The Virtual Private Network (VPN) is Dying. Here's Why.

A lot has changed since I left college and entered the workforce.  My first “real” job began July 5, 1983 at the company formerly known as Northern Telecom.  My first desk telephone was an analog 2500 set.  I did most of my work on a green CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) screen logged into a PDP-11 via a 9600 baud modem.  There were no cell phones, e-readers, Google, or Microsoft Word.  Heck, in 1983 there was barely a Microsoft.

I don’t want to sound too much like an old geezer reminiscing on a park bench, but I can’t help but marvel at how different things are today.  However, as much as the technology has changed, so has the way I do my job.  My job used to be a place I went to.  If my car broke down, I didn’t work.   If the roads were too icy to drive on, I didn’t work.  If I had to stay home for a repair person, I didn’t work.  I suppose I could have sat down with a pad of paper and wrote PLM code (my first professional programming language) by hand, but that wasn’t very practical.

These days, work is something I do and not a place I go.  I work at home.  I work from airports and hotel rooms.  I’ve worked at my kid’s baseball games and swim meets.  Remember when we used to take sick days?  Now, I just prop myself up in bed and call it my office.  No matter where I am, I have immediate access to email, instant messages, video, and enterprise telephony.  The presence jellybean on my Microsoft Lync client might tell you that I am available, but it doesn’t let on that I am working in a coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis.

Of course, the only thing constant about change is change itself.  It’s true that I have moved from being an office worker to an everywhere worker, but aspects of that are quite different from what they were just a short time ago.

The biggest change for me has to do with three words – Virtual Private Network.  A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is technology that creates a tunnel between a remote device and a corporation’s network.  When I start the VPN on my PC, it’s as if I am sitting in the office connected to the Ethernet jack underneath my desk.   I see no difference in the way my applications run or act upon corporate data.

I clearly remember the days when I would go home, start my PC, fire up my VPN, and start working on the day’s unfinished tasks.  Now, I go home, tuck my PC bag under my desk, pull my iPhone out of my pocket, and get back to emails, IMs, and telephone calls without the use of a VPN.  Yes, there are still times when I need a PC for its screen and keyboard, but even then I rarely start up my VPN.

So, what changed?  How do I gain access to the tools I need without having to connect to the corporate network?

chess king fallen

The King is Dead

A VPN connection secures a device – all of the device.  It creates an encrypted data tunnel between my PC and the VPN concentrator at my company’s headquarters.  In essence, a VPN allows my PC to act as if it is hanging off a very long Ethernet cable.  The upside is that to my PC’s applications, office and home look alike.  The downside is that not only does Microsoft Office have full access to my corporate LAN, so does everything else on my PC.  Any virus or ill-behaved application that sneaks onto my PC has that same unfettered access.

Since this is my work-issued PC, the security threat is the same at home as it is in the office.  However, the same cannot be said about my iPhone.  It’s not a corporate device and my company has no control over what I put on it.  Or how about my personal PC?  I can create a VPN connection on it back to my office and subject my company to anything my kids might have downloaded.

So, what’s a teleworker to do?

The answer is really quite simple.  Instead of securing the device, let’s secure the application and the connection it has back to the corporate network.  In terms of SIP that comes down to three more words – Session Border Controller.   An SBC creates a secure network edge that only accepts and passes SIP signaling and RTP media.  I configure One-X Mobile on my iPhone to point to my company’s Avaya SBC for Enterprise and voila – remote enterprise telephony without having to start a VPN on the iPhone.  It doesn’t matter what else I might have on my mobile device.  The SBC makes sure that only the SIP traffic gets in and out.

This is very similar to how we secure web applications.  The next time you use Outlook Web Access (OWA), make note of the fact that your web browser is using secure HTTP (HTTPS).  Similar to the SIP messages to and from my iPhone, the browser’s stream of data has been secured and not the device the browser is running on.

The benefits of securing the application instead of the device are significant.  My IT department can provide me access to the company’s SIP communications system without having to worry about anything malicious sneaking into the corporate network.  I can load up my iPhone with as many games as I want and not a one of them will get past the SBC.

This holds true for other devices, as well.  An SBC can secure the SIP traffic from an Android phone, iPad, Surface RT, PC, Mac, or any other device that supports SIP communications.  This allows an enterprise to fully embrace Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) while safely managing security risks.

