Category Archives: Articles

Introducing Connections Magazine 3.0

Discover What’s Next for Connections Magazine

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter Lyle DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections Magazine

Over its twenty-eight-year history, Connections Magazine has seen many industry changes, with technological innovation leading the way. For industry veterans, recall what your call center looked like three decades ago. It was a vastly different operation from what you have today. We’ve also seen changes on the legislative and legal fronts, as well as heightened expectations from callers. Our workforce has changed too. We’re now much more diverse. With each iteration, we’ve adjusted and adapted to continue to provide critical telephone and related communication services to callers.

During this time, Connections Magazine has gone through many iterations, too, to reflect the needs of our readers and our vendors who make this publication possible. 

Version 1.0

Connections was launched in July 1993 by Steve and Chris Michaels for the “telecom service provider industry.” Published quarterly, Connections was printed on newsprint stock using black ink, with spot color on selected pages. This was Connections Magazine 1.0.

Version 2.0

In September 2001 I took over the reins of Connections Magazine. With the 9/11 attacks in the United States preoccupying my thoughts, I wondered what I had gotten myself into and what the future would look like. Would there even be a need for Connections? Indeed, there would be. Just as the country prevailed and the call center industry expanded, Connections Magazine was there every step of the way.

We increased circulation to six times a year, switched to magazine stock, and went to color on every page. At its zenith, we published Connections Magazine ten times a year, before settling back down to six. As an advertiser-supported magazine, the vendors who promote their services and products on these pages make this publication possible for you, our readers, to enjoy at no cost.

Version 3.0

The year 2020 is a time to remember—or to forget. Our world has gone through unprecedented change, impacting our economy, our jobs, and how we live our lives. Without a road map to guide us, we’re left to blaze our own trail. Since I have been working at home for two decades, my practices and my workflows have remained unchanged this year. But most people have not been so fortunate, needing to make significant adjustments to how they live and how they work.

I’m pleased to announce that starting in 2021, Connections Magazine will go online and become an e-publication. Click To Tweet

Connections Magazine has also been impacted in the past year. As valued sponsors of the magazine, Map Communications, Startel, and Amtelco—our key supporters—have been loyal to us without hesitation. They, along with our other advertisers, have allowed us to continue to produce the magazine. Despite this, we’re in a situation where our costs exceed our revenue. It’s time for change. It’s time for Connections Magazine 3.0. But this isn’t the end. It’s a new beginning.

I’m pleased to announce that starting in 2021, Connections Magazine will go online and become an e-publication. Though we’ve been both a print and e-magazine for several years, we’ll now make the switch—like most other publications—and go all digital.

You will be able to read all the content of each issue online as always. We won’t put information behind a paywall and charge you a fee to access it. It’ll be there for free, like always.

We’ll also email you when each of our six annual issues become available. If you want to receive these bimonthly notices, make sure we have your email address. Just go to connectionsmagazine.com/subscribe, enter four pieces of information, and click subscribe. It’s that easy and will only take seconds.

As we look forward to the future of our work and our industry, Connections Magazine will move forward as well. 

Here’s to a great 2021!

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

Encryption 101: The Past, Present, and Future of Data Security

By Matt Bogan

Startel, Professional Teledata, Alston Tascom

You’re aware of the need for data encryption. However, you may not have a clear picture of how it works.

Cryptography—the study of secure communications—is a complex field of science, intersecting a wide range of disciplines and constantly evolving. Cryptography predates computers, with roots reaching back to ancient Greece and Egypt. It’s believed that Julius Caesar sent secure messages to his most trusted staff by replacing each letter of the alphabet with the letter three places after it: A became D, B became E, and so forth. This method of data encryption is sometimes called a Caesar cipher. By the ninth century, mathematicians applied statistical analysis to defeat simple substitution ciphers such as the Caesar cipher. Thus we have perhaps the first historical instance of an encryption algorithm being cracked.

As long as we’ve needed to encode information, there have been others wanting to decode it for nefarious reasons. In WWII, Allied cryptanalysts working to crack encrypted Axis communications are widely credited with shortening the war by months or even years. 

Today, computer scientists called “white-hat hackers” work to defeat existing encryption protocols to identify weaknesses before they can be exploited. The complexity of encryption algorithms and the protocols that implement them have increased dramatically. Despite that, having an uncrackable encryption remains hypothetical. 

Instead, data security aims for a moving target: difficult enough to crack with present technology that it’s astronomically unlikely anyone would be able to. Yet available computing power continues to increase, turning unlikely into likely. A protocol that today would be considered too complex for even a supercomputer to crack in any reasonable amount of time may be trivial to defeat on consumer-grade hardware in a handful of years. 

DES (Data Encryption Standard), a protocol developed by IBM and implemented by government agencies and militaries around the world as recently as the early 1990s, was cracked in less than a day in 1999 by a cluster of thousands of computers working together. By 2016, it was cracked by a single computer using off-the-shelf components, and today, using advanced cryptographic attack methods, DES can be defeated in under a minute with hardware you can pick up at your favorite big-box store. Like their ninth-century counterparts using mathematics to peer behind the curtain of simple substitution ciphers, modern cryptanalysts apply the latest technological advances to accomplish what was previously impossible.

