Why Cloud Architecture Matters for Multi-location Businesses
UCaaS and CCaaS providers need the right platform for creating smart solutions
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Callan Schebella, CEO of Inference Solutions. Inference Solutions started as spinoff from Telstra Research Laboratories in Australia, which is one of the world’s largest carriers. Inference delivers cloud-based IVR and call handling solutions for carriers and service providers.
The company’s flagship product, Inference Studio, is a cloud platform for developing and delivering smarter IVR and call handling solutions in-house. These solutions can range from simple inbound touch tone IVRs to complex pre-routing and outbound automation services, utilizing a full range of self-service technologies including Speech Recognition, Text-to-Speech, PCI Compliant Payments, Call Center Agent Screen-pop, Outbound Dialer, and Voice Biometrics.
In this interview, Callan and I discuss the challenges facing multi-location businesses, what carriers and service providers who serve these businesses should be thinking about and considering when it comes to cloud-based IVR and call handling solutions, and why it’s important to have the right cloud architecture.
Let’s start by talking about multi-location businesses – what they are and what typical communication challenges they face.
Multi-location businesses are, as one would expect, businesses that are based in various locations in one region or throughout the globe. Retail stores are the most common type of multi-location business, but there are many others, such as car dealerships, restaurant franchises, banks, hotels – the list goes on. As businesses grow and expand and open offices or sites in more and more locations, their challenges grow and expand as well. In most cases, these businesses are looking for consistency, and want to operate in a standardized way and serve their customers in a uniform manner, while minimizing costs. This requires implementing the right systems, and having a single source for their communication needs, regardless of location.
There are a few key challenges that come up time and again for multi-location businesses. It doesn’t matter whether you are looking at businesses throughout North America, Europe or Asia, we see the same challenges all the time.
The first relates to the different infrastructure rolled out across the business. It is not unusual in large retailers, for example, to be faced with hundreds or even thousands of different locations. These locations all became part of the business at different times, and as such the infrastructure comes from different eras. It’s very common to see many different PBX vendors, different connectivity models, and different processes. Trying to pull these systems together under a common framework can be very difficult.
The second issue is one of control. If you have thousands of locations each with their own premises-based equipment, how do you manage it all? The cloud really shines in multi-location situations, making management much easier than with premises-based solutions. For businesses with multiple offices and locations, cloud solutions provide a single system that can be easily managed and accessed, while providing the flexibility, scalability, and elasticity that premises-based solutions can’t match.
The migration to cloud telephony gives organizations a great chance at standardizing across the business, but not all clouds are created equal. Some platforms are merely a premises-based product that is managed or hosted by a third-party provider, but isn’t really a cloud solution, and it doesn’t offer the scalability, flexibility, or benefits of the cloud. It can be difficult to find out what’s under the hood.
The third issue we often see also relates to control. In many cases, a business is forced to outsource the management of all the premise-based equipment because they don’t have the skills in-house. After all, for most organizations the phone system is not their core business. Many businesses suffer from the inflexibility, time constraints and cost that stem from outsourcing the support of telephony.
What are some things that multi-location organizations should consider when moving to the cloud?
First, are you buying your solution from a trusted provider? And will that same provider be able to service all your locations with the same quality of service? I have seen a lot of organizations move to the “newest” SaaS platform only to find that the service quality is not sufficient. Over-the-top SaaS platforms rely on the underlying connectivity to each location. Assuming the quality will be acceptable is a very big assumption. Also, centralized control is important, and most providers don’t offer this.
This is one of the reasons that Inference only sells via Carrier and Service Provider channels. These channels have spent decades and billions of dollars to guarantee this quality of service. This is the reason we expect our phone to work every single time you pick up the handset.
Second, make sure the solution you are buying really is cloud scalable. A lot of vendors are simply taking their premises-based equipment, hosting it in a data center and calling it “cloud.” For many organizations the move to the cloud is driven by elasticity, scalability and reliability, which those solutions don’t usually provide. Make sure your provider will deliver on all these requirements and has the platform to do so.
For example, Inference Studio allows carriers and their customers to take advantage of the huge demand for rapid deployment of IVR, speech recognition and text-to-speech technologies using hosted and or SIP/Refer offerings platforms. Using SIP/Refer trunks is an effective way to support Studio during a transition from CPE to the cloud, making it easier for the carriers to migrate their customers without losing any data or calls.
You mentioned centralized control – can you explain that?
In large distributed environments, you often have infrastructure from several different vendors, which can make management a nightmare. A true cloud environment will allow you to manage all sites from a central location. Take the retail environment, where there might be thousands of stores, you can imagine it would be ideal to manage all sites simultaneously. For example, a “spreadsheet upload” can configure thousands of sites simultaneously during a holiday period, product recall or some other scenario. The ability to execute centrally can save a great deal of time and money.
What are the various IVR and call handling architectural options available to multi-location organizations, and what are the pros and cons of each approach?
There are probably four main alternatives:
- Disparate systems, which is what we typically see. With this model, there are different types of infrastructure at different sites, managed independently or perhaps via an outsourcing company.
