In the clearest sign to date about the blurry line between a communications service provider and a customer service software firm, Cisco today announced a sweeping reform of its Unified Contact Center Enterprise (UCCE) product.  

The company, better known for its network switches and routers, is repositioning UCCE from a call center management service to a customer relationship management platform. 

Beginning in June, Cisco will offer what it plans to call a Context Service.  It’s a cloud-based platform for enterprises to share sales-related data.

A Familiar Journey

Cisco Context Service cloud.jpg

That platform will be complete with “customer journeys,” shared contact databases among Cisco’s clients and even a fuzzy blue cloud logo. All that’s missing from the picture is Marc Benioff.

“This is mainly about delivering that omnichannel experience that folks talk about today, much more seamlessly than what is in the market today,” said Ross Daniels, Cisco’s senior director of marketing, in an interview with CMSWire.

The omnichannel marketing or retailing concept, as you’ve seen covered here in CMSWire, centers around reaching customers through all their many different contact points, continually and simultaneously.

Recently, contact center software has been adapting to this model by enabling customers to reach out to retailers through any or all of these channels, initiating the contacts themselves.

There comes a point where customer outreach software and customer contact center becomes essentially the same thing, in two different directions. Salesforce came to that conclusion four years ago, and as is Salesforce’s usual pattern, trumpeted that discovery loudly and proudly.

Meanwhile, being in the networking business, Cisco over the years has pitched the idea of two-way contact with customers in the context of networking — as a kind of administrative task managed by what appear to be retooled Bell System switch operators. That message shifts today to something that looks a lot more customer-centric.

Several Million Familiar Journeys

While even the color scheme for Cisco’s announcement appears inspired by a visit to a Dreamforce conference, the language behind the message still retains some familiar Cisco hallmarks.

“Going forward, we see sensor-enabled devices or appliances in the Internet of Everything finding their way into the contact center in some way,” Cisco’s Daniels told us. “What that has created is a multi-channel environment. What we think has been missing is the ability to tie those channels together with context about a particular customer.”

Daniels described a kind of contextual network, linking to customers not only through their communications devices but through the sensors in their appliances as well.

This way, when a sensor-endowed appliance breaks down, it’s the sensor that contacts the manufacturer’s call center, allowing the customer to avoid the negative experience of calling to register a complaint. Daniels explained:

That’s what we view as context. For each of those touchpoints, we write what we call a ‘piece of data’ (POD).

 When you take all of those PODs together, you create business context about the issue that I’m having, and about me as a customer.

The trick is tying those things together, and delivering that to the customer service agent so that they can recognize that the call they’re getting isn’t an isolated call; it’s actually at the end of a series of interactions with the company — over the web, on chat, in social media, culminating in what ended up being a phone call.”

Cisco calls these components PODs for more reasons than just this. Daniels told us his company indeed plans to open up access to PODs to partner companies, for use in research and analytics, by way of APIs.

Unfamiliar Territory

It is not exactly a “customer journey” the way Salesforce perceives it. It's more like a sequence of steps that can be mapped to a flowchart using developer tools, binding points of contact to pages that pop up in a mobile app or through a web site.

In fact, when we posed the question to Daniels about whether Cisco would make journey mapping tools available, we had to explain this concept in some detail before he could respond with a no.

Rather, Cisco is placing a bet on the idea that the journey maps itself, if we define the probable locations of those touchpoints along the journey as the actual products in question — the “everything” in Cisco’s “Internet of Everything” model (cue the Barry White music).

From the standpoint of network partners, Daniels explained, each of those touchpoints will be an interface, and Cisco will make available to those partners the precise specifications for those interfaces, just as it would for any other network component.

Conceivably, Daniels believes, marketing automation software such as Marketo could be put to use to derive customer interaction patterns from the POD data produced by touchpoints.

According to Cisco, this week select network partners will be demonstrating the use of the company’s new Context Service APIs in developing custom applications, at the Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando.