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Phone calls have been digital for decades; in fact, most enterprise voice systems moved to voice over IP years...
ago. Now, voice is just another form of data, and an industry of unified communications systems has emerged.
Like most software in the cloud era, unified communications (UC) transformed into a SaaS product that runs on cloud infrastructure and that customers purchase by subscription. The UC as a service (UCaaS) market has since evolved into full-fledged, rentable call centers. These cloud-based virtual contact centers (VCCs) can stitch together support agents from a multitude of small branches and home offices.
While the UCaaS market is still young and fragmented, Amazon Connect disrupted it in early 2017. The Amazon VCC service continued the company's push into SaaS business products, along with tools that provide virtual Windows desktops, app streaming, email, file sharing and online meeting technology.
Amazon Connect is a service that enables businesses to create VCCs built on AWS infrastructure that use Amazon's internal support center technology. Organizations use Connect to build scalable, pay-as-you-go systems using a GUI interface on the AWS Management Console to configure basic contact flows. Connect involves more work to set up and operate than a fully managed UC service, but AWS provides the core infrastructure and the benefits of its infrastructure as a service platform. Like UC systems, Connect supports voice and text interactions, and users can make and receive phone calls.
Amazon VCC benefits
Call center software, UC and interactive voice response (IVR) systems are notoriously complicated to configure, customize and manage. Call center platforms are usually standalone environments, so they require extensive capacity planning and are difficult to scale. And scalability is a notable problem, as seasonal customer support demand can vary. With AWS infrastructure as the underlying platform, Connect mitigates -- if not outright eliminates -- these deployment and scaling challenges.
Connect runs each contact center instance in multiple availability zones to further ensure high availability. Although Connect doesn't have a single-click setup and configuration process, it's simpler than traditional alternatives. Create simple contact flows with Connect's graphical Contact Flow Editor, which includes blocks for interaction, integration, control flow, branching and other functions. But more complex flows and service integrations, such as those that involve a Lex chatbot, require a developer. Smaller organizations with little experience specifying IVR trees and contact flows might prefer a fully managed, turnkey service over Connect's building block approach.
Like other VCCs, Connect offers the benefits inherent to a SaaS-based model, including:
- improved service levels, because an organization can focus on the customer experience, not contact center infrastructure;
- improved business continuity, as an inherently redundant and highly scalable cloud platform powers the contact center; and
- improved flexibility, as the service enables employees to work from anywhere around the globe, including home offices.
For many businesses, Connect's usage-based subscription model also saves money because it eliminates the need to overprovision capacity to handle peak call volumes.
Amazon Connect integrates with other Amazon cloud services, which sets it apart from the competition. Some services, like Simple Storage Service (S3) and Identity and Access Management (IAM), are required for deployment, but others can measure, customize, augment and streamline the customer contact experience. An Amazon VCC currently supports these AWS integrations:
- AWS Directory Service for Active Directory uses existing accounts and groups to build a security policy.
- IAM controls access policies and provides credentials for other services.
- S3 can store call logs, recordings and performance reports.
- AWS Lambda executes custom code that runs as part of a contact or IVR process flow to communicate with external databases, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) or knowledge base, and provides notifications.
- The Amazon Lex chatbot framework can build automated, conversational UIs with speech recognition and intent-based natural language parsing.
- Amazon Kinesis ingests data streams, such as contact records and output call metadata, to a data warehouse, like Amazon Redshift, or a data visualization service, like Amazon QuickSight.
- Amazon CloudWatch provides contact center operational metrics, such as total calls per second, rejected and throttled calls, percentage of concurrent calls, failed and missed calls, errors, bad numbers or addresses and busy lines. CloudWatch also collects contact flow errors that can trigger notifications and provide data for key performance indicators.
- AWS Key Management Service provides encryption to protect customer data.
It's also possible to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) services, such as Rekognition and Polly, via Lambda or direct access to AWS APIs, which helps a developer build more intelligence into customer contact workflows. For example, if you want to set up an IVR system that collects customer preferences for new product features, Connect can provision a phone line to receive incoming calls and pass the audio to Lex, which translates customers' speech into text. Lex could then trigger a Lambda function that feeds a database table to accumulate results. But keep in mind that Connect's integration with Lex is in preview testing, and use of other AI services requires custom coding and likely the assistance of a Professional Services AWS specialist.
Amazon Connect can also integrate with Salesforce and Zendesk via prebuilt adapters. To integrate with other CRM systems, developers can use the open source Connect Streams API to embed the Connect Contact Control Panel into a remote application and enable cross-domain access.
Competition, recommendations for Amazon VCC
The market for VCCs, in general, is nascent, fragmented and dominated by smaller, pure-play vendors, like Five9, Genesys, Nice, 8x8 and Serenova. Large voice over IP and call center infrastructure providers, such as Avaya, Cisco and Huawei, are absent from the VCC market, along with carriers like AT&T, BT and Verizon, which already provide UCaaS. Thus, the market is ripe for both consolidation and disruption, leaving plenty of room for Amazon to make inroads.
Amazon VCC remains an immature service, so it might not appeal to large enterprises with vast customer support centers and infrastructure. Instead, its easy deployment and setup are a good fit for smaller businesses and startups that lack a robust contact center or use obsolete, voice-only systems. But the ability to create sophisticated, AI-driven contact flows and detailed customer contact metrics using a variety of AWS back-end analytics services means that larger businesses shouldn't ignore Connect. They should have developers experiment with the platform to investigate automated chatbot features; predictive, intent-based responses; and AWS integrations to existing CRM, ticketing and knowledge base platforms.
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