A few months ago I was heading back to the office to receive a very important call from a prospect about a huge business opportunity. Unfortunately a serious family situation caused me to head across town instead. Thankfully, the family situation came to a happy conclusion, but the business situation didn't.
Like most everybody else, a great deal of my time is spent on the road. I'm meeting clients and prospects, running seminars and workshops, and doing a few speaking engagements. Even though I'm on the go, I operate out of my home office and work lots of hours there. My business partner and I collaborate on a number of opportunities and projects as we build the business. When he's not on the go for the business, he also operates out of an office in his home, about fifty miles away. In order for us to keep in close contact with customers, prospects, and each other, we both have office numbers, cell phones, multiple corporate e-mail accounts, BlackBerry devices, etc. On top of that, I'm on the board of the Customer Relationship Management Association and have an e-mail account for organization activities. While trying to remain in close contact with customers, it's just as important that family and friends are able to reach me, and so I have a few personal e-mail accounts, a personal instant message account, and even a second cell phone with a number I only give out to family.
Even though we have these technologies that help us stay connected, it's not as efficient and effective as we'd like, and things still fall through the cracks. I get terrible cell phone coverage in my house, so when people try to reach me on my cell phone while I'm at home, they don't get through and are forced to leave a voice mail or try my office. In some cases when I'm just not available, people will leave voice mails on both my mobile and office lines. If they are really trying to reach me they will also lob an e-mail to me, knowing I have a BlackBerry device. So at some point I will have to check three different systems to get the same message, except that there may be more emotion attached with each extra message. This is not good for me, in two important, interrelated ways. With each communication channel I open up, a new "database" is created that I will have to monitor, and more importantly, how will all this impact my relationships with customers and prospects?
Failure to Communicate
This dilemma is due to network divergence. We all have office phones and cell phones, and they work on separate networks with completely different infrastructures. We also have computer networks, and chances are they also run on their own internet protocol (IP)-based infrastructures, independent from the office phone network. Each of these different networks has applications created specifically to work on top of them, which means our cell phone voice mail application can't work with our office voice mail application to allow us to retrieve all our voice mails from one place. Additionally, each application is built specifically for that network (voice, data, or cell) and typically calls for specific devices to access it. For example, you need a Nextel phone to take advantage of their Direct Connect service allowing a Nextel customer to push a button in order to instantly connect to a colleague, who also must have a Nextel phone and subscribe to the service. But wouldn't it be great if we could have that same "push to talk" functionality work from cell phones to office phones in order to reach a customer? Another capability that would make communication more amenable to the way we work and live would be the ability to transfer a call initiated on the office phone to a mobile device, without disruption, in order to be able to head to the airport to catch a flight. Still another enhancement would be to have both the cell phone and office phone ring when either number is dialed, to make sure important business or personal calls will reach us wherever we happen to be. These capabilities and others would require the huge installed base of wired telephone networks to work with wireless cellular networks, something these networks weren't designed to do. But there are now technologies in place, based on open standards, that will make it possible for us to use these kinds of services to more effectively interact with customer and prospects, while improving our business and personal lives.
Converging on the IP Multimedia Subsystem
The IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) is a standards-based next generation networking architecture that will allow providers like Sprint, Cingular, Verizon, and others to deliver the services we need (voice, data, video, etc.) any way we need to access them. And because the network allows us to access it from office phones, cell phones, laptops, or personal digital assistants (PDAs), we need only a single account, with one voice mail box and address book to store contacts. IMS even has the ability to track where we're accessing the network to provide services based on our location, in addition to providing services based on the device we are using at the time. One of the keys to IMS is its reliance on the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). SIP is an IP-based standard protocol for creating and terminating a user session that could involve multimedia elements such as video, voice, data, instant messaging, and even online gaming. SIP is a key element in allowing IP-based services like voice and video over IP to be accessed via cell phones, paving the way for the convergence of fixed and mobile networks. This is crucial, as 99 percent of new voice connections will be wireless by 2009, according to Gartner. The same report states that 70 percent of total voice connections will be wireless.
