Open Source, Open Clouds, And Bringing Telephony and Unified Communications to the Masses: Fonality (SugarCon Speaker Spotlight)

When it comes to open source at the top of the stack, SugarCRM has proven that disruptive business models can work very well. But, I would argue that there is an area where open source can have as much if not even more of a disruptive effect – in the call center. While proprietary CRM systems are expensive, they are at least within the reach of some businesses. However, traditional call center infrastructure is expensive, unwieldy, and simply a drain on resources. Most small businesses are out of luck when it comes to creating a pocket of dedicated phone support – fully integrated with customer data and systems.

Until recently, that is. Open source, in the form of the Asterisk PBX project, has opened up the promise of on-site call center operations and unified communications for companies of all shapes and sizes. One of the companies leading the charge is Fonality – a firm offering cloud-based telephony tools based on Asterisk.

I had a great exchange with Fornality’s director of products Aron Aicard, who is presenting at SugarCon on the kinds of great cost savings companies can see bringing together open solutions like Sugar and Fonality.

The discussion hits on a lot of points that I wholeheartedly agree with – namely that open solutions like those from Fonality, delivered in the cloud, can enable even the smallest companies to become more customer-centric and create a differentiated experience in the marketplace.

How has the cloud changed how businesses look at telephony and call center operations?

In the old world, if you wanted to purchase a phone system for your business, you had to get critical mass to do so, often as a capital expense due to the expensive nature of legacy, premise-based PBX’s.  Not an easy task.  With the cloud in play, we are rewriting the rules of business communications.  This newfound freedom comes from many contributing elements: tools can now be acquired per person or per department, buyers don’t have to make long term commitments, upgrades are easier and cheaper and maintenance is minimized or removed from the buyer’s responsibility.  In other words, the cloud-based business phone system provides businesses more of what they love and less of what they don’t need.

Is the cloud opening up call center options for smaller businesses who could not have considered operating a call center five or ten years ago?

Absolutely.  Call centers are particularly complicated and costly to support with traditional products.  Cloud solutions level the playing field for small businesses.  For example, a ten person office in the past would have to pay thousands of dollars to get a hobbled phone system and crippled CRM package for their business. This ties up precious capital needed for growth and adds complexity they don’t want or need.  In the new model, the same small business can get a premium phone system, tailored to fit each user individually (CRM, Unified Communications, Mobility) and pay for it as a small monthly operational expense.  The largest volume of users and businesses in the US are under a glass floor created by yesterday’s technology and distribution models.  The cloud based business phone system (I must also give credit to the widespread reach of today’s broadband networks) removes this floor and reaches all users in all businesses.  It’s a profound breakthrough for businesses.

Does the cloud change the face of the call center or support agent?

If we are talking about how agents present themselves and the company to customers, then the answer is yes.  Call center agents are now equipped with better tools thanks to the reach of cloud solutions.  These tools play a key role in helping agents service customers more efficiently and professionally.  Better tools = better agents = better customer service.  For most businesses, there is a close correlation between customer satisfaction and revenue.  The professional impression is a win-win for the customer and the business.

Does “outsourcing” still continue to play as large a role in a cloud-enabled call center universe?

The type of business that would have previously considered outsourcing their call center in the past now has the means to keep their call center in-house thanks to cloud-based telephony. This allows the business to apply their expertise more cohesively.  For example, management values are shared more easily by agents when they interact with customers, and agent experience with customers more easily trickles up to management.  This is lost, as are customers, in the outsourced model.

How do you see CRM and telephony integration changing in the future?

They are natural extensions of each other and they are both better together than apart.  However, integration happens in layers.  In this context, the technology layer is leading the way.  Downstream, I see new opportunities to integrate other layers, such as acquisition (distribution/sales/order process), configuration (provisioning & professional services) and support.  In the future, I see integration across the layers as a way to bring CRM to the masses, through the cloud.