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AWS is coming for the call center

​Amazon promises to make spinning up a call center faster.

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Monday: AWS answers the call, tech workers head back to the office and, JEDI or not, the Army's moving to the cloud.

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The Big Story

Connect takes off

AWS is quickly becoming a juggernaut in the rush among enterprises to digitize the call center.

After being disappointed by the options available in the marketplace, the company decided to build its own software. That would eventually become Connect, which launched publicly in 2017.

Now, it's one of the fastest-growing services in AWS history, according to Vice President Larry Augustin.

  • "There's years of work, knowledge and understanding behind this. It isn't like we just got into the space overnight," he told Protocol.
  • Sales reportedly grew 150% in 2020 to $175 million; Augustin declined to provide financial figures.

Those numbers still put Connect behind rivals. Five9, 8x8 and Genesys have more mature offerings, while Connect is still at an early stage. But it's easy to see how the company could quickly close that gap.

  • The service can be set up remarkably quickly, requiring only an internet connection and a headset, customers said. Protocol verified this through a demo.
  • That's a big paradigm shift for the industry that others are trying to mimic. In the past, call center software was defined by complex, multi-year contracts and on-premise deployments that could take months. AWS says it can prop up fully cloud-enabled customer service centers in a month or less.
  • Over the first two months of the pandemic, AWS said it onboarded 5,000 new contact centers, ranging from global companies to small businesses.
  • The application allows users to drag and drop modules to create an interactive voice response system, industry jargon for the prompts customers hear once they call in. While that can make set-up easy for tech-forward companies, less digitally-native firms and those with complex use cases could struggle.
  • The backing of the cloud also lets customers scale usage as needed, which can lead to cost savings over legacy vendors which charge upfront for licenses. Intuit, for example, ups its Connect usage during tax season then decreases it during other, less busy parts of the year, per Augustin.
  • And users also have the full spectrum of AWS capabilities to tap into, like Polly, a text-to-speech generator, or Contact Lens, which uses AI to analyze conversations for sentiment and other information. Even contact-center competitors are tapping AWS for its AI capabilities.

Amazon is expanding fast here, but there's room for others. Industry leaders don't expect to compete too directly with AWS.

  • The company is getting traction "mostly at the very high end of the market," Five9 CEO Rowan Trollope said. "If we're both in a deal at the final stages, something has gone wrong. In our market, they tend to get eliminated very quickly."
  • But Connect is also being used by small businesses. One of those is Traeger Pellet Grills. The company was able to replicate its previous setup in Connect in less than two days, per Bryan Teggart, the head of customer experience operations and analytics.
  • "No one believes that it's that easy, that you can just sign up for an AWS account and in an hour and a half be taking phone calls," he told Protocol. "I think they're having a hard time getting customers to realize that."

AWS faces some hurdles. Many large organizations, for example, have invested significantly in their existing call center software over the years to customize it for their specific business needs.

  • "There's often a little bit of skepticism at the start," said Augustin. "Explaining to people that you can build that out in Connect in a much shorter time, sometimes people have to see that to believe it."
  • Gartner also cautioned that Connect "customers looking to deploy highly complex/bespoke use cases" would need to integrate outside applications into the platform, which may drive some companies to other providers.
  • Trollope agreed: "Amazon's feature set is really not there, they need a lot of development to build a whole contact center offer."

Business is booming all around. Many contact-center software companies have equally robust offerings. They just need to move more customers to the cloud.

  • Genesys, for example, is ranked as a "leader" in the industry by Gartner. Bookings for its cloud service rose 130% during the last fiscal year, according to the company.
  • And while AWS touts its AI capabilities, Genesys is also investing in the tech. That, combined with its strong position as a legacy contact center provider, are driving customer adoption, according to Valoir analysts.

Amazon has the tendency to cause mass hysteria when it enters a new market. Some of it is warranted, some of it isn't. (See health care or video games.)

  • But as the world's leading cloud provider, AWS already has inroads with many of the largest businesses, as well as slews of small to medium-sized businesses.
  • And the company isn't as limited as others in how much it can invest.

Over the long term, client relationships will prove crucial. Genesys and Five9 have much longer-standing relationships with customers. And it's an area that organizations are hesitant to overhaul given the vital role the call center plays in connecting with customers. But the attention AWS is putting on growing Connect should worry rivals.

— Joe Williams

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Five Questions For...

Ramin Sayar, president and CEO, Sumo Logic

What was your first tech job?

Fresh off graduating from UC Santa Barbara, I started my first tech job at Netscape. I helped lead product marketing initiatives for Netscape's ecommerce products and also its efforts on the enterprise side. I'm grateful that I was able to be a part of that experience and see what early innovation actually looked like.

What's the best piece of advice you could give to someone starting their first tech job?

I think it's important to be conscientious about not following the path of success all the time. This is important because people may not always be aware of the mistakes that they or others have made along the way. If you're able to truly examine yourself at your own speed, you can see the areas where you can learn, adapt and grow. Additionally, it's important to learn from others' mistakes so find some trusted supporters to help you.

Pick one piece of software you can't live without.

Prior to COVID, I'm sure I would have stated one of the professional networking or personal social networking apps, but now it has to easily be one of the many apps I use for various meat, seafood and other ingredients to help fulfill my culinary needs. I often use Crowd Cow, Water2Table and others to ensure I can help local businesses as well as procure the highest quality of ingredients.

What was the first computer that made you realize the power of computing and connectivity?

Ever since I was able to put together our first computer from a kit and could use basic word programs and experience primitive computer games on floppy disks, I was intrigued by how it worked and the possibilities going forward. However, I think it wasn't until the release and our ownership of the Macintosh computer in middle school that it became really obvious.

Will the pandemic usher in a new era of remote working, or will we all come back together when it is safe to do so?

I think it's very clear that a new era of remote working is already here. I know some folks are anxious to get back to the office — I am one of those — but for others this will be the new reality, so I think it's important to respect the comfort level of your employees and work to create a distributed collaborative environment that supports them no matter where they're working. Additionally, I think this will dramatically change the traditional way that technology products and services are marketed and sold … in fact, it has already.

Around the Enterprise

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