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I attended NICE Systems’ annual Interactions (Twitter #Interaction2012) conference in Nashville to get the latest from this growing global software business that focuses on customer-centric applications. If you have not heard of NICE you might not be primarily involved in managing and interacting with customers, the area in which NICE has been growing organically and by acquiring technology providers that complement its existing portfolio. As we discussed in recent analyses, and NICE acquired Merced Systems for its sales- and service-centric performance management applications and Fizzback for customer feedback management software. Both have helped it become a more strategically focused software business. NICE Systems targets enterprise contact centers as well as financial risk, compliance and security. NICE makes its applications available not just on-premises but also in software as a service and hosted environments.

NICE offers a range of customer experience management applications: the agent desktop, customer feedback management and multichannel customer analytics across data, speech and text; agent performance management; interaction and communication technologies and broader customer and contact center analytics. Its contact center and overall workforce optimization suite enhances efficiency and intelligence in contact center operations and customer interactions. At the conference NICE announced a new class of cross-channel analytics-driven customer interaction applications that help personalize interactions to produce efficient and positive customer experiences. In the software, decisioning technology is combined with process management to guide agents as they respond to customer needs across any channel, from the Internet to the phone to retail locations. One way NICE does this is by using speech analytics to determine prompts to agents. Though the industry has been slow to adopt this approach, it is helping NICE customers improve the quality of customer service and resolve more issues on the first contact, which continues to be a top metric to manage agent efficiency and can help improve customer satisfaction.

The use of analytics is essential to identifying customer service improvements, according to 58 percent of organizations in our customer relationship management maturity benchmark research. Analytics works much better than spreadsheets, which are still used regularly or universally by almost two-thirds of contact centers according to our contact center analytics benchmark research. I expect to see NICE find ways to use predictive analytics to further fine-tune the information provided to agents.

NICE has not missed the rise of mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets in business. It announced a new solution called Mobile Reach that can provide quality customer interactions via smartphone. Instead of needing to call in to a contact center, customers can initiate real-time interaction from their smartphones to a center, where an agent can access customer information to respond to their needs. Agents can receive camera photos from customers and use real-time chat. An agent can help a customer to resolve some issue or locate the closest retail or service location. This advance in technology is impressive, and I expect NICE to offer similar or more support for tablets such as Apple’s iPad that has become a primary device for mobile commerce. It already provides analytics on tablets for assessing sales and customer service, and previewed new customer service management capabilities at the conference.

NICE also goes beyond these areas and helps in the back office with applications to manage the workforce, desktop processes, performance and quality assurance. I had a chance to review its process and task management software, which has the intelligence to spot where workers are not fulfilling their responsibilities. Organizations can apply the task monitoring technology to customers’ activities on their websites, and can be capture and replay it in what NICE calls interaction recording. I was impressed in the demonstration by how easy it is to identify issues and perform rapid root-cause analysis.

One of the key efforts in customer feedback management,  as my colleague Richard Snow states, is for businesses to hear the voice of the customer. VOC addresses direct and indirect channels across the Internet, such as social media. NICE announced further integration of the Fizzback technology; now contact centers can have any call or digital interaction dynamically invoke a feedback suggestion to make it easier to respond. Even more useful is the ability to have a manager actually listen to the customer interaction to assess any issues and then provide coaching where needed. This information can be essential to improving customer experience processes, which 59 percent of organizations have determined is a critical benefit of using feedback management. NICE was also demonstrating how it can take sentiment about a brand on social media, since analysis of this communication channel is already deployed in one-quarter of organizations and its use is the second highest priority in 19 percent of customer service organizations, according to our customer relationship maturity research. It also demonstrated where interactions started from social media can be part of a contact center or even marketing organizations operations. The ability to learn from social media interactions will be critical, as 89 percent of organizations already have a presence on Facebook, 68 percent on Twitter and 57 percent on LinkedIn according to our research.

At the conference I presented a session on establishing high-performance contact centers by using customer relationship maturity strategies, optimizing agent performance and productivity, utilizing analytics for contact centers, embracing social media for contact centers and understanding voice of the customer’s impact to customer experience. If you want a copy of the presentation, click here. It was great to have our Ventana Research Leadership Award winner  for 2011 in contact center category, Alliance Data, in the audience, too!