If everyone’s motive in defeating encryption was altruism, this discussion might be academic, but this is not the case. Far from the image of loosely affiliated teenage malcontents portrayed in popular media, hacking in the twenty-first century is big business. With backing from organized crime syndicates and foreign governments, the goals are a lot more sinister than causing a little digital mischief. Your data is a battlefield, and encryption is the arms race. 

The cryptographically secure lifespan of a common algorithm known as MD5 was roughly a decade, and the SHA-1 algorithm fared only slightly better. Concerns over vulnerability have contributed to tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft deprecating protocols based on them. The 1.0 and 1.1 versions of TLS (Transport Layer Security) have recently joined Caesar ciphers and DES in the boneyard of obsolete cryptography. These methods once seemed functionally impenetrable, but with subsequent technological advancements, they now offer only moderate inconvenience to a well-resourced attacker. 

Keep in mind that marketing terms such as secure and compliant are only as meaningful as the person or organization making that claim. Click To Tweet

With the successors already being subjected to the scrutiny of security professionals on both sides of the battle, we can be sure more encryption methods will eventually join them. With the target of “safe enough” advancing, as businesspeople, solution providers, and individual consumers, it’s critical to ensure we keep pace.

Ask your vendors what they’re doing to stay current with the latest data encryption advancements. Remember that not all encryption is equal. Older products relying on encryption methods that were state-of-the-art when they were originally developed are unlikely to offer much protection against an attack today. 

When assessing products to sell to your clients or use in your own business, keep in mind that marketing terms such as secure and compliant are only as meaningful as the person or organization making that claim. Savvy consumers should look for products that have been audited by independent security experts. And once you have purchased a solution, make sure you keep it current with vendor-recommended updates. It’s the only way to be certain your data will be as safe tomorrow as it is today.

Startel

Matt Bogan is the product manager for Startel, a leading provider of best-in-class contact center solutions. He has been involved in the contact center industry for over fifteen years. Startel’s upcoming CMC 16.0 release incorporates the latest in encryption technology.

How Can Your Contact Center Help the Homelessness in America?

By Traci Haynes

Homelessness in America occurs in every state and has many causes. According to the January 2017 Point-in-Time (PIT) count by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the most recent national estimate of homelessness in the United States identified 553,742 people experiencing homelessness. The PIT count is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January. Like all surveys, the PIT count has limitations. Results are influenced by the weather, availability of overflow shelter beds, the quality of the volunteers, and the level of engagement of the people being interviewed. 

Most of this population lives in some form of shelter or transitional housing. However, approximately 35 percent live in places not meant for human habitation. The nature of homelessness makes it difficult to quantify the true size of the homeless population, not to mention the PIT methodology (although generally acknowledged to be the most accurate way to establish valid trend data). It is challenging to calculate the exact number of individuals who are homeless, because many live in hidden areas in parks, vehicles, or abandoned houses, and because numbers fluctuate based on weather.

Health Problems Faced by the Homeless

Homeless individuals are at a relatively high risk for a range of acute and chronic physical and mental illnesses. Some health problems precede and may contribute to homelessness, while others are often a consequence of being homeless. And homelessness complicates the treatment of many illnesses. 

One example of a health problem that can cause homelessness is a major mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Without therapeutic interventions and supportive housing arrangements, such an individual may become homeless. 

Another example is an accidental injury, including job-related injuries. Even with benefits under employer programs, these individuals may experience major economic costs leading to loss of housing.

Diseases of the extremities, skin disorders, malnutrition, degenerative joint diseases, dental and periodontal disease, communicable diseases, and the possibility of trauma are other health problems that may result from, or frequently occur in, the homeless population. Medical care and treatment for acute or chronic illness can be extremely difficult. 

Bed rest may be nonexistent for a homeless individual who has no bed or only has a bed in a shelter at night. Special diets and medication adherence are impossible to maintain for a person who is homeless.

Contact centers have long been known for assisting their organizations in offering triage, coaching, remote patient monitoring, and care management for an identified population. Some contact centers have also assisted other community agencies or services in filling a need or gap. 

Triage Call Centers Can Help Address Health Concerns of the Homeless

So, we all know homelessness exists, and it is a tremendous problem, but what does that have to do with triage call centers?

A community triage contact center at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, Washington, implemented a program around 2000, in which they began to offer low-level acuity triage for their regional 911 dispatch centers. The dispatchers would go through their algorithms with the caller, and once they ruled out any emergent or urgent issue, the caller was offered the option of speaking with a nurse. If the caller preferred, she or he could be connected with an appropriate unit or the individual could be transported to the Emergency Department (ED). This program proved a tremendous success in both caller/patient satisfaction and dollars saved.

A study was published in 2015 for a comparable 911 program in two cities with similar outcomes. MedStar in Fort Worth, Texas, provided nine months of 911 call data, and LMEMS in Louisville, Kentucky, provided thirty-four months of 911 data. The study reported that the 911 program had a significant reduction in callers routed to the Emergency Department (ED) at a cost savings of 1.2 million dollars in payments, as well as a decrease in emergency ambulance transports resulting in a cost savings of $450,000 and a resultant increase in access to alternative care. Overall, patient satisfaction was 91.2 percent.

