Marketplace Morning Report - By Kate Davidson - August 5, 2014


If you’ve ever called a customer service line, you’ve likely talked to someone in India, the Philippines, or Mexico. Now, some U.S. companies are bringing their call centers home and changing the way they do business.

Have you ever been stuck in a phone tree so long you just lost it and started ranting on Twitter?

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Detroit Free Press - By Frank Witsil - August 3, 2014


In a hive of cubicles at the Dialog Direct offices in Highland Park, Keontay Kelley and other employees answer calls through headsets.

While they work, LED signs on the walls flash reminders: “Manners Matter,” “Phone Etiquette,” “Yes Ma’am/Sir,” “Thank You” and “I Apologize.” The room buzzes with conversation, the sound of hundreds of metro Detroiters earning paychecks.

“I was looking for a job, ” said Kelley, 26, of Detroit. “This did it.”

After years of sending call center jobs to India, the Philippines, Mexico and other countries, companies are bringing them back to the U.S.


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During a recent phone conversation with Kevin Hegebarth, who is the VP of marketing at HireIQ, Inc., he brought to my attention a contact center story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t so well documented and there wasn’t a government agency behind it.  The story involves the recent establishment of a contact center in Contra Costa County, California.  It is one of three contact centers to be established in the state of California for the purpose of fielding Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, calls beginning October 1st.

In July the county advertised the availability of 152 new, full-time Obamacare contact center agent jobs.  They received 7,457 applications.  1,947 of the applicants passed the civil service exam and moved on to the next phase.  600 applicants went through the interview process before the final 152 agents were hired.  Some of the successful applicants were people emerging from a long period of unemployment, some were people coming from small home-based businesses that they started to try to weather the recession and many were people who left other full-time positions in the hope of finding greater stability in a county government contact center job.

Thursday, 29 November 2012 09:05

Is the Contact Center in Microsoft's Future?

With the introduction of the new Windows 8 operating system and the Microsoft Surface tablet, the company’s first foray into the hardware market, Microsoft has received a fair amount of media attention over the past couple of weeks.  Naturally this has led to an equally fair number of inquiries from clients and members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) wanting to know whether this is indicative of a push by Microsoft into new markets and if it will have any impact on the contact center industry.  The simple answer is yes and no.


Microsoft is in the throes of a major strategic shift, and it isn’t toward customer service.  Microsoft has made its fortune providing software solutions to the enterprise.  It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Microsoft has essentially owned the personal computer (PC) and enterprise software market for much of its existence.  However, all good things must come to an end.  Welcome to the post-PC era.


Today smartphones, tablets and cloud services are rapidly replacing laptops and desktops in the enterprise.  Demand for these mobile devices is being driven by the consumer market – a market that Microsoft has not done as good a job at cultivating as has their rival, Apple.  Apple has figured out that staying close to the customer and providing a superior customer service experience is a primary key to success in the consumer market.  Here we find Microsoft low on the learning curve.


So what does this have to do with the contact center?  My contention is that Microsoft is going to be obsessed by its major strategic and tactical shift from an enterprise software provider to a consumer products provider over the next several years.  Microsoft made a $15 million investment in Aspect a few years ago – a drop in the bucket for a company with $60 billion in cash among its $118 billion in assets.  While Aspect has made Microsoft a major highlight of its contact center strategy, it hasn’t been reciprocal on the part of Microsoft.  Beyond the Aspect relationship, there isn’t any evidence that Microsoft has any interest in planting its flag in the customer service industry.


A few years ago Microsoft hired several managers from Envision Telephony, a small contact center company in Seattle, and they hired a strategic manager to help Microsoft evaluate contact center industry opportunities.  Today those former Envision employees are working on Microsoft CRM products and the contact center strategic manager position was eliminated a couple of years ago.  This indicates to me that Microsoft’s brief infatuation with the contact center industry is long over.


The new reality for Microsoft involves more of a focus on better understanding consumers and creating a new customer base rather than helping someone else take care of customers.  While the contact center industry offers steady growth and stability, Microsoft won’t have time for modest market opportunities.  They need to hone their competitive skills to quickly learn how to appeal to consumers and create the kind of customer relationships that Apple has mastered.  This isn’t a bump in the road for Microsoft, it’s a major hurdle.


As far as Microsoft and the contact center goes, I believe it begins and ends with their partnership with Aspect to provide Lync unified communications and Lync-based applications for the customer service industry.  Don’t expect much else beyond that.  If you are still holding out for that new portfolio of contact center solutions from Microsoft, I recommend you don’t hold your breath. 

I have to admit I experienced creeping uncertainty when I got word about the management changes at Aspect a couple of months ago.  Not only were the new managers unfamiliar names, they were for the most part not from the communications industry and one of the new execs was an M&A guy.  Would Aspect be broken up and sold in pieces or was this going to be a wholesale sell-off to the highest bidder?


Turns out it won’t be any of those things if I can base my assessment of Aspect’s future on the words I heard from the new executive management team this week.  In a fairly atypical industry occurrence, Aspect executives gathered this week with a small group of analysts in an all day, no-holds-barred meeting to make clear the company’s commitment to corporate growth and industry influence in the future.  I left the meeting a believer.


