Market Report

Seamless communications

The UC and CC markets are being transformed by technological innovation and evolving customer demands. Comms Business finds out more.

The boundaries between unified communications (UC) and contact centre (CC) solutions have been drawn and redrawn over the past few years, with innovations in each discipline feeding into the other. This transformation has made a market that is diverse and brimming with opportunities for channel partners.

Businesses are continuing to invest in UC and CC solutions, but their priorities are shifting. Wayne Gratton, CCO, Nuvias UC, said, “Businesses are certainly investing in UC and CC. The relentless move towards UC platforms, led in the main by Microsoft Teams and Zoom is driving business to reap the rewards on improved productivity.

“Whilst the pandemic drove very quick adoption of these platforms, we are now seeing the focus to put the platforms at the heart of productivity. This requires an end-to-end capability for the platforms, with meetings rooms, mobile workers, home workers, office workers all needing a slightly different toolset, but connected to the platforms.”

Craig Howell, sales director, Xelion, pointed to the ISDN switch-off, the rise of cloud, the continuity of remote and hybrid work as some key factors that are driving UC and CC investments.

He emphasised the opportunities that remain: “It’s worth remembering that many businesses are still using a legacy PBX for voice alongside – but not integrated with – a platform like Teams for collaboration. Even if they’ve put it off, these businesses are ready to upgrade for a compelling proposition.”

Bertrand Pourcelot, CEO, Enreach for Service Providers, added, “Businesses are investing but are being cautious and focusing on what will deliver tangible benefits. They are looking for affordable solutions and want to understand the lifetime total cost of ownership with no hidden extras.”

Pourcelot highlighted the reality that businesses simply need technology solutions to allow employees to do what they need to do. He said, “Businesses want a solution that can evolve without siloes. Even now, you will still see UCaaS and CCaaS separate and not sharing information unless they have been integrated.

“This should not be the case because, in the era of APIs, cloud and smartphones, you can break the silos and provide the right end-to-end user experience.”

The shift towards the cloud is also reshaping the market. Pourcelot said, “These boundaries between solutions are changing, and the cloud plays a pivotal role, allowing providers to make solutions that were usually exclusively reserved for medium or large enterprises available to SMEs.

“They started with telephony, but we now see an integrated combination of UC and CC, especially for small and medium companies. So that’s quite a significant transformation in the industry.”

Daniel Lloyd, channel partner direct, Cirrus, added, “Investments in UC and CC are continuing and expanding, driven by the digital transformation wave that’s been driving the industry forward.

“The trends are clear: there’s a steady migration from on-premises solutions to cloud-based platforms, which offer scalability and flexibility. The rise of remote work has also cemented the need for robust communication systems supporting a distributed workforce.

“What we’re seeing is a market that’s increasingly valuing the ability to adapt quickly to changing needs, and this is where cloud solutions shine. Additionally, the phasing out old phone networks is pushing businesses to look for new, long-lasting communication technologies that will be effective in the future.”

Craig Walker, head of cloud communications, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, also pointed out the significance of the cloud. He said, “Cloud-based UC and CC solutions offer scalability and flexibility, allowing organisations to easily adjust resources and capabilities according to their evolving needs.

“They also lend themselves to greater levels of integration, allowing for smoother communication between internal teams and enhanced collaboration, ultimately improving productivity and decision-making.”

New terrain

So, how are the UC and CC landscapes changing? Andy Jones, chief revenue officer, TelXL, said, “The merger of UC and CC continues, although a gap is forming. UC that recognises the need to support or exceed functionality found in Microsoft Teams and others leads to a natural evolution into the CC environment. UC that does not, remains in a price race to the bottom, and will not thrive in a digital world.

“The CC landscape, focused on being feature-packed, is becoming inflexible, particularly for smaller or informal contact centres looking for simple, reliable voice, email, or webchat. A consolidation of vendors, all pushing full fat omnichannel through the Channel where the largest margin is in enterprise opportunities, is creating a support gap in the SME space.”

Jones said the gap can be “noticeably” seen between the ceiling of UCaaS capabilities and the floor of where CCaaS functionality kicks in. He explained, “This middle ground is flexible and accessible contact management, where small-to-medium contact centres are not being offered the first step, and the Channel feels unequipped to consult on it.”

