Tag Archives: software and equipment articles

Choosing the Right Notification System

By Kathy Veldboom

Are you confident that the right people in your organization can be contacted to respond to any number of possible scenarios? Can you do it quickly and reliably, every time? Software solutions that automate the notification process are now powerful and reliable enough to implement and manage the notification process enterprise-wide. The choices are many, however, and deciding which one to buy can be a daunting task.

The best systems are flexible and template-driven, allowing administrators to pre-plan the notification process including “calling trees” for any number of scenarios such as national emergencies, code events, hazardous material spills, staffing shortages, natural disasters, and fires. They also allow users to communicate “everyday” notices such as public announcements and meeting notices.

Critical Procedures: Critical events require critical notification and response assessment procedures including:

  • Notifying the right people quickly and accurately.
  • Providing the right information.
  • Executing in an effective and timely manner.
  • Obtaining information from the respondents.
  • Escalating to additional respondents if needed.

The entire notification process must be managed, monitored, and tracked.

Features of an automated system: When looking at various emergency notification software packages, be sure that the system is scalable, standards-based, and highly configurable to meet your evolving needs. A robust notification system should be capable of integrating to virtually all phone switches and paging systems and support a multitude of protocols, devices, and rules. Other key factors to consider:

  • Notification Process Definition – Does the system enable you to build templates that spell out the various people and groups who should be notified when a critical event happens or an alarm is triggered? What tools are available to quickly and accurately notify the right people? Are your institution’s “best practices” codified in the standard procedures?
  • Message Delivery – What’s the best way to contact each person on the list? Alphanumeric pager? Cell phone? PDA? Can the system send messages to any and all of these devices? What if some recipients have asked a colleague to cover for them—can the notification system adapt and send the notification to the covering person?
  • Response Collection – The notification is out; now people are calling in for further instructions. Can the system take the calls and tabulate the responses? Can respondents use means other than the phone to respond, such as two-way pager, PDA, or web? Can the system cancel the notification if enough responses are received?
  • Escalation – If a recipient doesn’t answer a page, can the system automatically call the recipient’s cell phone? If a group has been notified, but not enough responses have been received, does the system “know” whom to notify next?
  • Monitoring – You’ve sent a notification. Now you want to know how many messages have been sent, how many responses received, and what the responses were. What tools are available to monitor these processes?
  • Alarms Integration – Can the system be set up to monitor your alarms and automatically notify critical personnel when the alarms are triggered?

Premise Systems or Hosted Services? Most notification providers offer a hosted model, providing a web-based notification package requiring no special equipment at the customer site (other than standard computers and browsers) and charging fees based on usage.

For organizations whose notification needs are mission-critical and complex, a dedicated premise system might be a better solution. Premise systems reside at the customer site and are completely “owned” by the customer, providing the utmost in flexibility and control. They are ideal for users who have everyday notification requirements in addition to emergency planning needs. Some organizations will want a “blended” package incorporating both a premise system and a hosted service. Ask your system provider if a blended solution is available.

System data: The notification data – recipient names, contact devices and numbers, and more – is key to the functioning of the system. Be sure to evaluate the robustness of the database underlying your vendor’s notification system.  A market-proven relational database such as Oracle or Microsoft SQL will ensure optimum reliability and programmability, while “flat” databases will limit a system’s ability to handle complex procedures, locate people on the move, and process incoming responses.

System protection: What if an emergency event disables portions of your on-site notification system? Your system vendor should provide resiliency options such as an off-site standby server. In the event that the actual emergency event disables portions of the system, traffic would be re-directed to the standby. Additionally, an offsite hosted notification service can serve as a backup for premise-based notification systems.

Provisioning the system for major events: Your system provider should lead you through provisioning to ensure that your notification system is properly sized. Also ask about options to ensure system availability such as specifying a fault tolerant hosting infrastructure, hosted service backup, and working with your organization’s disaster recovery experts to determine how the system will be protected during an event.

Not Just for Emergencies: FEMA defines an emergency as “any unplanned event that can cause death or significant injuries to employees, customers, or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility’s financial standing or public image.” However, notification and response systems can also have a time and budget-saving role in everyday communications along with training, testing, and measuring communication plans for critical events. Some systems include components such as on-call scheduling and group messaging. Routine uses of these systems, such as calling responders to see if they’re available for duty or notifying staff of a meeting, can be key factors in justifying purchase of the software.

Kathy Veldboom is Chief Operating Officer of Amcom Software. She has held prior positions as a trainer, installation technician, and systems analyst. She can be reached at 800-852-8935.

[From the April/May 2005 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Selecting a PC Attendant Console

By Gary DuPont

If you are a regular reader of AnswerStat magazine, you are probably familiar with the basic concept of a PC-based attendant console. This category typically includes products that either integrate with or replace the traditional telephone operator console and include features such as an organizational directory, patient information paging, and all attendant telephony features.