- Centrally-hosted premise based environments. I call this a “faux cloud” where the equipment is simply pushed to a data center. We see this in some carrier environments, where we often see problems related to scalability, as well as time to provision and change services.
- Public cloud. This is the classic over-the-top architecture where the location relies on the public internet connectivity to deliver the solution. Most of the SaaS vendors fall into this category. As mentioned earlier, there is a very strong reliance on the public internet to ensure quality of service, which can be very challenging.
- True Private cloud. This is where we specialize. We use the existing carrier or service provider to provide dial tone while offering the IVR, self service and transaction processing via the carriers’ core network. This “core-connected” approach ensures the highest quality of service.
What do you mean by “core connected”?
Inference specializes in working with carrier core switches - specifically Broadsoft’s BroadWorks Soft Switch. Being connected at the core offers a variety of advantages. First of all, quality of service. Second, the ability to switch calls within the core itself, and lastly, the ability to use information from the core switch, event feeds, and so on. This allows you to create the type of services previously only available from high-end premises-based ACDs or PBXs.
Do you have any customer examples of multi-location organizations that have moved to the cloud for IVR and call handling?
Yes many. However, as Inference sells only via carriers and service providers, it is really the end customers of these carriers that would be the best examples. Through our carrier partners we cover pretty much every vertical and every size of organization - from government, to retail, to insurance and banking. We support very large enterprises all the way down to SMEs. We have Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 carriers that resell our platform, and different carrier partners take us to market in different ways.
Here are a couple examples.
- A very large toy retailer that experiences huge spikes in calls between October and December uses Inference Studio to make it easy for customers to call in orders and pick them up at the store, taking the burden off of the staff.
- A men’s retailer used Inference Studio to develop and implement a directory dialer enabling staff members in different locations to dial a short code number to reach staff in other locations to find out about merchandise or other issues.
- A sports team uses Inference to create outbound calls (in the voice of a famous announcer) to ticket holders that reminds them to purchase tickets for the next game.
You mentioned that you sell via carriers and service providers – what should they be thinking about in terms of cloud offerings?
The vast majority of carrier cloud offerings are hosted and modified versions of premises-based ACD’s, PBX’s and IVR’s. It’s surprising to see how many service providers have a simple federated model, by that I mean adding a customer means adding a server.
Carriers are in the business of managing infrastructure and scaling it to generate the highest possible oversubscription rate. The problem is that most federated models don’t scale that way. We price our products very differently, allowing the benefits of a true SaaS model with the oversubscription rates usually only possible by owning and operating the hardware.
Carriers should also be looking for true “on-net” solutions. Reselling an over-the-top offering marginalizes the carrier into nothing more than a sales organization, which isn’t a business they want to be in. The benefits of owning and operating a network needs to be part of the solution.
Isn’t IVR a bit dated? Do you just offer IVR, or is there more to it?
We use the term IVR because it is well understood by the industry. In reality, a lot of what we do is not traditional IVR at all. For example, we do personalization through CRM lookups, virtual queuing, advanced routing, and adding intelligence to the carrier core switch. We also do two-way text messaging, dialers, screen-pop and call center agent integration. The concept of a “phone call” is changing quickly, for example we support WebRTC to allow browser-based voice communication.
Inference makes it easy to develop a range of applications beyond IVR, including Virtual Queuing with automate callback; SmartRouter to route inbound calls based on date, day, and time of time; Inbound/Outbound Surveys, Appointment Reminders, and more. It’s definitely NOT just IVR.
What are some typical use cases of multi-location organizations using your SaaS solutions? Are these just for the contact center or for other parts of the organization?
There is an enormous range but some of the common services include Store locators, Zip code routing, and Inbound and outbound surveying.
Other frequently-deployed solutions include Collections, Reminder calls, Order tracking, Advanced auto-attendants, Personalization services, VIP detection and routing, fraud prevention, and staff back-office functions. Also, localized Caller ID allows a company to market in a local and shows a local number for higher outbound connection rates.
Inference is not just for Contact Center environments - anyone will high call volumes that would benefit from some treatment to enhance customer service can get value from our solutions. For example, a customer with no contact center gets calls distributed to its stores nationwide based on Zip code location. If no one answers a department phone, Inference IVR creates a bridge to the overhead paging system, uses Text to Speech to announce a call is waiting for a certain department, and parks the call.
To best serve their multi-location customers, carriers and service providers using old IVR platforms with thousands of ports that are coming to end of life need to move to new cloud solutions that offer scalability, elasticity, and reliability. There are many types of cloud solutions out there – including “faux clouds” that don’t provide the true benefits that are needed in today’s competitive environment. Architecture matters, so whether you’re a carrier, service provider, or multi-location business, be sure to find the best architecture to meet your needs, and the right platform that can be used to create the best IVR applications and call handling capabilities to result in the business outcomes desired.
Those attending Enterprise Connect can book a meeting with Inference Solutions to discuss IVR or complex call handling needs.