Aspect hits the comeback trail

A venerable vendor of telephone switching systems for call centres is trying to recover from operating losses and a severe stock slide by pushing into the market for customer relationship management software.

Aspect Telecommunications, which provides automatic call distributors (ACD) that route telephone calls to live agents, recently rolled out two software packages that unify internet and telephony-based contact data.

The Aspect Customer Relationship Portal integrates commercially available e-mail response software packages with the call-by-call routing schemes in telephony ACDs to decide in real time which agents should answer calls, e-mail and faxes.

The Aspect Customer DataMart is an application loaded on a Windows NT server that analyses all transactions -- whether conducted by internet, fax, interactive voice response or live agents -- to produce management reports.

The two packages together also link to back-office customer databases so agents handling inquiries on the phone or online can see a history of each customer's relationship with the company. The goal is to "make sure that the corporation doesn't appear to have corporate amnesia", Aspect CEO Jim Carreker says.

The new products are not exactly off-the-shelf software. The Customer Relationship Portal requires that the call centre have a recent release of Aspect, Lucent or Nortel Networks call centre switching systems. Release 1.0 of Customer DataMart only works with the latest release -- Version 7.2.1 -- of Aspect's own ACD.

The new products were released recently after a wrenching period in which Aspect suffered a rocky entry into call centre outsourcing, some product problems and a management shake-up. The company also posted a second quarter loss of $US12.5 million.

Last year's Release 7.0 of the Aspect CallCenter ACD, which increased capacity from 1500 to 3000 agents, originally suffered problems in which agents could hear cross-talk on one another's lines, says Art Schoeller, a research director at Gartner Group. Aspect also began pushing consulting and professional services, but the company could not generate enough business to keep busy.

"The sales force was not as adept at selling integration services," Schoeller says.

Then earlier this year, the company's No. 2 official, Dennis Haar, and marketing vice president, Robert Blatt, left the company, reportedly along with a chunk of the sales force.

As Aspect began reporting losses, its stock plunged from near $30 to around $6 per share, though it has at times recovered to above $10.

To help itself recover, Aspect brought in a number of software executives from Silicon Valley, including Oracle veteran Beatriz Infante to serve as one of two co-presidents.

Infante says Aspect is still selling highly customised call centre products, but the goal is to take a typical $3000-per-seat installation and charge on a software-licence basis, around $2500 per seat plus $500 for the hardware -- the reverse of Aspect's previous pricing strategy.

Part of that plan is to enable Aspect to branch out beyond its own installed base of call centre hardware switches into competitors', Gartner's Schoeller says. Lucent has generated tremendous momentum in large call centre sales, he says, but Aspect's moves are "a competitive attack on the Nortel Networks and Siemens bases", he says. "Those are the most susceptible bases."

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