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Right Like a Weatherperson
Seemingly bold predictions are all the rage at this time of the year, as though flipping your calendar to a new month will magically alter trends that started long ago. What does “Year of the PaaS” even mean? What is the year of anything? How do we measure this type of thing? Market penetration? Ok, fine. But how granular does that analysis have to be?
The point here is that it doesn’t matter if 2016 is the right year that other companies adopt new technological solutions. In reality, the “Year of the PaaS” is any year when a company steps forward and decides that it wants to reap the benefits of a PaaS. For that company, that year is the year of the PaaS.
It seems that for several years in a row technologists, analysts, and businessmen alike have predicted that this year is when the Platform as a Service is really going to catch on. Others lament the unrealized potential of the PaaS and openly wonder when it will take its proper place in the cloud computing realm.
Some in the tech world argue that PaaS doesn’t quite pass muster for many businesses yet because of platform lock-in, and the lack of a true platform ecosystem. Are these volleys fair or a generalization?
Don’t Spit and Tell Me It’s Raining
These roadblocks may be real for some platform vendors, but to suggest that, as a rule, they are shared universally misses the mark. The very fact that “as a service” connotes a cloud environment suggests that there is an intrinsic need for flexibility and adaptability.
On the matter of platform lock-in, this may be true of large vendors offering turn-key solutions on their platforms, but what if you don’t need an entire suite of applications, or you require something unique to your organization or industry?
In the world of communications having a locked-in platform doesn’t make much sense because the entire purpose of communications is to, well… communicate with other entities. Hamstringing a platform to only perform particular functions rather than giving developers free-reign to create their own solutions is bad for communications, and therefore bad for business.
The same goes with claims of a deficient ecosystem. What does that even mean? The very nature of a web service means that a platform must be able to interact with a range of other services and applications, such as databases, file storage, security, and messaging.
If we again focus on the world of communications, then the need for interoperability re-emerges in high-relief. The entire idea of making a development platform available in a cloud environment is to more easily facilitate these operations. An attentive vendor will have APIs available to accomplish this goal, or if an API doesn’t already exist then they will work to create one. Suffice it to say that supporting APIs ensures that a PaaS isn’t lacking in the oomph! department.
The Real PaaS Advantage
One doesn’t need a crystal ball or to channel the spirit of Nostradamus to make predictions. All one has to do is look at industry trends and roll with those. A recent study [pdf] by Wikibon claims that PaaS revenue will jump from just under $2B in 2014 to over $68B in 2026, which corresponds to an 11% increase in total public cloud revenues. In other words, PaaS solutions are catching on and their upward trajectory is definitely in positive territory.
As companies look for way to increase efficiency and lower start-up costs a move to the cloud becomes increasingly appealing. Of course, the sooner a company adopts the cloud, the sooner they can start to realize these savings. There’s also the benefit of having a leg up on the competition as well.
Twenty-sixteen doesn’t have to be the year of the PaaS, just make it your year for PaaS.
Publish Date: January 13, 2016
Studying the New Deal is often an exercise in processing acronyms. More than one university professor has accurately described all the programs created during that period as alphabet soup. Heck, even the president who oversaw the New Deal is referred to by his initials–FDR. Naturally, between the FDIC, WPA, TVA, PWA, AAA, RA, REA, NYA, and CCC, historians lament the fact that acronyms aren’t allowed in Scrabble. At least when your tiles include five vowels and two consonants you’d have some option.
The alphabet soup affliction similarly applies to the world of technology. It seems that everyday a new abbreviation works its way into the lexicon of the digital world. Over the past couple of years there has been a steady growth in different “as a service” offerings. These are basically different types of cloud computing options, the most common of which is Software as a Service, or, more briefly–SaaS.
Most end-users think of “the cloud” as the place where they store their pictures and back up their important files. For businesses though the cloud is how they get things done. This is the place where systems run, applications are built and executed, and all those tasks that end-users just “do” are designed to do just that.
