We have witnessed an enormous level of vertical integration within the contact center platform industry over the past several years. The PBX vendors of the 90’s moving backward into IVR, ACD and agent desktop; the knowledge management and QA vendors of the 2000’s moving forward into the agent desktop, workforce management, ACD and even CRM. This has occurred primarily through acquisition. Cisco is a good example of the former, KANA and NICE are good examples of the latter. There is a general software industry belief that this single platform approach is better. Look at Oracle, IBM, HP. Whether it’s a single SFA platform, single marketing automation platform, or a single I/T service management platform, it appears that the ‘single platform’ approach is better, because that’s where the big guys are going. And, if you can’t buy it, then build it. That is the approach of many as well, such as inConcert and inContact.
The theory goes that a single, integrated platform is better. The integration work of cobbling together a number of software solutions is done once, or the platform was built from the bottom-up to ensure tight integration. That’s the theory, what about reality? Well, they don’t always match up. In fact, they seldom do. Let’s consider vertical growth through acquisition first.
There is a long history of software start-ups that are innovative, nimble, and very responsive to the market that are acquired by a large software company, and the match is not one ‘made in heaven’. It seems the once ‘cool’ software that underwent frequent change to capture the attention of the marketplace just ins’t so any more. So, what happened? Acquisition is not about simply integrating software. And, this is where acquiring companies, and the marketplace, often seem to have a huge blind spot. Acquisition is about integrating culture, processes, practices, methodologies, architectures, and platforms. All too often, it is the acquiring company that believes they ‘do things correctly’ and the smaller company (the one that is more profitable, innovative, customer-centric, etc.) needs to adjust to the larger companies culture, processes, etc.. Moreover, this integration is not a simple and fast-moving process. It may well take years to do all of the necessary organizational and technology integration. In the meantime, roadmaps are confusing at best and the principal aim of marketing, sales and support is in giving customers and potential customers assurances that ‘it will all be better in the end, just wait and see’. There is also the problem of trying to grow into a competitive marketplace. Sure, there remain some companies that have created an innovative niche in the contact center technology space, such as SmartAction. But, these are few and far between. When a company makes the choice to move into a vertical space, take workforce management for example, there are a good number of very competitive products. By choosing to acquire one of these, the company now essentially cuts itself out of the market for the contact centers that have made investments in competing workforce management products. Does this mean growth by acquisition is necessarily suboptimal at best, and just plain bad on average? That topic will be covered in an upcoming post, but essentially it depends on where the product and the vertical is from a lifecycle standpoint.
What about those companies that integrate from the bottom up, i.e. they develop the entire vertical scope of capabilities themselves, ensuring tight integration? Well, I have worked in a large multi-product company, and I can assure you that this is largely fantasy. Multiple product groups, if not managed very closely with integration a key consideration every step of the way and without a strong central governance, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to line up with all of the other product groups. The coordination of core architectural changes, release schedules, bug fixes, cross-product customer requirements and the like slows progress and nearly ensures a great number of compromises along the way to a single platform. What typically emerges is a ‘jack of all trades, expert at none’ set of products that work well together. Is it possible for one company to be the industry leader in IVR, agent desktop optimization, multi-channel ACD and real-time management, workforce management, knowledge management and quality management? I have yet to find one. For call centers that are not looking for state-of-the-art, best-of-breed and are content with a good (potentially) integrated platform from a single company, this approach may be acceptable. If the contact center is expected to deliver competitive advantage, then it clearly is not.
Is there an alternative? I contend that contact center software products that are strong in a particular capability or set of capabilities and have, as their chief design point, the ability to easily integrate, are more attractive then the single-platform product sets. As a contact center technology leader, I should have the ability to choose a set of industry-leading products that can easily integrate which provide me competitive advantage in my particular industry or market. If these products easily integrate, I should be able to replace products when my situation, market or industry changes to allow me to keep or grow my competitive advantage. So, how is the contact center software industry doing in terms of integration as a key differentiator? In my view, not very well. Is this because they can bring a high-priced services team to bear to enable integration?
I would like to hear from my readers. What frustrates you currently about your contact center solution? Have you been in integration purgatory for too long,, believing the promises of the vendor sales team that ‘it is just a simple matter of integration’ is not really simple? Are you stuck with a platform vendor confused by the product roadmaps that sometime in the future get you to where you want to be? I want to hear from you.