Selecting contact center software is kind of like choosing a house to buy - you want to get it right because it's a big investment and you know you'll have to live with the decision for a while. Just like you don't want to move into your new house and be unpleasantly surprised, you don't want to implement your new software only to find it has some significant shortcomings. To land your dream home, you need to know exactly what features you want and keep looking until you find it. The same is true when searching for the best cloud contact center software for your organization.
Contact center software features to look for
Contact center software is an integrated platform of applications that automate core functions, such as routing and handling customer contacts; forecasting volume; reporting on key metrics; and scheduling, developing, and motivating customer service agents. The best cloud contact center software allows contact centers to achieve customer experience (CX) goals while also closely managing labor costs.
The following are some of the major components of modern contact center software suites and features to look for in each.
Automatic contact distributor (ACD)
The automatic contact distributor's primary role is to route incoming voice and digital (chat, email, social) interactions. That might sound like a straightforward task, but it can actually be quite complex. ACDs can be programmed to route according to a series of user-defined rules, which can include considering the number dialed, information collected during the upfront menu, agent skills and availability, and much more.
What to look for: The best cloud contact center software has ACDs that perform omnichannel routing using a universal queue to holistically route contacts from all supported channels. Additionally, contact centers should look for ACDs that integrate easily (for example, with customer relationship management (CRM) systems) and have intuitive design studios for easy rule and workflow configurations.
Interactive voice response (IVR)
IVRs greet callers, allow them to interact with menus, and can facilitate self-service. IVRs can gather information from customers, like account numbers, to pass to the agent who assists them in order to jumpstart the interaction. Additionally, the information collected by the IVR can be passed to the ACD for smarter routing.
What to look for: IVRs with natural speech recognition (NSR), which enables your customers to verbalize what they want. This may allow them to bypass the structured menu altogether. Additionally, IVRs with "call back" capabilities can improve the customer experience by providing callers with a choice to receive a call from an agent rather than sitting in a long queue. And, like ACDs, IVRs should be easy to integrate with other systems and end users should be able to easily configure rules and menus.
Workforce management (WFM) software
Workforce management software automates managerial tasks such as volume forecasting, agent scheduling, and making intraday adjustments. It's important to be able to perform these tasks accurately because both customer satisfaction and the budget are at stake. Not only does WFM software add more accuracy to these processes, it also makes them exponentially quicker than manual processes, which decreases labor time and increases flexibility.
What to look for: The best cloud contact center software includes WFM tools with omnichannel forecasting and scheduling capabilities. This means they can holistically forecast volume for all channels and schedule multi-skilled agents to meet the demand. Also, look for tools that let you run what-if scenarios and that use artificial intelligence (AI) for smarter forecasting.
Quality management software provides consistency and ease of use to the processes of monitoring and evaluating interactions. These tools typically include features for making customized scorecards, recording results of quality evaluations, and reporting individual and team results. A quality management software may also include call recording tools and interaction analytics solutions.
What to look for: QM software that simplifies the coaching process through automated workflows and that engage agents by letting them dispute evaluations. QM solutions should record agent screens in addition to the audio of the call for a more comprehensive view of each interaction. And the best cloud contact center software includes interaction analytics that use AI to screen and report on 100% of contacts.
Reporting and analytics
Contact centers are so rich with data that they require robust reporting and analytics tools. Good solutions transform data into information that helps leaders understand performance, identify trends, and make data-driven decisions.
What to look for: The best cloud contact center software includes reporting tools with a plethora of out-of-the-box reports that reflect industry reporting best practices. In addition, they provide end users with the ability to configure their own dashboards so they can monitor what's important to them. These reports and dashboards need to include data from all channels so users get a consolidated view of performance. And data needs to be easily shared with other systems and reporting tools.
Why the cloud?
An important characteristic of the best cloud contact center software we haven't discussed yet is the cloud functionality itself. Contact centers searching for new software need to make a decision early in the selection process whether to host the software themselves "on-premises" or go with a cloud-based solution hosted by a third party vendor. Cloud-based software continues to gain popularity among contact centers, with many of them earmarking funds for near-term cloud migrations. In fact, the 2019 NICE inContact Customer Experience (CX) Transformation Benchmark reports that more than half of the businesses surveyed were planning to move part or all of their contact center technology to the cloud in the coming year.
These organizations recognize that cloud-based solutions can yield several benefits, including:
- Cost flexibility - pricing for cloud contact center software is typically based on how many seats are in use. This means that as staffing fluctuates, so does the cost. Paying only for what you actually use is ideal for all businesses, but especially those with wide seasonal fluctuations that require them to add temporary agent headcount. Compare this to on-premises solutions in which businesses typically must purchase licenses for their peak number of agents.
- Ease the IT burden - when you use the best cloud contact center software, your vendor essentially becomes part of your IT team and offloads some platform management from your internal technical staff. This includes tasks like maintaining servers, applying software updates, and fighting off hackers. Newly unburdened IT resources can spend more time innovating and less time responding to moves, adds, changes, and other monotonous tasks.
