The Virtual Shift


The Virtual Shift

Unified communications and collaboration (UCC) applications can be considered as the electronic solder that holds the contact center together.

These solutions facilitate outside and inside team and management communication over multiple channels. They also permit “informal agents”: staff in small companies and departments and subject matter experts (SMEs) to engage with customers.

Yet like what has been happening with contact center (CC) applications, UCC solutions and their use, have been going virtual. With both the technologies and their users, like contact center staff, moving off-premise and out of traditional offices and centers to network and to work-from-home (WFH) clouds.

Consequently, but also anticipating demand, suppliers have been crafting, marketing, and deploying unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) products. Like they have been assembling and hosting or having hosted contact center-as-a-service (CCaaS) products. However, UC solutions had taken to the cloud before CC solutions began their ascent to or were launched from there.

And while work-from-home (WFH) has long been in the toolbox of contact centers, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the post-pandemic resistance of employees to return to offices amidst staffing shortages, has made that practice permanent for many employers.

The use of UCC tools such as video that boomed with the shift to remote work, where digital communications became the only means to connect with agents and other employees, and supervisors and managers, have similarly become established.

To understand what is happening with UCC in the contact center we reached out to thought leaders at several leading suppliers. They are Dean Holmes, Director, Product Marketing and Peter Milligan, Director, Product Marketing-CCaaS, 8×8, Nick Martin, Product Management, NICE, and Chris Mina, Head of CCaaS Product, Vonage.

Q. Are more contact centers interested in and implementing UCC solutions, integrated with CC solutions, compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic? And if so, why, and for what functions and verticals?

Dean Holmes

Dean Holmes:

In the past couple years we have seen a significant increase in interest to move to the cloud with an integrated cloud UC and CC solutions, particularly from a single vendor.

In fact, according to Metrigy, over 30.9% of companies are already using a single vendor for both UC/CC, while 37.3% plan to switch to a single-vendor solution.

The goal is to improve customer satisfaction and maximize efficiency by providing seamless connectivity between contact center agents and other employees throughout the organization, no matter where they’re located.

The primary objective is to gain access to experts in departments outside the contact center in order to help customers solve complex problems quickly.

For instance, by deploying an integrated, single-vendor UC and CC platform, insurance companies can connect claims processors and agents with contact center agents, or retail companies are able to connect product experts in-store with contact center agents.

Other industries experiencing increased demand for UC and CC integrations include financial services, hospitality, public sector, healthcare, manufacturing, and technology, among others.

“The primary objective is to gain access to experts in departments outside the contact center in order to help customers solve complex problems quickly.”
—Dean Holmes

A further consideration for an integrated, single-vendor solution is to lower IT costs. By consolidating UC and CC platforms into a single solution, organizations not only experience reduced costs by eliminating multiple, disparate systems, but the overall cost of administration and maintenance decreases.

Nick Martin

Nick Martin:

Before the pandemic, the industry was already trending towards UCC. And, while the transformation would have occurred anyway, the pandemic drove accelerated digital transformation and implementation, as life shifted online in the early days of the pandemic.

Chris Mina

Chris Mina:

The consolidation of communications channels continues to impact all industries across the globe. This trend is years in the making and brands of all sizes have reaped the benefits of the convergence between UC and CC solutions.

As the world embraces a hybrid and work-from-anywhere (WFA) model, companies have had to evaluate their readiness to adapt.

In parallel, the rapid shift to a digital-first economy is pressuring brands to evolve how effectively they connect with consumers. Many have recognized their existing communications technologies are not equipped to support the demands of employees, agents, and most of all, consumers.

As brands seek to adapt, they see an opportunity to consolidate and simplify their business while improving overall engagement for consumers and employees alike.

We have recognized that those that have adopted unified UCaaS and CCaaS solutions—primarily in more complex industries such as healthcare, financial services, banking, and insurance—have realized significant benefits.

These include greater workforce flexibility, elevated productivity, improved customer experiences (CXs), especially for non-standard customer issues, and lower total cost of ownership. As a result, we see the demand for these combined solutions continuing to accelerate.

Q. What features do contact centers now want in UCC applications?

Dean Holmes:

Contact centers want the ability to provide exceptional CXs through quick and effective problem solving and information sharing.

Oftentimes, in order to be able to do this, contact center agents need the ability to connect with knowledge workers in different parts of the organization or to access resources in other departments. This leads to the desire for more, and more impactful, forms of communication and collaboration, such as voice, video, instant messaging, presence, and content sharing.

