Channel Forecast: AI-analytics front-runners set to take decisive lead

AI and analytics are shaping up to be the critical drivers of business transformation and partner differentiation, and securing a slice of this soon-to-be ubiquitous source of competitive advantage requires immediate attention, according to industry experts at the March 2024 Comms Dealer Channel Forecast insight session. Among the issues under discussion were the speed of change, how the channel needs to react and where we can expect to find the greatest returns.

The impact of AI and analytics will be seismic, but a Comms Dealer survey of reseller and MSP business leaders showed that barely any respondents are mindful of AI as a future growth market. It’s simply not blipping on their radar screens as a strategic priority. Over two thirds are not involved in analytics... hardly a recipe for the channel to exploit the fast evolving AI revolution. But forecasting the ICT market through an AI lens can only mean one thing – fundamental and inevitable disruption – and tomorrow’s winners will be working out their AI and analytics strategies today. So no surprise that our Channel Forecasters are united in urging resellers and MSPs to prioritise their response to AI.

Matt Bodsworth“Not to get involved with AI and analytics now would be a mistake because of its fast pace of development,” stated Matt Bodsworth (pictured left), Head of Operations, Inform Billing. “In the past, analytics and AI have been a black art requiring a team of people – data analysts and data engineers – to build and analyse the data. As a collective, vendors are taking that pain away and packaging solutions. The sooner partners start on this journey the quicker they will learn how AI and analytics can transform businesses.”

John de BreijThe big market opportunity will emerge in the SMB space driven by the switch to cloud, noted John de Breij (pictured left), Solutions Architect, Intermedia. “AI is accelerating because of the cloud,” he stated. “There remains AI on-premise of course, but it’s niche and for bigger organisations able to invest. The beauty of the cloud is that APIs and AI combined make it accessible to SMBs. Innovation around AI is already moving at light speed and will accelerate over the coming years. It’s time to get on the bandwagon.”

Tony MartinoTony Martino (pictured left), CEO, Tollring, also noted that cloud has paved the way for significant disruption, driving innovation with AI unleashing new capabilities for SMBs. “There is a massive opportunity within SMB,” he added. “The more complicated enterprise solutions are now in the cloud and we’re able to deliver fantastic technology, capabilities and outcomes to the SMB space at an affordable price point. The big opportunities are around integration with the likes of Microsoft Teams and Zoom, bringing that multi-vendor UC environment together to deliver information that’s consistent across all toolkits customers are using. The key is to keep it simple and deliver a holistic understanding using analytics across a multi-play. It’s about creating a unified proposition and finding the right vendor that can make it easy to consume and delivers real value out of the box, all as part of the overall solution rather than an afterthought.”

Unprecedented impact
Ian RowanWhat came through strongly from the discussion is just how big an impact AI and analytics will have, and the potential scale of value creation at stake. But Ian Rowan (pictured left), Country Manager, Wildix, cautioned that legacy approaches to analytics and AI could be a block to progress unless a new alignment is achieved. “There is an issue relating to how analytics has been historically sold in the channel as a bolt-on to, for example, a seven year solution with the statistics package contracted to only a year,” he explained. “The analytics element gets forgotten and skills in the channel also get lost. The models are different and need to align. Encouragingly, more telecoms resellers and MSPs are selling on shorter cycles which matches what the analytics companies are doing.”

Innovation around AI is already moving at light speed and will accelerate over the coming years. It’s time to get on the bandwagon

Jonathan McKenzieAnother strong technology match is likely to catalyse this market exponentially, observed Jonathan McKenzie (pictured left), Senior Contact Centre Product Manager, 8x8. “The combination of contact centres, AI and analytics is a marriage made in heaven,” he stated. “You have all the channels, all the customer experiences, and there is a big opportunity to provide bots and use AI and analytics to free up agents’ time, enabling them to focus on empathetic use cases. The analytics sits in the background, constantly learning and delivering new insights. Showing the value in bundles is the foundation for success. It’s all about understanding the use cases, so start small.”

McKenzie also highlighted that 8x8 is bringing AI into many different customer scenarios, and he urged the channel to invest in education and training while forging strong relationships to build an ecosystem of vendors. “There’s many different players in the market and they all bring valuable technology and use cases,” he added. “Removing the complexities for customers is where you can add value, while being an advisor around new products and services and helping them on that journey.”

Information sharing
A major determining factor of AI’s impact in the channel will come from vendors’ ability to harness the technology and their insight, simplify propositions and educate partners in a fully joined up approach. “We must make sure we’re educating the channel,” commented Rowan. “We get to see it first, use it first, understand our use cases, and we have the use cases of our peers. We need to share that experience because until people understand what we’re providing we can’t establish the value. We need to create an information sharing community and ensure everyone is aligned and understands what we are aiming to achieve. AI is a profession, not a skill, and we need to deliver that to the channel as a readily available packaged product that provides value... not make it a black art. This is a big opportunity for resellers, but only if they understand that opportunity. It needs to be simple and show value – tick box rather than API based.”

How to start and keep up with developments in AI is a challenging prospect, and Bodsworth agrees that the key to success resides in a programme of enlightenment. “Education will determine how far analytics and AI becomes a mainstream product,” he stated. “Many of the partners we talk to don’t have an understanding of AI or analytics. But to get to grips with this and how it works it should be implemented as a core part of the business, so we’re looking at how to leverage the data partners already gain as part of their day-to-day business and use it to influence decisions. AI and analytics is more a mindset and something you do as part of core business strategy rather than a one-off activity; and partners need to understand the benefits and use it in an effective way. So get on the journey as fast as you can.”