Will there still be uses for VPNs?  Yes, but like modems, VPNs are falling out of favor.  Enterprises are far more security savvy than they were a few short years ago.  Securing applications makes more sense than trying to secure an entire device.  This is especially true since many IT departments have lost control over what their users put on those devices.  They may not be able to control the device or the user, but with tools such as SBCs, they can control the data they allow in and out of their networks.

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This article originally appeared on Andrew Prokop’s unified communications blog, SIP Adventures, and is reprinted with permission.

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The Value of Enterprise Mobility—Spread the Love

In a recent blog, I mentioned my sister-in-law’s frustration at not being able to use her smart phone for work purposes and how many businesses are struggling with the mindset change required for real digital transformation. That’s not to say that there aren’t valid business concerns about bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and mobility generally. Failure to secure mobile telephony and collaboration can open enterprises to significant risks.

A good example of those concerns came up at a recent conference while talking to an Avaya customer about BYOD. The customer’s perspective was that companies should just let their employees use personal mobile devices, with no need for an enterprise-grade software client to tie the device to the company network, databases, apps or governance. (Enterprise grade in this context means having call logs, directories, presence capabilities and access to enterprise collaboration tools like video and web conferencing, no matter where or how you work, or on what.) The approach of not having such a software client would fulfill employees’ desire to use their own phones, as well as the familiar tools and apps on them, without the need for the comprehensive security required by an integrated BYOD strategy.

We explained that just an hour earlier another Avaya customer had approached with a concerning story:

The customer’s company allowed its salespeople to use their personal cell phones without connecting directly to the company network. The problem: when one sales person recently left the company, all of the intellectual property of the company (contacts, pipeline information) went with them. Our customer wanted to know how to solve for this.

Avaya enterprise-grade solutions for mobile devices directly address the concerns that customers and others often express: a significant amount of flexibility for employees, security and privacy for everyone involved, and a measure of control over processes, policies, and data. Avaya mobility solutions are open, so they are adaptable to different devices and platforms. They capture important information that can lead to faster, more informed decisions and, ultimately, better outcomes. In short, they enable companies to operate at the speed of their customers.

The point is consumers and employees today are increasingly mobile. Gartner predicts that 80% of key business processes will include exchange of real-time information involving mobile workers. Not being able to use employee-owned devices slows business down. So the business case for mobility solutions—the flexibility they offer customers and employees, the improved outcomes, and the support of intelligent business response and decision-making—points toward value that outweighs the risks. Enterprise-grade mobile communications solutions have reached a level of both maturity and sophistication that they can now meet the needs of all stakeholders in the employer/employee/consumer equation. Everyone can share the love.

How is your organization addressing mobility? I’d love to hear from you.

Also, be sure to check us out at GITEX Technology Week 2016 where we will showcase our latest innovations designed to enable companies to meet customer and employee expectations with true multi-touch communication capabilities.


In the Digital Economy, the Human Touch Still Matters

According to Gartner, by year-end 2018, a customer digital assistant will recognize individuals by face and voice across channels and partners. Gartner predicts that the last mile for multichannel and exceptional customer experiences will mimic human conversations, with both listening and speaking, a sense of history, in-the-moment context, and the ability to respond, add to, and continue with a thought or purpose at multiple occasions and places over time.

The digital era has made it possible for many customer service functions to be automated, alluding to a possible future where customer service representatives could be replaced by robots. However, the human touch still has incredible value to the service experience. Customer service representatives (CSRs) have the deepest insight into customer likes and dislikes and are most likely the closest to the ground when it comes to customer sentiments—a variable that cannot be measured by robots. This is where companies need to move service reps from mere dispensing of services to customer engagement.

Today, communications must be centered on improving human connections, delighting customers, and energizing employees. This context-aware communication and collaboration is known as engagement—the active connection between team members and customers to the information, experts, and decision-makers they need to complete the task at hand. As the pace of business accelerates in the digital economy, employees need to have critical information at their fingertips at all times—making engagement experience more crucial than ever.

The true value of engagement is only realized when meaningful, communications-empowered connections among individuals, teams, contacts, and customers are formed. Supporting participation across time and space on any device, engagement will lead to better business outcomes; more productivity, loyalty, enthusiasm, customer satisfaction, and customer advocacy.