As a result of the involvement with the regional 911 dispatch centers, the contact center was asked to become involved with yet another identified need: the growing population of homeless individuals. County shelters and housing facilities for the homeless population needed a resource for individuals with low to moderate acuity symptoms, when medical or nursing personnel were not on-site. The fire department was handling 90,000 incidents per year, which resulted in overuse or misuse of the emergency medical response (EMR) system. And while the county shelters were not most of the calls, they were a contributor. 

Addressing the Concerns of the Homeless

A critical concern to the homeless individual is whether they will lose their shelter bed for the night if they are transported. The fire department is not authorized to make a medical diagnosis on the scene, to provide advice or guidance about disease management, to make a referral to other medical resources, such as a primary care doctor, or to provide transportation anywhere except an ED. 

The contact center had the system and tools in place to assist the RN with the individual at the county shelter’s assessment and make recommendations of care. “Right care, right place, right time” is the fundamental premise of contact center RN triage. Their service provided a much-needed solution to an ongoing gap in care. They currently support five dispatch centers in providing contact center RN triage for thirteen shelters.

The contact center educated the staff at the shelters and facilities. They provided training on when to call 911 (a red flag list) and when to call the contact center’s health line. Each homeless individual received HIPAA information that included “understanding and agreement that a copy of the information discussed during the call interaction would be shared with the residence so that they may further assist the individual with their care.” 

The workflow included one number for all facilities to dial into the Healthline contact center. The case manager and the resident had to be available at the time of the call. The RN in the contact center triaged the individual, and then the case manager determined the best non-EMR transportation based on the disposition. The triage note was then faxed to that facility. 

Challenges included the individual wishing to remain anonymous, the individual being a vague or poor historian, individuals declining triage or the recommendation, availability of OTC meds, and individual psych/social needs.

The Results

Eighteen months after the start of the program, the facility staff was queried, and all were either very or somewhat comfortable in knowing what situations required 911. Over 85 percent of the staff felt the service was especially important to the facility. 

By far, the majority felt that the nurses at Healthline were very knowledgeable (83.33 percent). More than 85 percent also felt that the nurse line process was easy to use and felt that the residents were satisfied with the service. Most of the staff felt very satisfied once the resident had talked with the nurse, and 100 percent indicated the importance of having the service available 24/7, adding that it was practical and helpful to the residents in the facility.

Traci Haynes MSN, RN, BA, CEN, CCCTM, is the director of clinical services at LVM Systems, Inc., and has been involved in the contact center industry for over twenty-five years. (Traci thanks Cheryl Patterson, BSN, RNC—TNP, clinical manager—quality and education, Healthline, for her contributions to this article.)

Restoring Trust in Calling Information Is Key for Maximizing Call and Text-Answer Rates

By Michael O’Brien

Americans were inundated with more than 58 billion illegal robocalls in 2019, plus 4.5 billion spam text messages. Consumers are so fed up that when they see a call from an unfamiliar or unidentified number, they let it drop into voicemail 76 percent of the time. 

Regulators and law enforcement are fighting back. For example, the FCC levied a record-setting 225 million dollars fine on Rising Eagle, a Texas-based telemarketer, for making over one billion spoofed robocalls in 2019. The same year, Iosif Florea received a thirty-two-month sentence in federal prison for an SMS phishing (“smishing”) scam that targeted nearly 500,000 people in Alabama. Florea’s messages appeared to come from the Alabama State Employees Credit Union (ASECU) and asked recipients to verify account information.

As voice service providers, regulators, analytics engines, vendors, and other members of the telecom ecosystem battle back against illegal robocallers and SMS fraudsters, legitimate contact centers find themselves caught in the crossfire. For example, many voice service providers use analytics engines, which look for high volumes of calls originating from one source, to provide guidance about call treatment. Another example is smartphone apps that screen calls. Sometimes these apps and engines mistakenly label calls from legitimate call centers as spam. Some industry stakeholders say that outbound call-answer rates plummeted 30 percent in 2019 because so many legitimate calls were mistakenly blocked.

Getting Legitimate Calls Through

This efficiency is particularly valuable for outsourced contact centers with tight margins. Click To Tweet

There are times when getting the call is more critical than ever. Indiana is among a growing number of states and municipalities hiring call centers to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing. Many of those potentially life-saving outbound calls could wind up either blocked or automatically routed to voicemail, depending on the service provider’s policies. This is another reason why it’s essential to restore confidence so that intended recipients will answer their phones. 

Customers who have full mailboxes, never set up their voicemail, or don’t check messages won’t hear those critical messages. Even if they check voicemail, it’s still a game of phone tag. As a result, contact center agents have multiple interactions with each of those customers. This increases overhead costs and requires additional staff. Every day, the same fate awaits countless outbound calls from contact centers serving state and local governments, insurance companies, travel and hospitality providers, and other organizations.

COVID-19 contact tracing also is an example of how fraudsters find opportunities to use smishing. “Scammers, pretending to be contact tracers and taking advantage of how the process works, are also sending text messages,” the Federal Trade Commission recently warned. “Theirs are spam text messages that ask you to click a link. Clicking on the link will download software onto your device, giving scammers access to your personal and financial information.”

The smishing scourge conditions consumers to be highly skeptical about text messages from unfamiliar numbers. Now, just like with illegal robocalls, contact centers must spend more time sending follow-up text messages, again driving up costs.

Weeding Out Fraudsters and Spam

Voice service providers, analytics engines, and enterprises understand that anti-spam mechanisms must be intelligent enough to distinguish between legitimate, trustworthy calls and text messages from those sent by illegal robocallers and fraudsters. To achieve this goal, industry organizations such as the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and the GSM Association (GSMA) are collaborating to create frameworks that voice service providers, contact centers, messaging partners or aggregators, and service platforms such as communications platform as a service (CPaaS) and unified communications as a service (UCaaS) can quickly and widely implement, regardless of network type or technology.

For example, Validating INtegrity of End-to-End Signaling (VINES) is a new GSMA Working Group developing solutions to prevent internet work signaling fraud, which includes illegal robocalls, spoofing, toll bypass, and consumer fraud. Service providers and standards bodies worldwide can use VINES solutions to restore consumer trust in communications, combat billions of dollars annually in service provider fraud, and help protect their customers from fraud via spoofed numbers. The VINES working group will also help service providers ensure that legitimate international business calls aren’t mistakenly flagged as spam.

Another example is the GSMA’s RCS Verified Sender initiative, which is an industry effort to ensure that the new Rich Communication Service (RCS) avoids the spoofing and other fraud types that afflict SMS. A key component is an independent Verification Authority (VA) that would be responsible for authenticating the identity of businesses and their chatbots.

Google is also helping protect Android users. Verified SMS adds sender verification and business branding to text messages. Verified Calls displays the business’ name, logo, reason for calling, and “a verification symbol indicating the business has been authenticated by Google.” 

A Centralized Industry Database of Trusted Numbers

A centralized database would give voice service providers and analytics engines independently verified information about each phone number and the company using it. Additionally, a unified registration platform for brands will avoid fragmentation and confusion. The authenticated data would enable service providers and their vendor partners to treat each call and text message properly and present caller information their customers know they can trust. 

Here’s how a verifiable database could work:

  • Call centers—internal and third-party providers—register their telephone numbers, along with information about their company or their clients.
  • Once verified, this information is shared with all participating service providers, analytics engines, and robocall-mitigation companies. This centralized architecture saves contact centers significant amounts of time and money because they don’t have to provide their information to different voice service providers that are managing each telephone number. 
  • Service providers could combine this trusted data with their existing call analytics and other tools to further ensure that only legitimate calls, text messages, and chatbots are reaching their customers.
  • Application programming interfaces (API) would make it fast and easy for contact centers to upload their information and subsequent updates in high volumes.

This database also could be used to authenticate text messages and RCS data. For example, legitimate contact centers would register their SMS short codes and RCS chatbots in a centralized, omni-channel database.

Another key business benefit for contact centers is more efficient staffing. Higher contact rates mean that agents spend less time repeatedly calling or texting people who don’t answer or text back when they see an unfamiliar phone number.

This efficiency is particularly valuable for outsourced contact centers with tight margins. Third-party contact centers can add value to their clients and create a differentiator by registering their clients’ telephone numbers, chatbots, and SMS messages in the centralized database and potentially help increase their clients’ answer rates.

Maximize Trust to Maximize Consumer Responsiveness

Voice calls and text messages are the most effective ways for enterprises, government agencies, and other organizations to reach consumers with essential information such as appointment reminders, financial transaction alerts, school closures, and public safety alerts. A centralized database is critical for maintaining and maximizing that effectiveness.

This gives service providers and contact centers a streamlined, authoritative way to exchange verified information that gives consumers confidence in the information when they receive a call or text or interact with a chatbot. In the process, contact centers—both internal and outsourced—enterprises and consumers benefit. This is a future where everyone comes out ahead. 

Michael O’Brien is chief product officer at iconectiv. He is responsible for executing on the company’s strategy and driving new pathways of sustainable growth for the company. An experienced industry veteran, O’Brien has more than thirty years of experience in the mobile communications industry.

Secure Texting Helps Create Effective HIPAA-Compliant Communication

By Ravi K. Raheja, MD

Once a call center triage nurse has done an initial evaluation on a patient, there are times when the protocol or circumstances require a physician to get involved. In these instances, it is critical for the nurse to get in touch securely and effectively with the provider who is on call to communicate the needs of the patient. This requires relaying protected health information, or PHI, securely.

Traditionally, the nurse will page the doctor to call their phone number. The physician calls back, and the nurse verbally relays the relevant information. There are several drawbacks to this option:

The messages and secure chat for the nurse are documented in the triage system for future reference. Click To Tweet
  • It is time-consuming for the doctor. They must call back and verbally listen to each case.
  • There is no confirmation that the provider received the page, which can lead to a delay in care if the nurse does not follow up closely.
  • The doctor may be involved in a critical procedure or another call and does not know how urgent the request is from the nurse.

Secure texting was created to overcome these drawbacks and provide an efficient way to transfer information that does not hinder daily workflow.

With secure texting, the provider gets a notification from the nurse. The nurse can send protected health information securely. The provider can read the message, and the nurse gets a notification confirming that the message was received and read. This approach supplies the provider with detailed written information as well as allowing them to evaluate the urgency for the call so they can determine the proper callback time and plan before they contact the triage nurse.

