I recently had the opportunity to ask Jeff Wellemeyer, chairman and CTO of Smoothstone, about the most recent call center solutions and the path Smoothstone is taking to create greater customer satisfaction.
Smoothstone is an IP communications provider that designs, integrates and services specifically tailored solutions including VoIP for medium-sized enterprises. The company’s IP communications platform provides next generation, centrally managed and enterprise strength solutions over a private nationwide network.
Please outline your new corporate initiatives.
Smoothstone continues to add new clients and to introduce new services. The most recent initiative is the introduction of our new Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control (ICC) platform. This completely integrated solution changes the face of ACD technology by providing advanced features previously available in only the most sophisticated systems. ICC’s unmatched flexibility — combined with its centralized delivery model — creates a unique, highly survivable, infinitely scalable and enterprise class call center solution. As a network-delivered service, ICC is now available to any organization, regardless of its size. Because ICC does not require customers to purchase equipment, it is priced according to our client’s organization size and can be customized to fit each organization’s individual needs. ICC can interface with customer IP phone handsets or a Cisco CallManager on a client’s premises.
How is IP communications changing your company’s strategy?
Providing completely managed IP Communication solutions to mid-sized enterprises is all Smoothstone does and all we have ever done since our founding in 2000. Included in our offerings is a completely managed and fully hosted call director/queuing/monitoring/recording platform — dubbed Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control — that brings sophisticated and powerful call center functionality to mid-sized enterprises that previously didn’t have access to such powerful tools and applications. This has proven to be a very good strategy for us, as our revenues have doubled every year and over 99 percent of the clients we have ever had are still Smoothstone clients.
How has SIP changed communications?
SIP has been a major enabler of IP communications. However, for SmoothstoneCOMPLETE — our fully hosted, completely managed solution — we use SCCP. SCCP is a proprietary terminal control protocol originally developed by Selsius Corporation. It is now owned and defined by Cisco. Smoothstone uses it as a messaging set between our private, nationwide network and Cisco 7900 series IP phones. We also have private label IPBlue soft phones that use SCCP for signaling. Conversely, for our SmoothstoneCONNECT product, which provides IP trunking of voice services to on premise IP and TDM PBX-based systems, we use SIP as the signaling protocol.
What is the biggest request coming from your customer base?
The demand from our clients for Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control has been tremendous. However, while our clients appreciate the business transforming value of this new functionality their biggest request, and conversely the area on which we focus most intently, is the service behind all of our solutions. Bottom line, they want their communication solutions to work flawlessly, every time. When they have an issue, they want the attention of a live person that will resolve the issue satisfactorily and quickly. At the heart of the relationship between Smoothstone and its clients is one simple word: trust. Because we become the single source for all of our clients’ communications needs (equipment, carrier services, tools, applications, professional advice), they must believe that they have placed these business “mission critical” needs in hands they can trust.
How are you answering their demands?
We do so every day, through our relentless and never ending 24/7/365 focus on client service. Our network operations center is continuously staffed with Cisco certified engineers who personally answer incoming calls from clients. They then either solve the issues during the initial calls themselves or escalate them to the proper Smoothstone resource so they can solve the issue. We also have ACD customization consultants on staff that help our clients configure and then continuously optimize their organization’s call flows, using Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control.
What do you think the future of the market is?
We see three trends colliding: The continued rise of outsourcing non-strategic business functions; the convergence of all communications onto one IP-based network; and the shift to software delivered as a service including call center functionality that was previously only on client premises. We have named the combination of these three trends “Converged Communications as a Service” (CCaaS). In a nutshell, we see all communication services and communication management applications eventually being as services over the network to various endpoint devices but without any other infrastructure on a client’s premises. We see the services themselves all delivered over the network. This means the communication services, tools and applications delivery markets will consolidate to three types of players: network providers; endpoint manufacturers; and companies that provide services, tools and applications over the network to the endpoint devices.
How does the growth rate in the U.S. compare to the rest of the world?
We see the adoption of IP communications, particularly hosted IP communications, happening faster in the U.S. than in the rest of the world, but the rest of the world isn’t far behind. The adoption of Converged Communications as a Service is just now emerging as the dominant delivery model in the U.S. but it will soon spread around the globe.
What do you think of Google and Apple entering the telecom market?
Apple has entered as a supplier of mobile endpoint devices. Apple’s innovativeness will be good for that market because it will drive other competitors to be more innovative and thus improve endpoint devices overall. Google’s current aspirations in the telecom market aren’t yet clear, although they have the potential to introduce some interesting new services and applications, perhaps not in the call center space directly but certainly in support of it. However, we don’t see them competing directly in Smoothstone’s space (at least for now), which is enterprise class IP communications over a nationwide, private, IP over MPLS network.
How about Microsoft?
Microsoft could be a formal competitor in the “software that drives IP communications” market, just as they came to dominate much of the “software that drives e-mail” market.” This could very well include call center control and management software. We are watching them closely, so that we can incorporate their innovations into the delivery of Smoothstone’s services if it makes sense for us to do so. The coming clash between Microsoft and Cisco in the “software that drives IP communications” market should be very interesting. And, like Apple’s entry into the mobile endpoint device market, this competition will increase innovation throughout the market and be good for the market overall.
How will wireless technologies change our market?
Wireless networks and wireless endpoint devices are becoming increasingly important components of the overall network and variety of endpoint devices over which Smoothstone must deliver its services. That said, for QoS and ease of complete, end-to-end management reasons, we see wired networks and endpoint devices remaining important platforms for our services for the foreseeable future.
How will communications evolve over the next five years?
The three trends we identified (outsourcing, convergence, SaaS) will continue to exert more and more influence on the enterprise class communications market and on the call center management market within this overall market. We see Converged Communications as a Service (CCaaS) continuing to grow as the preferred alternative to traditional, on premise hardware and software-based communications and call center control systems, in much the same way SaaS is transforming the software industry.
What sorts of things will we be hearing about during your presentation at ITEXPO?
Simply put, outsourcing, convergence and SaaS have come to the communications industry and, as a result, the industry is beginning to go through a major transformation and will never be as it was. During our presentation, the audience will hear: Smoothstone’s rational for this conclusion, how we see these trends shaping the industry, and “how it works” technically to come away with a good understanding of the opportunities and challenges presented by SaaS, as well as by convergence and outsourcing. Our presentation will include how outsourcing/convergence/SaaS will transform the call center control systems market within the overall business communications services market.
Why is your presentation a “Can’t Miss?”
Smoothstone is literally the only provider of completely managed IP communications to the mid-sized enterprise. We are taking the CCaaS business model to clients who are much larger and who have much more sophisticated communications needs than any of the other, so-called “hosted IP communications” providers in the market today. With the introduction of Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control, we have made large enterprise class, sophisticated call center control functionality available to the mid-sized enterprise, including many for whom this level and type of functionality was previously out of reach, for either internal expertise or financial reasons.
What do you want the industry to know about your company?
We simply want the industry to know about our company, our unique CCaaS-based delivery of completely managed IP communication solutions, and Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control.
Please make one surprising prediction we will see in 5 years.
Many “hosted” IP PBX providers are predicting that the on premise IP PBX is dead. We agree and, in fact, we’ve been predicting this longer than anyone else! However, we also predict that the same thing is going to happen to on premise hardware and software that delivers call center functionality — it is, or will soon be, DEAD – replaced by network delivered call center functionality, like Smoothstone Intelligent Call Control.