Over the years, this category of products has witnessed multiple operating system advances and technology improvements. The market leaders in this space can all make claims as to why you should chose their product. MASCO Services Inc. (MSI) selected a PC attendant console solution eleven years ago and over the years has upgraded the platform as required in order to supply our customers with enhanced features and efficiencies. It has also given MSI a competitive edge in its hospital paging and physicians’ answering service businesses. Here are some of the features, benefits and advancements to help guide you and your organization toward selecting the vendor appropriate for you.

Some of the questions you should ask:

  • What CTI (Computer-Telephony Integration) methodologies are used for integrating the telephone system with the PC? Some vendors recommend server based CTI solutions versus client-based.
  • Does a failure of one link (server-based) jeopardize your entire call center?
  • Does the integration support ACD (Automatic Call Distributor) features and true attendant console features?
  • Does the system provide a proprietary telephone system in front of the hospital telephone system and create another link in the communications chain?
  • What is most important to your organization?
  • What is the product life cycle of your current PBX (Private Branch Exchange)?
  • When is your existing Centrex contract up for renewal?
  • Is your telecommunications department considering a move to an IP-based (Internet Protocol) platform?

Features and Functionality: An important way to distinguish one product from another is to review the features offered by each vendor and determine which ones are important to you. Is the software architecture based on industry standards making it open to growth, new technology, and standards? As mentioned earlier, each system available uses an attendant to answer a telephone call, perform a directory lookup, and transfer the call. An important way to distinguish one product from another is to compare each vendor’s features and functionality, then determine which features provide you and your clients the best service in a cost efficient manner.

Return on Investment: A current trend in cost justification is the return on investment model. Vendors have identified this trend and have focused on specific feature to address this, such as:

  • Voice Assisted Transfer: Over time this can reduce call traffic to the operators, since callers will hear the DID or extension number prior to being connected.
  • Recorded Agent Greetings: Operators prerecord answer and progress report phrases, such as “One moment please,” “Still searching.” From a quality assurance perspective, this can be an invaluable tool.
  • Physicians’ Answering Service: This feature allows the same hospital contact center to serve both the hospital’s needs and the needs of the physicians that work there. Often this is provided on a fee basis, but the real cost justification is tying the physicians to the services of the hospital. If you are in this business or plan to be in the future, determine if the vendor has a proven track record in the field. You don’t want to be a beta site for a newly developed or unproven product.
  • Delivery of Messages: This category has been dominated by radio-paging, faxing, email, and voicemail. However, with the advent of in-building wireless systems such as SpectraLink Wireless, Symbol Technologies, and Vocera, the traditional delivery methods are being replaced by devices that can receive a text message. PC-console systems with applications based on these formats will provide even more functionality to the users within the hospital. Features such as this help to provide cost justification by streamlining the communications process and often eliminating the use of an operator.
  • Web-Based Directory, Paging, and On-Call Scheduling: With the advent of the browser interface, more organizations are choosing this feature and giving staff self-service options for directory look-up, paging, administration of on-call schedules, and directory changes. The measurable costs and benefits to this module are recognized by the reduction of the printed directory and calls to the operator. Also, by making the database content public, incorrect entries are noticed sooner, leading to a more accurate database.
  • Speech-Recognition: Speech-Recognition has become the most talked about feature in recent years. This technology is now commercially viable and relatively economical to be used within the healthcare communications world. MSI uses speech-recognition on internal calls to route them to an individual’s office or pager without operator assistance. The reduction in call volume over time to the operator group allows for more time being spent on sensitive calls, providing other non-traditional tasks, and redeployment of FTEs (Full Time Equivalents). Your ACD or PBX reports will also confirm this by comparing before and after historical call data.

There are many other modules and features that can be included within the category of PC-Console. As you do your own research, take the time to compare your finalist to your current needs, your near-term plans, and your long-term strategy. Then compare telephony integration, features, and functionality along with product references. Once this has been completed, your vendor of choice will emerge.

Gary DuPont is Director of Telecommunications and Customer Care at MASCO (Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization, Inc).

[From the Winter 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

PBX Attendant Consoles

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

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]

Voice Logging Overview

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

Voice logging is an important and valuable call center technology, considered by many to be an indispensable support tool. Voice logging allows calls to be recorded for quality assurance, training, self-evaluations, verification purposes, and dispute resolution. Because of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 there has been a surge of interest in voice logging. Although voice logging cannot be viewed as a detriment to terrorism, it is deemed as an essential part of everyone’s overall goal of increased security and safety.

Some centers record calls at random, many record all calls, and some continuously record all headset audio – both during and between calls. Past forms of voice logging equipment have ranged from reel-to-reel tape machines, to specialized audiocassette recorders, to modified VCR units, to today’s state-of-the-art computer-based implementations.

