Meet Dr. Prem Uppaluru - voracious reader of non-fiction, Netflix aficionado, grandfather superhero, world traveler, and avid hiker. He's been to Everest Base Camp, summited Mt Fuji, and is at this very moment moonwalking on glaciers in Iceland. In the realm of contact center, Prem has been a key figure in helping establish what we now know as contact center as a service (CCaaS). One of his startups, Transera, years ahead of its time, was acquired by Broadsoft which was then acquired by Cisco--giving the networking and collaboration giant it's official entry into the CCaaS world. Prem currently serves on the boards of Minerva CQ, Tetherfi, apiwiz, DVsum, and Exato among others.
As part of our contact center executive series we asked Prem to share some of his industry knowledge, observations, and lessons learned from his decades long experience as a leader and entrepreneur in the contact center space.
Prem, tell us how your chapter in contact centers began?
My first job after graduation was with Bell Labs, the birthplace for voice communications and information exchange. I was always drawn to startups and so soon after my first startup experience came with Fluent where we were streaming full motion video over local area networks. At Novell, I led the development of the original open CTI platform, TSAPI. Real-time media has been my passion throughout my career and I was always inspired to innovate in this space. So, the media-rich world of contact centers was a natural fit for me. At my first contact center startup, Telera, we created a voice browser that connected to the Internet to create a new cloud IVR platform to provide automated customer interactions for contact centers.
Back then what were the biggest challenges in the contact center that you were trying to solve for? How much has changed since then?
At the time we started Telera, it was the "call center" industry, not "contact center" - voice calls were the dominant interaction type. The big challenge that we were focused on was trying to streamline efficiency in the voice channel. This meant automating customer calls entirely for routine queries but also extracting customer intent and identity before routing them intelligently to an agent with the right skills. This was exactly the value proposition of Telera. We intercepted the calls in the telephony network, automated customer self-service if possible or interacted with the caller to determine intent and identity, and pass on this information to an ACD for intelligent call routing.
The industry has changed significantly since then (early 2000s) with the rise of multimodal customer interactions over multiple channels - voice, chat, messaging, and video. Timely, personalized outbound communications is now the norm in customer service. AI is helping to do just that with better use of natural language in self-service but also AI is fundamentally altering the way agent quality assessments and after call summaries are automated. I also see AI playing a paramount role in helping assist agents in real-time to deliver better customer and agent experiences with less training time required.
Can you tell us about the two startups you founded in the contact center space and what they were all about?
Sure. Well at Telera we provided a next-gen IVR platform where we embraced the Voice-XML open standard. This was during a time when proprietary IVRs (also called traditional IVR) dominated the market. We revolutionized voice self-service and disrupted the IVR industry by simplifying IVR app development and deployment as well as intelligent call routing. We had a lot of major airlines, insurance carriers, retailers and financial services clients who benefited from this automation and intelligent routing. The company was acquired by Alcatel in 2002.
In 2004, we started Transera, a CCaaS company. We revolutionized contact centers with cloud IVR, routing, and disrupted the on-prem ACD and IVR markets. One of my favorite stories to tell was how we helped a leading direct response marketing company manage thousands of agents spread across multiple different outsourcers and locations operate as one seamless unified contact center. To me that showed the power and the impact of a true cloud contact center platform. We helped many customers from a variety of different industries really up-level their customer support over the years. The company was acquired by Broadsoft in 2016 and the next year Broadsoft was acquired by Cisco.
What do you see as some of the key milestones in the evolution of the contact center industry?
Great question. There are many but here are three that come to mind:
Evolution of channels to multichannel & omnichannel - I see the transition from voice calls and telephony only for customer contacts to adding messaging, chat, and video over web and mobile channels is perhaps the most prominent change in the way contact centers have evolved.
Use of open standards - back in the first decade of the 2000s, aka the noughties, the movement from proprietary hardware-based premises systems to open standards-based cloud services marked another key milestone as that brought the more flexible web services paradigm to the antiquated telephony architecture which limited the contact center.
AI use case expansion Now integrating AI into every aspect of contact center management be it in conversational AI or contact center analytics is the latest trend.
Each of these transitions occurred because of technology advancements as well as business model changes.
Any lessons learned (when it comes to contact center technology) you can share for customer service execs?
Contact centers have been technological and operational islands due to their real-time nature and use of proprietary technologies. Now, many industry trends - open Internet standards, media over IP, cloud applications, SaaS business models - are disrupting the industry. It's not clear how long contact centers will remain an island unto themselves or become integrated into other customer marketing, sales. and service applications. Customer service execs need to anticipate, plan and embrace this transition.
What are your predictions for the contact center over the next five years?
I thought you were going to ask that. I see a future where conversational AI coupled with media analytics will overlay all customer engagements. I also predict that:
UC and CC will continue to come together. The integration of unified communications with contact centers - will continue - it makes sense as they both rely on real-time media over IP and Internet.
Customer and agent experience will blend. The integration of customer and agent experience management will occur - they are two sides of the same coin.
CRM and contact management will combine. The integration of customer relationship management with contact management is going to happen.
Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce already have many of the ingredients necessary for these integrations. It is just a matter of time before the integrations become real.
You seem to be quite close with a lot of people you have worked with over the years…what’s your advice to building those lasting relationships?
Trust and loyalty. And it goes both ways.
I've always believed in running my companies as if they were extended families. I take care of those who work (or worked) for me, and they take care of me. Together we take care of business. Mutual respect, care, and trust.
As a successful serial entrepreneur what advice do you have for startups?
Great question. Startups have to figure out answers to these three key questions:
What is the urgent unmet market need?
What is our superior and differentiated value proposition?
How do we go to market with a scalable and profitable business model?
Entrepreneurs typically focus on their value proposition and not enough on the market need or go to market strategies. My advice is to address all three items and iterate them through customer engagement and market validation.
When talking with a lot of startups these days I listen intently and lean in assess how much thought startups have given to the market need and go to market strategy.
Bonus question - we asked someone who worked with Prem at one of his startups: "what did you like most about working with Prem?"
Prem is very good with clearly articulating the bigger picture and getting everyone onboard, involved, inspired, and centered around that. He made each team member feel valued, and created an awesome team environment. A great leader to work for and to have a drink with.