Demystifying PaaS: The Value Proposition

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If your goal is to deliver best-in-class services to consumers from your contact centers, then it’s likely you’ve deployed interactive voice response (IVR) technology to help callers navigate sales, billing, or other questions. You’ve probably written the applications that enable these services, and also own and operate the infrastructure that runs them. 

Assuming you were one of the earlier companies to deploy an IVR, your system is probably reaching its end of life. New beginnings always create opportunities to gain strategic advantages. In this case, you can now consider off-loading the on-premises infrastructure and heavy lifting that comes with maintaining it to a VoiceXML platform-as-a-service (PaaS) provider. You’ll free up many of the dollars you spend now on IT hardware, data center systems management, capacity planning, and technical labor related to initiating, processing, and terminating these calls. That’s money in hand to redirect to building next-generation VoiceXML applications. Moving away from outdated IVR applications built on proprietary technology to ones that conform to the World Wide Web Consortium’s VoiceXML standard opens the door to reducing integration costs for intelligent call routing and to harnessing the power of natural language speech, both of which matter for providing best-in-class customer experiences. 

PaaS also is an equal-opportunity play for companies across sectors, even the financial and health services industries that have operated their IVR environments on premises because of concerns about customer data security. Those concerns can be addressed by choosing a provider that is certified for PCI and SAS70.

You could, of course, try to ride an aging internal IVR system for as long as you can. But that means taking the chance that customers won’t be put off by outdated systems, inefficiencies in proactive responses, agent call routing, and busy tones during call spikes. That last issue can be potentially deadly: Imagine, for example, you’re a cable company and you lack the capacity to seamlessly support incoming call requests for the year’s biggest pay-per-view event. The damage to your revenue could be massive. Even if customers don’t abandon you for a competitor, they might complain about your poor performance on their social networks or take it out on your customer service agents—who might have to mollify them at your expense—when they get through. At the same time, retaining the status quo only grows costs because incoming calls require strong support from live agents.

Do Less So You Can Do More 

In the PaaS world, a company’s data center infrastructure and networking responsibility is limited to maintaining its Web and application server and connectivity to its provider. That’s it. Instead of bearing millions of dollars in capital costs to establish or upgrade an in-house platform that has the capacity to handle peaks in call volume, a company can subscribe to a usage-based model that provides the key telecom, hardware, and software components of the call processing infrastructure, while maintaining complete control over the applications. 

Being able to access capacity as needed and back up sites as required from a PaaS provider can save companies 70 percent of fixed infrastructure costs. Such expenses are never easily sustainable, but they’re even more of a burden during strained economic times. The recession is making it increasingly clear to more companies that they need to spend their scarce funds on doing more with their expertise and less on the mechanics of sustaining and managing resources. 

Just by taking away the server farm infrastructure that used to run your IVR systems, for example, you open the door to cutting energy costs around powering and cooling these platforms. And your IVR infrastructure doesn’t define your company; focus instead on the application and user experience. Computing power, after all, is purely a commodity. So why spend money on labor to manage a commodity?  

And make no mistake: You can incur fixed infrastructure expenses and still not necessarily be spared from the black hole of an outage. When a system is installed on premises, an outage that affects that location and possibly its close-to-home backup site can affect your ability to continue to let customers reach out to you. When you use a solution from a hosting provider, you can get complete redundancy via multiple, geographically dispersed data centers. You also get the freedom of not having to continually monitor IVR uptime in your own network operations center and stay on top of the alarms that could arise. When you move to the cloud, your platform is automatically monitored 24/7 by your provider from a state-of-the-art network operations center.

Stay in Control Where It Counts

When it comes to your industry, no one knows your customers’ requirements and expectations better than you do, which is why you need to leverage that knowledge to create a top-tier customer-supporting voice application and user experience. When you turn to a PaaS provider, you can better focus on your business and stay in control of the customer experience. With less infrastructure to manage, and less IT personnel resources required to manage it, you can pay more attention to honing your application developers’ skill sets—both in creating the VoiceXML end-user software and analyzing its performance. When you can focus on analytics, you unlock possibilities for fine-tuning IVR applications to further improve service and even lower call center operating costs.

The latter is as important as the former for increasing the return on investment from IVR applications. Satisfying customers while reducing the cost of servicing them can go hand in hand as long as companies are able to invest in continually improving these applications. Developers who dig through data about calls can learn, for example, that a significant percentage of customers might be trying to use self-service voice options to resolve a specific problem, but the current implementation requires driving them to an agent for a satisfactory conclusion. Knowing this, they could go back and fine-tune the IVR to speed up a caller’s ability to handle a situation by himself, and at the same time automate the function to bring down call center expenses. The more you can drive down the need for users to interact with live agents, the more you can drive down costs, given that processing a call through an IVR costs just a few pennies compared to the hourly cost of each call center agent.

Companies should expect developer support and platform monitoring to be core components of whichever PaaS provider they use.  For example, having access to Tier 3 VoiceXML engineers and preproduction staging environments, visibility into platform performance, and tools for IVR developers are all important to success. Providers that offer fully managed outsourcing services, including application design and coding in addition to PaaS capabilities, are more likely to have already developed a strong set of real-time monitoring dashboards and call trace tools. So PaaS customers can benefit from those solutions at no additional cost, speeding their time to deployment and lowering the risk of problems occurring in production applications. 

Speaking of speed, when you use a PaaS provider your applications can go live without the hassles of maintaining a separate IVR platform for testing and staging new or upgraded software, and without the struggle of trying to squeeze your particular project onto that environment’s testing schedule.

Further support for VoiceXML platforms also might be available if a provider has a professional services division through which PaaS customers can access other skill sets they require. That might include dialogue design, grammar development, voice recording, and talent services. 

When technical staffers are able to focus on meeting business requirements and creating the applications that deliver business value, they’re more productive for the business. It’s important to have a solid infrastructure on which IVR systems run, but it’s not critical to run this infrastructure yourself. It makes a lot more sense to let experts in data center, capacity planning, and telecom management handle those services for you.

Redirecting IT organizations to be more strategic has long been discussed. Offloading the necessary but mundane maintenance work for IVR platforms to a trusted third-party provider is one way to turn that talk into action. 

Gregg McMullen is a director of product management at West Interactive, where he is responsible for driving the strategies around inbound IVR, platform-as-a-service, and mobility.

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