Spotlight: Twilio’s Call Centre in a Box

1f676eeLike all other industries, telephony is taking a beating from the disruptors, with Twilio leading its charge from the cloud.

The company’s cloud-based API is already being used by some 350,000 individuals and businesses, including many of the of the world’s leading digital brands, like Airbnb, eBay and Coca-Cola, to power everything from virtual call centres to one-off SMS stunts.

“We’re taking an industry that’s been hardware based and very opaque, and turning it into a software business that’s more transparent,” says James Parton, director of Twilio Europe. “Before Twilio you had to do multiple deals with lots of slow-moving bureaucratic companies – we’ve turned that into going to the website, creating an account and making a phone ring in three minutes.”

In the past, Parton explains, companies had to spend hundreds of thousands on hardware and sign lengthy contracts without knowing what their phone usage would eventually be. “You had to buy those systems to manage your peak. An organisation like Children in Need would have to scale for one night a year and the rest of time its system would be useless. In the cloud, you can scale hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, second-by-second.”

It helps to think of Twilio as the ‘Amazon Web Services for telephony’, Parton says: “We’re not trying to replace traditional telcos. There’s a misinterpretation of who we are and what we do. We’re not a Skype or Viber or WhatsApp; we actually have contractual relationships with the telcos.”

Telephone infrastructure may not seem like the go-to place for founders looking to find glitzy startup fame – and in fact, Twilio’s beauty is in its invisibility. The company actively encourages others to build services on its platform, the likes of Liveops recently started working with Google to offer a ‘call centre in a box’, and it also enables others to integrate Twilio into their existing systems.

One of Twilio’s most frequent use cases is two-factor authentication, which is becoming the de facto method to prevent hacking and fraud for online services. “We don’t build first party apps, we’re not building skype, we just love the infrastructure – but we are making sure we can help you deliver all of that stuff that you want to do.”

Parton says that voice and text solutions are actually helping companies to fill gaps where we now know apps are falling down: “If you’ve got a spontaneous call to action it’s incredibly frustrating to download an app before you can engage with a brand. And we all know trying to build something that works across all different platforms is difficult.

“We’re now seeing agencies and brands coming full-circle on building apps. Bigger brands often have four or five, but how do you manage that on people’s phones? Compare that to a service triggered by SMS and phone calls, deployed straight out of the box.”

Agencies are also now making the move to create their own IP in house, Parton explains, with Twilio providing its API for added functionality. “We’ve spotted a trend where digital agencies are trying to move further up value chain and away from simply focusing on campaign work. Whether they hire their own development teams or partner with boutique agencies to do serious software development, they are now creating apps and services of their own.”

This technology has been implemented in some novel ways: last Christmas, Twilio helped the agency Poke work with EE to deploy a snow cannon operated simply by sending a text, while Wieden and Kennedy, has helped operator 3 open up a compliment line to promote the fact that mobile calls to 0800 numbers are free on its network. Parton emphasises that this isn’t just for hipsters in cafes in Shoreditch, however – you can build serious things on top of Twilio, like Coco-Cola’s automated SMS system for field technicians when a vending machine breaks down.

Because of its agility, Parton has also seen agencies use Twilio to create quick prototypes for them to take to pitch meetings. If you want to have a go of Twilio, it’s as simple as signing up and having a free go. If you’re serious about setting up an international business on the fly, you can get phone numbers in 50 different countries and send and receive texts and calls in 198. “We help bridge gaps so that you can do things cheaply or easily that you weren’t able to before.”

“It’s pay-as-you-go, there’s no huge upfront investment, no huge cost for maintenance,” Parton says. “We are here to disrupt the existing way of doing things so if you have a slightly outdated model you will find Twilio is your competition. We’re creating a completely different telephony infrastructure.”