach they can take to match the right products to the customer.
“This also offers the potential of increasing margin by managing those products too. By taking the reins, MSPs can elevate cloud services to solve more of the customer’s challenges, preventing site-specific or device-specific issues and giving more time back to the customer to grow their business.
Finally, there are massive opportunities in exploring advanced API integrations to enable systems to better share data to produce insights and analytics, but only if you have that skillset within your team, or you’re prepared to invest in training to get your team to that level.”
Jones, from TelXL, added that resellers and MSPs need to “find a true channel vendor”. In addition, he said, “You also need a vendor that embraces change. The UC and CC market is constantly moving, and a vendor that can be agile in those step-changes will make the relationship far more frictionless in the long run.
“Finally, any potential vendors need to truly understand automation. Not just the concepts or the technology but how to apply automation in real-world situations to add value to businesses and their customers. We’ll see massive advances in contact centre automation between now and 2030, so resellers need to establish relationships with those at the cutting edge of AI, or risk losing relevance in the coming years.”
Those automation and AI-focused innovations look set to continue to propel the market forward. Jones, from TelXL, said, “Looking to the future, automation continues to emerge as a primary enabler of all the technological and experience advancements that businesses and end-users need.
“Namely, the ability to do more with less, without compromising the customer experience or losing the human touch.”
Resellers and MSPs should also anticipate some consolidation in the market, in line with M&A activity that has already impacted the companies that are developing technologies in this space.
McMahon, from Avaya, explained, “In terms of future trends, I can see further consolidation in the marketplace which will naturally bring challenges and opportunities – but from a technology perspective, a continued drive to simplify the overall use of UC. The API economy and ability to seamlessly integrate into customers’ business applications will continue.
“I also see an increase in the use of AI to deliver additional value to customers. Ultimately, giving customers the ability to compose a solution, across both UC and CC allows them to differentiate in their market and deliver greater value.”
This article appeared in our January 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.