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Microsoft releases cloud contact center platform

Contact center platform technology buyers have another option: Microsoft assembles a CCaaS from Nuance, Power Platform, Teams and -- for those who need it -- Dynamics 365 tech.

Organizations that need to set up or refresh cloud contact center technology stacks -- especially those on Microsoft Azure -- have another choice in the Microsoft Digital Contact Center Platform, released Tuesday.

The contact center as a service (CCaaS) includes telephony in the form of Teams Phone. It also includes Teams and Dynamics 365 integrations, as well as natural language processing (NLP) features and AI from both Microsoft and Nuance Communications, which Microsoft acquired earlier this year for nearly $20 billion.

The AI tools not only perform voice recognition and NLP, but also look up and suggest relevant content to both live agents and self-service bots during customer engagements. They also can point customers and live agents to relevant and personalized offers; such features cross-pollinate sales automation and marketing automation with customer service.

The Teams integration not only gives users a telephony option but also connects agents to experts in their company who can solve thorny customer problems. For more complex issues, Teams users can form groups of people to work together, called "case swarming." Salesforce Service Cloud with Slack is currently beta testing its own case-swarming features.

Interoperability with competitors a priority

According to Opus Research founder Dan Miller, the Microsoft cloud contact center's most important feature might be under the hood: integration tools with the Microsoft Power Platform. It reflects a philosophy of enabling users to bring applications well established in their organizations -- such as CRM and telephony -- instead of forcing them to buy all Microsoft products.

In fact, Microsoft released the cloud contact center at Inspire, its partner conference. Partners such as Accenture Avanade, Genesys, HCL, Nice, Avaya, Five9 and TTEC were included in the release -- some of which could be considered competitors, or at least partial competitors, to the Microsoft CCaaS.

The Nuance acquisition was another key component of the CCaaS launch, Miller added. Microsoft previously had legacy speech-recognition server technology, but Nuance interactive voice response and Nuance Gatekeeper biometric voice authentication represent more modern technology that will appeal to contact center technology buyers.

Voice biometrics and other authentication technologies are proving to be really important as enterprises try to figure out how to respect people's privacy.
Dan MillerFounder, Opus Research

"Voice biometrics and other authentication technologies are proving to be really important as enterprises try to figure out how to respect people's privacy, how to recognize their identity quickly and how to have a personalized response," Miller said.

Nuance brought sophistication in vertical markets such as financial services and healthcare, said Charles Lamanna, Microsoft corporate vice president of business applications and platform. Its technology can recognize many industry-specific data points such as credit card numbers and prescription names.

Technically, the features and integrations of Microsoft Digital Contact Center could have been assembled by users prior to its release, Lamanna said. But that would have taken much time and developer bandwidth on the part of the customer, and the new bundle makes it much more straightforward and quicker.

One of the factors that could drive the success of the Microsoft Digital Contact Center Platform will be how it is received by customers using Salesforce, the dominant CRM. Salesforce also offers Service Cloud -- an agent desktop that isn't a full CCaaS -- and has partnered tightly with AWS for users to build more complete contact center stacks.

Nuance has many customers who use Salesforce for CRM, as well as Salesforce Service Cloud with AWS's Amazon Connect contact center services, Lamanna said. The majority of contact centers, however, still use on-premises software -- and therein lies the greater opportunity for Microsoft, he added.

"We really don't have a mindset of, 'You must switch everything, all aspects of the contact center platform [over to Microsoft] to be successful,'" Lamanna said. " Allowing and supporting interoperability is the future of enterprise software. The IT market's gotten so big that no customer that will be all on one stack; there'll be a fragmented, heterogeneous IT environment. Making sure things like our Digital Contact Center Platform seamlessly connects to these other offerings is key."

Pricing on Microsoft Digital Contact Center Platform is contingent upon what licenses for which services the user purchases, with discounts applying to customers as they buy more components. Nuance products also will appear on Microsoft's Enterprise Agreement Aug. 1.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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