In addition to communication options, since 2020 there has been an enormous shift towards intuitive, user-friendly, and completely unified agent desktops capable of utilizing a single pane of glass for all customer and employee interactions.

Not only do unified single-vendor solutions enable agents to communicate and collaborate with employees across the organization, regardless of location, but they allow for full visibility, through presence, to ensure that queries are being responded to quickly and effectively.

Further, many capabilities traditionally only available in the contact center, such as quality management and speech analytics, can be extended outside of the contact center with an integrated, single-vendor UC/CC solution. This provides numerous benefits, including the ability to uncover insights, improve productivity, foster coaching, and ensure professional engagements deliver consistent experiences across the entire organization, for all user roles.

Nick Martin:

With customers demanding instant gratification, customer service has become a 360-degree operation that must leverage digital and self-service channels, along with a full suite of products on a single platform to be successful.

To make this a reality a successful UCC application in the contact center leverages prebuilt APIs to enable a single view for all agent interactions. And agents are able to use the platform to route calls or connect directly with SMEs and other experts across the businesses for fast answers.

Chris Mina:

The primary shift in demand for UCC applications revolves around overall mobility of the workforce. COVID-19 resulted in a very real and sudden shift in how businesses operate and what employees and consumers expect, with the primary drivers including flexibility of location, hours, team structure, and responsiveness.

Prior to 2020, demand for cloud-based communications was trending upward largely for the purposes of expanding global workforces, reducing costs, increasing reliability, and reducing risk of continued maintenance of legacy technologies.

Since then, UCaaS and other cloud-based solutions have become a necessary and critical element of business continuity planning, helping drive productivity forward in the WFA era, and to ensure employees are increasingly able to collaborate and succeed together, even when they are apart.

To this end, features such as video collaboration, team messaging, multi-device connectivity and general integrability, all riding atop cloud-based infrastructures, have become essential.

Q. It appears work-from-home/anywhere is here to stay. Has this shift impacted the demand, features, scale, and use of UCC applications?

Dean Holmes:

As more and more agents are working remotely, the ability to lean over to a deskmate or manager to ask a question and receive a quick response has become impossible.

Contact centers are wanting ways to continue promoting communication and collaboration across employees, not only in the contact center but throughout the entire organization, regardless of where an employee is located.

Just as the workplace has shifted, the ways that managers evaluate employees and provide feedback and coaching has also shifted.

Many organizations now rely on remote coaching tools, video conferencing, and one-on-one and team messaging capabilities that are essential for optimizing WFH environments.

It’s essential that UC and CC components are integrated – even better if provided by a single vendor – to simplify the agent’s role in communicating with the rest of the business. Especially given the fact that 60% of IT and CX leaders believe the workforce will be predominantly hybrid by 2030, according to our Future of Work: 2030 Vision Report. Just 7% believe that work will return to predominantly in-office.

Given that hybrid is the future, improving collaboration for remote teams and individuals will be increasingly important to keep them engaged and empowered in their day-to-day tasks.

Nick Martin:

Agents have been vocal about their desire for flexible work, whether that’s WFH or hybrid work, and organizations are listening. Recent data from McKinsey shows that only 2% of employers anticipate their full agent workforce returning to the office full-time. This new model introduces another dimension with forecasting, staffing and scheduling by skill or channel.

Since the world has shifted – and remained – largely remote, demand has increased for UCC applications at a greater scale to accommodate workplace flexibility.

Chris Mina:

As more businesses move to a WFA model, with agents spread across multiple locations, a fully integrated cloud-based UCC solution empowers IT and contact center administrators to provide a fully remote solution for agents.

With fully remote administration, businesses can enable agents to WFA without the need to install software. It offers access to tools agents need to connect with each other and with customers—over any channel (voice, video, messaging, chat)—all from a single dashboard and integrated.

The tools can then be integrated with mission-critical business applications and productivity apps, like Salesforce, that they are already using. This is empowering agents to maintain deep engagement with customers, regardless of where they are located.

Moving forward, UCC and CCaaS together will enable a new sense of teamwork and camaraderie, bringing agents, backoffice employees, and experts together more closely than ever before, even when physically dispersed.

The benefit is to both the brand and the consumer, elevating everyone’s experience, resolving issues more effectively the first time, and improving employee engagement.

