The next time you call customer service, you may get an answer from a Chromebook.
The Chromebook won't answer your questions, but the human who does may be talking through Google's connected laptop with a headset. And they may be doing so from home.
The days of vast in-house contact centers may be numbered now that pure software and VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) can handle the same tasks dedicated systems used to do. One of the longtime vendors of call centers, Avaya, has started turning to cloud computing for some large enterprise deployments.
Now, with an eye on smaller customers, the company is hosting its contact-center software on Google Cloud and letting companies send out Chromebooks to agents who will talk and text with customers.
The product has a heavy name -- Customer Engagement OnAvaya Powered by Google Cloud Platform -- but a lightweight delivery model. All customers have to do is license Avaya's software and send a Chromebook and a headset to each agent. The service will cost US$140 per person, per month, though exactly what'll be included in that price is still being determined. It's just starting to go into general availability.
Enterprises will be able to buy the service from Google and Avaya partners, including carriers and cloud service resellers. Those partners can put together their own packages, including ones for either buying or renting the Chromebooks, Avaya said.
The service will use WebRTC, a platform for using multiple modes of communication in a Web browser. Initially agents will only be able to use voice and text and guide callers through Web pages, but video is expected to be added later.
Cloud computing provides new ways to deliver IT as a service, a prospect that's especially promising for smaller organizations that would rather not build up big IT operations. On Monday, Sprint announced a turnkey service providing wired and wireless communications to small and medium-sized businesses for $200 per month, per user. The service can include components from carriers other than Sprint.
Less than 10 percent of all contact centers are cloud-based now, but about 20 percent of new deployments are, according to analyst Sheila McGee-Smith of McGee-Smith Analytics.
Avaya already sells contact-center software for private clouds, through a partnership with Hewlett-Packard, and for hybrid clouds, through a deal with VMware. Those are both for larger enterprises. The public-cloud partnership with Google will reach smaller companies with fewer than 250 agents.
The combination of cloud software and Chromebooks should give customers the flexibility both to have customer service agents work at home and to hire more agents at peak times. Because the OS and all the software on a Chromebook runs in the cloud, companies don't have to roll out updates to computers in the field. Agents should be able to start up the device, log in and start working, according to Avaya.
"We can hire people pretty much anywhere in North America," said Tony Bianco, president of cloud computing at Onix Networking, in Cleveland. Onix is a consultancy that will resell the Avaya-Google service but has also started using it. It has fewer than 100 customer support agents. The company is moving support in-house after finding outsourcing was more expensive, Bianco said.
Many contact-center agents already work out of their homes, analyst McGee-Smith said. But security issues can come up when an agent uses a PC and the company doesn't know what else it's being used for in the home, she said. Companies should be able to get around those issues by using Chromebooks, which don't store files locally and can be tightly controlled.
"This is what you do your home-based agent stuff with, and you don't do Facebook, because you can't," she said