One Pyramid, Hold the Hieroglyphics
There is more to the “aaS” family that SaaS, however. In general terms there are three different components of the cloud computing stack.
Imagine, if you will, a pyramid. We’ll call this the Cloud Computing Stack Pyramid, or the CCSP. Just kidding. We don’t need another abbreviation to deal with. Getting back to the pyramid idea, imagine that there are three different sections where the base of the pyramid is infrastructure (IaaS), the middle represents platform (PaaS), and the top is software (SaaS).
Now let’s work backwards from the top-down to unpack what each of these components are and how they differ.
In a cloud computing environment, SaaS is likely what people are most familiar with. SaaS refers to web applications that reside in the cloud. These can be licensed software like Microsoft’s Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, or ArcGIS Online. Not every SaaS option is subscription based, however, and applications like Dropbox and PayPal fall under the broad heading of SaaS, too.
These types of applications allow users to complete tasks over the web without the need to install anything on their local hardware. Because the primary functionality of the software is server-based, SaaS applications lend themselves to sharing and collaboration much more easily than traditional, installed applications. In other words, users access the application through their web browser and not by clicking a desktop icon.
A cloud based platform differs from a service in myriad ways. Whereas a service is a finished product intended for end users, a platform is designed for software developers. This means that all of the tools necessary to build, test, and deploy web-based applications are hosted in the cloud. As stated elsewhere in these pages, a platform is like having a Lego baseplate and a slew of Lego bricks.
In other words, a SaaS is something that is ready to use, while a PaaS provides the environment to build a SaaS. This is especially helpful for projects or companies that have multiple developers collaborating on a project because it enables all parties to work with the same tools and resources. There is no need to manually share various elements of a project because everything is housed in a single, central location that is easily accessible by everyone.
There used to be a much more distinct line between PaaS and IaaS, but that line has blurred in recent years as more PaaS providers begin to manage their own infrastructure. Nevertheless, IaaS is when the actual hardware used to operate a PaaS, the servers, switches, and other physical media necessary exist in a cloud environment. Some of the most notable vendors in this category are already household names because the likes of Google, Amazon Web Services, Rackspace, and VMWare offer IaaS.
The benefit of IaaS is that companies can significantly reduce the cost of operating web services. Many IaaS providers have subscription plans or allow users to pay for the resources they use. Because these items are maintained by a different company the costs associated with maintenance and upgrades are the responsibility of the vendor.
As more PaaS providers include infrastructure as part of their service, vendors exercise greater control over their cloud environment, which allows them to offer more competitive rates, and ensure better responsiveness and scaling for applications built on the platform.
It’s worth pointing out that cloud computing technology is constantly evolving so these “aaS” conceptions are fairly broad, and what’s included under each heading may change. For example, Plum Voice is a good example of the convergence of PaaS and IaaS. We operate three, geographically dispersed data centers in the United States and a fourth in the United Kingdom. Having access to, and control over this much infrastructure enabled Plum to build a secure system that is PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and SOC2 compliant.
The range of tools offered through Plum’s communications platform, therefore making it a CPaaS, is diverse and includes everything necessary to create powerful IVR, messaging, self-service, CEBP, and other applications. In other words, it’s possible to use Plum’s IaaS and PaaS to build a really powerful SaaS. Phew!
Publish Date: January 7, 2016
Holding your phone at arm’s length and yelling at the top of your lungs at the automated voice on the other end may seem like the type of thing reserved for a TV sitcom or a video about the challenges of speech recognition engines understanding a Scottish accent. Yet, the reason that these images resonate so deeply with a broad cross-section of people is because the bogey man of poor automation is one that is understood through experience.
A Bad Rap
Interactive voice response (IVR) gets a bad rap in large part because of how it was abused in the past. Focusing on the bottom line and not on providing good customer service is a typical culprit in this situation. For many companies their call center doesn’t provide the type of ROI they want to see. In some cases, the goal for a company is to active prevent calls going to their more expensive service channels.