Q. I understand that UCC applications are moving to the cloud (UCaaS). What are the benefits and also the challenges of UCC cloud versus on-premise deployment?

Dean Holmes:

UCaaS adoption has significantly outpaced premise-based services and will continue to do so moving forward.

The benefits of moving from legacy premise-based solutions to cloud-based unified communications are significant.

First, the ability to enable remote workers. With UCaaS, all of your communications services are located and supported in the cloud, and accessible from anywhere, on any device. And with a single unified platform, users are able to move from chat, to voice, and to video seamlessly and effortlessly – something not easily supported by traditional premise-based solutions.

Second, there are no maintenance and hardware costs. With a cloud-based solution, the setup, implementation, and ongoing maintenance is now completely handled and supported by the UCaaS provider. And outside of any required physical handsets and conferencing equipment, there is virtually no onsite hardware to support.

Next is faster innovation. With UCaaS, your communications platform is always the latest and greatest, with ongoing updates and upgrades handled seamlessly in the cloud. New features and functionality can be deployed instantly across your organization with no IT planning required.

Additionally, there is significant cost reduction. For UCaaS, one of the biggest savings is right in the name – Unified Communications as a Service. By migrating to the cloud, organizations move their communications costs from a CapEx model to an OpEx model, which provides more predictable billing, and as noted above, no-cost maintenance and upgrades.

Lastly is improved security. Cloud providers have strict compliance and regulatory standards and are required to perform audits on a regular basis.

Customer data, such as call logs and usage reports, are securely stored using the highest level of encryption with access control and appropriate permissions for users who access the data. Additionally, implementing end-to-end encryption of real-time traffic ensures your conversations are private and secure.

Interestingly enough, one of the top concerns for organizations debating a move to the cloud, is listed as a benefit above – security.

Whether a perceived or real threat, some organizations’ concerns regarding the security of their communications and the associated data can be concerning.

For a highly regulated organization, such as government, financial, and healthcare, the concerns over data storage in the cloud, and the possibility of communications being compromised can be a challenge to overcome.

There’s also a question around quality and reliability. For some, the move to the cloud brings questions around maintaining consistent service, especially with workers being distributed, and more users WFH.

From proper bandwidth to support quality communication, to the reliability of the network – especially with the increased reliance on Wi-Fi as primary connectivity – the challenges of ensuring that a mission-critical service like UCaaS (and CCaaS) aren’t negatively impacted can also be a concern.

Nick Martin:

There is no question that cloud-based applications are the future. While the transition to the cloud can be costly, businesses will make up for it in the long run with increased flexibility and scalability.

On-premise deployment doesn’t offer the same flexibility as the cloud in terms of managing a remote or hybrid workforce. In addition, cloud solutions can often be supported from anywhere as opposed to servicing only on-site, on-premise applications.

Cloud also offers the ability to get new features and security updates quicker, reducing cybersecurity risks and enhancing operational flow. These updates also often come with fewer service disruptions in downtime, reducing lost revenue.

Chris Mina:

Employing a successful hybrid work strategy has been one of the biggest challenges impacting leaders now that some employees have returned to the office and others remain remote.

To ensure successful collaboration, no matter where employees are physically located while not losing culture, communication must be more deliberate and requires proper implementation of technology.

UC provides a single platform for key enabling technologies like calling, messaging, video conferencing and faxing. UCaaS enables enterprises to integrate all of these tools within a single platform via the cloud and encourages a renewed sense of collaboration among employees.

UCaaS is an important tool for businesses employing a hybrid approach as it allows for quick scalability as teams grow or change. Not only does it enable businesses to easily connect both onsite and remote employees, but it also allows for seamless connections with partners and customers.

With a UCaaS solution in place, employees can easily access and share information no matter where they are or how they’re connected.

Q. Contact centers have reportedly lagged behind the rest of the enterprise in going to the cloud, some still having on-premise technologies like ACDs and dialers. If this is the case, has it hindered UCC/UCaaS-contact center integration?

Dean Holmes:

In many cases, UC and CC users are on completely disparate systems with little to no integration between them, effectively creating silos of communication.

From a contact center perspective, a cloud-based, single-vendor, integrated UC/CC solution provides support for remote and hybrid working agents, allowing for access to valuable resources like SMEs and knowledge workers who reside on the UC platform.

As contact center resources are stretched by the current market conditions, the ability for agents to seamlessly communicate with these SMEs and knowledge workers is becoming increasingly important to the overall CX. When agents can’t find or connect with the right resources to resolve an issue the CX can suffer.

