By Ray S. Naeini
These days we hear a lot about “cloud services,” which may mean managed services, hosted services, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), or Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). Although each term has a distinct definition and application, they all have a similar theme: “You focus on the core, and we will do the chore.” In a contact center industry, this means that you can focus on the core of your business: sales, marketing, staffing, managing the call center, delivering the services, billing, and taking care of your clients. Chores are delivered by the cloud service provider takes care of the chores – the technology-related elements you need to run your operation: your call center’s hardware and software, IT personnel, system rack space, telecom services, technical support services, system upgrades, and expansions.
Cloud services offer a variety of solutions in computing and storage, enterprise and CRM applications, IT hosting, telecom and hosted PBX, email, and Web hosting. According to industry analyst IDC, the overall cloud market will experience 130 percent annual growth and grow to $43 billion by the year 2016.
How Does the Cloud Work for a Call Center? The call center system that handles your services is owned and operated by your cloud service provider and is installed in the provider’s datacenters. The provider routes your numbers to the system installed in its datacenters. These calls are then routed through the network to your in-house or remote agents. Most providers use a Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) network to distribute calls – in which case your staff can simply use softphones directly connected to their desktop computers or through an adaptor to a Local Area Network (LAN).
You need to have high-speed Internet service when VoIP is used. The provider stores remotely all messages, records, client information, and operational data for your business. Messages such as fax, email, and SMS will be sent from the provider’s datacenter. You remotely access the provider’s system for administration, billing, reports, and other data.
The key advantage is that your provider – not you – is responsible for maintaining the system, keeping it running, replacing faulty or old hardware, upgrading the software, paying the utilities, and hiring IT personnel.
Benefits of Cloud Services The popularity of cloud services is straightforward due to the benefits they deliver:
Low Upfront Investment and Monthly Payments: This benefit is the most popular delivered by cloud services. Instead of a major upfront investment in a call center system, you pay a much smaller amount, often less than 5 percent of the price of a full system. Granted, you have to pay an ongoing monthly fee, but this model can better accommodate monthly cash flow.
No Software or Hardware Maintenance Expense: Another financial benefit is that there are no costs related to system support services, replacing outdated or faulty hardware, or upgrading your system.
Reductions in IT Expenses: Monthly expenses for maintaining the system, as well as office space and related utilities will be eliminated. However, you might still need to provide support for your local desktops and other IT equipment used in your office.
Integrated PBX and Call Management Features: In addition to the call center application, if your provider also offers call management features (such as PBX, IVR, Auto-Attendant, and Call Screening), you will have a complete solution from a single provider, avoiding PBX equipment and support expenses.
Built-in Redundancy and Disaster Recovery: With a cloud-service provider, you will no longer worry about system downtime, redundancy, or maintaining continuity in disasters, such as major storms, hurricanes, or power outages. Your provider’s system is located in a different location, and your agents can access it from home or any other place. Additionally, reputable providers operate multiple datacenters in geographically dispersed locations that can maintain the services even if one of their sites experiences problems.
Operate from Anywhere, Anytime: Cloud services are available to your agents from anywhere with high-speed Internet service. You will have the opportunity to staff from a better pool of talent, schedule agents more effectively, and reduce overall payroll costs.
Rapid Scaling and Feature Deployment: Cloud-service providers are capable of quickly adding or removing positions and seats, enabling you to scale up or down much easier. New features can be rapidly deployed without on-premise installations, testing, and implementation. Therefore, your time-to-market with new features and capabilities can be significantly reduced.
Can You Still Use Cloud Services if You Already Own a System? The answer is “yes” if you need one of the following add-on capabilities:
- You are expanding and considering buying another system
- Your system is old and you need a new system
- You desire better redundancy and disaster recovery
- You need to provide additional services that are not present or available on your system
When you mix your own on-premise system with add-on cloud services, it is called a “hybrid cloud” solution.
Evaluation Criteria Though there are numerous benefits with cloud services, there are drawbacks as well. You should carefully evaluate cloud services before committing. Here are some considerations:
Provider Longevity, Reliability, and Competitiveness: The most important consideration is which provider you choose. You need to select a reputable provider with a sound business, as well as the means and resources to remain a reliable provider. Your provider should offer duality in systems and datacenters for redundancy and disaster recovery. The provider should be able to continuously offer competitive capabilities and features so you can stay competitive. If you need call management features for your business, look for providers that can reliably offer a turnkey solution, including PBX and call management solutions.
Legal and Contractual Issues: There are many contractual issues to carefully study before signing up with a cloud-service provider. You want to sign an agreement that is reasonable in length and includes options to purchase or extend with comparable rates and prices. Ownership of your data and the restrictions applied to prevent the improper use of your data by the provider or its affiliates must be clearly defined in your agreement with the provider. If your services must comply with state or federal regulations (such as HIPAA or PCI-DSS), make sure you select a compliant provider and receive a signed compliance statement.
Data Security: In a survey recently conducted by LinkedIn, fifty-four percent of respondents cited security as a major concern when moving to cloud services. You need to make sure your data is secured and protected by your provider and you have access to your backups and replication data. You should frequently back up your information and keep a local copy yourself. As already stated, if you are dealing with sensitive customer medical or financial information, your provider must comply with security standards.
Network and Technical Issues: If your provider delivers calls through digital T-1 or PRI, you need to carefully study your on-premise configuration, especially if you have a key system or a PBX. Usually there are good solutions, but they need to be thoroughly evaluated. If your provider uses VoIP, you must make sure agents have access to high-speed Internet; otherwise they will experience delays, dropped calls, or choppy audio.
Business and Financial Analysis: Although one of the compelling advantages of cloud service is its cost savings and smaller up-front investment, you must carefully evaluate the cloud option against your business and financial models to make sure you can recognize the benefits. Some business and financial models may not lend themselves to recognizing the cloud benefits. The availability of long-term and low interest-rate leases, sharing of IT resources and facilities among multiple businesses lines, or cost-effective access to software and engineering resources may not render cloud services the better choice.
Cloud services will continue to grow and provide compelling justifications. When carefully evaluated and executed, they offer a faster and more cost-effective strategy for growth and business continuity. You owe it to your call center to consider cloud services. The best approach is to find a trusted advisor (if you do not have one in-house) to assist you in a thorough evaluation of the financial, technical, and operational aspects of your call center using cloud services.
Ray S. Naeini is the CEO and chairman of OnviSource, Inc.
[From Connection Magazine – March 2013]