Others may have gone into automation with good intentions, but never put the time into properly fine tune or update their application. This leads to a “set it and forget it” situation where the automated system produces long hold times, a never-ending string of messages assuring callers that their call is important, and phone menus that are so labyrinthine that not even David Bowie would be interested in using it.
Blaming the technology itself is like blaming a golf club for slicing a shot and breaking a window. In reality, the root of the issue lies in user error. After all, an IVR application is only as good as the person who designs it. That’s why putting the extra time into planning and design is key.
It Just Works
And yet… and yet… When a company has a good, well-designed IVR no one ever says, “Wow, that was a great phone system!” It’s just the nature of the beast that the things that “just work” are taken for granted. People don’t associate these applications with IVR because that’s not the lived experience that most people have.
It doesn’t have to be this way. IVR has come a long way since those not-so-halcyon days when it was used almost exclusively as a virtual receptionist. Advances in automatic speech recognition (ASR) makes hands-free navigation of phone menus easier than ever. To use an industry term, ASR may not be at a “five 9s” level of reliability yet, but good engines are at least in the 90th percentile or better when it comes to accuracy. Those times when ASR doesn’t come through though, systems with error-correction built-in still make it easy for callers to complete tasks. At the end of the day, attention to system design is a vital operator.
Therein lies the crux of the thing. The ability to quickly and easily complete tasks on the phone is the hallmark of a good IVR. A truly customer-focused company understands this, and continually optimizes and improves their self-service applications to provide great automation. Just like in Hollywood, filmmakers want their CGI effects to be so realistic that you can’t tell whether they’re real or fake, so too should enterprises make their IVR applications so seamless that a caller never even considers transferring to an agent.
Hold The Applause
Let’s be honest. Given the bad rap that IVR gets the last thing you want to build is a typical IVR. So don’t! Instead, use IVR technology to design, build, and optimize a voice application that caters to the needs of your callers. The fact that an application like this boosts ROI all while providing great customer service, is more than a fringe benefit. It’s justification for extending customer experience principles to self-service systems.
Naturally, your customers would thank you, but with a well designed automated communications app they may not even notice. After all, that’s the goal, right?
None of this is submitted without a dose or realism though. What many don’t realize is how expensive it is to have something that “just works.” There’s a reason that for every Siri or Cortana there are thousands of less sophisticated IVR applications. Apple spent $200M to acquire the technology behind Siri, and the Siri team remains one of the largest at the company. We’re not talking about pocket change here.
Then again, not every company wants or needs a voice application with a personality like Siri. A company like FedEx, which has robust ASR technology in its IVR application, spent millions developing it, and maintaining it isn’t an exercise in frugality either. There remains a need to balance the cost of developing and maintaining that technology with everything else on your plate. Exploring and understanding what it takes to get great ASR is critical if you want to include it in your automation plans.
Publish Date: December 17, 2015
On December 1, 1913, Henry Ford unveiled what was arguably his most important invention. No, it wasn’t a new vehicle; Ford’s game changer was the moving-chassis assembly line. This foray into industrial automation reduced the build time on a Model T from twelve hours to two-and-a-half hours. Obviously, this meant that Ford could produce more cars at less cost, and in turn could lower the price of their vehicles. The cause-and-effect from the catalyst of automation resulted in Ford’s domination of the American automobile market.
Whether you’re faced with an internal business process or outward-facing interactions with customers, using the right automation tools and technology can be a boon for both workforce efficiency and your company’s bottom line.
Different businesses and industries benefit from automation differently, but suffice it to say that if your company uses computers and telephones on a daily basis there’s a solid chance that automating communications could be a major benefit to you.
