Published: 01/12/2016
Author: Sandra Gittlen, TechTarget

Originally published in TechTarget on December 1, 2016

Previously, when customers called Cartelligent — a car buying and leasing service — sales agents had to take notes about buyer preferences and call activity and then manually add that information to their customer relationship management system after the fact, if they remembered.

Jessica Carstens, marketing and operations manager at the company, based in Sausalito, Calif., says the manual nature of the workflow left room to miss major sales opportunities and also made it difficult for managers to spot potential issues early in the sales cycle. So when she learned Cartelligent’s communications provider, 8×8, had integrated its unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) platform­­ with CRM provider Salesforce, she signed on as an early adopter.

8×8 is not alone in integrating its UC services with business-critical software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications. Cisco, IBM, Masergy, Microsoft, RingCentral and others have all rolled out SaaS integrations, linking their UCaaS offerings to cloud-based CRM and enterprise resource planning systems.

By integrating its UCaaS platform with Salesforce, Cartelligent automated much of the sales team’s workflow. When a sales agent’s 8×8 desktop phone rings with a call from an existing customer, the 8×8 Virtual Office platform recognizes the number and automatically brings up the relevant Salesforce record on the agent’s computer for easy reference. Thanks to the integration, the company’s nearly 30 salespeople are now able to readily keep more detailed records and provide better customer service. It also enables call logging, tracking and reporting for manager oversight and agent training.

“Our representatives can greet the customer and immediately know what kind of car he or she is looking for,” Carstens says. “And if sales managers want to know if a lead has been called, all they have to do is look in Salesforce, which will show the call lasted for this amount of time and what was discussed.”

Analytics, AI will boost SaaS integrations

Carstens, who manages the 8×8/Salesforce deployment, as Cartelligent has no dedicated in-house IT staff, says she anticipates even more benefits with the next generation of the integration, which will feature real-time analytics that could prove invaluable. For instance, knowing on average how many times sales agents have contact with customers before converting leads to sales would offer a significant competitive advantage, as would being able to compare the outcomes of leads from web searches versus other channels.

While companies with smaller workforces are early pioneers for these types of SaaS integrations, Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research, says he expects the market to expand significantly within the next few years.“Companies want to keep up with the pace of change, including taking advantage of artificial intelligence across applications. They aren’t going to be able to do that if they are stuck in on-premises applications with slow update cycles,” he says, pointing also to the costs associated with maintaining data centers and application updates.Inhi Cho Suh, general manager of IBM’s Collaboration Solutions group, says businesses will come to expect analytics and AI in applications and communications services.

“They are going to want cognitive systems that learn, reason and interact across cloud-based applications,” she says.

IBM has partnered with Cisco to inject real-time analytics into everyday tasks such as email and conferencing. For instance, using IBM’s cognitive learning system Watson, its email application could read the body of a message, analyze it to understand that a colleague wants to have a meeting with a certain group and then offer to set up a video conference in Cisco Spark with the members of that group — without the user having to switch between windows or applications.

“The technology offers the ability to read, summarize and prioritize content, and create an action for the user,” Suh says.

She sees infinite real-world potential for the intelligence cultivated between UCaaS and business-critical SaaS. For instance, a car service could use data about preferred customers’ locations, typical passenger load requests and time-of-day order trends to automatically position appropriate vehicles nearby for faster service.

Integrating analytics SaaS to SaaS does have its challenges though.

“SaaS has to be abstracted and written in a resilient way,” Suh says. At some point, a network, a firewall or a router will go down, “so the application has to be resilient across multiple active data centers and the quality to the user, seamless.”

She recommends businesses consider the advantages of applications built with open APIs so they can add and subtract to their pools of SaaS integrations as needed. “We know the client might choose one provider right now, but might want to choose another later. Therefore, the interface has to be designed in a thoughtful manner,” she says.

Greg Collins, founder and principal analyst at Exact Ventures in Burlingame, Calif., agrees that open APIs will be critical so that businesses can choose their own combinations of services. “A lot of times, UC applications can be walled gardens. But as vendors realize that customers want them opened up, they will [open them].”

Businesses, he says, should walk through the feature sets important to workflow to make sure they map properly and that integration doesn’t cause issues. “Have beta testers in the organization try the combination in different environments. You need to make sure that the features retain your desired quality of service,” he says.

UCaaS-to-SaaS integration … as a service

Because SaaS integrations could prove more complicated in larger organizations, Lazar says he expects midsize-to-large companies to support hybrid models in the near term. Complex voice services would remain on-premises or on a virtual server, with ancillary services such as messaging and conferencing overlaid in the cloud.

Before such organizations make the full leap to the cloud, they will need to know who is responsible if something fails.

“If I kick off a call from Salesforce and it doesn’t go through, who is responsible?” Lazar says. He believes third parties will prove critical to wrapping managed services around these UCaaS-to-SaaS integrations.

“Organizations won’t buy integrated UCaaS/CRM directly from vendors like Cisco and Salesforce. They’ll instead get the integration as a fully managed service,” he says.

That option might also interest early adopters like Cartelligent. Carstens says she has run into some issues with having two major applications so dependent on each other and the cloud.

“When a service goes down, like during a power outage or routine maintenance, it can be challenging. If it’s Salesforce, [sales agents] can connect with clients over Gmail, and if it’s 8×8, they can use their cellphones,” she says. “That’s just part of working with cloud-based services.”