We knew something was on the horizon from the folks over at Amazon and AWS that involved our industry. Silent whispers rumored Amazon’s Alexa technology being optimized for use in the contact center industry, bringing the power of AI to help transform the way customers interact with their service providers.
On March 28, 2017, Amazon finally made an announcement: “Amazon Connect – Customer Contact Center in the Cloud”. There were also the common hyperbole statements by the tech media, most of whom will report on any pretty piece of code Gazelle- or Elephant-stage organizations create simply due to their longstanding history in the industry. Statements such as “Amazon Connect brings contact centers to the cloud”, “Amazon Connect is a cloud-based call center you can launch ‘within minutes’” and, my favorite of the three, “There’s no hardware to deploy and no per-agent licenses. Instead, you pay based on the number of customer-minutes and the amount of phone time that you consume.”
While these statements have small hints of the truth, Amazon Connect is by far the first to offer such a model. It was only four years ago when a young and disruptive contact center startup was launched using the exact business model (isn’t it ironic?).
Circa 2013, Fenero pioneered this new model and was the first cloud-based contact center platform where you could register and receive full, untethered access to the entire platform immediately (without ever talking to a sales or account rep); setup your contact center within minutes; expand or contract based on your actual needs; and only pay for the minutes that you consume. No ridiculous software licensing fees or separation of modules (why can I use the Interactive Intelligence dialer, but not its ACD without getting Interactively slapped of my Intelligence with additional fees?).
Bravo, Amazon, and welcome aboard the Fenero train. Let’s make it a fun ride.
When I launched Fenero 4 years ago, I knew I couldn’t have been the only one to realize a need for a different approach to contact center software; nor the only one to realize that Five9’s pricing, InContact’s kludgy interface and costs (who still relies on Flash and Java for front-end applications?), and Interactive Intelligence’s Window 95 user experience (prior to PureCloud) are just not the way forward. They are the ways of the past.
I am personally grateful to Amazon Connect for confirming the model of the future that Fenero started years ago. And it couldn’t have come at a better time – we’re celebrating our 4th anniversary on April 1st, 2017!
Now, I’d like to get down to the real question most contact centers who are or will be considering Amazon Connect as part of their technology stack are going to ask themselves – can it get the job done for my contact center operations…in the real world?
To find out the answer to that question, I set out to get an idea, objectively, of just how good Amazon Connect was (or wasn’t) and signed up for an account.
The process was very straightforward and in just 5 steps (shameless plug – in Fenero there are only 2 steps before receiving full, untethered access to the platform), I was able to login to their Contact Control Panel (CCP). To my surprise, there were only a handful of features available.
Figure 1: Amazon Connect Contact Control Panel
1. Claim a phone number – this provided very limited ability to request the area codes that you may actually want, which happens to be a very common requirement for true contact center operations. For example, our clients frequently request specific area codes, or a large bulk of 100’s of DIDs/TFNs that needs to be available and ready for use at a moment’s notice.
Amazon Connect automatically suggests 5 numbers at a time and has no way of getting exactly what you’re looking for. As a matter of fact, to get a new set of number suggestions I needed to refresh the Claim a phone number page. Additionally, they also charge you $0.03 cents per day for a DID or $0.06 cents per day for a Toll Free – and that’s on top of the $0.003 cents (DID) and $0.012 cents (TFN) per minute charge per call.
Being partially powered by Twilio, one would think Amazon Connect’s number management capabilities would have been more robust.
Figure 2: Claiming a number in Amazon Connect
2. Set hours of operations – these basic pages allow you to create and manage independent hours of operations, which could then be reused in your queues. Things like holiday support or automatically setting up schedules in advance is non-existent.
Clean layout. A work in progress.
Figure 3: Managing HoO in Amazon Connect
3. Create queues – influenced by my bare-metal understanding of queuing technology, this section was the most disappointing of the bunch. It allows you to create call queues, but your only features are: selecting your previously-defined hours; setting an outbound caller ID name, number, and whisper; and setting a ‘max contacts’ limit for your queue.
Quite frankly, this module seems to be more of a school project rather than, according to Amazon, the actual platform that was built “…on the same technology used by many of our own customer service teams”.
I’m assuming they meant the Amazon.com customer service teams. If so, it’s pure hyperbole.
Figure 4: Amazon Connect’s rudimentary “queue” creation page
4. Create prompts – a simple page that allows you to upload or record messages.
Looks eerily like the Fenero Prompts and Messages app – but hey, that’s just me.
Figure 5: Amazon Connect’s Create new prompt page
Figure 6: Fenero’s Add Sound page. So, is it just me or are there some similarities?
5. Create contact flows – this is by far the best part of Amazon Connect. It’s an easy-to-use IVR designer that allows you to create flows for your queues, whispers, hold music or agents. While it’s a far cry from a true IVR platform with support for direct external database connections or web service functionality, Amazon Connect’s contact flows is a good start to building a great self-service application.
I imagine this is the core focal point of this entire Amazon Connect solution, where commands for automated speech recognition, AI, and other AWS services and functionality can be seamlessly integrated in future versions.
Great work with this area for what appears to be a version 0.1 product elsewhere throughout the solution.
Figure 7: Amazon Connect’s contact flow designer
6. Configure users – as is the common theme throughout Amazon Connect, there is very limited functionality with their user configuration options. Trivial items such as allowing agent-to-supervisor messaging or assigning “not ready” codes are simply nowhere to be found.
Figure 8: Editing users in Amazon Connect
7. Reporting – There were only five historical and extremely basic reports available for selection.
This feature in its current state is essentially useless for a real-world contact center environment.
Figure 9: Amazon Connect reporting
8. Amazon Connect Pricing – In addition to the daily fees per DID or Toll Free number and the normal per minute telecom usage costs per call, Amazon Connect also comes with a “Service usage” fee of $0.018 cents per minute! This is where Fenero and Amazon Connect’s nearly twin business models diverge.
In a nutshell, I came away from my analysis fully convinced that Amazon Connect is far from a full-fledged contact center platform. I actually think classifying the product as a “contact center” platform is highly misleading – a small piece of a “call center” software solution, perhaps, but nowhere near a “contact center” solution. In its current state, it is nothing more than a glorified inbound call routing tool that was built by a well-known, and well respected, company with solid leadership and a track record of great execution. However, in my previous capacity as Director of Information Services for one of the best contact center outsourcing companies in the US, where terms such as “blended”, “custom reporting” or “integration” were a daily occurrence and necessary evil, Amazon Connect would not have made our short list of platform considerations if we were in the market for a true cloud-based contact center solution. I am sure it will become a formidable competitor one day. Just not today.
One thing is for certain.
I will be watching.