Networking companies acquire CRM savvy

Several networking infrastructure players, including Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, and Lucent Technologies' newly christened enterprise spin-off, Avaya, are revving up CRM (customer relationship management) activities, forging a tighter weave between infrastructure and the customer-facing applications that run across it to strengthen and secure e-business processes.

"The synergy [between networking infrastructure and CRM] comes from the fact that the networking companies have figured out how to treat any kind of media communication the same way you would treat a call, in terms of routing it to an agent or whoever will do the work," says Sheila McGee-Smith, director of call centers and operator services at the PELORUS Group, in Raritan, N.J. "Businesses need to have [the] same service-level goals as they do for voice calls for other channels, like e-mail or Web chat. [Networking] companies have figured out how to do that and how to overlay that on the application world," she says.

Avaya, the enterprise networking company soon to be spun off from Lucent, recently announced a strategic alliance with San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel Systems to jointly develop a variety of e-business products. The companies will integrate Siebel's eBusiness Applications, including Siebel Call Center, eMarketing, and eService, with Avaya's CRM Central and CentreVu into new products designed to ease the process of implementing a desktop CTI (computer-telephony integration).

Tighter linkages between Avaya's platforms and Siebel's interfaces are intended to help enterprises that are in the process of transitioning traditional call centers into multimedia centers capable of interfacing with e-mail, the Internet, and fax.

"We are addressing the ability to rapidly implement a multichannel customer interaction strategy -- the ability to offer traditional voice and also Web, collaborative browsing, e-mail management, and integrated fax communications," says Mike Martinez, executive director of CRM solutions marketing at Avaya, in Basking Ridge, N.J. "In an e-business model you can't just offer separate channels, you have to tie everything together."

Martinez says the companies' alliance will facilitate unification of desktop and data exchange standards which will help give customers the ability to use XML interfaces and to exchange applications.

Cisco has also taken the partnership track to delivering CRM offerings. In late May the company launched a new business unit, called the Internet Communications Software Group, and unveiled open software platforms focused on customer contact and unified communications. Interfaces on the platforms allow CRM vendors to access infrastructure functionality, Cisco representatives say.

Cisco's plan is to complement CRM solutions from other companies, such as Oracle and Octane, by providing customer interaction platforms that allow customer applications to span all the different networks and devices that customers use, according to Bob Weinberger, director of marketing at Cisco's Internet Communication Software Group.

"Within the last 12 months, businesses stepped back and looked at their Web presence," Weinberger says. "They were doing well on the Web, but found [that their Web presence] was not integrated with the call centre. [Cisco] software will help businesses bridge the telephone world and Internet world."

Cisco and Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle earlier this month hatched a plan to tie CRM and VOIP (voice over IP) technologies together to manage communications over the Internet. The joint offering will result in applications that can be accessed via phone, e-mail, Web collaboration, IVR (interactive voice response), and VOIP services, Cisco officials say.

Nortel in the spring unpacked its growing CRM arsenal with the launch of its Clarify eBusiness Applications Unit, which brought together the company's call center, CRM, and voice response offerings. Fueled by the acquisitions of CRM vendor Clarify and voice-recognition specialist Periphonics, Nortel combined CRM and infrastructure know-how for smoothing e-business and gathered 2,600 employees into one unit.

"In e-business there is a need for the apps to be intimate with, not just sit on top of, the networking infrastructure -- be that wireless, optical, or wired -- so they can take advantage of all the performance, reliability, and security that these networks are providing," says Tony Zingale, president of e-business at Nortel, based in Brampton, Ontario.

"As we move into the second wave of e-business, which is well beyond the transaction of commerce being conducted over the Internet, we are well into the relationship and the business cycle that takes place between enterprises and their customers, so the applications need to come together pretty tightly with the networking infrastructure," Zingale adds.

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