Contact centers opening to open source

While open source has made headway in the CRM market with SFA, it's taking longer to penetrate the contact center. That's slowly changing, particularly with outsourcers.

Three years ago, the travel industry was still struggling in the wake of the Sept. 11 disaster, and Spirit Cruise

Lines had to be particularly cost-conscious when it went about replacing its CRM system.

"We were in a situation where we had a real dog of a CRM application, and we needed change and we needed something that could be quickly adapted to our environment," said Steve Baskerville, director of IT at the Norfolk, Va.-based business. "But we didn't have a lot of money. We couldn't consider Onyx or Pivotal. They were way out of our price range."

Instead, Spirit Cruise Lines turned to an open source application from Norfolk-based Centric CRM. The company runs harbor cruises out of six cities up and down the east coast and needed a new application for its customer service reps booking large parties. The company has just six people on its IT staff, and, while they did some of the coding, it had to rely on Centric and its open source community for many of the changes they needed made, Baskerville said.

Aheeva Technologies, on the other hand, a Montreal-based firm that provides contact center software development, had plenty of experience with open source technology and code. When it decided to launch its own contact center outsourcing operation three years ago, the company turned to the open source Asterisk private branch exchange (PBX) system from Digium. Aheeva was able to launch its new operation, Atelka, a 55-seat call center, and grow that to 160 agents within three months, according to Francois Lambert, chief operating officer.

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While open source has made inroads into the CRM market, much of that is in salesforce automation (SFA), thanks to companies like SugarCRM and Centric. Momentum in the contact center has been slower, according to Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica Inc., a systems integrator based in San Carlos, Calif.

"To the extent open source has penetrated contact centers, it's probably been at the low end," Golden said. "Asterisk and Sugar have presence, but as you get to larger organizations, they tend to be cautious. There's nothing technically standing in the way, but larger organizations are going to be conservative."

Additionally, most organizations already have some sort of PBX system in place and are unlikely to rip it out and replace it with anything, whether it be open source or proprietary. Where he does see some potential for open source in the contact center is with business process outsourcing, where the value proposition is around cost savings, Golden said.

Atelka is a perfect example. Among its outsourced call center customers are a major Canadian telecommunications provider and a large U.S. retailer. Aheeva, the parent organization, often recommends Asterisk to its contact center customers and is starting to see a little momentum for open source contact center tools.

"Slowly. We're negotiating a huge deal with someone for [whom] it would be a first time using open source," Lambert said. "Now people are less afraid of open source than they were three years ago, especially in outsourcing, where price is very sensitive. People will migrate to India to save $1 per hour."

Additionally, Aspect Software, a large call center software vendor based in Westford, Mass., recently selected Asterisk for its new corporate headquarters.

Both Atelka and Spirit Cruise Lines have had success with open source, but those considering it should be cautious, according to Baskerville.

"Know your partner, that's the best advice I can give," he said. "Make sure you can work with them well and that they understand your business and your processes. That's the key. If you can do that in an open source world, you can come up with all sorts of creative solutions."

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