Ruminations on Cloud-Based Contact Center Technologies

Professional Teledata


By William Lane

There has been much press about Amazon Connect, a self-service cloud-based contact center solution offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS). There was a huge protest on various industry listservs about how this might affect the various business models of vendors and users within the telephone answering service (TAS), contact center, and related industries. When considering new information, it is best to take a deep breath, step back, and consider a broader view of the situation to evaluate the impact.

The purpose of this article is not to analyze Amazon Connect or other online cloud-based services currently available from other vendors, but instead to present some observations I believe are applicable to determine if this new offering, or any other much-touted cloud-based contact center service, is relevant to you and your business. I will ask pertinent questions to focus on what you may or may not need from your chosen technology vendor. To do so, I am going to assume you are in the business of servicing your customers’ clients from a TAS or contact center perspective.

First, does speed matter when interacting with your customers’ clients? This question is key to understand whether a particular cloud-based solution suits your business needs. Amazon Connect and many other cloud-based services utilize WebRTC exclusively. With WebRTC, the effective solution is completely browser-based. A solely browser-based solution means that the provider has implemented a mouse-driven versus a keyboard-driven business model. While this may be acceptable for many businesses, the impact is no shortcut keys or macros, resulting in a loss of efficiency and speed for agent-client interactions.

Second, is your business transaction-heavy? In a browser-based environment, the transactional logic resides on the cloud-based server. If your business model calls for intensive usage of message-scripting transactions, the agent is going to initiate commands via the Internet to a database server located at another destination numerous times per client contact. Even if there is an acceptable level of latencywhich often there is not due to Internet connectivity issues—efficiency will suffer. This may be why few cloud-based solutions include message-scripting functionality.

Third, does your company have in-house professional services staff? If not, who will develop the necessary third-party integrations and additional features and functionality you need to differentiate yourself from your competition? Amazon Connect, and many other cloud-based contact center solutions, provide only self-service solutions. They may or may not offer tools you can use to build unique offerings for your customers. Therefore, it will be necessary for someone to utilize the provided tools to create the solutions that will attract customers to you as opposed to your competitors. Does utilizing a one-size-fits-all cloud-based solution, where price may be the only differentiator available to you in a global market, square with your business model? Does speed matter when interacting with your customers’ clients? Click To Tweet

Fourth, would your business model tolerate multiple hours of periodic downtime? It is no secret that AWS, the backbone for the new Amazon Connect service, has gone down several times over the last twelve months. The February 28, 2017, outage affected some customers for nearly eight hours. Many cloudbased providers make no guarantees of uptime in their service level agreements (SLAs). It is simply not an imperative element of their self-service business model.

Fifth, does your business model require validated HIPAA compliance? Many cloud-based solutions, including Amazon Connect, do not address HIPAA compliance. They do not provide proof of annual HIPAA assessments, audits, and the resultant scores provided by third-party auditing firms. Many cloud-based solutions leave all compliance adherence to the user and absolve themselves from any regulatory responsibility by claiming they are merely conduits providing a service, thus leaving you to fight the regulatory battles.

Ensuring that your business model matches your chosen vendor’s business model is imperative to achieving business success. If HIPAA compliance, platform reliability and robustness, third-party integrations, customized features and functionality, and agent speed are important to your business model, then many of the oft-hyped cloud-based contact center solutions available may not be for you.

Professional TeledataWilliam Lane has nearly forty years of experience in customer service and software development. He is president and CEO of Startel and Professional Teledata.

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Four Major Cloud Deployment Models


Amtelco


By Kevin Mahoney

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recognizes four major cloud deployment models: public cloud, private cloud, community cloud, and hybrid cloud, as follows:

Private Cloud: The private cloud provides services designed for a single organization. Consumers within the organization may include different business units, but the focus of the private cloud is to serve one specific business organization. This is important to note as private-cloud functions may not scale as easily as with a public cloud, but in this model it is the organization that determines the design and scalability of the resources.

This model is similar to building and managing your own infrastructure, with your organization having the option of building the resources itself on-site or off or having a third party provide the resources. Security and downtime play a critical role in making this build versus buy/versus on-site or off-site decision.

For example, healthcare organizations and other industries may have mission-critical applications to consider – particularly with respect to Internet availability – which make the private cloud on-site model the best choice. Or perhaps moving data to the cloud would violate a regulatory standard such as HIPAA, HITECH, SOX, or SAS 70.

Examples of private cloud deployments include OpenStack and vCloud. OpenStack is an open-source cloud platform supporting the IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) model. It provides businesses with IaaS resources for internal purposes. Once owned jointly by NASA and Rackspace, OpenStack now is a nonprofit organization operated by the OpenStack Foundation. vCloud from VMware Inc. is a platform that also supports IaaS environments. The idea behind the suite of vCloud solutions is creating a cloud-based, virtual data center that enables the organization’s IT staff to deliver scalable services to internal business units, much like a public cloud does.

Public Cloud: The public cloud is the exact opposite of the private cloud. NIST defines the public cloud this way: “The cloud infrastructure is provisioned for open use by the general public. It may be owned, managed, and operated by a business, academic, or government organization, or by some combination of them. It exists on the premises of the cloud provider.”

Here we think of Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, Azure, Gmail, and Salesforce.com as examples of highly scalable, multi-tenant services. Security, maintenance, and isolation of data between customers are controlled by the cloud provider. The public cloud is great for hosting SaaS (Software as a Service) applications, managing changing load demands and development and testing environments, and reducing infrastructure costs.