While there are many secure messaging platforms available, almost every one of them requires the provider to install and set up an app on their phone. It also requires ongoing support for the app. When the doctor changes phones, the operating system or app needs to be updated.

Providers who are looking for secure texting methods should find platforms that allow for all the features of secure texting and chatting with the nurse, but without an app required on the doctor’s phone. With these types of platforms, nurses can auto-populate the patient information and send the provider’s cell phone a link (with no patient data). 

The provider follows the link and securely accesses the confidential message from the nurse. The provider can then call the nurse back, call the patient back, or securely chat with the nurse. The nurse receives a notification both when the message is delivered and when it is read; this provides continuity of care and prevents any lapse in communication. The messages and secure chat for the nurse are documented in the triage system for future reference.

Providers love this type of service because it does not require any setup on their part and takes less than five minutes to train on the system, which can quickly be done by the practice manager at the provider’s convenience. There is no impact to the service if they change phones or have updates to their device. Setup is quick and easy since there is no app to download and register.

Ravi K. Raheja, MD, is the COO and medical director of the TriageLogic Group. Founded in 2005, TriageLogic is a URAC-accredited, physician-led provider of high-quality telehealth services, nurse triage, triage education, and software for telephone medicine. Their comprehensive triage solution includes integrated mobile access and two-way video capability. The TriageLogic group serves over 7,000 physicians and covers over 18 million lives nationwide. For more information visit www.triagelogic.com and www.continuwell.com. 

The Critical Role Hospital Call Centers Play During and After a Catastrophe

By Nicole Limpert

Amtelco

The ever-increasing threats from natural and human-caused disasters have made the use of disaster response systems a necessity. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. residents live in areas rated as having a moderate to very high risk of experiencing a natural disaster: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, hail, wildfires, and earthquakes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s report titled “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2018” identified twenty-seven shootings as active shooter incidents, which resulted in eighty-five deaths and 128 people wounded (excluding the shooters).

When disaster strikes, both local and national call centers provide critical communication services to help coordinate first responders and rescue teams, organize relief efforts, enable communication between loved ones, and support communities during recovery.

Hospital call centers in a coordinated call center system is crucial when developing a disaster preparedness and recovery plan. Click To Tweet

Disaster Planning

Disasters often occur without warning. Weather events, mass violence, and other incidents can cause an outage or strain communication systems. However, organizations can formulate a disaster preparedness and business continuity plan in anticipation of a catastrophic event. Hospital call centers are a critical component to any disaster preparedness plan because they often become a communications hub during an emergency.

National, state, and local agencies often work with hospitals to develop a plan for coordinating call centers. They identify partnerships with organizations such as 9-1-1 and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to determine how to integrate each call center into a larger communication network for efficient allocation of services and dissemination of public health information.

The use of technology enables call centers to execute their disaster preparedness and business continuity plans quickly and efficiently. Automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR), uniform call distribution (UCD), and other communication software can automate call routing systems. Leveraging automatic notifications and critical alerts helps to speed communications and shorten reaction times.

Disaster Communications

Methodist Medical Center of Illinois, part of Unity Point Health Methodist, located in the heart of Peoria, Illinois, includes a 330-bed hospital with almost 600 board-certified physicians. 

To ensure the safety of patients and staff, the technology used by the call center at Methodist helps to prepare them for any type of situation. By using a customizable critical alert system, operators can quickly contact multiple people when various disaster and code calls come through their center.

When an emergency notification is needed, an operator triggers the alert by simply selecting a group to notify and typing in the alert message. This broadcasts the message to the appropriate personnel via each recipient’s preferred contact method. This helps ensure that hospital personnel can respond to each situation as quickly as possible.

The flexible system allows the call center manager to determine whether each type of notification requires a response from the person who receives an alert. While a reply and estimated time of arrival is required from someone responding to a disaster, a reply may not be needed from a staff member on the leadership team who is using their real-time monitor to oversee the situation. Managers can view the estimated time of arrival for each person and determine if additional personnel need notification. Access to their web-based, real-time monitor can even occur from home should an alert occur in the middle of the night.

Cloud Technology and Virtual Servers

Communications failure is not an option during a disaster. Having the ability to route calls to another center in the event of an emergency is crucial. For example, if a call center is physically located in an area that has become inaccessible or damaged due to a catastrophe, calls can route to operators off-site, using cloud technology on a virtual server. A single virtual server, located anywhere in the country, can bring call centers together to operate seamlessly, even if they all use different PBX telephone systems.

Using web-based call center communication software, any computer may become a secure, professional telephone agent station accessible from the internet. Operators located in a different center or home-based agents handle the calls, and all the tools used by in-house operators are accessible to these virtual agents.

Hospitals and clinics that are part of a larger healthcare enterprise use this technology to provide backup call handling within their own system. Rossi Fraenkel, business analytics team lead for Allina Health in Minneapolis, Minnesota, comments, “In the event that any of our other clinics were to have a power outage or go down, those calls roll to us at the contact center. We provide our organization with a really good, strategic value. It’s absolutely critical that we take calls no matter what.”

Disaster Recovery and Relief

Hotlines managed by agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provide callers with assistance related to government disaster aid, insurance claims, and home repairs.

