Friday, January 31, 2014

ITExpo Miami - Key Takeaways

I've been to many ITExpos over the years, and while there's a sameness to many elements, there's always something new. This year, for me, the newness was seeing Martin Geddes speak at the SmartVoice track on Tuesday. He's long been one of my favorite leading lights for where voice is going, and it was great to see him in person. It's all about "Hypervoice" with Martin, and while I still don't totally get it, I absolutely get the future he's trying to envision for us.

Basically, the idea is that many elements that could make voice cool exist today, but they just haven't been pulled together in a neat and tidy way. With Hypervoice, the idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so when you combine things like voice recording, biometrics, on-the-fly conferencing, etc. into a unified package, it's a pretty strong value proposition.

The big challenge is that you'll never get there if you think of VoIP as telephony - and that's something I've been writing about pretty extensively lately. The picture comes into focus when you first see VoIP as data, and from there, you see it as information instead of voice. There's an awful lot of data locked up in a VoIP session, and voice is just one of many ways to slice and dice what's possible. This takes us a bit into the world of Big Data, but that shouldn't scare you - too much.

In short, telephony doesn't have a future as a commodity, hence the rallying cry from the session - "voice is dead, long live voice as data". I'm kind of on board with that - I think telephony is dead, but once reinvented, voice has a great future, and Martin is a top guy to follow for what that future holds.

Well, this just takes me to the first two hours of the show, so I'd better move on.

What else to say? Based on what kept me busy, I moderated two sessions on the contact center, and despite all the great technology around us, it's astounding to hear how hard it is to provide great customer service. There are a lot of reasons for this, and interestingly, I'm of the opinion that the technology isn't one of them. The bigger culprit, at least from what I'm seeing is the lack of a customer-centric culture. When you look at what great companies do in terms of customer service, you don't hear them talking about their technology. You hear them talking about a value system that runs through their organization, where everyone in essence is a customer service representative where nobody is afraid to deal head-on with customer issues to make them happy.

As such, my takeaway here is to not get too distracted by all the great contact center technology on offer at the show. These vendors know what they're doing and their solutions are only as effective as the company's commitment to customer satisfaction. When businesses get too caught up in the process of customer service rather than the outcomes, things get impersonal pretty quickly, and at that point, all the Big Data in the world isn't going to be of much help.

Otherwise, it was great to see the TMC brain trust giving presentations, which we saw during the always-informative SIP Trunking workshop run by Ingate Systems. We heard from Rich Tehrani, Erik Linask and Peter Bernstein, with the collective message being that SIP is gaining traction for good reason. Our world is increasingly a multimedia one, and it's easy to forget that SIP was designed for this purpose - it's not just for voice. Of course, this ties into WebRTC, another hot topic at the show. It's not clear yet how the channel will make money there, but this workshop is very much about how they can make money with SIP trunking and all the UC-related applications connected to it.

Got one more thing to touch on before this post runs too long - Big Data. I've got a lot of skepticism on this topic, but yesterday's CIO Roundtable provided some glimmers of hope. TMC did a great job bringing together three CIOs to share their Big Data journeys and lessons learned with us. Clearly, there's no magic formula, as every business will come at this differently. What struck me was the customer-centric nature of these businesses, and that simply reinforced what I was saying earlier about contact centers.

A key idea for me was the observation that Big Data only becomes relevant when businesses understand the value of the data they already have about their customers.You might assume this was always the case, but it's easy to dismiss everyday information about your customers as being noise if you take them for granted. Instead, when you realize that every touchpoint with customers can either create or destroy value around your relationship with them, these become valuable "moments of truth" where it's better to be right than wrong.

When you've reached that point of enlightenment, it becomes much easier to develop a strategy around using data to understand the customer in more meaningful ways. We heard the panelists talk about leveraging Big Data to anticipate - or even predict customer behavior - and by doing so, you can be proactive with your customers instead of reactive, jumping whenever they have problems. A key payoff here is the idea that you can add more value to your offerings, especially by making them more personalized. Without Big Data, you could still do this, but you'd be guessing, so that's not a good long-term plan.