One of the reasons this model is so popular is the fact that users typically pay the costs on an allocation or utilization basis with on-demand provisioning, thereby maximizing their resources. The public cloud is a great model for information that is not highly sensitive or subject to security mandates.

Community Cloud: The community cloud focuses on providing services for specific consortiums and interest groups. A community cloud is shared by several organizations with similar policy and compliance considerations. Data and security are shared between the members with access restricted for those outside the community. Facebook and LinkedIn are examples of the community cloud model.

Facebook is the world’s largest social networking service, with more than 1.65 billion users. There are no fees to join and use Facebook; its revenue is generated by advertising. Privacy is one of the main challenges with Facebook, as its policies have been known to change without user knowledge. LinkedIn also is a social networking service, but it caters to professional business users and has more than 433 million users in 200 countries. LinkedIn offers a free subscription along with several paid tiers, with each tier providing additional features.

Healthcare organizations in particular are good candidates for the community cloud. These organizations are concerned with regulatory requirements. The community cloud is a good way of ensuring that these organizations meet these challenges, and they can benefit by the sharing of information and resources with similar organizations.

Hybrid Cloud: Finally, one of the more popular deployment models is the hybrid cloud. This is how NIST defines the hybrid cloud: “The cloud infrastructure is a composition of two or more distinct cloud infrastructures (private, community, or public) that remain unique entities, but are bound together by standardized or proprietary technology that enables data and application portability (e.g., cloud bursting for load balancing between clouds).”

The hybrid cloud model might be considered the best of both worlds. Here we have the advantages of secure applications and data as with the private cloud while still benefiting from the lower costs of sharing data and applications as with the public cloud. Cloud bursting, which is the process or ability to move from a private cloud to a public cloud, can help balance workloads during peak workloads and workload spikes without interruption or user intervention. Backup and disaster recovery is another beneficial use for the hybrid cloud.

Examples of the hybrid cloud include the offering from Amazon Web Services (AWS) called Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) technology and Microsoft’s Azure. Amazon’s VPC can extend a customer’s data center into the AWS cloud infrastructure. This enables customers to run their application servers in the AWS infrastructure while keeping their data in their own data centers. Data control is retained by the customer while scalability of the application servers is achieved by being in the cloud. Microsoft Azure enables customers to use its PaaS (Platform as a Service) APIs to integrate with their private applications, thereby maintaining app security.

The four cloud deployment models help us understand and see through the marketing hype surrounding cloud computing. Cloud computing is an ever-changing and growing technology that offers game-changing possibilities to IT staffs and the business community. And it is here to stay.

AmtelcoKevin Mahoney is a hospital and healthcare-related account advocate and sales engineer at Amtelco, a manufacturer and supplier of call center solutions located in McFarland, Wisconsin. Contact him by email at kmahoney@amtelco.com.

3 Major Cloud Service Models

By Kevin Mahoney

Three different types of cloud service models exist: software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Notice the key word here is service. Perhaps you’ve also heard of several other services that are available, such as desktop as a service, IT as a service, storage as a service, network as a service, and monitoring as a service. It gets confusing.

The key to remember here is that, regardless of the function of the service, all of these services revolve around abstracting the physical resources and creating or presenting these resources as services for end users. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) considers IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS to be the three main categories. Regardless of how many different services are available, providers are no longer concerned with specific products, platforms, and physical boxes. Instead, providers are supplying a wealth of great services.

Additionally, the cost model is changing. While a fixed cost is still an option, the more popular methods include an allocation-based and a utilization-based approach. The allocation-based approach is simply paying for the hardware configuration used. For example, the number of servers, the number of CPUs in the servers, and the amount of RAM in each server all have associated costs. Utilization-based refers more to the OneDrive and Dropbox examples, with the cost dependent on how much disk space we purchase or utilize.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): In this scenario the vendor provides all the infrastructure items, including the networking, storage, servers, and virtualization. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a great example of IaaS. You simply have AWS provision your order based on your storage, servers, virtualization, and security needs. You essentially end up with a data center as a service, which is very powerful. This is such a popular cloud service, in fact, that most people probably think of IaaS when they think about the cloud.

Platform as a Service (PaaS): Developers might not want to spend time setting up, configuring, and changing their environments for development and testing. With platform as a service, the cloud provider handles the hardware layer as well as the software layer. The cloud provider takes care of the operating system, middleware, and runtime – everything an application requires to function. In this model, all the scaling, maintenance, and redundancy are fully managed in the cloud, allowing developers to focus on their applications. Microsoft’s Azure environment and Google’s App Engine are popular examples of these types of attractive options, especially for organizations with smaller teams and budgets that don’t include the management and support of their own infrastructure.

Software as a Service (SaaS): With software as a service (SaaS), the cloud provider delivers the entire infrastructure over a network or the Internet. The user is not responsible for setting up anything. The user can access these resources with any device from anywhere that’s convenient. One example is Google’s Gmail; users access Google’s email infrastructure, off-loading all IT responsibility to the cloud provider. Other examples include Citrix’s GoToMeeting, Microsoft’s Office 365, Cisco’s WebX, and Google Docs. There are literally hundreds of similar offerings. This model is so popular that people often think this is the cloud.

It is important to mention that you can surrender control to the cloud in varying degrees and multiple ways. Consider Microsoft Office: Some programs can be set up as true SaaS programs, or IT can introduce some controls, which moves this model toward more of a platform or infrastructure as a service model.

The bottom line here is that no matter what acronym we hear, we are talking about powerful, scalable services offered by today’s cloud providers that are based on these fantastic cloud models.

