Is the ACD Dead Yet?

A lot of contact centers are sitting on legacy switches that are reaching the end of their life and that have pretty much exhausted all the available options for expansion and new features. Those enterprises are staring at a more complicated, uncertain future. Enterprises that want to create a more effective customer experience must plan now for switches that can handle multiple channels and interactions that cross channels. They also expect their next ACD to be highly scalable, ready to handle advanced potential sources (like video or mobility), and well integrated with the rest of their enterprise telephony tools.

Faced with this basket of needs, companies are looking to the next buying cycle as one that’s particularly urgent, because it represents both a risk and an opportunity—a risk in that if you choose the wrong platform you could handicap your operations with subpar access to important emerging cross-channel and multichannel features; and an opportunity because today’s new SIP-based platforms promise a greater degree of customization, flexibility, and scalability.

What enterprises ultimately need in this next go-round is different from the kind of platform that would have sufficed even five to seven years ago. It’s about more than just access to new features—today’s midsized enterprise requires a level of flexibility about usability and expansion that is notably greater than you would see in the traditional ACD or PBX.

To get around some of the legacy limitations, many enterprises are turning to tools built around the SIP standard. SIP promises to make it easier to migrate from one platform to another, to deploy and use more advanced applications, and to accommodate new methods of customer contact, all without having to rely on a central vendor to coordinate the road map.

The ACD is pretty old technology, going as far back as the 1970s in some configurations, when call centers were first formally organized for large-scale projects, like airline reservations centers. The oldest legacy TDM (Time-Division Multiplexing) phone systems out there today rarely go back further than the late 1990s, but even more modern TDM switches are direct descendants of what were expensive, proprietary systems designed for an earlier era. When you think about what these systems were designed to do, you can see how their constraints may not be perfect for today’s era. First, they were voice-only and they delivered voice straight from a carrier network into a single building where a dedicated population of call takers was largely segregated from the rest of a business’s phone usage. The traffic routed through the old ACD was high volume and high criticality, so resilience of the hardware was key. These original machines were a fantastic way to organize and process thousands of incoming calls; without them, there never would have been a mechanism for centralizing service within a single organizing structure.

In the 1990s the scene began to change. Even before the Internet was used widely by the public, many companies—and the vendors that served them—began questioning the value of having two separate networks within their business, one a telecom network and one a data network, each with its own data processing systems and its own set of managers. This was the era when computer telephone integration (CTI) forced people to start questioning the business rationale behind the existing technology infrastructures, with the call center as ground zero in the discussion because it was the place within the business where the two separate networking infrastructures came together.

The transition from TDM to IP, still underway in many firms, had a transitional phase in the form of hybrid switches that would add IP functions to legacy infrastructure, essentially guaranteeing that companies could retain the value of their investments in existing systems. In the early years of the transition, there were external events that created headaches for vendors and buyers alike in trying to discern what the right direction would be. In the run up to Y2K, for example, there were a lot of people concerned with stabilizing the legacy systems and ensuring continuity of operations—and then there was a horrible economic downturn at the turn of the century that held back some continued purchases and investments in what were at the time some pretty rudimentary IP-based features. A major set of upgrades took place for Y2K, so many of the systems were not fully depreciated until recently and major upgrades could not take place.

 The upshot was that by the time we got into the middle of the last decade, there was a bit of pent-up demand for revisiting the switching fabric, and the initial impetus to install IP came from traditional vendors adding to their legacy TDM ACDs. But these were also largely proprietary, even though they did open operations up, allowing them to do more adventurous things, such as manage multiple, informal contact centers from a single location. This virtualization eliminates the need for buying, managing, and maintaining infrastructure at each location, ultimately delivering time and cost savings.

SIP has also been around since the mid-1990s, but really began to be promising as a substrate for call handling in contact centers within the last few years. It’s an open standard, it’s well suited to the routing of multimedia elements other than voice, and it’s very adaptable—you can build applications that take advantage of it and expand upon it, without having to rely on upgrading the underlying switching hardware for every improvement.

So, if you look at the situation right now in the marketplace, you have a great deal of legacy equipment out there that’s underperforming with regard to its ability to handle multimedia and multichannel customer interactions. Much of it has been in place for a very long time because call centers traditionally had to squeeze every drop of life out of their investments, and with several steep recessions during the last buying cycle, lots of buyers declined to shift off their old platforms until forced to by end-of-life, end-of-support, and a certain amount of vendor change in the marketplace.  

The ACD might not be dead, but the traditional standalone TDM switch is effectively on life support.