Putting a number on all this is still pretty hard to do, but one of the panelists summed it up best - "the ROI for Big Data is a better customer experience". This sounds simple, but if you're truly customer-centric, this is exactly what you're looking for. When you can deliver that to management, the associated metrics that they really want to see won't be so hard to extrapolate. Big Data is very much a brave new world, but these speakers showed us there is a way forward.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Trends Will Fizzle in 2014 - UCStrategies Podcast

We can't all be winners, and UC is really no different from other tech waves that come and go. In the early going, everyone is a winner until the novelty wears off and vendors have to start making money. We try lots of new things - some just streamline things we've been doing all along or make them more accessible, like desktop video. Others are more radical - like WebRTC - that threaten to reinvent the whole space.

I'd say we're past the novelty stage with UC, and there's already been a fair bit of consolidation, but there's more to come. This just means the stakes get higher for everybody - vendors, operators, channels and even IT decision-makers - and it already looks like the top end of the market is a two-horse race between Cisco and Microsoft.

There's lots of life left to UC, though, and the future is still be written, but not everything we've been trying over the past year or two will survive through 2014. Depending on who you speak to, the casualties will vary, and that's what we talked about during last week's UCStrategies podcast.

A fundamental challenge with UC is its fluid nature - it can be almost anything you want it to be, and that makes it really hard to know when you're done - or able to add something new. So, we covered a lot of ground, including social media, BYOD, video and WebRTC. All of these things have been trying to find a home within the UC envelope, but vendors can only keep trying for so long, and then you reach a point where something has to change. Either you drop it and move on, somehow keep it going as a loss leader, or go back to the drawing board and keep tweaking until it hits a nerve.

Nobody ever said innovation was easy, and to hear what we think are prime examples of this, you'll want to give this a listen. This week's podcast was moderated by Michael Finneran, and you can download the audio file here. If you think we're off the mark or missing something big, we'd love to hear about it - thanks!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Upcoming Webinar - The Evolution of VoIP

Just a quick shout-out for my next Ziff Davis webinar. VoIP has come a long way, and these days there aren't many reasons to not be using it. There are  lots of SMBs out there still on legacy service, and that's who this webinar is catering to.

If that's YOU, then you'll want to join us on March 4, at 2pm ET. Registration is free, and all the details are here. We've already got a lot of sign-ups, so I  know this will be well attended. I'll have a couple more posts to keep this on your radar as the date approaches.

Friday, January 24, 2014

My New Word for 2014 - Bifurcation

That's right. Splitting in two - taking divergent paths - out of one comes two - that sort of thing.

Of course, I could be talking about anything, but my context here is the world of UC. During our recent UCStrategies podcasts looking back on 2013, then ahead to 2014, bifurcation is theme I talked about. For me, this means I see two distinct ends of the business communications market shaping up. One is just interested in VoIP, and is driven by cost savings. This would typically be the lower end of the SMB space, where the thinking is still pretty telephony-centric and legacy-based. Arguably, these businesses may never become card-carrying UC converts, but it's a pretty big piece of the overall market.

Moving upmarket is the UC-friendly crowd that the UC vendors so dearly covet. Of course, this group consists of both telephony vendors that simply have to reinvent themselves to survive, along with outliers who are Web/IP-based, and are poised to inherit the earth if they play their cards right. Among this cohort, you don't hear any talk about IP PBXs or telephony - their world is Web-centric and screen-centric. Up to about two years ago, the latter meant PC-centric, but with the rise of tablets, the opportunity now is much bigger than that. Not only has the locus of communications shifted away from the desk phone, but it's quickly shifting away from the desktop altogether.

Enough said. My 2 mintues of talk on our podcast made me realize this theme needed to be laid out a bit further. That's what I've done in my latest UCStrategies post, so while I've still got your attention, you should open up this link now and get the rest of the story. Thanks for listening!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014 UC Outlook - Our Latest UCStrategies Podcast

Building on our previous podcast look at 2013, the next step is looking ahead, and that's what we've addressed in our latest UCStrategies podcast.

Crystal balling can be fun, but there sure are a lot of unknowns with UC going into the new year. I'm not sure if this is good news or bad news, but based on what came out from the podcast, there's certainly lots of opportunity for vendors with the right approach.

