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As more customer interactions move online, what’s the role of SDN?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

The quality of customer interactions is one of the cornerstones of commerce. Historically, the most successful companies have demonstrated their understanding of what customers wanted and provided it in the most convenient way. While face-to-face relationships will always have their place, online interactions with customers are proving to be crucial too. Competition for customer loyalty can be fierce and gaining trust can be the key to a business’s success. In an age where consumers are in the position to be fickle and loyalty is at a low, it’s critical for businesses to prioritise online relationships and experiences.

In order to better meet growing customer expectations, cut costs and lessen their environmental impact, companies have been moving processes, infrastructure and customer interactions online. In fact, according to new research from Vodafone Business, 87 per cent of respondents interact with their customers via digital technology more frequently than they did two years ago. Customers also want these interactions to be secure, ensuring that the data they provide is safe and managed correctly. In fact, customers cited data security and privacy as key considerations, just behind price but ahead of vendor reputation. This highlights the importance of trusted interactions to the success of the business. Organisations cannot afford to get this wrong.

To support the move to online interactions, there has been an accompanying investment in the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing. These technologies allow for more operational flexibility and the ability to collate data from different elements of the customer’s digital and physical journey.

What role does the network play?

However, the journey doesn’t end once customer interactions move online. Businesses must actively manage these interactions, ensuring that every time there is a point of contact between the customer and the business, expectations are met. Maintaining a consistent level of service can be difficult, especially at scale or during peak periods of activity, so network management is key. This consistency is critical to preserving customer trust in the organisation.

Traditional network management relies on integrated hardware and software, built into components like routers and switches, to both manage and move data across the network. At its heart, Software Defined Networking (SDN) separates the software that controls where and how data moves across a network from the networking hardware that moves the data itself. The control software is then moved to a centralised location.

This separation provides crucial advantages including greater visibility over the network, the ability to make rapid changes to the network to meet an organisation’s changing requirements and provides finer control over the network security. By using centralised software to manage the network it becomes more agile, easier to control and ready to adapt to future connectivity requirements.

SDN is built for digital, cloud-first businesses, introducing unprecedented levels of control, visibility and flexibility. It creates a dynamic environment that can respond to changes in demand and optimise customer experiences by directing traffic via the best connectivity paths to get the highest possible value and performance from the network. It allows businesses to cope with peaks and troughs in customer demands, without compromising the customer journey. For instance, during unexpectedly busy periods, the network will increase bandwidth to cope with the extra demand and data it needs to process and action.

Creating intelligent networks

In the future, these processes will happen automatically through artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technology, increasing efficiency further. Intelligent networks are set to deliver real change, pairing the flexibility of SDN with AI and machine learning to anticipate, adjust and optimise the network based on need. These networks will have the ability to automatically plan for the known and adjust for the unforeseen. 

Optimising networks has historically placed large time demands on network administrators, but as AI and ML technology develops the network will be able to learn for itself. This enables administrators to focus on more important tasks that will add value and further improve the network. Forward-thinking organisations will make use of self-optimising networks to analyse a particular criteria, such as the weather, footfall or customer behaviour, and act proactively in response to ensure it is performing well.

Barrier to SDN adoption

Despite the benefits SDN provides, it can present challenges when it comes to implementation. Some organisations are reluctant to make changes to their network, fearing interference will cause outages that take critical applications offline, and damage those all-important customer relationships. In addition, there might not be the relevant IT skills to ensure a smooth implementation. As customer trust and advocacy is such a priority, the risk of a reputational and financial fallout following an outage is enough to make business leaders cautious about adoption. In other cases, previous investment in expensive legacy equipment makes it difficult to justify additional spend, even if there is a clear customer experience case to be made. However, businesses cannot afford to stand still for long. The expectations and demands of the market are shifting rapidly and companies must prioritise optimising their network now to avoid being left behind.

The future of customer interactions is digital, fitting directly with modern lifestyles. Enabling great online customer service is critical to success in a market where customers are only too willing to vote with their feet, or with a click of their mouse, and move to a competitor. Losing customer trust can be a huge blow to any organisation, so prioritising network management and ensuring the business is able to withstand shifts in demand will be key to maintaining and building trust in the future.

With SDN, the network is ready to step-up during times of high demand and is consistently available. It supports employee-facing technologies such as collaboration software, call-centre data and marketing platforms. It forms a fundamental part of both the customer and employee experience, powering the technologies that ensure retention and satisfaction, regardless of the audience. Ultimately, failure to adopt SDN now could have far-reaching implications for organisations in the not-so distant future. Digitalisation is changing the world we live and work in and businesses must ensure their networks are ready.

Peter Terry-Brown, Unified Communications and Connectivity Director, Vodafone Business