Each level of service – IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS – places more control in the hands of the cloud provider. IaaS represents the least amount of control from the provider, PaaS places more control with the provider, and SaaS enables full control through the provider. Pick the option that works best for your call center.

Kevin Mahoney is a hospital and healthcare-related account advocate and sales engineer at Amtelco, a manufacturer and supplier of call center solutions located in McFarland, Wisconsin. Contact him at kmahoney@amtelco.com.

5 Cloud Characteristics

By Kevin Mahoney

My inbox receives daily articles on an array of cloud-related topics such as “Cloud Migration Strategies,” “10 Ways the Cloud Is Changing the World,” “Choose the Best Cloud for Your Enterprise,” and on and on. The daily barrage makes my head spin with all its marketing speak. What do we actually mean when we say “the cloud,” and what are the essential characteristics that make up cloud technology?

Let’s begin with a quick visit to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (nist.gov) to learn what cloud computing is. The NIST guidelines on information privacy and security served as the basis for the requirements eventually embodied in the HIPAA and HITECH legislation:

“Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model is composed of five essential characteristics . . .”

This definition tells us that the cloud is convenient, on-demand, and available for many resources, including networks, servers, storage, applications, and services. It also tells us that there is minimal management effort and plenty of self-service aspects to the cloud.

Cloud technologies are all about separating the physical IT resources from the actual underlying infrastructure. This is virtualization technology at its finest and applies to the many resources available to us in this service-oriented model. For example, when we think about our cloud-based email accounts, we are no longer thinking about Microsoft Exchange as an email service. We now are thinking about Google, Yahoo, and other such cloud-based email applications. When we are using a hosted storage service, we are not thinking about rack upon rack of storage in our data centers; instead we are thinking about services such as Dropbox Inc.’s Dropbox and Microsoft’s OneDrive.

What a win-win scenario cloud technologies bring to the table! It’s a win-win for users because it is on-demand, contains self-service features, is highly available, and presents users with all kinds of interactive interfaces or APIs. Plus, cloud technology providers are attractive because they help their customers reduce costs, better utilize equipment, provide end users with an engaging experience, and build a fail-in-place environment.

Of course, it’s easy for some to say, “What’s the big deal? All these technologies have been around for quite some time. Virtualization, for example, has been around since the 1970s. What’s so special about today?” The growing trends toward consolidation, automation, and standardization are what make today’s cloud computing so interesting. Computing and application power are being consolidated into central data centers. Automation provides timesaving and self-service technologies. And standardization enables all vendors to work together. These trends bring us the robust solutions we’ve come to know as cloud computing.

The NIST definition goes on to outline five essential characteristics of the cloud: on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity, and measured service. Let’s talk briefly about each of these.

1) On-Demand Self-Service: When one thinks of on-demand self-service, Dropbox and OneDrive usually come to mind. Both are excellent services. Before the cloud, when we needed additional storage we contacted our provider, got a quote, negotiated contracts, attended to other time-consuming details, and eventually ordered and installed the hardware. Not today. With the cloud, adding additional storage is accomplished quickly through a self-service cloud portal. Gone are the red tape and administrative headaches. Although, let’s be clear, there are still contracts and legal agreements with ample fine print to read before signing up.

2) Broad Network Access: This leads into the next characteristic, which is broad network access. What good is my additional storage if it is not able to be accessed by a variety of devices? It is important to have access to these resources anytime and anywhere, assuming this is appropriate for your business. After all, you might be running a private cloud to which access is limited by design. Otherwise it is important to allow access from multiple devices including smartphones, tablet computers, desktop computers, and even game consoles such as Xbox. Using OneDrive, for example, I can access my shared storage resource from all of these devices without issue. I can access this storage from my office, my home, and even my local Dunkin’ Donuts.

3) Resource Pooling: Next on the list is the concept of resource pooling. One way to look at resource pooling is to think about the massive data centers built or being built around the country by folks such as AWS, Microsoft, and Google. Inside each of these data centers lives equipment from Cisco, VMware, NetApp, EMC, and Red Hat to name a few. All this technology works together to provide a multi-tenant environment for many different customers with many different needs. Resources, both physical and virtual, are pooled within these data centers and assigned dynamically to customers. In fact, customers often don’t know exactly where their resources exist, nor do resources of one customer interact with those of another. While a customer can usually pick a general location for their resources – the U.S. Northeast, for example – even within this area one doesn’t really know exactly where everything is coming from.

4) Rapid Elasticity: Rapid elasticity means that cloud capabilities can be dynamically provisioned and released. The best way to visualize this concept is to imagine a small start-up business that needs a website. The website is up, customers begin to arrive, and the business starts to grow. As news travels, the business grows more rapidly. Additional computing power is needed to meet these growing needs. A slump occurs, fewer resources are required, then growth returns, and so on. This ever-changing atmosphere helps to illustrate the elastic needs of many organizations. Cloud technologies satisfy these dynamic raw resource needs by easily adjusting both physically and financially to the ever-changing needs of a growing business.

5) Measured Service: Elasticity goes hand in hand with the final characteristic: measured service. Cloud providers can automatically control and optimize resources based on the type of service or resource. Back to the OneDrive example, Microsoft will meter storage usage, provide reports, and maintain a consistent and optimized solution. This provides transparency for both the user and the provider.

So there you have it: the five cloud characteristics as defined by NIST. They are an important part of today’s fundamental cloud-technology blueprint.

Kevin Mahoney is a hospital- and healthcare-related account advocate and sales engineer at Amtelco, a manufacturer and supplier of call center solutions located in McFarland, Wisconsin. Contact him at kmahoney@amtelco.com.