By that I mean betting on the right trends that make UC a must-have capability. Nobody has really cracked that code yet, but with so much disruption coming from the likes of the cloud, WebRTC, video everywhere and social media, I think the value proposition is going to change.

Aside from this being my view of things, I hope it piques your interest enough to hear what the UCS Experts have to say about 2014. The podcast is available for listening now, and here's the link on our portal.

ITExpo Session #3 - Big Data and the Customer Experience

Whether you believe Big Data will be a Big Nothing or a Big Deal, you'll want to join us as we talk about what this means for the "customer experience". I'm not sure which of these is the bigger buzzword right now, but the question of the day is "what's the connection?" I don't think anyone quite has the answer yet, but that's where the conversation is headed next Thursday at 12:30pm.

TMCnet's ITExpo East, 2014 edition is less than a week away, and if the cold weather has finally gotten to you, it's not too late to make plans for Miami Beach.

Once you're there, I hope you make time for our session, and joining me will be Brian Sadowski from Apriva, and Brian Spraetz from Interactive Intelligence. We're working on adding another speaker, and will pass that on once in place. For more details on the panel, scroll down the Program tab on the show site - we're part of the Customer Interaction track.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ITExpo Session #2 - Transitioning Your Enterprise to UC

As we go from freezing to deep freeze here in Toronto, Miami Beach is looking better by the minute, and it's not too late for you to join us at next week's ITExpo!

If you've been following my posts, you'll know I'll be busy there wearing a few different hats. This post is about the second session I'm moderating, and it should be a must-see for anyone thinking about deploying UC. I write about this topic constantly, and have a pretty good sense of the challenges, so I'll be keen to hear what other have to say.

Joining me will be Dean Manzoori from Masergy, Frederic Dickey from Sangoma, and Khris Kendrick from CounterPath. The 45 minute panel format means the time will fly by, and we'll have no problem sharing real world examples of what works, what doesn't work, and best practices to make your path easier.

Our panel is at 1:30 on Wednesday, and it's part of the Enterprise Solutions Track. For more details, scroll down the Program tab on the show site, and if there's anything in particular you want us to to talk about, drop me a line.

Monday, January 20, 2014

ITExpo Session - Next Generation Contact Centers

This is the next update in a series of posts I'm running about what I'll be up to at next week's ITExpo in Miami Beach. My prior post covered what I'll be doing with the Government of Ontario and their economic trade mission showcasing some leading tech startups.

Now I'll focus on the sessions I'm moderating. My first panel is on Wednesday, from 9:00 - 9:45 am. The title is pretty self-explanatory: "From Call to Contact: Next Generation Customer Service Centers", and it's part of the Customer Interaction Track.

Joining me will be Max Ball from 8x8, and Rick McFarland from Voice4Net. We expect to add another speaker soon, and I'll pass that update along. This is a big topic, so we won't have time to fully re-invent the contact center, but I'm sure you'll come away with a few new ideas about what you could be doing.

For more detail, just go to the Program tab on the show's site, and scroll down to our time.

Also, an FYI, I'll be participating in Editor's Day on Tuesday, so if you're planning to be at the show, I won't be hard to find. If you can't attend, the next best thing is to follow TMC's show blog, as well as their tweets - @TMCnet and @ITEXPO - and even mine - @arnoldjon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

ITExpo Preview #1 - Ontario Pavilion Briefing

TMC's ITExpo East is now less than two weeks away, and it's time to start talking things up. Am sure you're getting regular updates on the keynotes and sub-events, and it looks like they've settled into a good thing with the Miami Beach venue. The size is about right - although it might feel crowded if the event gets much bigger - and nobody is complaining about going to South Beach in late January. We survived the Ice Storm here in Toronto, so the change in scene will be very welcome!

I'll be moderating some sessions and participating in Editor's Day, and posts are coming with more details. Thought I'd start this series off talking up what the government of Ontario is doing with their trade mission to the Expo. They're returning to the show with their Ontario Pavilion, located in booth #815. I've been involved with this initiative at previous Expos, and the idea is to showcase Ontario companies in our space. Like any trade mission, it's an economical way for these companies to get direct exposure to new markets, and a chance for attendees to see what Ontario has to offer.