- Quicker responses to changing conditions - when you use a cloud contact center platform, adding new components from the software suite is usually very straightforward. Your initial implementation might include only phone support, but when customers demand chat service, that capability should be easy to add. Similarly, if the licenses for your legacy call recording software are expiring soon, you should be able to seamlessly switch to your cloud-based provider's solution.
Eight easy steps to select the best cloud contact center software
Software selection can be one of the most critical elements of your business’ digital transformation efforts. Below is a discussion of the steps in the process, including tips to help you get the most out of your software search.
Step 1 - Determine your goals and needs.
Successful searches start with identifying your organization's business goals and what, specifically, you need the software to do in order to support these goals (also known as business and technical requirements). This becomes the foundation for the effort, and you should find yourself referring back to your documented goals and requirements frequently throughout the selection process. If this step isn't done correctly or thoroughly, the whole effort can be put in jeopardy. Just like you wouldn't build a house on a shaky foundation, you shouldn't base software choices on shaky business goals and requirements. Here's more information about both areas.
Are you counting on your new software to help solve a problem? Add new capabilities? Support corporate CX objectives? Some organizations count on their chosen contact center software to reduce costs through better pricing arrangements or more effective management of agent labor costs. Others might be answering consumer demands for digital channel support. Whatever the goals, they need to be documented and widely communicated.
Business and technical requirements
Requirements need to be detailed and thorough. Documented requirements are a key component of RFPs and you'll use them to evaluate the software candidates. They communicate to vendors what you need and expect and sometimes they even become part of the contract. Here are some tips for identifying and documenting requirements:
- Tip 1 - Start with what your current system does, but don't limit yourself to that. This is your chance to acquire new capabilities!
- Tip 2 - Group similar requirements together. Categories might include Routing, Scheduling, Reports, and Integrations.
- Tip 3 - Map your requirements back to your business goals to ensure they're in sync. Identify any gaps and add requirements accordingly.
- Tip 4 - Assign each requirement a level of importance ranging from "Nice to have" to "Deal breaker." Chances are that most software packages won't be able to meet 100% of the requirements. For evaluation purposes, you need to identify what you can and cannot compromise on.
- Tip 5 - Don't forget to include requirements not related to functionality, like average and peak number of users, average and peak volume by channel, required integrations, number of locations, and more. Information like this will help vendors size the project and will result in more accurate bids.
- Tip 6 - Talk to end users when identifying requirements. You might be surprised by what agents, quality analysts, and schedulers love or hate about the current systems. They're bound to have good ideas about what the new software should do, plus including their input will help with user acceptance during implementation.
- Tip 7 - Broaden your horizons by doing research. If you've only ever worked with your organization's current software, you may not know what the best cloud contact center software has to offer. Find out who the leading vendors are and check out their online demos and data sheets. You might discover some new features that would solve one of your big contact center pain points. Add that to your requirements.
Step 2 - Complete a high-level business case
A business case serves multiple purposes, including developing a budget for your software project and gaining executive buy-in. It should include both tangible benefits and estimated costs. Benefits might include cost avoidance (ex, money you would save by not having to support on-premises software), revenue associated with providing better CX (ex, higher share of wallet), cost savings due to providing better agent experience (ex, lower attrition rates), and more. You might be able to find benchmarks to help you with these calculations, but for some of them you'll just need to develop reasonable estimates.
For costs, you'll likely need to contact some vendors to get high level estimates. If the scope of your software selection is very narrow, for example you're just looking for call recording software, some vendors may provide qualified verbal estimates. For searches that are broader in scope, consider issuing a request for information (RFI) that includes your freshly documented requirements. Many vendors will provide an estimate based on the information you provide. You'll need to update the business case once you're farther along in the process when pricing becomes more solid.
Tip: If you're on the fence about cloud vs on-premises, do a business case for both scenarios. This exercise should help you make the decision.
Step 3 - Identify possible vendors
You may have identified a few vendors during the preceding steps. Keep them on the list if you like what you found on their website and they were responsive to your requests for price estimates. But now it's time to scour the universe for more possible solutions. An internet search is an obvious place to start, but be careful of relying on "top 10" lists from businesses you aren't familiar with. Instead, consider using evaluations from impartial industry experts like Gartner, which regularly publishes "Magic Quadrant" assessments of industry leading cloud contact center software products. Additionally, if you belong to trade organizations like QATC, tap into their member network for software recommendations.
And, chances are good that you'll find yourself on many vendors' websites. Here are some tips about what to look for:
- Tip 1 - Information about product capabilities and features. Vendor websites normally list the software modules they offer (ACD, IVR, WFM, etc.) and describe the capabilities of each. This will help you do some high-level screening against your requirements and you might be able to eliminate some vendors that don't offer the modules or capabilities you need.
- Tip 2 - Product demos. Watch some of the product demos in order to do some further screening.