Cloud System Technology 101

By Wayne Scaggs

Has a salesperson ever said to you, “If you use the Internet with VoIP calls, your call quality will be bad, your Internet will go down, and you will lose customers?” It’s time to take the fear out of this statement and empower you with the knowledge to make an informed decision that is best for your business, not best for the salesperson.

We will start with a question: Who owns the Internet? While no one owns the Internet everyone owns an individual piece of the Internet. Owners such as AT&T, Verizon, Level3, and Time Warner are some of the bigger players, with massive amounts of infrastructure in place. Most everyone who reads this article is a stakeholder in the Internet. There are multiple Internets, too – the public Internet, the military Internet, the telephone companies’ private Internet for voice traffic, and a number of other private Internets with restricted access.

The Internet is a powerful and essential tool of modern day life. Without it our way of life would cease. Trillions of pieces of data travel over the Internet hourly. Our goal is to get our information to its destination on time and securely.

Not all the data on the Internet is equal. In our case, voice data is more critical than the visual screen data we work with. Voice is sampled, encoded at a high rate, and converted into data. That data is sent to a destination end point where the data is converted back to voice. The data packets must stay essentially in the same sequential order and flow rate as when the data left the originating point. If the data is out of sequence, the ear hears distorted sounds, and the voice may not be understandable. When things are not understood or are improperly implemented, unwanted results are the result, and the door is open for fear to step in and distort the truth.

The technical issues of a cloud system have three major components: 1) the servers, datacenter, and surrounding infrastructure; 2) the data transmission from the instant the data enters the Internet backbone to the instant the data leaves it; 3) the company’s infrastructure, which extends out to the provider.

Cloud Infrastructure: The servers, datacenter, and surrounding infrastructure refer to the datacenter with all the proper redundancies required. This should be as close to the Internet backbone as possible. It connects directly to VoIP calls through SIP ports. The datacenter is on the Internet backbone with multiple Internet providers and has backup power in the form of UPS and generators. The datacenter is accessible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and strict security is enforced.

Data Transmission: Data transmission occurs from the instant the data enters the Internet backbone to the instant it leaves. This component has a major influence on the quality of the voice call center agents and callers hear. By far, the vast majority of voice connections are above acceptable quality for telephone conversation. So what happens when you have a bad call? One or more of the following three things likely caused it:

Delay (latency) happens when the callers seem to be talking over each other; the voice is so delayed that the other person has started to talk before all the voice data packets have reached the listener. Sometimes it’s similar to talking on a walkie-talkie because the delay is so bad. End-to-end delay must not exceed 230 milliseconds. Performing a ping test determines the extent of the delay. It is not the physical distance that matters as much as the latency of the data.

Jitter occurs when the voice data packets are not in the correct order or not flowing in a consistent manner, and the voice gateway is unable to correct for the flow of misaligned voice data packets. The resulting call, or portions of the call, will sound garbled; speech will be incomprehensible or choppy.

Voice data packet loss happens when a portion of the call data is lost. The caller might experience dead air, or the call will sound choppy. Data loss in one direction will cause one of the parties not to hear the other. Data loss must not exceed 10 percent to be considered an acceptable call.

These are the three key quality factors. However, they are not the only causes. Additional contributors to poor quality calls are:

  • The codec selected (G.711 to G.729) – a codec determines how much the voice is compressed
  • Insufficient bandwidth for both uploads and downloads
  • QoS (Quality of Service) required when bandwidth is marginal
  • An excessive number of hops in the signal path

Company Infrastructure: If you do not ask, you may not get the Internet service you require. You should ask your Internet provider to reveal the upload speed of the service. Internet providers advertise the download speed, but the upload speed is often considerably less. If the upload speed is not enough, the caller may not hear your voice. Internet service is often advertised as “up to” a certain speed, which means that if you get half of the advertised speed, the provider has delivered the service you bought. Instead always ask for dedicated or guaranteed speeds.

The information in this article is intended to inform you and help you make informed decisions regarding your business. The information not only applies to your call center system; it may also apply to any Internet connection you have. Underline what is important to you, and keep this article for future reference.

Wayne Scaggs is president of Alston Tascom, Inc., which offers premised-based and hosted contact center solutions.

[From Connection Magazine – January/February 2016]

A Complete Call Center System in the Cloud

By Wayne Scaggs

The purpose of a call center system in the cloud is providing a more efficient method of receiving raw data, processing that data into value-added information, and delivering the valuable information to customers in a timely manner.

Why use the cloud? First, if you accept the premise that the call center industry is not an island and that technology influences how our customers expect information to be processed and delivered, think “cloud.” When competitors move to the cloud because it is more efficient and then come after your customers with new and cost-effective solutions, how will you keep your customers with your cost-intensive hardware-based system? Cloud systems are here to stay because efficiency always trumps “but we have always done it this way.”

I consistently receive two types of inquiry calls:

The first type of caller asks, “How can paying a monthly recurring fee be cheaper than buying a system that will be paid off at some point?” What these callers do not yet realize is that the hardware system in their equipment room continually costs them money. Start with the cost of the system and then add the interest on a loan (or a lease with built-in interest). Then consider the cost of getting the system shipped to one’s office; installation and training are often in addition to the system price. Plus the system is usually a balance sheet debt, limiting future borrowing power.

T1 or PRI costs will continue to rise, and the last mile is a big part of the bill. How much more are you paying due to the way the phone company charges you for a full PRI, the per-minute cost, and long contracts? What about the service they provide?