Hospital call centers experience an influx of calls from people inquiring about hospitalizations of loved ones, safety advice, and help for themselves. Individuals who witness or experience a catastrophic event often face negative effects from it. Coping with the shock of a disaster can make someone fearful, confused, and suffer from anxiety.

Call center agents can connect callers with disaster crisis counseling to help people affected by traumatic events. Callers who are patients of a healthcare organization that participates in telehealth may be able to take advantage of instant, secure video access to mental health professionals.

Summary

Including hospital call centers in a coordinated call center system is crucial when developing a disaster preparedness and recovery plan. Establishing a comprehensive policy may require a considerable time commitment and thoughtful input from a variety of agencies and organizations. However, the effects of organized communication and efficient use of community resources during a crisis help save lives and speed recovery efforts.

Amtelco

Nicole Limpert is the marketing content writer for Amtelco and their 1Call Healthcare Division. Amtelco is a leading provider of innovative communication applications. 1Call develops software solutions and applications designed for the specific needs of healthcare organizations.

Vendor Profile: Startel

Startel, Professional Teledata, Alston Tascom

For forty years, Startel has been providing cutting-edge solutions to the answering service industry. Including Alston Tascom, also celebrating forty years, and Professional Teledata (PTD) at thirty-seven years, they have a combined 117-year history of serving the market. Yes, they were not around when the telephone was invented in 1876, but in the last forty years, they have seen some major changes in the industry.

When Startel was founded in 1980, the world was connected by copper wire, all controlled by AT&T and Ma Bell. Every single answering service needed to be near or within a quarter of a mile of a phone company’s central office. Today they have thousands of providers and can have agents working from anywhere in the world. With 2020 being a year that everyone will remember, they are thankful for the huge strides telephony and their software platforms have made in the last forty years.

While technology and telephony have shaped the design of their software, founder Don Berry’s vision and passion for the industry and their customers is still alive today at Startel. His desire was to create a system to connect the world and keep the needs of the customer as the beacon that guides them. Don made sure that everyone on his team was aware that gaining customers and maintaining lifelong relationships with them and meeting their needs in a timely and professional manner were the keys to the future success of Startel. 

In today’s mobile and fast-paced world, the use of secure messaging applications has become the preferred channel of communication. Click To Tweet

Flagship Platform—Startel CMC

With the acquisitions of PTD’s PInnacle and the Tascom platforms in the last few years, they experienced many “Wow, I wish our platform did that” moments within their company and from their customers. As a result, they have taken those “wow” features and incorporated them into the Startel Contact Management Center (CMC). With their upcoming CMC 16.0 release, customers will be presented an entirely new way to manage actions—or as some call them, priorities. Dispatchers will be able to see a live view of all the actions in queue and how long until the next dispatch step will be completed. Many more enhancements and must-have features are packed into the 16.0 release, so stay tuned for details.

Flex Agent Interface (FAI)

They took their four-square classic agent interface and converted it to be flexible. This new design allows agents to process calls easily and quickly by allowing them to move vital information where they need it. Designed with dockable windows, FAI allows agents to take full advantage of large and multiple monitors. Join the FAI revolution and design a screen layout that gives agents what they need to see when they need to see it. 

Secure Messaging Solutions

In today’s mobile and fast-paced world, the use of secure messaging applications has become the preferred channel of communication among business and institutional professionals as well as technicians in the field. It’s quicker, more efficient, and less invasive than a phone call. Startel offers two solutions to meet their customer’s secure messaging needs. 

Accessible from the web or an application downloaded to one’s smartphone or tablet, Secure Messaging Plus (SM+) offers a secure, HIPAA-compliant way to safely exchange sensitive information via text. SM+ users can maintain HIPAA compliance with data encryption in transit and at rest. Users can also control message expiration, send attachments, track message status, forward messages, and reply to an entire group. 

The Secure Message Gateway (SMG) allows users to send and receive electronic protected healthcare information to the most popular messaging providers. They have deployed integrations with TigerConnect, Halo, and pMD, with more being added in the future. The SMG provides the opportunity to work with healthcare organizations that have a secure message platform they prefer to keep. Agents can seamlessly dispatch to these other secure messaging providers without having to access a third-party solution. 

SoftSwitch 2.0

Their second generation SoftSwitch continues to be installed and deployed across all three of their platforms. SoftSwitch has solid stability due to their years of coding and development expertise. They are developing new features and functionality to the SoftSwitch, and as their clients’ teams get comfortable with the interface, they’ll be able to handle some of the programming themselves. The SoftSwitch is a native SIP platform, enabling the integration of SIP-trunking and utilizing the latest VoIP protocols while allowing the use of analog, T-1, and PRI circuits.

SoftSwitch routes calls based on skill level, queue priority, and user-defined scenarios. It also provides real-time status of contact center activity via the Startel dashboard. SoftSwitch 2.0 boasts a new call return feature that allows callers to opt out of queue and request a callback when an agent becomes available. Upon the request, a call is generated to hold the callers place in queue. When the agent answers, the agent is asked if they will accept the callback call. If accepted, the agent is connected to an outbound call to the number left by the caller. If the agent does not accept, the call goes to the next available agent. 