The big opportunities are around bringing that multi-vendor UC environment together to deliver information that’s consistent across all toolkits

Cutting across these market developments is how to package and sell AI and analytics in a way that creates a compelling case for value creation. This means addressing the strategic question of simplification as well as education, especially when it comes to the most fertile ground for AI and analytics. “The contact centre has traditionally been a niche area for specialists but with the cloud you have operational channels in just a few simple clicks,” added de Breij. “In the old days, if you wanted to integrate a contact centre application into a knowledge base it was proprietary and took a lot of time, but with generative AI you can create a knowledge base integration that guides an agent throughout a conversation very easily. Cloud makes all the integrations that were niche and complex easy to enable and consume. You don’t need to be a big MSP to sell contact centre. Sales people who can sell the contact centre story can get into this market.”

McKenzie noted that the simplification of continuous interaction between real-time data, AI-powered insights and customer engagement is high on 8x8’s agenda. “We’re exploring AI driven customer intelligence and how to present that through a real-time dashboard looking at conversation intelligence, engagement, the AI predictions and analysis of the customer journey,” he explained. “As the AI evolves you can make real-time decisions based on models and scenarios. Because there is so much information to drill into it’s about providing data in a way that can be easily digested and quickly understood.”

AI is a profession, not a skill, and we need to provide that to the channel as a readily available packaged product that delivers value. Not make it a black art

The discussion highlighted many other potential uplifts from AI and analytics, and Inform Billing partners are also likely to experience strategic gains given the work it is doing on available data that could prove to be competitively transformative, while helping partners to understand what AI means for their business. “As a billing provider we’re exposed to much of the data that drives businesses and we’re looking to pull that together into a central portal,” said Bodsworth. “Partners see analytics and AI as complicated so we need to take that complexity away with tools that are simply put together. The sooner people do this the more likely they are to get more intuitive and start to understand how analytics and AI links together and works.

“For example, working with a customer we found that the value of what they sell changes drastically according to sector. We’re able to give them an interactive chart that shows performance by different verticals and how that might factor into the likelihood of retaining business based on past experience. We then forecast that to six months or two years based on what’s currently happening.”

AI mindset
Inform Billing’s approach also shows us that the application of AI and analytics is only part of the story. It’s just as important to instil a data-first culture, a mindset. On the flip side, resellers and MSPs stand to lose market share against companies supercharged by an AI advantage. It is also clear for all to see that the front-runners who shape new insights from data will quickly steal a march on sluggish competitors, which will give them an unbeatable advantage resulting in the rise of new market leaders. And it’s only just getting properly started.

So it is necessary to overcome barriers to entry by taking small steps at first, starting with an understanding of the basics and where the low hanging fruit can be found. “The goals of AI combined with analytics are to make businesses more productive and efficient, and it’s relevant to any business,” observed de Breij. “The place to start is with cloud. The pay and consume-as-you-go model means AI has become more accessible and affordable for any type of business. The goal is to apply AI and analytics in an easy way and make it simple to scale up and down without any heavy lifting. That’s why it is perfectly suited to the SMB space.”

AI and analytics are more of a mindset and part of core business strategy rather than a one-off activity

Martino observed that another big opportunity exists within the informal contact centre where knowledge workers and customer-facing teams require clever queuing, first contact resolution type KPIs, and the ability to keep customers happy without the requirement for a large complex contact centre. Martino also noted that Tolling is leveraging AI in terms of sales pitch analysis to identify the sales people who are able to convert opportunities quicker and the reasons underpinning their success. “This empowers the right processes to skill people up,” he added. “Other examples of AI use cases include automated compliance monitoring, making sure recorded private data is automatically redacted such as credit card information, and toll fraud prevention.”

AI and analytics are fast emerging as major differentiation factors with early movers standing to gain the most from this revolution. And as we have seen, our Channel Forecasters shed light on the current phase of AI development, which primarily builds on existing applications of the technology but in a much bigger and broader way, facilitated in large part by the cloud. The big question for the whole channel... when to take advantage of these game-changing developments? “Analytics and AI have been here for a long time but it’s become much more powerful, more accessible, and it’s an exciting journey,” said Rowan. “We’re going to see lots of change delivered quickly. People will specialise in this sector and you need to make sure you’re on that journey.”

More key points to consider...

It’s about having an understanding of how you want to deliver these services in a uniform way so customers consume it seamlessly, rather than engage in a heavy lifting exercise.
Tony Martino, CEO, Tollring

Partners need to understand the technology they are selling by utilising it effectively in their own business.
Ian Rowan, Country Manager, Wildix

If you don’t understand the technology by not using it you are setting yourself up for failure.
Jonathan McKenzie, Senior Contact Centre Product Manager, 8x8

Analytics is a big focus for us. We’ve done a big push over the past two years to get our house in order.
Matt Bodsworth, Head of Operations, Inform Billing

The biggest opportunity for MSPs is to generate more revenue and add more value with AI applied to UCaaS and CCaaS – and the cloud is the perfect foundation
John de Breij, Solutions Architect, Intermedia

Contact centre is one part of the overall solution, we mustn’t forget the back office. Much of the traction around the analytics and AI we deliver is augmenting what’s happening in the contact centre along with the rest of the business.
Tony Martino, CEO, Tollring

The big opportunity is in offering the same customer experience across multiple languages.
Jonathan McKenzie, Senior Contact Centre Product Manager, 8x8

There will be a lot of AI functionality added to the market – so gain confidence with a few customers and get ready for the future.
John de Breij, Solutions Architect, Intermedia

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