Get connected: Avaya Nidal Abou-Ltaif

Nidal Abou-Ltaif, president of Avaya International, explains how the telecoms equipment giant is taking on new technology, new challenges and new markets.
Get connected: Avaya Nidal Abou-Ltaif
By Neil Halligan
Sat 15 Oct 2016 12:18 AM

If you thought of Avaya as being just a company that makes the phone on your desk at work, think again.

From artificial intelligence to technology that can judge a person’s mood, the Californian telecoms equipment giant has been steadily diversifying its offerings in recent years.

And at this year’s GITEX, the firm — which pulled in just over $4bn in revenues worldwide last year, with profits of a little under $400m — will be making a number of bold announcements.

Discarding the traditional ‘show your wares’ of most tech providers, Avaya plans to do a series of ‘firsts’ at the annual technology trade event in Dubai’s World Trade Centre.

“We’re showing artificial intelligence for the first time in customer experience,” says Nidal Abou-Ltaif, president of Avaya International, referring to the banking solution that the company has developed.

“We’re announcing the first artificial intelligence with a bank. First in the region — we can’t say what it is,” he adds.

In another first, Avaya will also showcase its software that can detect a person’s mood.

“It reads your face to tell you if you’re happy or not,” reveals Abou-Ltaif, who looks after Avaya’s business everywhere except the US.  “It’s what we used in the Sochi games [the recent Winter Olympics] to predict for security. We embedded it in all CCTV cameras to sense if people were tense or not and about to [possibly] do something. And it tells if you’re happy or sad, or depressed. It’s interesting.”

Abou-Ltaif reveals that Avaya is developing three prototypes for three different departments of Dubai government.

The company will also hold the global launch at Gitex of its new touchscreen unit that Abou-Ltaif suggests could revolutionise the hotel industry — at least from a customer experience point of view — removing the need to have multiple devices to control different elements in a room.

Avaya offers services in security, resiliency and end-user experience.

“The device is more to add to the room and make it more intelligent and give the customer better experience and reduce costs, because they don’t generate money from it. Right now they have two or three devices in the room,” he says.

Like an iPad, the desktop mounted device has the ability to connect to multiple services within a building — like a hotel — using the building’s call centre. He says it was developed in Dubai for the hospitality industry after the company’s head of R&D came to the emirate to consult with established hoteliers here.

“The idea came from the hospitality sector in Dubai. The majority of it [input] came from Jumeirah Group, Rotana Group and Atlantis, who are our customers,” he says.

“It can be used as a phone, but you can use it for everything else — to control the room, the temperature.”

The device is also an open platform, meaning it can be programmed by developers who can write software for it. As well as launching the phone at Gitex, Avaya has invited 15 developers to develop applications for the new platform live at its stand.

“What we’re doing at Gitex, as we launch it, we’re bringing some companies who do software development and let them write applications for the device during the five days,” Abou-Ltaif says.

Currently, he says Avaya provides a lot of back-end programmes for hotels that help with facility management, hotel management and billing.

Abou-Ltaif says Avaya is also looking to introduce a different customer experience for hotel guests, particularly at the luxury end of the market, where much of the newer technology is being deployed.

 “If you check-in with the same hotel chain, they should know you, and should study your behaviour to know what you like and don’t like, such as having the A/C on 19 [degrees],” he says. “We’re trying to introduce this kind of customer experience to hospitality. When I come [to visit], it doesn’t matter if it’s a different country, the hotel will know me and when I walk to reception they will know all my habits and what I like.”

Hotel operators like Jumeirah and Atlantis have already started to utilise technology to give the customer that extra personal touch.


“Most of the [luxury] hotels now are check-in as you land at the airport. You check-in with their car, so by the time you reach the hotel, they are waiting by the door with a key. Jumeirah and Atlantis do this. That’s what we do with hospitality,” he says. 

Marriott and Starwood were already customers prior to the former's acquisition of the later, and while it is still early days, Abou-Ltaif views the tie-up as positive for the company.

“We may lose the number of users, but it increases the content and service they buy from us. They will require more help and services. It becomes easier for us to deal with them, also; it’s less expensive,” he says.

“We just recently connected a few hotels through their private cloud that uses telephony. Instead of building in a system in every hotel, they use the cloud so the phone is connected to somewhere in the building to their service provider.”

In a deal that is due to be announced this week, Avaya has signed a contract to build a contact centre for dnata Travel, with bases in Dubai, Philippines, UK and Ireland.

“All the customers with dnata Travel will be able to call this new contact centre. As you know, dnata is trying to be one of the largest holiday providers in the world. It’s a private cloud contact centre that we’re building.

“They are not bound to equipment and premises. It’s owned by them and it’s only dnata contact centre agents who can access this cloud. They are big enough to have their own cloud.”

Anything that uses the internet always comes under scrutiny when it comes to security issues. High-profile incidents involving professional hackers — the recent attacks on the US Democratic Party organisation or the leaked confidential athlete data from world cycling’s anti-doping body — have heightened concerns surrounding cyber security.

Abou-Ltaif, using an analogy of builders installing windows, says sometimes the window breaks, but it’s important to make sure that it remains closed.

“The more that technology becomes more advanced, the hackers become more advanced, and companies who protect us from them keep building things. It’s like Tom and Jerry,” he says.

Businesses can benefit from Avaya’s seamless contact centre infrastructure and applications.

“Our security has to keep testing and improving so that we don’t have holes. Do I trust the cloud? We have no choice. We are using it every day. Your Gmail is on cloud, your pictures are on cloud. Will the governments all go to cloud? They still have concerns,” he admits.