“Cloud adoption within the contact center will continue to accelerate, and…the unification of UC and CC solutions will accelerate with it.”
—Chris Mina

Chris Mina:

The demand for cloud-based communications has hit every business in unique ways. The evolution of unifying the contact center with UC is still at its nascent stages.

Cloud adoption within the contact center will continue to accelerate, and right on cue, the unification of UC and CC solutions will accelerate with it.

I do not believe the lag in contact center cloud adoption has hindered integrations. I do believe they complement one another exceptionally well.

Q. One of the benefits of UCC/contact center integration is the ability to engage “informal agents” e.g., SMEs, branch staff, upper-level managers, who are not part of the contact center to handle customers’ difficult issues. But is this actually happening?

Dean Holmes:

This is an ongoing challenge in contact centers – the need to be able to reach out to knowledge workers outside of the contact center – and, according to analyst Blair Pleasant, affects one in every five calls.

When UC and CC are integrated, contact center agents have access to the resources and subject matter experts needed to provide customers with quick, complete problem solving and resolution. And they are absolutely taking advantage of it!

Contact center agents are no longer the only points of contact for customers. Now, employees from the front desk to sales to IT are engaging with customers and equally responsible for providing exceptional, game changing experiences.

By utilizing an integrated, single-vendor solution, customers have access to the person best able to provide answers and solutions, regardless of where they’re located or which department they work in.

Further, many capabilities traditionally only available in the contact center, such as quality management and speech analytics, can be extended outside of the contact center with an integrated, single-vendor UC/CC solution.

This provides numerous benefits, including the ability to uncover insights, foster coaching, and ensure professional engagements deliver consistent experiences across the entire organization, for all user roles.

Nick Martin:

Given the customer-centric nature of contact centers, it is reasonable to think of omnichannel session handling (OSH) in terms of handling multiple customer issues concurrently.

However, there could also be instances where that concurrency could involve a customer and include other resources due to a more technical issue.

For example, in domains that have higher regulatory issues to navigate – like insurance or financial services — an agent may need some added consultation with technical experts.

Chris Mina:

The demand for a truly unified end-to-end customer engagement experience across consumer, virtual agent, live agent, and back-office worker or expert is real, but technology is only beginning to provide for these interactions in frictionless ways.

We expect industry and technology consolidation will continue to drive improved experiences, and this will forever change the way contact center agents and the businesses they serve engage with consumers.

Q. What are your recommendations to contact center organizations that are looking to obtain and integrate UCC solutions?

Chris Mina:

The number one recommendation for organizations looking to obtain and integrate UCC solutions is to be patient; identify the need for the combined UC/CC solution before jumping into a specific product or application.

Some businesses are seeking best-of-breed across the board and have limited use cases for combined offerings. Others are seeking to resolve complex customer issues more effectively the first time and require agents to have direct access to knowledgeable experts or employees. Still others are looking to simplify their IT practices and reduce total cost of ownership.

Each business has its own needs, so understanding and planning accordingly will ensure the most successful outcomes.

“The number one recommendation for organizations looking to obtain and integrate UCC solutions is to be patient; identify the need for the combined UC/CC solution before jumping into a specific product or application.”
—Chris Mina

Nick Martin:

The main thing is to seek out a cloud-based platform that offers digital applications with advanced engagement features offered natively on mobile devices, and with messaging and collaboration at the core of the design.

These solutions will empower agents to break free from their working silos and be better connected across your organization. As a result, they’ll be able to route calls and solve customer issues faster and more accurately.

Peter Milligan

Peter Milligan:

It’s great to be on an island when you are soaking up the sun, with a good book and your favorite beverage by your side. It is not great to be on an island when it comes to being a contact center agent. It can be lonely, frustrating, and counterproductive.

There are lots of key performance indicators (KPIs) that contact centers live by and some fall squarely on your agents. First call resolution (FCR) is one of them and it is a KPI that can impact a lot of other KPIs – customer satisfaction (CSAT), net promoter score (NPS), customer loyalty, revenue, and agent attrition.

So, how do you improve FCR?

Information that is readily available at your agents’ fingertips. CRM integrations that serve up customer details instantly so agents understand past interactions with your company and can get right to the matter at hand. An easy to use workspace that allows agents to easily move between the applications required to help each customer in a personalized, efficient manner.