Total Billing Solution 3

Total Billing Solution (TBS) has had some enhanced features added this year. The pandemic has pushed consumers and companies to look for increased options for paying bills online and collecting payments more efficiently. Last year they rolled out ThePaymentPortal.com as a hosted, online, secure e-commerce site where a company can access statements, view invoices, and pay bills at their convenience. Many TBS customers incorporate the payment portal into their billing process.

This year they rolled out USAePay autopay integration. This streamlined interface eliminates the need for clients’ staff to learn their organizations’ banks’ ACH transaction process. Most importantly, USAePay has lower card transaction processing fees than the existing interface, which puts more money in their customers’ pocket.

What’s Next?

In August they held their first virtual Startel user group event and were joined by almost 300 of their customers. They shared many new products currently in development, including a first look at their cloud-based solution, Startel365. They are excited to have a new and innovative cloud solution being released. More details will be coming in 2021.

Startel

Learn more at Startel.com.

Lockdown Initiatives

By Kathy Sisk

In my forty years in the call center industry, I have gone through many challenges, but none as distressing as in the past year. We can feel sorry for ourselves, or we can be intentional to make wise use of our time. Yes, we should relax and have fun when we can, but it doesn’t pay our bills. Therefore, balance is essential to move forward.

Here are some items for call center owners and clients to consider during lockdown:

  • Get your house in order. Not your living quarters, but your business. Organize your office, your desk, your laptop, and your thoughts. 
  • Consider relocating staff to work from home. Sure, it’s a hassle, but when you are not able to pay your overhead, the hassle is a moot point.
  • If required, get permission to go to the office and grab those PCs, headsets, and anything else you need. None of us knows what to expect, so it is best to think about the worst-case scenario and plan for it. 
  • If your infrastructure is not already in the cloud, work with a vender who can get you there. If you have an outbound operation, there are reliable resources that can get you up and running in less than an hour.
  • Relocate staff in an area they can work from. Several centers I work with rented a house where their employees live and work from. 
  • If your staff is unable to process calls remotely, use the downtime to create curriculum and train your employees to learn as they wait to return to work. 
  • Spend time to generate additional campaign opportunities and set up the campaigns now in preparation for when restrictions ease. 

These are some of the ideas I have incorporated into my company, and fortunately we have not been affected financially as others have. In fact, I have hired additional employees to cover the growth my company experienced during the lockdowns. Proudly, my staff is working full-time, generating sales, setting up campaigns, and onboarding centers with mostly at-home agents. 

Taking these steps will help us now and prepare us for whatever the future may hold.

[Due to increased business demands, this is Kathy’s final column for Connections Magazine. Please thank her for the scores of articles she’s written for us over the years.]

Kathy Sisk, founder and president of Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc., is a trainer and consultant, contributing thirty-five years of expertise to the telemarketing, sales, and customer service industries.

Does Your Corporate Culture Get All A’s?

Discover How to Shape the Team Culture You Want

By Jason V. Barger

It’s an instant gratification world where people, employees, and leaders want things to change immediately. They want progress to be at the flip of a switch. They want an “easy” button. Leaders, teams, and organizations want to snap their fingers and magically arrive at their desired outcomes. 

However, developing people and culture doesn’t happen like that. There is no quick fix or hack to developing leaders and the team culture you desire. It’s a process. It takes commitment, discipline, and focus. The most compelling team and organizational cultures invest time, energy, and resources into shaping the culture they want, not just the culture they’ve experienced in the past. They know that one of their greatest competitive advantages in today’s world is not just what they do as a company but the culture of how they do it. People want to be a part of a compelling culture and contribute their skills to something greater than themselves.

Every team and company want to be known for having an amazing culture, but only some understand how they are created and are disciplined enough to lead a culture-shaping process. If you’ve studied change theory in your spare time (you know, the process for how any person or group stimulates change), then you understand the reality that we grow as individuals and groups one step at a time.

All change follows the same pattern. The best leaders and teams on the planet know that growing the ecosystem they desire within their organization takes proactive leadership and support. The best team cultures don’t magically happen; they are intentionally designed and led along the process. And it’s not a top-down dictator style of leadership that is compelling to people, but rather a participatory style that invites cross-functional representation throughout the organization to share in the dreaming and creation of the culture they desire. 

The process to create your culture requires six As for participatory leadership:

1. Assess

Many cultures don’t even know where they are on the map. Where are you succeeding and where are you falling short? You must be honest about your current state as a culture. Momentum begins to build when you can establish urgency and identify opportunities to improve.

2. Align

People are the lifeblood of every team and organization, and in today’s world your people want to participate. They want their mind and heart to be engaged and connected to the “why,” the mission at the heart of your efforts. It takes time and space to establish alignment with your people and constant efforts to stay in alignment along the way.

3. Aspire

What do you want to be different in the future? You must dream together and paint the vision for the future culture you desire. Give your people the opportunity to see beyond your current reality and into possibilities for a newly created future. 

4. Articulate

If you can’t describe where you’re going and the values you want to guide you as a culture, then you can’t be surprised when it doesn’t exist. Your people need a common language and the ability to see and share the story of where you’re heading together. Language drives behavior, so the best cultures have compelling language linked to actions and behaviors for the future they’re creating.