Abou-Ltaif says he believes there will eventually be three different types of clouds.

“One that’s public, easy to use, like Gmail. Then some private like we did for Dnata and some people hybrid — I want to keep all my bank accounts, and my customer information on private cloud, and I want to have a public cloud to provide them with SMS services with a promotion.”

Providing cloud and unified communications (communications system that encompasses a broad range of technologies and applications on a single communications platform or as one entity) as a service are some of the key components of Avaya’s business.

To meet a shift in demand, Avaya has transitioned itself from being a hardware supplier to a software-and-services provider — software and services today account for more than three quarters of its revenue.

In its third quarter figures, Avaya reported revenues of $206m in the EMEA region. Abou-Ltaif says the Gulf region accounts for more than 60 percent of its Middle East and Africa business.

In the contact centre space, Abou-Ltaif says Avaya has 70-plus percent market share. “In some countries we have 90 percent,” he says. “We have 90 percent of all the major contact centres which are 300 users and above. In Unified communications, in some places we are number one, or number two. When it comes to hospitality businesses, we have 80-85 percent market share. Almost every new hotel that’s built, we put a solution in place.”

Business in each GCC country is largely the same, he says, from year to year, although it can change depending on demand.  “For example some countries go on a big year of refreshing their contact centre,” he says.

“Kuwait last year was a contact centre country, because we have changed all the service provider contact centres, upgraded them, removed our competition and put a new advanced contact centre that will lead them to what people refer to as omni-channel.”

Bahrain telco Viva has led the way in terms of providing cloud unified communications as a service to the public.

Abou-Ltaif has been instrumental in expanding Avaya’s presence in the region.

“Bahrain was the first country in this region to do it. It was brave, fast, enthusiasm from the young leaders in Bahrain, as well as from Viva. The CEO is one of the very aggressive young men. He’s moving the business from mobile going to provide other services to the enterprise,” he says.

“We provide net telephony — providing unified communications as a service — which means if I’m a small [or] medium sized business in Bahrain, I can go and apply to Viva Bahrain and they will provide me with the phones I want, what service I want with the phones, what kind of communication I want, as well as mobile service. And I pay as I use. It’s less [in cost], more dynamic.”

Qatar, he says, has been largely dominated by contracting work for buildings being built for the World Cup in 2022.

“We’ve been doing some stadium and a lot of hospitality, and hotels, providing contact centres, unified communications, networking, wi-fi and hospitality solutions,” he says.

Abou-Ltaif describes Avaya’s business in Saudi Arabia as “mixed”.

“It has started to move [again]. I think it was a little bit of chaos before. The country is big, the potential is good. The new trends in banks and governments are very promising. Would it be as fast as before? Maybe better than before, because before [it] was pure construction business that technology falls under, instead of having a vision to build it,” he says.

He describes Oman as a small and medium business country, with a few big enterprises like PDO, Bank of Muscat, service providers Nawras (now Ooredoo Oman) and Omantel.

“UAE is totally different. Dubai has built things that are smart [technology] and digital. Abu Dhabi is the same,” he says.

The big business in UAE for Avaya continues to be with the government, and the banking sector, equally, across all of its portfolio.

“Every call you place here [in the UAE] goes through our call centre. You call the RTA — taxi, metro, — it goes through our system. If you call immigration, it’s the same. If you call Dubai Police, other than 911, same thing,” he says.

Avaya is a leader in the latest communication technologies and smart applications.

Abou-Ltaif describes the RTA is the “most advanced in government” in the region. In the banking sector, he says Emirates NBD is way ahead of the rest when it comes to adopting new technology.

“If you go and see the branch of the future they have opened, and how they are connecting everything to the customer experience centre, they are catering for the younger generation who will choose how they will communicate with the bank and how the bank will become everything for them.

“Their vision is ‘if you call us, if you deal with us, we can do everything for you’. That’s an impressive vision, but it’s also the trend going around the world.”

He says the key areas of growth in the Gulf will centre on those looking to make the digital transformation, to “improved customer experience”.

“I can’t say we’re going to grow our telephony, or our contact centre, I think we will grow our services,” he says.

“When you go to digital, number one you eliminate mistakes, which costs organisations a lot of money, customer loyalty, satisfaction and of course opportunity. It improves productivity and saves money. It creates more privacy for customers when you digitise things.”

Issues in the region, including oil and the geopolitical situation, will impact upon the company’s figures this year.

“In the Middle East we did not reach what we aspired to do. The oil price hit us late, and then definitely there was the impact of war. We’re staying flat,” he says.

“Next year, as we close [our financial year], our plan is to grow from this year by between 7 and 9 percent from one place to another. It’s very aggressive. We’re optimistic at the [low] oil price end; we were more optimistic that the warzone will finish and will have no warzone.”

Abou-Ltaif argues there will be a lot of focus on how companies could build customer loyalty in the future, and about keeping and serving the customer’s needs.

“That thin line between consumer and enterprise is gone. It’s the consumer that’s absolutely driving the business of enterprise and everybody else. With mobile phone, provide them with everything or else they will not deal with you.”

The future, Abou-Ltaif  says, will see more use of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, particularly in the banking sector. Technology, he says, will enable prospective buyers to view house and walk through it, or a car buyer could visit a showroom and take a look around a new vehicle, pick out the colours and the features.

“What we’re showing at Gitex is what experience should look like five or ten years down the line,” he says.

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