Unfortunately, this brings up one of the main issues with SIP and IMS. While there are a number of reliable SIP solutions for the regular wired phone networks, many of today's wireless services are non-SIP-based. Because of this, wireless providers have been slow to warm up to IMS, as these services are their current revenue generators. And as a user, there are some services I really like, and would not want to do without, such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and video on demand. Another important issue centers around the lack of attention to security. Just as the Internet faces virus, spam, spyware, and adware attacks, IMS networks will have to be prepared to handle these plagues and more. Because of these two huge issues, a group of industry heavyweights led by Verizon Wireless, Lucent, Cisco, Motorola, and others, have come together and put forth a set of improvements tabbed advances to IMS (A-IMS). The main objective of A-IMS is to fill in the blanks left by the original IMS specs (such as support for non-SIP services, and security), and to throw in a few new things to help the network operators manage resources.
The other issue that to me poses a potentially bigger obstacle to the promise of convergence has absolutely nothing to do with technology. In order for people to benefit from using any service, any time, on any device, application service providers have to create their services to run on these next generation networks. For example, instead of building applications to work with these next generation networks, Microsoft's approach is focused on building the unified communication smarts into desktops and applications. These applications—Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Live Meeting, Office Communicator 2007, and others—are built on a SIP and Active Directory foundation, and not IMS.
Even if application providers do create IMS-compliant services, the network operators still have veto power over carrying these services if operators and providers can't come to a business agreement. So, for example, if Salesforce.com begins to create IMS-compliant services, it would still have to come to terms with the network operator before you could actually subscribe and begin using them. Because of the importance of "real time, anytime" communications to customers and prospects, customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives will be greatly impacted by what happens between application service providers and network operators. But because of the growing importance of mobile CRM, I would think that these two sides will figure out a way to work together. Some are already working together in the non-IMS world, as CRM on-demand provider Entellium's mobile service is being offered through Verizon Wireless. And with Microsoft having relationships with Nortel, Cisco, Avaya, and others, there remains the possibility that they also will offer IMS-compliant services at some point.
I believe that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the IMS-powered next generation networks carrying services from leading CRM vendors will allow us to interact with the world in a way compatible with how we live. Imagine actually being able to start a voice call on your home phone and transferring it over to your cell phone so you can drive to work or to the store. Or imagine being at the office, having the network know that all calls to your cell phone should just ring through to your office phone automatically. You might be able to use a web portal to access voice mail and e-mail from one account, with the ability to listen to voice mails in the order you want to and not in the order they came in. Even better, you could "listen" to your e-mails over your cell phone if you were subscribing to a text-to-speech service. Or you could have a push-to-talk conversation with a few colleagues on your cell phone, and simultaneously be able to share a video of a conference presentation. Now imagine this taking place with a single account, using multiple devices, over any kind of network. There are numerous ways these services can positively impact our ability to build stronger relationships with those we do business with, as well as our ability to bolster customer acquisition activities. One central benefit this will bring is to make our personal lives a little more manageable. We can better handle the convergence our of work and personal lives when these two worlds collide. This may have the greatest impact on our productivity and our ability to add value to the people we do business with. I know I could have used it a few months back.
About the Author
Brent Leary is cofounder and partner of CRM Essentials LLC, a CRM consulting and advisory firm focused on small and midsize enterprises. He has over fourteen years of IT and management consulting experience working on projects for PricewaterhouseCoopers, BellSouth, Compaq, and Microsoft. He serves on the national board of the CRM Association as vice president of technology, and serves as the CRM subject matter expert for the Small Business Technology Task Force. Leary earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Delaware and a MBA concentrating in management information systems from Widener University. He can be reached at email@example.com, or through his blog at http://www.brentleary.com.