Re-Thinking Communications Channels
When thinking about what types of tasks can be automated over the phone it’s important to properly calibrate the way you think about phones in this context. A lot of people probably default to phone automation as auto-attendants and robotic voices. That is a very common and useful application for automation, but it’s also very limiting.
Re-orienting your view of the phone as both an input and an output device opens up many more possibilities. When you add in messaging to this perspective the automation options increase yet again. Finally, when thinking about how phones and messaging are part of the modern digital technology ecosystem, the possibilities become almost endless.
So in the spirit of Henry Ford, here are 5 ways that automation can improve business processes in a variety of industries.
Just mentioning healthcare brings to mind an intersection where three or four streets meet. Any direction you turn, leads to a vastly different aspect of the industry because healthcare is such a large topic. Patient care, providers, insurers, and facility management and operations are just some of the most obvious areas.
Take medical records as one example: Doctors and nurses have no shortage of work to do when it comes to updating patient medical records. The digitization of this process has made it more flexible, allowing staff to update electronic medical records when they’re not sitting in the office. Automation can help to ensure patient charts are updated in a timely manner.
Imagine that a provider sets a baseline expectation that all patient records are updated within six hours of a patient being seen by medical personnel. When a patient leaves the care facility the clock starts ticking; this can be managed through a check out process as patients leave. It’s possible to trigger a text message or email notification to be sent to the person (doctor/therapist/nurse, etc.) responsible for each patient chart that is not updated within the expected window. It would even be feasible to make these notifications recur at a regular interval until the record is marked as updated in the system.
In another sector of the industry, hospitals have a finite number of beds available to patients, therefore, having an accurate count of open beds is critical, especially during cold and flu season or other peak times of the year. Sometimes a backlog of patients waiting for admission is unavoidable.
It’s times like these that admissions personnel can triage their cases to create a priority list, even going so far as to include a specific hospital unit that a patient need (e.g. cardiology, neurology, pediatrics, etc.). Tying notifications into the hospital’s information system that manages the admissions priority list enables staff on each hospital floor to update their census numbers so that when a bed opens up in a unit for which someone is waiting, an alert can be sent directly to the admissions staff to notify them. The alert could take the form of a text message, a page, or a phone call, and could provide a time estimate for how quickly the room can be prepped for a new patient. This method of linking admissions and discharge data to use for instant patient census alerts allows admissions staff to manage patient expectations.
Before going too far down the rabbit hole with healthcare automation applications, let’s take a look at some other examples where telephony and automation may not typically be associated with each other.
Oil & Gas
When you think of the oil and gas industry, what comes to mind? Is it Bruce Willis in Armageddon working on an offshore oilrig, or the rigs that dot the landscape of Texas and Oklahoma, or the burning sands in the Middle East? Locating and accessing oil and gas is a big part of that industry, but so too is transporting it.
Automation can be used to keep tabs on oil pipelines. Sensors along the pipeline can be connected to backend IT systems, so that when an issue occurs the right people are informed. This type of emergency notifications can be customized depending on the type and severity of an issue. Minor plant items may go directly to a technician, while a much more severe issue affecting production may need to go to technicians, directors, or even executives.
It may seem that sites like Zillow have everything one would need to know about a real estate listing, but there is much more to real estate than residential property, and getting information about other types of property isn’t always so easy. At the same time, the more buyer touch points that exist the better, so even residential realtors can benefit from automation.
One use for automation in real estate relates to the efficient distribution of listing information. In this case each property is designated with a code. When an individual texts that code to a specific phone number they will receive a text response that includes a link to listing details, photos, realtor contact information, and any other relevant information. Providing information in this manner also makes it easier to share with other stakeholders in the buying process.
Whether it’s a contest, a give-away, a sweepstakes or a similar type of marketing campaign getting accurate customer data is a critical component of a successful campaign. Not only do you use that information to notify the winners, but it also becomes the seeds you sew for the next campaign.
