“The Direction Today Is Towards Being More Open. We Are Working Towards that”

Pramode K VermaLucent Technologies Business Communication Systems (BCS)
division is a global leader in high-end business communication systems.
Pramode K Verma,
managing director,
business development-customer sales and
service solution, Lucent BCS, has been working with the company for about two decades.
Verma was recently in India to deliver the keynote address in the CSI ’98 conference
in New Delhi. He spoke to
Shyamanuja Das on the emerging call centre market and Lucent BCS’
strategic directions.

What are the major enablers for the growth of call centre
market?

There are two major enablers of the usage
of call centres. One is the availability of toll-free lines. The other is deregulation.

Toll-free service obviously allows a large
number of users to access a call centre for getting whatever help they want—for
either a sale or a service.

As deregulation happens, the cost of
service itself goes down. More and more suppliers push their goods through a call centre.
We have a slogan: let your fingers do the walking. Instead of going to a bank or general
store, you get the products or services by dialling the telephone number.

Today, many users are aware of the benefits of a call
centre. But the initial cost is at a level which very few can afford …

It should
be affordable to the biggest and the smallest alike. But there is another way. I do not
know how it is coming out here in
India, but
there is a whole outsourcing market. You do not need to own your call centre. There are
people who are in the call centre business. They own the call centre. They will train the
operators for you and will charge you on the basis of the service that they provide. You
do not own any infrastructure. The call centre itself, the building that houses it, the
staff everything is owned by them.

I know of such companies in India targeting niche
industries. Particularly, the banking industry. But without much success so far. I think
banking industry is a wrong industry to start with …

I beg to differ. Banking is a very right
industry to pitch in here.

People take service of call centres for
two reasons—to provide better service and to woo new customers. A customer who works
late in the office, reaches home at nine in the night and would like to make some
enquiries to his bank. Imagine, how delighted he will be to have a bank that provides him
the information then and there—his home. If there is a bank with an IVR, even without
a live agent, and another without that, guess to whom the customer will go.

It is no longer a matter of luxury. It is
a matter of survival for banks today. If that facility has not come to India, it will come
soon.

Is it true that
traditional PBX vendors like Lucent BCS are losing marketshare to platform-independent
third party call centre vendors?

I know Lucent is not,
though I am talking of the US market. From the data you can get—and they are
independently compiled—we are actually gaining marketshare, which is somewhere near
30 percent right now. And we are gaining by a percentage point or two. It is
Dataquest’s data.

We provide the platform. Much of
the solutions in the future would come from others. It would move towards creating a
totally software-based solution and towards platform independence. We know that for a fact
and, certainly, we are working towards attaining that. From the future point of view, you
are absolutely right.

Today the distribution model in
call centres and CTI business is fast changing. We are seeing independent PBX
vendors/distributors, independent voice board vendors/distributors, independent
middleware/application developers who might or might not do systems integration, and some
specialist SIs. Do you think your earlier model, which was probably decided keeping in
view the PBX distribution, will be able to effectively compete with the new model?

I think both models will remain
effective.

Lucent today provides turnkey
solutions. So we can install, supply the hardware, the software, and do the complete job.
Of course, a number of SIs as you mentioned in the US—Andersen Consulting, E&Y,
Deloitte & Touche—work with our hardware. They give value to their customers. The
additional value they provide is to relate the particular customer that they are
serving—its data system—to the call centre. In particular, if there is a whole
connectivity need—the screen-pop itself you know—it is connectivity to the data
system that the corporation has. That is a job we do not get involved in and that job is
intricate and many of our upper-end customers also have the services of systems
integrators that gives a turnkey solution much beyond the call centre.

In a business when all your competitors are using a particular facility, you will
be hard-pressed if you do not have that. I think that competitive push is not there at
this point of time in India.

A reason why open systems are winning in a market
like India is their affordability. You start with a two-port system on an experimental
basis, and as you get convinced, you go on scaling it up. In case of a system like
Lucent’s, the minimum investment can be barrier for many. You cannot afford to
experiment …

That is true. I think, to start
with, some degree of ambivalence is natural. But in a business when all your competitors
are using that facility, you will be hard-pressed if you do not have that. I think that
the competitive push is not there at this point of time in India.

Well, in certain industry
segments, where there is competition, like telecom for example, the cash is not there …

I understand. But you will see
them investing, though somewhat selectively.

When we do a job with a major
customer, the maximum value we put is in the analysis for return on investment. In a call
centre, it is very easy to justify an innovation as you can keep a track of each second of
transaction time that you save through means like screen-pop. In industries like telecom,
why call centres have been so successful is that every second of the time saved can be
translated to hard dollars. The analysis is very black and white. And at that point, it is
no longer a luxury for the corporation. It becomes a necessity. In other words, the cost
of not doing would be much more than the cost of doing it.

Lucent BCS is seen as
traditional, platform dependent. Today isn’t that a liability when everything that is
open sells?

We are very platform-dependent at
this point. But certainly we recognize that at one point of time we have to be platform
independent.

But you know, you get nothing out
of free. So the more independent, the more open you are, in a certain sense, you might
compromise in the depth of functionality that a highly closed system, a self-contained
system can provide. And both have their merits and demerits.

When we started that (closed
system) was the model. We gave value in that model. The direction today is certainly
towards being more open. There’s no question about that. We are working towards that.

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