How Loggers Work: Voice loggers can be either external stand-alone systems or internal integrated software. Many of today’s CTI-enabled switches and call-processing platforms have voice logging as a built-in option, inherent in the system’s design and architecture. This provides for optimal performance and often allows the call record or captured data – be it a patient call, a telephone triage session, or a doctor’s instruction – to be directly linked to the voice file. This allows for a holistic review of all components of a particular call, as both the audio interaction and the information gathered can be easily accessed and reviewed congruently and simultaneously.

For other situations, stand-alone voice loggers can be interfaced to the switch or call-processing platform, tapping into audio paths at the agent headset, the switch destination port, or the source port. These later two configurations provide the ability to record voice mail calls as well. The advisability and desirability of doing so, however, is questionable and should be pursued only after careful thought and consideration of the ramifications and legal consequences.

Often vendors of stand-alone systems have designed universal interface adapters that allow audio to be easily tapped into at the handset or headset connection without affecting or degrading the audio level. For these external systems, a typical method includes tapping into the headset audio at the agent station and feeding it into the PC’s sound card.

For both internal and external voice loggers, the speech is digitized and often stored on the agent station hard drive, usually as wave files. At some point (either immediately or at a preset time or condition), the wave files are sent over the network to a central voice logging server where they are indexed and stored.

Indexes are commonly applied to all header field data, such as time, date, station number, agent login, source port, destination port, call completion code, and project ID. If needed, queries can be established to fine-tune the search even further. Searching by agent or time are the most common parameters. However, in the course of troubleshooting system problems, searching by specific ports, completion codes, or station numbers can be most informative.

The retrieval interface is a database, such as Access or SQL. As such, records of calls can be quickly sorted, filtered, and presented. Wave file access is then fast and efficient. If needed, archiving of voice files can be accomplished easily and quickly to CD-ROM or DVD.

Uses of Voice Logging: As mentioned, there are several possible reasons to record calls. These include quality assurance, training, self-evaluations, verification, and dispute resolution. Any one of these options often justifies the expense of implementing voice logger technology. The other features then become pleasant bonuses.

  • Quality assurance is the most often cited use of voice logging. With voice logging, supervisors and managers can easily and quickly retrieve, review, and evaluate agent calls. By integrating a program of silent monitoring, with side-by-side coaching and statistical measurements, an agent’s overall effectiveness can be evaluated and verified. Voice logging allows areas of deficiency to be discovered and items of excellence to be celebrated.
  • Training can be greatly facilitated using voice logging. One application is to capture examples of exemplary calls by seasoned representatives for trainees to review and emulate. Conversely, less than ideal calls can also be showcased for discussion and critique. Although both of these scenarios could be accomplished using fictitious examples or staged calls, there is great benefit in being able to demonstrate real-world examples.
  • Self-evaluation is a powerful tool of introspection whereby agents use voice loggers to retrieve their own calls and through a process of self-discovery learn how they can handle calls or situations more effectively. Although this is valuable during the training phase, it is also beneficial for seasoned representatives, as it allows them to keep their skills sharp and helps sloppy actions from becoming bad habits. Even more importantly, agents may specifically seek and review a specific call that had a less than ideal result so that a more desirable outcome can be determined and implemented.
  • Verification is another worthwhile use of voice logging, especially in an environment where critical information is shared and communicated, such as in telephone triage. By recording all conversations, the symptoms and nurse’s instruction to the patient is captured and verified that proper information was conveyed. Normally, the recording is never listened to unless there is an argument about the transaction.
  • Dispute resolution then comes into play. Whether it is a message, a medical emergency, or an accusation of improper phone behavior, the voice recording of that call essentially becomes an independent third party account of what happened and avoids the “he-said/she-said” disputes in which neither party can corroborate their own account of what happened. Though the agent is sometimes found to be in error in such situations, the consensus is that in the vast majority of cases the agent is vindicated; once the aggrieved party hears the recording, the problem resolves itself quickly and with little further effort.

User Input: It is rare to find a voice logger user who is not overwhelmingly positive about the benefits and value of the technology and what it means to their call center. “I wish I had a logger years ago,” is a sentiment commonly made within weeks of a new voice logger installation.

Others see how voice logging allows call centers to improver customer service. Interestingly, call center staff often initially view the recording of calls as a negative development, threatening the work they do and attacking their competency. It is only after voice logging technology is implemented that the agents begin to see it as a tool to protect their work and validate their quality. The reality is that only representatives with something to hide have a legitimate reason to fear voice logging.

Accounts abound from call centers that have increased the quality of their service, improved their training, and avoided a potentially costly lawsuit or a lost patient all because of voice logging. Although it may seem difficult to cost-justify a voice logger before it is bought, a high percentage of users indicate that it is one of the most important pieces of technology in their call center.

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 Fall 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]