At present, the delegation consists of eight companies: Advance Software Concepts, Cloud Dynamics, Excelocity, In-Touch Insight Systems, Myplanet Digital, Phybridge, SVK Software, and Telax. They're all doing interesting things, and will be on hand there throughout the show.

Aside from that, the pavilion is hosting a market briefing and meet-and-greet at the booth on Friday, from 10-11am. I'll be providing an informal briefing about market trends and opportunities that these companies are addressing, and a delegate from the Canadian Consulate in Miami will be on hand. So, if you want to see the latest and greatest coming from Ontario, please join us.

I'll also be particpating in a VIP breakfast being hosted by the Ontario government, plus there's a general reception from 2-4pm on Thursday at the booth, which has been well attended in the past. See you there - go Canada!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2013 in Review for UC - UCStrategies Podcast

Last week, we focused on 2013 highlights for our weekly UCStrategies podcast, and we really had to cut things down, as there was so much to talk about. The podcast was moderated by Blair Pleasant, and I added to her thoughts about the focus on the user experience.

There's lots more worth listening to, and the replay has now been posted to the portal. I hope you give it a listen, and next podcast, we'll be looking ahead to what we think UC holds in store for 2014.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Amazon Mayday and Your Contact Center

Amazon Mayday created a lot of buzz recently, and along with many others, I wrote extensively about it. Just because things have died down doesn't mean it's gone away. I think it's fair to say that contact center decision-makers are still assessing what it means to them, so this article should still be timely.

As you may know, I write a monthly column - Rethinking Communications -  for TMCnet, and the posts usually run in their flagship pub, Internet Telephony Magazine. Given the subject matter, this month's writeup is running instead in Customer Magazine. Unlike the near-instant world of online portals, the logistics around print-based publishing mean long lead times. This post was written a while back, and is just hitting the market now.

I think Amazon's Mayday button can impact the contact center on many levels, and if you can get past the novelty of a 15 second response time, and focus on what's really important for customers, the rest really shouldn't be that hard to do.

That's my teaser, and for the rest of the story, here's the link. I hope you find a few new ideas in my article,  and as always, comments and suggestions for new themes are welcome.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New UC Column for me on InformationWeek - First Post Running Now

If you follow me, you know I do a lot of writing, and I've got a new forum for sharing my views on the UC space. I've just started a monthly column with InformationWeek, which is part of the UBM Tech conglomerate. Independent analysts don't get this kind of exposure every day, and it's a manageable commitment given my overall workload.

InformationWeek recently re-launched their online presence, with all the tools you'd expect to create two-way dialog between contributors and readers, so it's pretty dynamic. Their main portal contains many sub-portals with vertical focus, and my column falls under the Infrastructure bucket. Within that, they have a Unified Communications section, and that's where you can find me, along with many other contributors.

My first post just ran this morning, and I wanted to share this with my readers. It's titled "Becoming a Unified Communications Salesman", and you'll just have to read it to get the message. I hope you like it, and comments are most welcome - not just by me, but the folks at InfoWeek as well.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

IT Expo 2014, Miami - Be There?

Happy 2014!

It's about 100 below today in Toronto, and even more than usual, I'm looking forward to the next ITExpo in sunny Miami Beach, starting January 28.

Aside from the frigid weather we're getting now, Toronto just came through an unprecedented ice storm that left over 300,000 people without power. Our house was without power for 9 days, and my business had no connectivity for 8 days. We're back to normal now, but it was pretty disruptive, and it's time to get back to work.

To get the year started - and resume blogging - I'm doing a quick shout-out for the ITExpo, an event I've been actively supporting for many years. The show continues to evolve and is doing a great job keeping up with the latest trends, including WebRTC, cloud, SDN and UC. They've also added some new tracks (co-located events, actually), such as visual collaboration and "SmartVoice". In short, it's great see some cutting edge focus on voice and video - really, the core building blocks for UC - and for the latter, you won't want to miss comms guru Martin Geddes, who's keynoting Tuesday morning. That should be a real treat.

I'll have more updates on the show, as well as details about the four sessions I'm moderating. If you're feeling the weather the way I am, you shouldn't need much prodding to make plans to join us!