Like other technologies across the Channel, AI is also reshaping the industry. Chris Angus, VP, contact centre engagement, EMEA, 8x8, discussed how UC and CC can evolve with AI.

He said, “The buzz around AI and automation is now ensuring that everyone is giving serious thought and consideration to how it plays out in their contact centre transformation strategy. As AI technology evolves and improves, we’ll continue to see chatbot capabilities increase in sophistication.

“By learning from an ever-growing pool of data, AI will develop new conversational and analytical capabilities to further enhance the working lives of contact centre agents. In turn, we’ll see improved efficiency, more personalised services and higher customer satisfaction.”

Savio Tovar Dias, vice president, customer experience services, Avaya International, added, “Over the last 12 months, the adoption of AI and automation within companies has become a big part of the focus to deliver better experiences to employees and customer, and all this need to be interwoven with a customer’s existing business applications and systems.

“The prospect of making an abrupt change from existing business communication infrastructure carries high risks for businesses, including potential disruptions to operations and customer service continuity. This fear of instability hinders innovation and the ability to drive new business outcomes.”

Walker, from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, expects to see three different solution streams emerge. He said, “We see the landscape changing and three distinctly different solution streams evolving: low cost UCaaS, highly customised UCaaS, and a rapid shift to CCaaS.

“Taking each solution in order, it’s clear there is a race to supply low-cost, low-risk, low-margin cloud UCaaS from a plethora of suppliers. This has driven a need for simplification, or should I say standardisation of UC solutions that are cookie cut and ready for customers to consume. As a result, there are fewer suppliers who wish to build a bespoke mission-critical communication component that sits within in a larger ecosystem.”

New capabilities and features

UC and CC solutions are being improved all the time by the release of new features and capabilities. AI is already having an impact.

Lloyd, from Cirrus, said, “UC and CC platforms are rapidly evolving, incorporating AI to enhance customer interactions and internal workflows. For example, real-time transcription and sentiment analysis are being used to provide immediate insights into customer calls, allowing for quicker and more effective responses.

“Omni-channel capabilities are also expanding, ensuring that customers have a consistent experience regardless of the communication channel they choose. These advancements are not just about adding features; they’re about improving the customer experience and providing businesses with the tools they need to meet the demands of a modern marketplace.”

Pourcelot, from Enreach for Service Providers, added, “Automated transcripts, summaries, analytics and reports — increasingly driven by AI — are being introduced and will be available to SMEs, not just large enterprises. Plus, existing capabilities continue to evolve, such as enhancements to voice recording and CRM integrations.

“Integration continues to be a big trend, especially to align UC and CC with other business processes. The level of integration can vary a lot from a light integration and off-the-shelf to API-enabled. For instance, a light CRM integration could include name resolution and some basic information. Deeper integration could include pulling up detailed customer records.”

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are also opening new possibilities. Cherie Howlett, CMO, Jola, said, “At the moment the UC collaboration experience is all based in two dimensions with video and screen sharing. However, we already see our SIMs being used in AR and VR applications in specialist industries with purpose built tools and devices.

“Companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google are investing heavily in AR and VR for both consumer and business. This combined with the widespread availability of 5G makes me think it won’t be too far away before the UC and collaboration tools that we use every day start to open up AR and VR for widespread B2B use.”

Softening boundaries

In recent years, much has been written about the line between UC and CC becoming less distinct. That trend is continuing, but things are not black and white.

Ross Clinch, enterprise partner manager, Evolve IP, said, “The boundaries between UC and CC have closed dramatically over recent years and the gap will continue to reduce further to almost become non-existent. The two dovetail and work in tandem to enhance business performance, knowledge and customer service.”

Walker, from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, explained that UC and CC solutions are still typically bought separately. He explained, “UC solutions tend to focus on individual communication channels such as voice calls, email, and instant messaging for internal business needs, while CC solutions handle the external facing communication channels such as phone calls and emails with customers.

“However, with the rise of omnichannel communication, UC platforms are incorporating features to support customer-facing channels like live chat, social media, and SMS, blurring the lines between UC and CC.

“As UC and CC solutions evolve, there is a trend towards integrating communication and customer interaction tools. This integration allows employees to seamlessly switch between internal collaboration and external customer interactions within the same platform, enhancing productivity and efficiency.”