5. Act

All change requires action. However, action without vision and alignment is a nightmare. Once the aspirational vision for the culture is established, the best leaders and teams empower a bias toward action and identify the next steps they will take to stimulate progress. All change happens when actions grow out of an intentional vision and spirit. 

6. Anchor

Culture-shaping is not a drive-through experience. It’s not a one-time company meeting or a poster on the wall. Every culture must create habits that ground the values within their organizational ecosystem. The organization intentionally anchors them with their structures for how they hire, onboard employees, identify emerging leaders, do performance evaluations, raise the bar on leadership at all levels, and develop and empower culture ambassadors.

Conclusion

So, does your team culture get all As?

Good grades don’t just magically happen. Great schools, great companies, great teams, great communities, and great collections of humans don’t magically happen. They are grown, developed, cultivated, and led with intentionality.

It’s far easier to ignore studying, practicing, engaging with your people, and putting your head down to do your job. And because that is easier, it’s the reason many cultures do not become compelling places to work.

The process for developing high-performing and engaged cultures never stops, and the best leaders, teams, and organizations are committed to the continuous journey of development, vision, communication, engagement, authenticity, and action.

Good luck on your next test. I hope you get all As.

Jason V. Barger is the author of Thermostat Cultures, ReMember, and Step Back from the Baggage Claim, as well as the host of The Thermostat podcast. As the founder of Step Back Leadership Consulting, he is a keynote speaker, leadership coach, and organizational consultant who is committed to engaging the minds and hearts of people and growing compelling cultures. Learn more at JasonVBarger.com.

WFM Solutions in the Future

By Donna Fluss

Change is born of necessity. The business world today is dramatically different from what it was fifteen years ago, and not just because of the pandemic. The workforce has changed, management practices have changed, how we do business has changed, and customer expectations have changed. Technology must adapt and transform, and nowhere is this more fevident than in the workforce management (WFM) sector. Today’s new-gen WFM suites are striving to stay on pace with modern management trends, smart technology, expanding global business requirements, and broadened market opportunities. To borrow from a popular idiom, these are “not your mother’s WFM solutions.” And the new capabilities are getting rave reviews. 

WFM solutions are providing agents with enhanced self-service capabilities that give them the autonomy to create and manage their own schedules and time off. Click To Tweet

Leading Innovation

Contact centers need to address operational requirements, satisfy employee needs, and meet customer expectations, all while managing costs. The last few years have brought significant changes to WFM solutions; they have been enhanced to meet the needs of omni-channel servicing environments, multinational enterprises, digital natives, and the up-and-coming Gen Z workforce. 

AI and intelligent automation are enabling major enhancements to WFM solutions. Vendors are delivering new algorithms and AI-based forecasting and simulation models that include automatic selection of the best predictive models to use. Flex staffing has paved the way for the gig economy and scheduling practices that are built for “real agents and real life.” Real-time adaptive scheduling is altering and improving the handling of intraday staffing variances in real time, making it much more effective than in the past. The use of automation, including pre-defined rules, is eliminating the delays associated with having to involve WFM administrators and supervisors in many processes, from the assignment of overtime to who gets to take vacations. 

Self-Service Comes on Strong

WFM solutions are providing agents with enhanced self-service capabilities that give them the autonomy to create and manage their own schedules and time off. As importantly, these tools allow agents to accommodate their need for work/life balance. Self-service scheduling and time-off management features come with automated dispositioning of agent requests based on client-defined availability and rules. 

A growing number of agent self-service apps include AI-enabled intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) to assist with common WFM requests using natural language in a variety of channels, including short message service (SMS), desktop chat, text, and mobile device. Additionally, employee empowerment features such as gamification and expanded visibility into their personal performance via reports and dashboards keep agents engaged and motivated. Real-time alerts are an important feature for keeping agents apprised of contact center conditions and helping them stay on task and vested in their performance. 

Enhanced Usability

Vendors are investing to improve their user interfaces (UIs) and user experience (UX). In the last couple of years, WFM vendors have started to modernize and simplify agent and supervisor UIs and UXs, applying intuitive design elements that improve access and navigation. An increasing number of agent and supervisor functions are available on iOS and Android mobile devices and tablets, delivered in graphical, interactive, widget-based dashboards with role-based features, functions, and reports. 

Mobile apps enable supervisors to monitor contact center performance and agent adherence via real-time reports and dashboards, track real-time adherence, and make schedule modifications directly from a tablet. Mobility features keep agents engaged by giving them access to personal dashboards and schedules, making it easy for them to view their schedules, sync schedules with personal online calendars, request time off, and view statistics from their smartphone or tablet, even when they are outside the contact center. 

Final Thoughts 

Life has changed substantially in the last few months. Contact centers need enhanced and flexible WFM solutions that address the needs of digitally and pandemically transformed contact centers. Companies that continue to operate with outdated technology and antiquated business practices and management techniques are going to find themselves at a major disadvantage and, worse, at risk of facing increasing employee attrition rates. WFM solutions from the past are ill-equipped to meet the current and future challenges confronting contact centers in the post-COVID-19 world. DMG expects to see significant innovation in the WFM market in the next few years, as well as new vendors coming to the market. 

Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting LLC. For more than two decades she has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary, author, and speaker, Donna drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the services industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community.