You also need a technician to maintain the system. Or are you a do-it-yourself owner? If you are, how do you value your time? How are you paying yourself? You are probably the most valuable person in your company, so working on your equipment is not the best use of your time. You also need supporting hardware: network, network cables, and switching hub, along with the labor to install your network. After your warranty expires you will have maintenance and service fees for as long as you have the system.

Did you include the cost of an UPS and generator backup into your calculations? Another consideration is that your UPS batteries may only last for a few years before needing to be replaced. About six years into the life of your system when things have finally settled down, you’ll need a major upgrade. Whether hardware, software, or both, you are looking at 35 to 50 percent of the original system cost just to keep up with the changes in technology and customers’ demands.

Utility expenses include electricity and air-conditioning for your equipment. Other facility costs include the equipment room itself; the floor space costs something. The equipment has to be insured; this is part of owing your own hardware.

In contrast the second type of caller says answering calls is how he or she makes money; costly equipment is a major business distraction. This caller asks, “What does it take to go on the cloud system?” These callers understand the value of cloud technology so they can concentrate on their business.

A cloud system solution has no capital expenditure, no debt on your balance sheet, and no interest to pay. Your cloud system should use SIP channels and therefore be more cost-effective than T1 or PRI. There is no last mile charge every month from your telephone company. All the system maintenance is the responsibility of the vendor as part of your monthly fee. Your local area network (LAN) only needs to accommodate your workstations and the Internet. There is no need for a large UPS that requires a generator. You’ll also avoid an expiring warranty or the need to buy a service plan.

The decision is in your hands. Become the second type of caller.

Wayne Scaggs is president of Alston Tascom, Inc., which offers premised-based and hosted contact center solutions.

[From Connection Magazine – November/December 2015]

Cloud-Based System Economics 101

By Wayne Scaggs

The economic considerations of cloud and hosted systems are more than the cost of a premises system versus the monthly payments for a cloud-based alternative and where they cross the breakeven point. Let’s look at the economics of cloud-based and hosted systems to see the full picture.

In the following examples, we will examine the ongoing month-after-month expenses and then examine the one-time expenses of premise-based systems. Individually the expenses may not be very much; however, over the life of the system, the savings can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars – all while providing your customers with the same services as you would on a premises system.

Consider the following:

Telephony Costs: In many cases you can reduce your telephone bill by moving to a hosted system. First, you only pay for the trunks you need. For example, if you need thirty trunks, then you pay for thirty trunks. On the other hand, with a premise system for thirty trunks on T1s, you’ll need to pay for two T1s – even if you only use a quarter of the second one. Next, you may not need toll-free numbers or circuits. A cloud or hosted system utilizes native SIP-trunking and local DID numbers throughout the country. Last, you’ll stock only the DID numbers you need because you can order individual numbers as you need them and where you need them. Excess inventory of unused DID numbers for premise-based systems is an added cost and a management issue. Eliminating these is a month-after-month savings for cloud-based and hosted solutions.

Technical Staff: It is possible to reduce or eliminate the need for a technical person. First, there is very little equipment on your site that can go bad: the computer workstations and a printer. Also, the connection you have to the Internet is provided and maintained by your Internet service provider as part of your monthly bill. Last, any system issues are immediately addressed by the cloud system’s technical staff, which is part of your monthly fee. You make a phone call, report the issue, and leave the rest to their professional staff. This is another month-after-month of savings with cloud-based and hosted solutions.

Maintenance: If you believe you are saving costs by doing your own maintenance, consider these questions. Are you fully utilizing your skills, talents, and, most of all, your time, in maintaining your system? Your business is answering the telephone. Who is working to grow your business when you are fixing your equipment? You cannot close an account if you are fixing your equipment; you cannot take a vacation if you are fixing equipment; you cannot spend time with your family if you are fixing equipment. And your equipment seems to have a sixth sense: it will wait until the most inopportune time to act up and demand your attention.

All these disruptions cost you your time. What maintenance issue is more important than your time? This is another month-after-month continuous saving with cloud-based and hosted systems that is more valuable than many realize. You may be able to cover the monthly reoccurring cost of a cloud-based or hosted system with the savings from your telephone bill combined with the savings from your maintenance and support fees.

Electric Bill: You can reduce your electric utility bill when you switch to cloud-based or hosted solutions. Older servers can draw as much as 500 watts each, 24/7. Dissipating the heat generated by these servers puts a load on an air-conditioning system and further runs up your utility bill. Eliminating these servers means less cost and another month-after-month savings.

Other Considerations: Additional ongoing monthly expenses that will not be part of a cloud-based or hosted system but which add up for premise-based systems include support and maintenances fees, equipment insurance, and the cost of floor space. These are monthly expenses for the life of the premise system that add up and come off your bottom line.

Large Expenses: Did you know you could eliminate the need for a large UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) and generator? You can remove the racks of batteries and the need to replace them every few years. You can avoid the significant expense of an electrician to wire the backup power system and maintain it. These are lump sum expenses that typically occur once or twice over the lifetime of a premise-based system. With a cloud-based system, you are able to replace an expensive backup power system with affordable, off-the-shelf components (for both a UPS and generator if you need it) from a local retail electronic store.

Additional one-time expenses that are not part of a cloud-based or hosted system are the initial system cost, sales tax, interest or lease expenses, freight cost, and your local in-house network upgrade. Plus, with a premise-based system, in five or six years you should expect to need a major system upgrade of either hardware, software, or both.