- Tip 3 - Client case studies. Case studies are really helpful because they provide practical, real-life examples of how other companies use the software and the benefits they have realized. Look for case studies about clients similar in size or in the same industry as you. Also look for clients who were trying to solve similar problems or achieve similar business goals.
- Tip 4 - Thought leadership. Does the vendor publish white papers and regularly host webinars? Does their blog contain current, insightful content. Thought leadership is a good indication of a vendor's commitment to the industry and may mean their products reflect best practices and use the most current technology.
Step 4 - Issue a request for proposal (RFP)
Now that you have your requirements and have identified potential vendors, it's time to issue an RFP. Your detailed requirements and business objectives will be at the heart of your RFP. They tell vendors exactly what you need and what you're hoping to accomplish. Below is an outline you can use for your RFP:
- Company background - including an overview of the contact center
- Current situation - including current software
- Project goals
- Project scope
- Project timeline
- Requirements - business and technical; have vendors respond, line-by-line, whether or not their software can meet each requirement
- Instructions for proposals - including format and due date
- Evaluation criteria
- Instructions for submitting questions
- Contact information
Tip - to increase the likelihood of getting responses, don't send the RFP out "cold." Establish contacts at each vendor beforehand.
Step 5 - Evaluate proposals and narrow the vendor list
Once the proposals begin pouring in, the fun begins! You will see a wide variety of prices, level of detail, and responses to your requirements. It's a lot of information to synthesize, so you need to develop a method that allows you to evaluate vendors against each other. For example, you could design a summary sheet that includes a score for how many of your requirements each vendor can meet, their pricing, a call-out for other notable information, etc. The format and information on the tool is for you to decide, but it ultimately needs to facilitate the identification of your top 3-4 vendors.
Once you've narrowed it down, contact the shortlisted vendors to schedule demonstrations and notify the others that they have been eliminated from the process.
Tip - Now that you have firmer pricing, you can update your business case.
Step 6 - Demonstrations
This is a fun and enlightening part of selecting the best cloud contact center software because you finally get to see the solutions in action. Vendors will have a standard demonstration they provide to prospects. Allow time on the agenda to view that, but also provide them with demo scripts for some of your typical workflows so you can see how the system handles them. For example, one of your scripts might be:
- Agent Mary is skilled in phone, chat, email, and sales (view what that looks like in the system)
- She receives training in service and now that skill needs to be added (view the addition of a skill)
- She handles a service-related chat (view the agent desktop to see what Mary sees)
- At the end of the chat, the customer is presented with a satisfaction survey (view what the customer sees)
- Mary can see the survey results on her personal dashboard (view Mary's dashboard)
Your scripts, of course, will relate closely with your requirements and the software modules that are within scope. If you're just looking for WFM software, the above script wouldn't work at all. Keep the number of scripts to 5-7 and you should consider scripting a combination of your most common flows, your most painful flows, and your most unique scenarios. And be realistic about the scenarios the vendors can set up for you. For example, you shouldn't expect them to load 100 specific agents into the scheduling tool.
Have 5-8 cross-functional team members view the demonstrations and provide them with an evaluation sheet to complete during the demos. A pre-demo training session about how to evaluate would also be in order to ensure you get consistent results.
Step 7 - Contact references
Ask your short-listed vendors for three relevant references that you can contact. Ideally, these would be organizations that implemented the software modules you're considering, would be of a similar size, and maybe even in the same industry. The deck is a little stacked - these will be organizations that are satisfied with the vendor and the software - but that doesn't mean they aren't worth speaking to. They can give you valuable insights into topics like the implementation process and access to vendor resources. Here are some sample questions to ask:
- Question 1 - Why did you decide to get new software? What goals did you set and were those goals met?
- Question 2 - Have you ever felt like you are competing with this vendor's other clients for attention and resources? If so, please elaborate.
- Question 3 - Has there been any measurable change in customer or agent satisfaction since implementing the software? If so, please elaborate.
- Question 4 - Is there anything, good or bad, that has surprised you about this software or vendor? If so, please elaborate.
- Question 5 - What was the implementation process like? For example, was it on time and budget? Did you feel well supported? Was communication adequate?
Tip - Provide your questions to the references in advance of the calls so they have time to prepare their responses.
Step 8 - Select the finalist
Now it's time to make sense of everything you've seen and heard. There may be a clear frontrunner, or all three could be neck and neck. If it's the latter, you'll need to approach the decision objectively to ensure you end up with the best cloud contact center software for your organization. One approach is to create a weighted scorecard that includes all the factors you've already assessed - requirements fit, price, demo performance, and reference checks. This will help ensure you're making a defensible, fact-based decision that will identify the best software and vendor for the job.
Using a rigorous software selection process is effort that will pay off. To ensure you make a decision you can live with for many years, start by identifying what you want to accomplish and what you need the software to do to get you to your end state. Having this solid foundation will help ensure overall project success.