NICE’s new generation of customer- and agent-focused applications aims to optimize the customer experience. The company’s applications and technology portfolio are significantly ahead of those currently installed in most customer service organizations, which should provide it plenty of room to grow. Its intelligent use of analytics drives more effectiveness in customer interactions by improving agents’ performance. NICE has demonstrated its ability to acquire companies and integrate their products efficiently, leveraging both products and people to its advantage. It also partners with the likes of IBM, Cisco and even Five9 to enhance the contact center technology ecosystem. The largest challenge for NICE is to promote awareness of what it provides and what is possible with its technology. It will need to expand its market education efforts to explain how it helps the largest businesses change the way they operate in a more significant manner than previous CRM efforts. It will probably need to build some type of center of excellence and demonstrate what contact centers should strive to be over the next five years. I hope to see more chatter about NICE across social media on the part of organizations that wish to make substantive improvements to their contact centers and promote intelligent interactions with customers.

Regards,

Mark Smith – CEO & Chief Research Officer

NICE Systems last week announced an agreement to acquire Merced Systems, a provider of business applications for customer service and sales organizations. This acquisition slipped by with little fanfare, but it marks a significant milestone for NICE, a major provider of applications and technology for call centers and a player in their evolution into multichannel contact centers. Building on a good 2010, as my colleague Richard Snow noted, NICE expects to reach almost $800 million of revenue in 2011, which would make it one of the largest companies in its segment. NICE has made multiple acquisitions to build its software portfolio, including purchases of Actimize, CyberTech, eGlue and others mentioned below. It recently won our 2011 Ventana Research Leadership Award in the contact center category with its customer deployment at Alliance Data. NICE Systems plans to have Merced Systems as a foundation of its enterprise systems and a complement to its contact center workforce optimization offering. This purchase builds on its other acquisitions, including FizzBack recently and IEX and Performix in 2006, which helped NICE establish its customer service and back office agent performance management software. That area has not grown as quickly as NICE would like, mostly due to marketing that was not aggressive enough in attracting customers. NICE recently rebranded its NICE SmartCenter for helping agents, as Richard noted, and is leveraging its assets into the back office, which he also assessed. Our benchmark research on contact center technology found that companies’ priorities for future investments match up well with NICE Systems’ focuses on expanding customer service agent applications and analytics applications.

Merced Systems brings to the deal a strong foundation based on analytics and metrics: areas we have benchmarked in the contact center and sales among others. While software for customer service and contact centers motivated this acquisition, NICE Systems plans to expand into sales organizations through Merced’s sales performance management. In agent performance management NICE and eight competitors all have comparable ratings in our Value Index for Agent Performance Management. NICE is rated near the top, but it has struggled in its marketing and sales. This is part of why it needs to retain Merced’s team to continue its market momentum. On the sales side, with a smaller number of dedicated providers, Merced ranked in the middle of the Value Index for Sales Performance Management but is part of a significantly larger organization worldwide with access to a large number of organizations using NICE.

Customers of Merced Systems should look for affirmation that NICE Systems will include their needs in its product roadmap before they make further purchases and deployments. They should look for continued operations of Merced as an entity and availability of its applications. Potential purchasers should restrain themselves to ensure the Merced products they are examining are part of the future NICE enterprise portfolio as the company evolves its application architecture. Existing NICE customers will find a new portfolio in agent performance management and sales performance management, which appear to put NICE’s existing performance management applications at risk or position them to receive lower priority. On another front it will be interesting to see if NICE will continue distributing Merced Systems’ new analytics offering built on an OEM of MicroStrategy, with which the company has built applications that also operate on smartphones and tablets.

NICE Systems made a wise investment in acquiring Merced Systems, especially at the price it paid (approximately $150 million and $20 million in cash), considering the company’s profitability, growth, products and customer success. Now NICE must retain Merced’s key people and grow its investment in the newly acquired company. NICE can extend its current reach to grow its business significantly, pending effective investments in marketing and sales. 

Regards,

Mark Smith – CEO & Chief Research Officer

Mark Smith – Twitter

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