Wouldn’t it be spectacular to work on your business and not in your business? With all the savings that come from a cloud-based or hosted system, you can plan on having additional time and energy to maneuver your call center through the pitfalls of your business environment. You will save time and money, with more bottom-line results to show for it.

Alston Tascom is offering a no-charge “True Cost of Ownership” calculator that will compare up to five different buying decisions. Email info@alstontascom.com to request your no-charge calculator.

Wayne Scaggs is president of Alston Tascom, Inc., which offers premised-based and hosted contact center solutions.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2015]

A CIO’s Road Map to the Customer Service Cloud

By Neil Titcomb

The definition of cloud computing is multifaceted and confusing. Here are the main aspects of cloud computing and descriptions of what they mean:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): This is the first step most companies take toward moving to the cloud. Virtualization is the enabling technology behind IaaS, providing better resource utilization, cost savings, and flexibility. Most organizations begin using virtualization to consolidate servers and pool physical resources; they then eventually move on to desktop virtualization solutions once they see clear benefits.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS): Provides a platform on which to build applications, which are usually linked to a particular vendor. This enables organizations to have access to the cloud without having to install and maintain expensive, bulky platform and tools locally.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS): Provides access to hosted software applications in the cloud over the Internet. The user accesses the application from any browser, and all data is stored centrally by the provider. SaaS simplifies operations and reduces costs. However, some organizations have been slow to adopt this model due to concerns about security, control, and reliability. SaaS is a similar concept to the Application Service Provider (ASP). Integrated hosting of applications and infrastructure allows companies to focus not on delivering and maintaining the technology, but on using the technology to create value and differentiation. Pushing IT operations outside the four walls also enables more flexibility and speed.

Why the Cloud? Why Not! Security has always been a big issue with the cloud, since every environment is subject to attacks and data theft. But the threat is in any model, not just the cloud, and CIOs need to ask themselves what steps they should take to protect data. Remember that SaaS providers may be even more aware and prepared than internal IT departments to mitigate risk because they have more at stake; their reputations, their profitability, and ultimately their whole business model depend on delivering security and reliability.

Lack of control is often stated as another argument against SaaS. A company may feel that a particular application is too critical to the organization and not want to relinquish control to a third party. Despite this, some will argue that an organization still owns the application, even though they don’t own the support function. Plus they can always bring the support back in-house. The key is to find vendors with business models that align with your own and provide the level of support you need.

Some companies argue that running the same application as a competitor through a SaaS provider eliminates any competitive advantage. But remember, technology isn’t really the differentiator it used to be. The pace of innovation has accelerated to the point where everyone is neck and neck; it has more to do with how you use the technology you have to set yourself apart. Customization may provide a short-term competitive advantage, but in the end technology is always evolving, and competitors will catch up.

The bigger problems most large enterprises grapple with are cost of maintenance and limited ability to adapt to changing market conditions. The cloud mitigates those looming problems.

Where to Start: Making the transition to cloud is a big step. Do you begin this transition by moving your low-priority IT applications to a cloud environment, so that if something goes wrong, it won’t affect much? Or do you create a sense of urgency around the transition and start with a mission-critical application? Perhaps the latter is the smarter choice.

To move an important application – such as a business-critical contact center to a cloud environment – does two things. First, it creates a sense of urgency that demands the attention of key players throughout the organization. Second, it necessitates success. If you start by moving an application that the business depends on, failure is not an option. It also makes the initial overcoming of internal skepticism a lot easier and helps get everyone on board.

Cloud Migration Requires Careful Planning: If you decide to move to the cloud, you will need a migration plan to successfully drive the change throughout the organization. Virtualization is one of the most important elements of a cloud solution. For example, in order for remote employees to access applications over the cloud, virtualization of these applications is essential.

Your employees are important to making the transition to cloud work, so when creating your migration plan, it is critical to work alongside staff to ensure a smooth migration and make sure they are happy.

Choosing the Right Team: Selecting the ideal group to execute the cloud migration project is an important step in the process. Moving to the cloud might seem threatening to people in the IT organization, so having a respected leader will help bring others along. Additionally, you want leaders who are open-minded, anxious to learn, and optimistic. Because the cloud is, for many, uncharted territory, the team in charge of its deployment must be open to new ideas and approaches; additionally, they must be optimistic about a successful outcome.

It is critical to select a cloud solution provider that is willing to develop a partnership with your IT organization. The provider should act as an extension of your IT team in order to build trust and align with your organizational objectives. You need a provider whose culture is similar to your own and that believes in the importance of creating a business partnership rather than merely providing a service. Your organization and the provider must work seamlessly together for the end customer.

It’s Worth It! Along with concerns, there are huge benefits in making the migration to the cloud. Here are some examples:

  • Access to future upgrades: A great benefit of the cloud is the access you will have to future upgrades. This means you will always have the most recent technology and utilize enhancements you may not have been able to afford or have the time to implement.
  • Faster innovation to market: By using existing infrastructure and configurations, SaaS minimizes the need to customize applications, allowing for faster delivery than internal implementations.
  • Agility in responding to opportunities and threats: With a cloud-based IT infrastructure, you can easily scale up or down in response to market conditions and business opportunities.
  • Reduced costs: The SaaS model has the ability to reduce costs; it is one of the main reasons people make the move to cloud. Companies can save on having to customize applications, and they only pay for what they need, when they need it.
  • Improved performance for the business user: Cloud services are readily available at any time in order to meet customer demands. In addition, reliable cloud providers offer backup and redundancy, so you never have to worry about your organization coming to a halt because of a network issue or application hiccup.