When I say the meeting was no-holds-barred, I mean that the discussion was frank and honest, not peppered with the usual flowery marketing drivel.  Mistakes were made in the past and admitted to.  The much-hyped Aspect relationship with Microsoft was put into perspective and I finally understood where it fits into Aspect’s growth strategy.  While it makes sense from a market perspective, I hope Aspect tones down the marketing perspective.  Contact center professionals simply aren’t that enamored with Microsoft, at least not to the degree that some other industry professionals are.  Aspect’s relationship with Microsoft doesn’t do anything to win the heart and mind of the customer service professional.


What does win friends and influence people in the contact center industry are innovations in technology solutions that industry people know they need, like workforce optimization, mobility solutions and social media management tools.  Without giving away secrets, I’m convinced that Aspect is on the right track to win new friends.  To back up the talk, they’re walking the R & D walk with significant new investment in this area in dollars for both people and technology.  I see this level of commitment in product development as a strong proof point that Aspect as we know it is here to stay.


Financially, Aspect is in a relatively strong position.  Just this week they paid down another $50 million in debt leaving their outstanding debt, by order of magnitude, about a tenth of Avaya’s debt and around half of Genesys’ debt.  I discovered that Aspect’s new CFO is a fellow grad school alum, so that subjectively boosts my confidence in the company’s fiscal responsibility.


There are very few companies in the contact center industry that have the confidence to put their top executives in front of analysts to answer questions without a marketing or PR buffer.  Aspect is now part of this elite group and I believe the confidence Aspect has shown in itself will translate to strong and responsible growth for the company.  Aspect is well-positioned to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

The InformationWeek 500, published annually by Information Week magazine, is a list of the nation’s 500 most innovative users of business technology as determined by the editors of the magazine.  As a provider of business technology for the contact center, it appears that Plantronics ( practices what it preaches because it has earned a spot on the InformationWeek 500 list for 2012.  Plantronics has been recognized for its adoption of a cutting edge workplace strategy called “smarter working.”


Smarter working is a relatively new approach that places people over place and delivers flexible solutions that allow people to cooperate and collaborate across work environments.  For a global company like Plantronics the ability to work with customers, partners and employees across time zones and geographies is critical to success.  Employees can now effectively communicate with each other regardless of where they are located or which type of communications device is being used.


I had the opportunity to visit Plantronics’ headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA this past June and saw the construction of their new work environment in progress.  Although not technically in Silicon Valley, the Plantronics work environment should, and probably will, put to shame the work environments in what most of us think of as progressive high tech companies.  The physical environment in the workplace is as important as the work process for those who adhere to the principles of smarter working. 


At Plantronics, the workspaces are flexible and open, encouraging collaboration and communication.  The cube farm has been replaced by a friendly collection of work areas where it is apparent that employees share energy as well as ideas.  The beneficiaries of the smarter working initiative are not only the employees – Plantronics’ customers will benefit as well.  Here’s how. 


Plantronics makes headsets for the contact center industry.  Contact centers are noisy, busy places.  With the new Plantronics open work environment, part of the “buzz” is due to the fact that employees are talking to each other more frequently, creating a workplace environment that is very similar to the typical contact center.  As a result, Plantronics has just become a test bed for its own headsets. 


Despite its industry leadership position, Plantronics continues to innovate in more ways than one.  With the new smarter working strategy in place the employees win, the customers win and, for the icing on the cake, Plantronics gets an award.  Plantronics continues to prove that its industry vision extends well beyond the world of audio communications.

Last week I wrote a research note for Saddletree clients covering contact center industry employment numbers for the second half of 2010.  In the first half of 2010 there was a net gain of 2,292 jobs in the U.S. contact center industry.  That news in itself was pretty exciting, but it was blown away by second half employment figures.

The third quarter of 2010 saw a net gain of 3,929 jobs – more than the net gain of jobs in the first two quarters of 2010 combined.  It was the fourth quarter numbers, however, that blew expectations out of the water.  During the fourth quarter the industry realized a net gain of 9,695 jobs for a grand total of 15,916 contact center jobs gained during 2010.  Growth in the fourth quarter also mirrored normal pre-recession industry growth patterns, so it appears that the industry is on the right track.  Incidentally, all these employment numbers are gathered by the Call Center Lab at The University of Southern Mississippi.

 And speaking of blowing away expectations, Verint Systems released their fourth quarter numbers this week.  Earnings per share (EPS) were sharply ahead of consensus forecasts with workforce optimization playing a major part in these earnings.  As a category, Verint’s workforce optimization sales performance was up nearly 20 percent over last year.  Financial analysts expect to see a continuation of this strong performance into FY 2011 and have increased revenue expectations accordingly.

 All of this is good news for an industry that not only proved its value during the toughest of economic times, but is clearly demonstrating leadership in shepherding the U.S. economy out of its doldrums.  It is apparent that confidence has returned to much of the U.S. contact center industry, led by companies like Verint that have figured out the magic formula of delivering value for the money in order to increase revenues.