It’s no secret that loyal, returning customers have a higher customer lifetime value (CLV) than new ones. They spend more money and are more likely to recommend businesses to their friends and across social media. According to a SumAll survey, businesses with 40% repeat customers generated nearly 50% more revenue than similar businesses with only 10% percent repeat customers. And every time customers return, they become more valuable to the business.

Engaging Customers in the Digital Era

To drive engagement, businesses need simple, human-centric communication and collaboration built deep into business processes. Tight business application/process integration ensures customer data is always updated and CSRs have the latest knowledge about their customers—allowing businesses to provide more personalized customer service standards.

To truly empower the CSRs of the future, companies can, and need to, integrate all of their customer channels—web site, mobile apps, call centers, brick and mortar locations—to create a seamless experience, regardless of how the customer moves through the system. Whether the customers are on your web site, app, or service line, customers today expect brands to instantly recognize who they are, what they purchased, and where else they have engaged with the brand. An integrated service approach will not only eliminate time wasted gathering data you already have, it will also allow the rep to immediately focus on the customer’s needs, which directly impacts customer experience.

With Gartner predicting that 90% of companies will compete almost entirely on the basis of customer experience in 2016, there is no room for siloed business practices and protocols that get in the way of good customer service.

In a digital economy, human interactions will continue to play a crucial role in customer retention. CSRs need to be aided with the right tools and intelligence to deliver even more superior customer service that doesn’t just solve customer issues but also anticipates company needs to surge ahead of the competition.

Digital Transformation Begins and Ends with the Customer

Being a consumer today can be frustrating. We are armed with uber powerful, smart devices that encourage multitasking from anywhere there is a connection. But the one obstacle continues to be the companies, small and large, we want to do business with via these devices. For the most part, these companies are not yet as smart as our smart, handheld devices.

It almost feels like being the first fax machine owner. It must have been a terrific feeling, but who could you talk to?

Is the gap between consumers’ smart devices and the digitization of the companies we want to do business with ever going shrink? Or will the consumer’s device always be smarter?

Smart devices have been around for a long time. In 2016 we would not consider ourselves early adopters. However, when comparing smart device adoption to corporation’s adoption of digital engagement technology, many corporation’s global infrastructures are still not as smart as our handheld devices. Case in point, last year Dimension Data reported that two out of five companies say that their current digital channel systems don’t meet current needs and less than half of those companies believe their digital infrastructure will deliver against future needs. With smart phone subscriptions expected to surpass basic phone subscriptions this year, companies are clearly struggling—and already predicting that they will continue to struggle—to keep up with their customers’ digital needs and expectations, starting with true mobility.

Think about that: the consumer experience is ahead of what most companies’ IT can deliver today and your smart device can do things for you that a global IT infrastructure, with all it scale and cost, can’t. It’s a very strange reality.

The reality for these companies is that investments in upgrading and modernizing to digitize an entire infrastructure takes budget, time, planning, and most important, commitment. Yet, not digitizing fast enough can be detrimental to the bottom line if your customers, partners, suppliers can’t interact with you as easily as they can your competitors.

Where to Start a Digital Transformation

After a company has determined that digitizing their infrastructure is an urgent matter and can no longer wait, the next challenge is planning where to start—all the while, your customers are continuing to get smarter devices. Every function, from human resources to procurement to sales to marketing, will benefit. But the truth is that the need to modernize the infrastructure originated with the customer. So doesn’t it make sense that the modernization starts where the customer interacts most—the customer experience center?

I willfully admit that may be an obvious answer coming from the CTO of Avaya. But as a customer myself, I want to do business with companies that prioritize me as a customer, and invest accordingly. I don’t want to read in the press how great their IT is if I cannot get my questions answered or my requests fulfilled and have a poor or lukewarm customer experience.

This goes back to the basics of business success. The basics that are often overlooked in the fast paced, digital world we live in: the customer is always right. The customer is the priority. The customer is why we’re in business. Treat customers as you would want to be treated. Customer. Customer. Customer. You can’t go wrong putting the customer first. User experience is king.

Unfortunately many companies who have, or are undertaking a digital transformation in order to survive, have forgotten that it’s the customer’s experience that is most important, not the company’s experience. Sure the company benefits from a digital transformation—the CAPEX and OPEX benefits are many. Employees will be more efficient, productivity will be up, performance will be easier to assess and modify. But the focus must still be about how the transition will affect the customer’s experience with the company from beginning to end.