Ultimately, satisfying customers is the main goal of any organization. Deciding to move to the cloud can be a great business decision, and moving forward may provide the only real option for some organizations to provide the levels of customer service they need at a cost they can afford.

Neil Titcomb is the UK&I sales director for cloud for Genesys. Read more about this in our whitepaper entitled A CIO’s Roadmap to the Cloud, which you can download here.

[From Connection Magazine – May/June 2015]

Three Ways to Boost Contact Center Profits with the Cloud

By Rob Schneider

Regardless of whether customer relationship management is handled in-house through internal agents or outsourced to a third-party contact center service provider, there’s no question that it’s a critical function for customer satisfaction and loyalty. The contact center, once viewed as a cost center, has finally emerged as a value center. Forward-looking brands now know that the path to a consumer’s wallet is through fanatical customer service. The contact center can be a key component in adding value to the customer relationship, creating new opportunities for revenue, and encouraging future purchases.

Ideally, a true value-add contact center strategy is designed to help offset some of the operational costs of doing business over the phone, online, or through mobile channels. But the traditional brick-and-mortar contact center model hasn’t proven to be as cost-efficient as one would hope, despite being cheaper than face-to-face sales. However, it also shouldn’t cost a lot. So, if your contact center is a slow drain on your finances, something is wrong.

For outsourcers, providing the highest level of value to clients and their customers while maintaining healthy margins is key to a successful business model. But keeping up with premise-based contact center technology, hardware migrations, changing client needs, shifting government and compliance regulations, and changes in workforce management can all put financial pressure on the contact center, degrading margins and affecting service levels.

For many, cloud technologies are helping decrease some of these financial burdens, allowing contact center service providers to focus their time and efforts on attracting and servicing clients rather than maintaining technology systems. And focusing on your customers has its benefits: Recent research from the Aberdeen Group indicates that cloud-based contact centers experience 27 percent lower annual customer-turnover costs. Additionally, these centers typically experience about 28 percent lower infrastructure costs than contact centers with a traditional infrastructure that requires time and energy to maintain.

Here are three simple ways a move to the cloud can improve the bottom line:

1. Optimized Equipment Enables Better Service: Surprisingly, 42 percent of contact center agents are unable to effectively address customer queries due to outdated interfaces and disconnected systems. Data center equipment needs to be constantly maintained and optimized to ensure it’s in proper working condition so downtime is minimized and customer service is never affected. This means checking data centers for networking issues, performing routine monitoring, and allocating power to maximize server load capacity. For outsourcers serving numerous clients, these costs mount as servers and equipment are added, and failures can equate to significant loss of business and reputation.

Moving contact center operations to the cloud eliminates the majority of this work, decreases IT labor costs, and helps shift remaining costs from capital to operational budgets. More importantly, cloud architecture gives agents access to optimized and updated equipment, providing access to the tools necessary to get the job done. By moving to a cloud-based solution, businesses can focus on the important details of their operations without having to worry about the headache of maintaining equipment.

Moving to a hosted cloud solution also influences reliability by reducing the failure points to the network. As with any cloud solution, when evaluating providers, make sure to focus on reliability metrics to ensure your partner has a clean record.

2. Remote Agents Actually Get You Closer to the Customer: Businesses everywhere are abandoning traditional brick-and-mortar contact center facilities and embracing a virtual work environment. Today, distributed global agents can provide round-the-clock service, and the money saved by eliminating physical workspaces can go toward customized agent training to deliver improved customer service.

Letting even a few agents work remotely can save money and boost productivity, as it increases agent flexibility and allows businesses to recruit top talent regardless of location. Using the cloud to facilitate work-at-home business models also means that remote employees access files from a single, secure network location. This promotes sharing and unification strategies in the workplace and ensures that remote employees have access to the tools they need to service customers from any location.

3. Connect to Convince: Customers expect accessibility like never before – via phone, email, Web chat, SMS/texting, mobile, and social media. According to a recent eConsultancy report, consumers want multiple channels of communications, and there isn’t a clear winner for their most preferred interaction channel. In the eConsultancy report, approximately 57 percent of consumers surveyed said they would like to have the option of live chat for customer service, 60 percent want email communication, and 61 percent of customers surveyed want to engage over the phone.

Consequently, the more interaction platforms available to consumers, the greater likelihood of convincing first-time customers to make a purchase, become a loyal brand proponent, and develop into a repeat buyer. However, translating this into profit requires outsourcers to offer service through all channels and do it well. Nothing is more frustrating for consumers than a poorly set up IVR, painfully slow Web chat interactions, or ignored social media posts.

Conclusion: For companies just starting out with a cloud-based contact center, easing into multi-channel communications is possible. It is also much easier and more cost-effective than upgrading on-premise solutions to support new channels. Today, cloud-based contact center platforms support a long list of features, including IVR, outbound dialing, email, Web chat, SMS/texting, mobile, and social media. When integrated with applications such as CRM, customer analytics, call recording, and workforce management (WFM) software, finding and focusing on the customer value becomes much easier.

If you’re feeling frazzled, service is suffering, or profits are down, it’s time to consider moving to the cloud. With all the options available, there’s never been a better time to make the switch and boost your bottom line.

Rob Schneider is vice president of customer service at Connect First.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2014]

Are You Secure? Top Security Considerations When Evaluating Cloud Services

By Joseph Pedano

Late one night, 911 operators received a harrowing phone call from a woman who heard strange noises at her front door. She grabbed her six-month-old baby, a licensed pistol, and locked herself in an upstairs bathroom, holding her breath while the intruder violently tore apart the first floor of her home and stole her valuables.