Automation allows participants to call or text a number to provide their contact information. Because the participant is entering his or her own information, automation makes this process quicker and more accurate compared to speaking to a live agent.
There are many ways in which automation can propel your business forward in a positive way. The close integration of data and telephony opens up endless possibilities, similar to having a pile of Legos and an imagination. The general term for this nowadays is communications-enable business processes, but Plum Voice has been deploying these types of solutions before that phrase was ever coined. Contact us to see how we can help you reach your business goals through automation.
Publish Date: December 11, 2015
It doesn’t take a genius to know that security is critical to successful business operations. Recently we looked at different authentication methods and how to use them. Naturally, as a company that deals in voice communications, it makes sense to highlight the benefits of voice biometrics as a security option.
How It Works
There are two elements to voice biometrics: registration and authentication.
Registration entails talking to the voice biometric engine long enough so that it can create a voice print for an individual.
One method for creating a voice print is to use a random number case approach. In this use case, the voice bio engine prompts the user to recite a string of random numbers. An IVR captures this audio and sends it to the engine. If there is a successful match, the system then moves to another random string of numbers. This process is repeated until the voice biometrics engine determines that it has enough samples to create a voice print. Typically, this is in the range of 4–6 audio samples.
Authentication is even simpler. During subsequent calls to the same company, the caller’s voice is verified against the voice print already in the system. Registration only needs to be done once, making the authentication process a fast and efficient security measure once it’s set up.
A Robust API
At Plum, we’ve created our own REST API (or shim layer) specifically for voice biometrics. Our developers have done the hard work of evaluating numerous voice bio engines. Only the engines that meet our high standards and internal testing made the final cut into the API. Our developers continue to assess different voice bio vendors in order to offer the best combination of reliability and ease of use through a single API.
Normalizing multiple voice bio engines in an API allows us to offer increased flexibility without a corresponding increase in development complexity. The API brings the most common commands to the forefront, and pushes everything else to the background to make integration smoother.
At the heart of our voice biometrics API are the commands to manage user creation and validation, to initiate voice print enrollment for both new and existing users, and to authenticate users. The end result streamlines the creation and authentication of voice prints through an interactive voice response application.
Integrate Voice Biometrics into Applications
Lauding the benefits of voice biometrics and multi-factor security authentication is all well and good, but if these additional features aren’t cost effective or are difficult to implement the ROI drops. Plum makes voice biometric authentication easy to implement into voice communications, reducing the number of hours that developers need to spend on it. This makes its security benefits even more attractive because it provides a strong layer of security as a standalone or as part of a multi-factor authentication process.
Publish Date: December 2, 2015
Je ponce, donc je suis.
Cogito egro sum.
I think, therefore I am.
Regardless of the tongue, this bit of philosophical thought is one that virtually everyone has heard. What does an esoteric question like this have to do with cybersecurity? One thing that Descartes exposes in his famous declaration is a relationship. One does not exist without the other. This interdependency is something that carries over into cybersecurity.
There are three different approaches to authentication that relate to something you know, something you have, or something you are. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. The key (excuse the pun) is to strike the right balance between authentication methods.
What You Know
Knowledge-based authentication (KBA) is the most common form of security measure. This typically consists of a user name and password at the most basic level. Additional questions often supplement this basic data, too. These are supposed to be things that you would know but others wouldn’t, things like your mother’s maiden name, your high school mascot, and the street you lived on as a child.
A complete stranger wouldn’t know the answer to any of those questions off the top of their head. However, the utility and security of KBAs seems to have an inverse relationship with the amount of data available on the internet. The more data that becomes available, the less secure KBAs are.
Thanks to social media, aggregated consumer information databases, and a host of other services that live in the cloud (think about something like Ancestory.com) finding out basic details about virtually anyone is a few keystrokes away. Even the most secure database, with 256-bit encryption can’t do anything about a malicious user who correctly guesses another person’s credentials.
