Before starting Unido Digital, I was the editor of a publication that covered telephony for contact centers. A big part of my job back then was (and in some ways, still is) to keep up to date on the state of the art in modern business telephony and omnichannel communications, which includes things like customer service via social media. One of the companies I covered was 8×8. When I launched Unido Digital over 2 years ago, we needed a telephony system, and fast! We wanted a flexible system that did not require a significant capital investment, and could expand or contract to meet our needs.
Based on the research I had previously done, and what I knew about the market, I shortlisted several vendors. 8×8, Interactive Intelligence (now part of Genesys), Vonage, Skype for Business, we also considered implementing our own Asterisk system connecting with Twilio. This was before they came out with their own Cloud PBX offering. I was very interested in Interactive Intelligence because I had interviewed and was impressed with their leadership, but when I went to contact them, I literally couldn’t get anyone on the phone, and their website’s contact form was broken; surely a bad sign.
8×8 put me right through to a very competent, professional and friendly salesperson named Marc. So, we signed up and off we went. We started with 4 extensions and eventually grew up to about 43. Along the way, we had a few technical issues, and their technical support and case management was generally very responsive and professional. On the other hand, our researchers generally hated 8×8’s softphone software. During our bi-weekly feedback sessions that we conduct with each employee, 8×8’s user interface and software was a constant gripe. As a user, I experienced some of the same bugs on my personal machine, which is a very fast ASUS i7 with 16 GB of RAM and an SSD drive. Our internet connection is fiber and all machines are hard-wired into Cisco Gigabit switches. I know that the problems were not on our end. 8×8’s people were very supportive of fixing some of the obvious bugs, but my team never stopped complaining about how the 8×8 softphone was sluggish, slowed down their machines when running, and often froze up, requiring restarts.
Anyway, the breaking point was when we came off of a big project and had to reduce the number of extensions. I was dismayed to be told by 8×8 that we “could only cancel extensions on the annual anniversary date of adding the service, and only by notifying 8×8 30 days before the anniversary date.” I knew that when I signed up with them, that to qualify for a certain promotion (they gave me a “free” Polycom desk phone) we had to maintain a relationship with them for at least a year, or I would be charged for the phone. That was fine. This was something totally different. So, we were stuck paying for dozens of extensions we had no use for. To be sure, I marked my calendar for the anniversary date. We originally had no immediate intentions of terminating our relationship with 8×8 but this left me feeling bitterly disappointed. Was it a case of me “not reading the fine print” when I signed up? It very well could be. I honestly don’t remember and I haven’t pulled up my original paperwork. The point is that I was stuck paying for cloud services I did not need. It hurt financially and stung emotionally.
Meanwhile, once again I investigated alternatives. We were already Amazon AWS users for our IT infrastructure. Amazon AWS has a business philosophy of “pay for only what you need, when you need it.” None of their services require a time or usage commitment, and most are actually free for experimentation or trial below a certain usage limit. Recently we had transferred our email services from Google to Amazon’s Workmail which has similar functionality to Microsoft’s Exchange. In fact, it uses lots of Exchange technology like ActiveSync. Amazon’s AWS Connect cloud PBX is what the company designed internally for their own customer support, and then released it to the public. There is no cost per extension, it can scale up to several thousand extensions (or, conforming to Amazon’s philosophy, you can have as little as one extension), and there is no minimum usage or per extension fee. At our peak, we had been making up to 9,000 minutes of calls per month. We are more of a technology & research firm than a traditional call center, so we don’t need the sophisticated inbound routing that customer service centers need, though AWS Connect seems to offer it. Both AWS Connect and 8×8 offer that inbound functionality, but with 8×8 you need a more expensive package than the one we had. I did the math, and with our previous provider, we were paying about 4 cents per minute for US calls. With Amazon we are paying 2.5 cents per minute and no minimum usage or per-extension fee. If we consumed no telephony next month, our bill with AWS would be $0.00 – I find that hard to beat.
Our entire bill from Amazon AWS for all services – telephony, 7 EC2 servers, 2 Lightsail web servers, DNS Management, RDS Database Service, Business Support, Workmail email servers, S3 storage, Quicksight Business Intelligence, etc. is less than we were paying just for telephony with our previous cloud telephony provider.
Amazon’s AWS uses the WebRTC protocol developed by Google, which means there is no software to install. It works from a browser. This means that you can log into the system from virtually anywhere, and connect to the system with full functionality. I have not yet tried to use AWS Connect from a mobile device so I don’t know how well it works on things other than a computer. I did have the 8×8 app on my iPhone, which was convenient, allowing me to stay connected on the go. If you called my desk number it would ring through to my mobile phone as an IP call. I do miss that functionality, though I didn’t use it very often.
One thing that I hope Amazon develops is SIP endpoint connectivity so people can use things like conference bridges and other SIP endpoints such as IP deskphones from Cisco or Polycom. We do have a USB speakerphone from Jabra that we use in our conference room, and it is just sublime. I want to get another one for personal use in hotels and such, for when I travel. With AWS Connect DID (Direct Inward Dial) telephone numbers are available for about 20 countries right now, and Colombia is not yet on the list. This is a big drawback for us, as we have to maintain a small, separate phone system in order to have in-country numbers. AWS recently opened a Colombia business office in Bogotá, so I hope it’s something they add soon. 8×8 does not have DID or a business presence in Colombia, and to my knowledge offers DID numbers in only 4 countries.
I know there are some fancy systems that may be better for omnichannel work that combines web chat, social media, email, and other communication modes into one platform. I don’t know how well Amazon integrates into those platforms, or what their roadmap is for developing those capabilities. On the plus side, AWS Connect integrates well into the AWS ecosystem, so one could design innovative applications using things like Amazon Lex, Polly, Alexa, etc. to make custom chatbots. The system already has very powerful workflows, call recording (into Amazon’s S3), logging, reporting, etc. The documentation is lacking so to learn how to use the system we opened a support case. Amazon’s technical support happily spent hours in web chat with us, essentially giving us user training. Though we do pay for a comprehensive AWS support plan, there was no extra charge.
I could be wrong, but I am almost certain that on the back end of Amazon’s system, their actual connection to the telephony grid is provided by Level 3 Communications as their wholesaler.
Twilio, a company that both collaborates with, and competes with Amazon just released Flex, their own cloud PBX offering, after being the platform behind the scenes that powers many off the biggest names in the contact center & cloud PBX vendors. I haven’t looked into the pricing or conditions, but it is surely powerful. My understanding is that it is more of a platform that VARs & systems integrators can use to develop and deploy customized solutions for customers; something like a telephony Lego set. This fits with Twilio’s strategy of being more of a platform provider for vendors and telephony programmers than a direct-to-customer company. People who deploy open-source PBX systems like Asterisk still need to get the telephony from somewhere. Twilio has always been an option for them.
So far we are happy with Amazon’s AWS service in general, and AWS Connect in particular. No system is the best fit for everyone in all circumstances, but it is far more than enough for what we need, the price, terms and conditions are very fair. WebRTC means no software to install, and it has worked flawlessly so far. I have received no complaints from the team and we are even experimenting with Work-From-Home now for some team members.