In minutes, he was gone. Later, they found the intruder along with over 100 different house keys, presumably belonging to other unsuspecting victims. A creepy story, and one that will likely remind you to set your house alarm tonight, but it’s the scary tales of network invasions that make even the most powerful executive shudder. In fact, security is the number one fear of IT directors. Just as alarming, a new report from Silicon Valley Bank reveals that only one-third of 200 tech executives surveyed are completely confident in the security of their information.

Stories of cyber security attacks flood the news with disturbing frequency. A breach in Epsilon’s network leaked millions of names and email addresses from the customer databases of some of its biggest clients. Sony’s PlayStation network and Sony Online Entertainment suffered a series of attacks that placed 100 million customer accounts at risk, costing the company up to two billion dollars. A group of individuals claiming to be affiliated with the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous stole 75,000 credit card numbers and 860,000 user names and passwords from Stratfor, a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis. And in the fall of 2013, the websites of several large US financial firms were disrupted by a monster DDoS attack that reportedly exceeded 60 Gbps – much larger than the typical 5–10 Gbps attack.

It seems like security standards are being compromised every day, masked by hasty assurances that the occasional breach is inevitable and everyone takes network security seriously as we’d like.

Or not. Lapses in security practices may not be obvious, especially when obscured by contract liability language and certain unstated assumptions. But while no cloud provider can absolutely guarantee an ironclad defense against the threats of tomorrow, every cloud vendor should be expected to maintain robust procedures that anticipate and mitigate data security risks before they cause harm.

In order to ensure maximum protection from all the existing and emerging threats to any network’s security, whether in the cloud or on premise, there are two major buckets that need to be filled with proper security measures: physical construction and architectural design.

Physical Construction: Critical Components to Ensure Control and Constant Visibility: Fewer than 10 percent of cloud providers own and operate 100 percent of their own facilities; instead, they rely on partners to provide data center resources. As a result, enterprises need to ask the right questions to ensure they have selected the right organizations, ones that provide the necessary controls and visibility into the physical security measures in place to protect their service offerings.

Look for cloud providers that either own or work with Tier One data centers, those strategically located in regions with low risk of natural disasters. This helps ensure that the provider also maintains rigorous protocols for securing these centers from unauthorized access.

For example, each data center should only be accessible at a single point of entry and exit, secured with a biometric scanner or a video call box that allows security guards to visually identify each visitor before granting entry. Also ask if the provider monitors each data center around the clock via closed-circuit TV cameras that record all footage. Be sure to probe the cloud provider about security within the facility. For example, are all areas individually segmented with badge-secured doors, two-factor authentication, and biometric and scanning systems? Inside the server rooms, are each rack, cage, and cabinet individually locked with keys held in a monitored lockbox?

In addition to protecting a provider’s data centers from unauthorized access, each center should be safeguarded from environmental threats. Extensive environmental controls and backup power units must be installed, complete with dual power grids, multiple battery lines, emergency generators, a backup fuel supply, a fire-suppression system, smoke and thermal detectors, and a fail-secure door and alarm system. Do the data centers have adequate cooling and ventilation? Are they physically separated from underlying service providers and other third parties? These are important questions to ask when considering a new provider, whether in the cloud or not.

Last, it’s critical to find out how thoroughly the provider checks the background of each employee on-site. Does the provider enforce mandatory drug testing? Run full background checks? Vet each potential employee with a detailed interview process? If you’re not convinced of the reliability of their hiring process, reconsider.

Architectural Design: Protecting How Data Is Moved, Stored, and Transacted: Studies show that most data security compromises worldwide do not involve direct physical access to or theft of data volumes, but instead result from the exploitation of weaknesses in firewalls, data processes, and other network design elements.

The first line of software defense is virtualization. This ensures that any malignant software process that emerges in one virtualized volume cannot infect or interact with any others. Additionally, virtualized networking processes allow technical staff to easily monitor incoming and outgoing production traffic for any early signs of security risks.

Next, be sure to find out how network information is protected. Some providers leverage load-balanced firewalls, architected to deliver a full and detailed range of protection solutions that include port blocking, VPN, DDoS protection measures, automatic antivirus enforcement, real-time traffic reporting, and intrusion detection. Firewalls should be engineered for N+1 redundancy, guaranteeing that each unit has at least one backup component in case of equipment failure. Further, some providers censor their networks with security event systems that monitor and log traffic.

Most importantly, look for cloud providers whose networks are regularly SSAE-16 SOC 3 audited by independent third parties and compliant with the stringent demands of all major regulatory regimes, including HIPAA and PCI-DSS. Your organization may also require a company that is designated a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) with the PCI council. Lastly, make sure your provider is a registered and participating member of the CSA Security, Trust, and Assurance Registry (STAR). The CSA was formed to encourage transparency of security practices among cloud providers.

A Well-Lit Tour Removes All Fear: Creepy stories notwithstanding, everything is less frightening out in the open daylight. Nowhere is this truer than with the security of your cloud network provider, so insist on touring the facility to personally meet the provider’s team and review the data center design and operating procedures. Also, request permission to do a full security audit, including application penetration testing and vulnerability analysis. If the provider balks, preferring to keep you in the dark, take that as a fearsome sign of trouble.

Joseph Pedano is the senior VP of Data Engineering for Evolve IP. His expertise lies in building and maintaining next-generation networks that provide value-added services to customers seeking advanced products and services. Joseph is responsible for the overall data architecture for customer and internal networks, as well as the efficient operation and performance management of those networks.

[From Connection Magazine May/Jun 2014]