By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.
PBXs (and ACDs) are generally configured with an attendant console. Though a console can take on different forms and appearances, at its most basic, it is a fancy telephone which is given “permissions” to do advanced features that cannot be accomplished by other phones and users on the system.
Traditional Attendant Consoles: Historically, consoles were electro-mechanical devices, with a dizzying array of buttons that took up considerable space on a desk. Over time, these consoles have become less mechanical and more electronic, nevertheless they still function as an expanded telephone.
Many readers, no doubt, still have and use these types of consoles in their hospitals and call centers. Designed for efficient and effective answer-transfer activity, these phones have additional buttons – sometimes a hundred or more – to minimize the number of actions required per call. Additionally, some buttons are “smart keys,” processing multiple actions with a single push (such as “hold” current call and “connect” to new call) or changing function depending on the situation (such as “answer” if not connected to a call, but “hook-flash” if connected).
PC Attendant Consoles: Although these standard, entry-level consoles are vastly superior to the functionality and efficiency of a standard PBX phone set, they pale in comparison to the ease-of-use and feature-rich effectiveness of a PC attendant console. As the name implies, PC attendant consoles are computer-based call-processing units with a familiar Windows interface.
A basic PC attendant console is available from virtually all PBX vendors. There are several benefits provided by PC attendants. First and foremost is that calls can be processed faster, requiring less arm movement and with touch-typing speed. This implies labor savings and cost reduction. If even one FTE (full-time equivalent) is saved per year by using a PC attendant, then it has more than paid for itself. However, the labor-saving effect is often greater than one FTE – and occurs year after year.
A second benefit is the Windows interface. Trainers generally concur that training is easier and faster on a familiar-looking computer screen with intuitive actions, than on a intimidating and foreboding traditional console. In fact, unless advanced functions are repeated frequently on a traditional console, they tend to be forgotten, performed incorrectly, or done without confidence. With the user interface of a PC attendant, these concerns are greatly minimized.
A third benefit is added functionality. Even at its most basic, a PC attendant includes a directory feature, allowing for instantaneous access to hospital extensions and room numbers. This speeds answer-transfer functions and greatly increases accuracy. Therefore, for the one-time cost of purchasing a PC attendant, there are ongoing labor savings, training efficiencies, and additional functionality.
Advanced PC Attendant Consoles: More sophisticated PC attendants are available from third-party providers. These include both software-centric solutions and hardware implementations. Whereas a PC attendant is an adjunct offering from a PBX vendor, it is a core competency and primary focus of third-party providers. Although the details vary, along with their respective labels, here are some features you can expect from a third-party PC attendant:
- CTI (Computer-Telephony Integration) directly links a call with the information needed for that call or that is gathered from the caller. There are various levels of sophistication with CTI, but most third-party providers have implemented this at its most optimum level. (See Information Transfer and ANI.)
- Directory Services which are available enterprise-wide, assist agents in quickly and accurately locating members of the organization.
- Agent Greeting goes by many different names such as Operator Saver, Perfect Answer, Answer-with-a-Smile, and Personalized Auto-Answer. It provides automated greetings in the attendant’s voice. This allows an agent to record a “perfect” greeting and then use it repeatedly throughout the day, guaranteeing that every call is optimally answered. Other benefits are less agent fatigue and a stronger voice at the end of the shift. This is a requirement in hospital and call center environments.
- Messaging Options enable operators to type messages into their computer and to send them, at the touch of a keystroke or two, to any destination including voice mail, email, fax, printer, pager, or text-enabled cell phone. Third-party PC attendant providers put great emphasis on the messaging aspects of their systems, providing a powerful array of message processing features and options. This also provides the platform on which to offer telephone answering service.
- ANI (Automatic Number Identification) displays the caller’s number (when it is available) and copies it into the call record or message form. This streamlines message taking and reduces errors.
- On-Call Scheduling enables agents to reach the right people no matter how often their schedules and availability may change.
- Call Recording lets agents selectively record a phone conversation.
- Call Logging (Voice Logging) digitally records all calls, of all agents, 24 x 7. Recordings are available as needed for training, verification, and problem resolution. (Without corroboration, the agent is always blamed for errors and quality concerns, but amazingly when a recording of the call can be accessed, the agent is vindicated over 90 percent of the time.)
- Information Transfer allows information and data that an operator enters into the computer to be retained with and accompany the call if it needs to be transferred to another agent or supervisor for call completion or resolution. This keeps callers from needing to restate pertinent information, such as their name, PIN, account, address, call-back number, and so forth.
- Administrative Monitoring and Reporting provides real-time monitoring of call center activity and reporting procedures, including call statistics and messaging activity.
- Database Functions helps administrators maintain internal, up-to-date information that is available to all agents, as well as accessing external databases, which can be displayed on the agents’ computer station. Databases can be either read-only or allow updating and data-entry capabilities.
- Speech Recognition streamlines various functions and can automate repetitive tasks.
- Text-To-Speech allows callers to automatically listen to database information without an operator needing to read it. One prime example is an employee or client automatically retrieving messages without operator involvement.
Healthcare Applications that have been designed and implemented specifically for a medical or hospital environment include
- On-Call Calendars
- Patient Directory
- Physician’s Referral
- Physician Registry/Locator
- Physician’s Consult
- Class Registration>
- Wake-Up Calls
This is a summary of the key features available today. Other items are also available and the list is growing as vendors make their products more robust, powerful, and feature-laden.
Integrating Third-Party PC Attendant Consoles: PBX vendors may be apprehensive about third-party PC attendants. Obviously, most sales staff would rather sell something they will make a commission on, as opposed to recommend another company’s product. From a pragmatic standpoint, however, concerns do exist about working with another vendor to make a solution function as expected and the inevitable finger pointing that occurs should something not work.
As such, third-party vendors go to great lengths to minimize this concern and to ensure that the installation and interface goes as planned and works as represented. Even so, many purchasers insert a clause into the contract or purchase order to address this very issue. Vendors who are confident in their product and their capabilities are open to accept any reasonably worded clause relating to equipment interfaces and inoperability.
See our listing of PC console software providers.
Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.
[From the Winter 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]