Relying solely on KBA security is like putting a bowl of candy on your front porch for Halloween with a sign that says “Take 1,” and hoping everyone does so. Sure, most kids will abide your request, but sure enough some high schooler will come along, dump the entire thing in their pillow case, and be on to the next house.
What You Have
The thinking behind this type of authentication is that you have a physical item that serves to verify your identity. This can take many forms, like a key fob or a mobile phone, but the critical part is that it is an item that is unique to a specific individual.
Items that possess USB, RFID, or Bluetooth connectivity can generate dynamic keys that a user needs to enter, in addition to login credentials, in order to gain access to information. Pairing this type of authentication with another type of authentication (e.g. KBA or biometric) is known as two-factor authentication because there are two different measures that must be met before granting access. Some companies issue key fobs of this sort to employees, but doing so can be an expensive enterprise when it comes to managing and tracking all of the devices and users.
The ubiquity of mobile phones has made this a bit easier, especially as companies accede to BYOD practices. Instead of relying on a key fob that stores cryptographic information, it is possible to send a message to the smart phone registered to that user, who then has to enter a confirmation code before proceeding.
No matter what type of device is used for authentication, there remains the possibility of loss or theft of the device. This is another drawback of relying on a physical token for authentication purposes.
What You Are
Perhaps the most unique differentiator on an individual level is biology. No one has the same fingerprints, voice, or eyes, and all three of these anatomical features can be used for biometric authentication. Not only does biological uniqueness make biometric authentication more secure, but there is no need to memorize credentials and the likelihood of losing a piece of your body is much lower than a key fob.
Just like technological advances device-based authentication easier with mobile phones, it has also made biometric authentication more accurate and reliable. What would we do without technology?
If biometric data is stolen it is much more difficult for thieves to actually use this data. It’s not like in the movies where the bad guy cuts of a hand and puts it on the scanner, or makes a fake contact lens to fool the eye scanner. The sensors that power these types of interfaces are designed to detect fakes. Even voice biometrics software, which can be easily deployed over the phone, can detect impersonators, recordings, or synthetic voices.
Which To Choose?
With three distinct approaches to security and authentication, which method should companies choose? While resources undoubtedly contribute to this type of decision, most companies already employ KBA. It’s what people know and what they’re accustomed to. This may seem adequate, even with additional KBA security questions to serve as back up, and this presentation of security and trust may be enough for some. Limiting security to KBAs is a paper tiger when it comes to trust though; it’s the mere presentation of trust, not necessarily the actualization of it.
However, there’s a difference between walking the walk and talking the talk. To really earn user trust when it comes to security employ two-, or multi-factor authentication. The latter could include multiple forms of biometric authentication in addition to KBA or object-based security measures. This augments the KBAs that already exist with a combination of what you have or what you are. The more types of authentication required, the more secure the system is.
How do you know when it makes sense to make the move to two-factor authentication though, both as a company or as a user? Start with any entity that deals with medical or financial data. These data are the most frequently targeted and lucrative, and, therefore, should be high on the list of things to protect. This data contains your most personal and private information and has the potential to cause the greatest amount of damage in the wrong hands.
Next look at social media and other large data aggregators. Remember these are the sources that criminals mine to subvert your KBA credentials. Setting up two-factor authentication is a good idea here as well. The same goes for many cloud service providers. Businesses should also scrutinize the security practices of their associates and vendors. Holding others to the same high standards for security is the equivalent of a rising tide lifting all boats.
There is no panacea to questions of security. But one thing is quite clear; KBA alone doesn’t do the trick any more, and two-factor authentication (if not multi-) provides a much more proactively secure IT environment. To return to Descartes, thinking alone isn’t enough; companies need to find balance to construct a relationship between all three authentication variants.