But what if your agent has exhausted all the information at hand and needs an expert to step in to help out?

Well if they are alone on an island they may be waiting for a message in a bottle. And while the agent waits for, or scrambles to find the information the customer waits, frustration grows on both sides. Resulting in lower CSAT, NPS, and loyalty, leading to lost revenue and disgruntled agents ready to move on to greener pastures.

There are lots of great reasons for a single, unified, cloud-based UC and CC solution. One system to manage, easy upgrades, ease of integration of applications, one bill, one vendor to deal with, reliability, security, compliance, and the list goes on.

But one of the most important is no more islands. No one is sitting alone on their technology island without access to the outside world. And this is so important when it comes to FCR and optimizing the CX.

An agent may need a SME to help with a customer inquiry and your unified UC and CC solution offers them up. They can see experts by department, specialty, availability, whatever. They can click to call them, conference them in with the expert, or introduce the expert to the customer and transfer the call.

Customers get their needs met, the first time, every time. Your agents feel good about their ability to help. And your KPIs stay right on track.

Video Fatigue?

The move to work-from-home (WFH) has brought digital collaboration, notably video, to the fore. But there have been many reports of “video fatigue” amongst co-workers, potentially customers.

So, what is happening with video collaboration? Is there a switch back to audio/web collaboration?

Nick Martin:

Video fatigue can happen amongst call center agents, especially when using omnichannel session handling (OSH), which increases the intensity of channel engagement. The use of OSH can cause additional cognitive load, which is why it is so important for agents to be well-trained to handle multiple contact sessions.

With the rise in remote work, it’s necessary to combat video fatigue as many of our interactions, not only with customers but also colleagues, have shifted mostly to video.

Improving metrics to monitor all interactions can help improve video fatigue and cognitive load as current KPIs and ASA are inadequate to gauge the nature of these digital interactions and can help organizations better understand this issue.

“With the rise in remote work, it’s necessary to combat video fatigue…”
—Nick Martin

Peter Milligan:

On the contrary, we see employees who are working remotely embracing video meetings.

In fact, according to a recent Pew Research survey, among those who regularly use video conferencing tools for work, most are not bothered by the amount of time spent on video calls.

Roughly three-quarters of working adults who use online conferencing services often (74%) say they are fine with the amount of time they spend on video calls, while 26% say they are worn out by it.

Perhaps this view of video conferencing fatigue was born out of the sudden and wholescale movement to remote work. Individuals who were used to being in the office and used these technologies infrequently were tossed into the deep end. Now every meeting was a video meeting.

So why the fatigue?

Prior to the mass move to remote work when meetings were video enabled, many team members who were not remote would rarely turn on their cameras because they were in the conference room at HQ or perhaps they just didn’t care to.

For remote workers this was frustrating as they had to try to figure out who was speaking and even struggled to see exactly who was in the meeting.

Now all cameras are on, providing no chance to zone out, play with your phone, or simply check out. Perhaps the switch to always being on in meetings is what caused this thing we refer to as video conferencing fatigue – now everyone has to pay attention and contribute.

As time has gone by, and as the Pew Research survey indicates, nearly three-quarters of workers who spend time on video calls are fine with it.

This is because video is absolutely necessary in today’s world. It is all inclusive, everyone is engaged, we all know who is in the meeting, it encourages collaboration, and helps build relationships. These benefits are not only for your internal employees, but they also translate to meetings with your customers. A win-win.

It is well documented that hybrid and remote work environments are here to stay: and video is necessary for productive, thoughtful, and collaborative meetings.

Does that mean audio and web collaboration are technologies of the past? No. It simply means that using the right channel for your meetings is essential, which may mean opting for a phone call or a one-on-one message or team chat instead of a formal meeting.

Chris Mina:

Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty for consumers, CX and the relationships brands create and maintain with consumers matter more than ever.

While video is still a growing channel of choice for consumers, recent Vonage research points to the opportunities businesses should be prioritizing to get CX right, some of which are currently being left on the table.

Voice, for example, is far from dead and has experienced a renaissance since 2020. Vonage’s latest global research shows voice calls are a top-two preferred communications channel by consumers when connecting with brands and is on the rise.

That said, we have also identified that we are coming out of the depths of video fatigue. We are finding that brands, employees, and consumers are adapting well to the new world.

The sharp contrast from in-office to at-home work has dimmed as many employees return to a hybrid lifestyle. This is yielding a healthier balance of in-person, video, and voice engagements.