Furthermore, the practice of contact center technology management has enabled teams to perfect how to evolve the services associated with the voice channel. Voice is often considered the most complex, technologically challenging channel—voice quality matters, and issues are immediately perceptible. As an industry, we have spent years studying and understanding how to improve upon the quality and delivery of voice to the customer experience. This same ongoing attention to detail, planning and understanding of quality needs to be applied to every additional touch point made available to the customer to connect with you. This is the humanization of going digital.

A Case for Retailers

Take traditional retailers for example. Any traditional retailer that started out as brick and mortar then needed to evolve to online sales in order to survive is compared to the king of online, digital retail: Amazon. One thing Amazon knows is that being a digital retailer is not just about putting products and services online and making them available for purchase. The real value is in defining the actual customer experience of the online shopper, and increasingly the online mobile shopper.

  • Is the online, mobile experience the same experience customers have when they visit a store or better?
  • Is the process for returning an online purchase the same experience as returning at the store or better?
  • If there is a problem with the product after it’s been purchased, is the online, voice, video, chat, omnichannel customer service experience the same as in store or better?
  • Is the customer punished for purchasing online by having to pay added shipping fees?

Notice that none of these questions ask: is the company’s experience the same or better?

This is why starting a digital transformation with the customer experience center, aka the contact center, is the logical starting point. The contact center will never be pure digital because customers expect some human interaction at some point. Add to that, that more often than not, employees—subject matter experts—outside the contact center are more actively involved with customer experience. As a result, every scenario or use case for human interaction needs to be considered and planned for during a digital transformation. Maybe the human interaction is not during the shopping process or the purchasing process. But having the ability—the option—to connect with another human being when questions or doubts arise before, during, or after the purchase is a key part of any customer journey. It builds loyalty and a long-term digital relationship with the customer.

Hidden Benefit of Customer-focused Starting Point

A hidden benefit of starting with the customer experience is that you already have people excited and ready to help you through the transition. I’m not talking about your vendor—obviously they will be there with a plan in place to partner with you through every step—if not, then you have the wrong vendor. I’m talking about your contact center agents.

Many companies when they start this transition have learned that their agents, as customers themselves and in their personal lives, are very comfortable working on multiple channels in addition to talking on the phone. In fact, the learning curve for the agents is often not as time intensive as originally anticipated. They’re excited to be able to engage with customers on any channel and create an integrated, omnichannel experience. More importantly, they understand the benefits of being able to see the customer’s entire experience history with the company—from in-store, to online, to social, to experience with products and services, etc.

That said, for social channels, more than half of companies will typically have a dedicated social response team in place to respond to customers on social channels. But having access to the customer’s history of interactions with the company across all channels, including social, is a relief to any customer interaction agent—contact center or in store. One of the top complaints by agents is not having a complete view into all of the customer’s interactions with the company. No one likes to feel stupid when trying to calm down and possibly save an unhappy customer. Having a complete view of the customer across all channels including an historical view should be a priority. Yet 79% of companies still don’t have this view today.

Many companies will say that the delay in providing their agents with a complete customer journey view is because they are still trying to leverage legacy investments through their digital transformation. Managing a digital transformation of the customer experience center by keeping legacy investments in place, while completely understandable, is not without risk. With more than 2.6 billion global users of smart phones, the risk in delaying a full digital transition is quickly losing business to competitors who are digitizing their entire infrastructure without looking back.

Once the decision to go digital is made and communicated, going digital starting with the customer experience is exciting. It means being able to be more efficient, which makes people more productive. The ability to have each customer’s historical record of interactions across all channels readily available means the agents are better informed about each customer, which allows the agents to do a better job with each customer. It also provides a single location for analytics to work its magic—but analytics is important enough on its own to be the focus of a separate blog at a later date. This is where and how customer loyalty and customer satisfaction start to go up.

It is clear to me that the level of excitement is directly correlated to the fact that your agents/employees are also customers themselves. They are smart device users. They know from experience how painful it is to try to interact with a company that is not yet digitally transformed.

And we’ve come full circle. The customer—more than 2.6 billion smart device users—is the real focus of a digital transition. On behalf of customers everywhere, please don’t forget that.