Jeff Green, CEO, Elisha Telecom, agreed UC and CC are still procured separately, despite less distinction between capabilities. He said, “UC and CC is a relatively mature market, where solutions are fast becoming homogenous and standardised.

“While the technology is constantly evolving, adopting new features, we’re seeing that vendors are pulling features, from UC to CC and vice versa, to create more comprehensive communication platforms. However, their target markets remain separate.

“While UC is applicable to most businesses, big or small, CC solutions are focused on ensuring contact centres maximise the time and resources it has available, with CC a more of a specialised, niche segment of the broader UC industry.”

Angus, from 8x8, is also seeing some blurring boundaries between UC and CC and expects experience communications as a service (XCaaS) to emerge as the winner.

He said, “We’ve seeing an increasing need for consolidated UC and CC functionalities. In response to this, XCaaS solutions are evolving to provide organisations with a single platform capable of providing customer engagement, collaboration and communications functionality across the entire organisation.

“Creating a seamless, easy to use platform that covers all areas is so important, as it will provide customers with the solution that is going to improve both customer and employee experiences.”

In this distorted landscape, channel companies can succeed by focusing on the outcome their customer wants to see. Tovar Dias, from Avaya International, said, “It’s less about UC versus CC. It’s more about the outcomes they can deliver and knowing whether that comes from a piece of UC or CC technology or whether it’s in the cloud or not. But ultimately that doesn’t really matter as long as the desired positive business outcomes can be achieved.

“It’s not really a convergence between UC and CC, it’s a shift in the mindset from the customers who aren’t focusing on the labels but on what they can deliver in terms of great results.”

Some channel stakeholders expect one solution to emerge from the UC and CC market. Jones, from TelXL, said, “While in the past there was a distinct market for each, customers now value seamless interaction highly which must be met with contact centres that can cater to it.

“In competitive markets, convenience and experience are key differentiators – so reducing friction and time to resolution will be key. Reducing siloed data by connecting back-office to front-office requires connectivity not seen solely in UC or CC, necessitating a merge of sorts.

“It is obvious that as we move forward, businesses – particularly the SME sector – will seek one solution covering UC and CC with the capability to have all employees in one place.”

Building an offering

For resellers and MSPs that are looking to build or evolve a UC or CC offering, it is important to ensure these blurring boundaries are used to create an advantage. Howell, from Xelion, explained that resellers and MSPs face challenges around value for money and transparency for the customer, but listening to end-customer needs can help inform your choices.

Howell said, “With most platforms, contact centre features are licensed separately and cost extra. This makes quoting challenging, because you have to know who needs what features in order to price them accurately. It’s also hard for the customer to understand these complex quotes. That’s one of the reasons why Xelion is licensed per user, with all features included for every user. It makes quotes faster and easier to understand, so the customer is never under-provisioned.

“Another key to building your offering is to listen to customers and tailor to them. For instance, CRM integration is increasingly a minimum expectation, rather than just a bonus. It’s important to have good processes to be able to deploy things like this quickly, to meet customer need without overextending your own resource. This is why Xelion has over 200 CRM integrations ready to go.”

Figuring out how to differentiate your offering will be key. Clinch, from Evolve IP, said, “The biggest challenge remains trying to stand out in a commoditised and saturated market. How to manage and mitigate these issues comes down to making sure resellers and MSPs build their portfolios in such a way to offer scalability.

“This can help minimise multi-platform operational and training costs since the same five-user SME solution can be simply scaled for a 1000 seat enterprise opportunity. Operational streamlining is a core ingredient for success in an increasingly competitive market.”

Finding the right partners is critical and Gratton, from Nuvias UC, highlighted how distributors can help. He said, “The ecosystem for UC and CC is very large, which gives great opportunities for partners to extend their offering to the customer. This requires more knowledge, training, vendors to manage and services to build. And therefore, there is an extra cost to that larger opportunity.

“This is where a good channel development and services focused distributor can help partners to select the right technologies for them, get skills development, marketing and bid support, coupled with specialist services to help them deliver the wider solution. All of these technologies need integration to create a full customer experience, which is why services are so essential to the wider opportunity in UC and CC.”

This market report appeared in our April 2024 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.