Publish Date: November 20, 2015
The Buyer’s Journey
In marketing there is a lot of talk about the “buyer’s journey.” This is a not-so-fancy way to describe the process by which a person discovers and purchases a product or service. So if we’re talking about buying a car, the journey isn’t the picture on Instagram of someone standing next to their new car, dangling their keys with a giant grin on their face. The journey includes everything from online research, to test drives, to financing options, and more.
When it comes to car buying, it’s possible to uncover how a customer got from point A to point B. It may take a bit of leg work, but it can be done. Now, obtaining feedback about each stage of the process can be a challenge as well, but there are plenty of tools to assist marketers and companies with that sort of thing.
These patterns and behaviors exist regardless of the industry under the microscope. It’s up to each individual company to make them work to its benefit.
The Limits of a Snapshot
Take hospitals for example. There is a nation-wide survey that patients complete to evaluate their satisfaction with the care they received following a stint in the hospital called the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS). To up the ante, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have started to tie HCAHPS scores to reimbursement rates. Facilities that don’t fare well in relation to patient satisfaction can lose millions of dollars in government funding.
The point here isn’t to make a value judgment on HCAHPS, certainly it has a role to play and that’s fine. But from the standpoint of a healthcare provider it’s worth pointing out that the HCAHPS survey is a snapshot of the end result. This is equivalent to using a post-call survey, and nothing else, to gauge and manage customer experience. Typically, there are a battery of other appointments, tests, and interactions that precede a hospitalization that all influence the way a patient perceives their care.
The survey asks patients to rank things like doctor and nurse communication, pain management, and discharge instructions. These things don’t exist in a vacuum though; context is important. If someone goes into the hospital for knee surgery they’re going to compare the care associated with that procedure with all the appointments leading up to it. That’s the baseline, and there’s nothing wrong with this type of contextualization either. It’s natural and almost impossible to prevent.
This contextualization phenomenon is by no means limited to the healthcare industry. To make matters more complicated, customers don’t just consider a specific purchase in light of the research that led up to it. Yes, customers weigh the entire buyer’s journey, from discovery through purchase. But this is just a single component of out of several used to determine quality of service. Customers are also, in fact, comparing apples and oranges.
Companies in unrelated industries still bear in the mind of customers. Therefore, a car dealership or a hospital has to contend with expectations engendered by Target, USAA, or Comcast. Some may be easier to top than others, but essentially what results is a continuum between good and bad. In essence, consumers walk around with the equivalent of a personal Temkin Customer Service Rating in their head.
Keeping tabs on other companies and how they stack up in relation to customer satisfaction amongst one’s target market can help determine where on the continuum they fall and how to move in the correct direction.
Getting back to our healthcare example, one could argue that HCAHPS results both reflect the care provided at a specific hospital and the cumulative experience of the healthcare interactions that led up to that hospital stay.
What would be useful for healthcare providers is not just relying on that end-of-the-line snapshot, but periodic snapshots throughout the entire patient’s journey. This allows providers to diagnose the cause and not just the symptoms of customer experience, and to take corrective action in the appropriate places. Think of it like a movie or an animated gif, something that includes movement and direction rather than a static photo.
The recent push to increase the use of electronic medical records stands as an area where healthcare providers can tap into patient data and begin to fill in the rest of the picture with pre- and post-hospitalization information. Every interaction is documented and easily accessible. This intrinsic inter-connectivity should make connecting the dots relatively easy.
Not only would this allow healthcare providers to uncover a more comprehensive view of the patient’s journey, and reveal points for soliciting additional feedback along the way, but partnering with insurers would allow facilities to control for a wide range of variables, such as cost, practice, doctor, medical specialty, insurance type, duration of care, number of interactions, and many more.
Thanks to electronic medical records the healthcare industry has a built-in advantage when it comes to understanding the patient’s journey. The sooner that providers can tap into that information, the sooner they will be able to reap the benefits of improved patient satisfaction.
Get the Whole Picture
Regardless of industry, the salient point here is that customer experience is not a fixed point on the map, something that one can easily point out after a quick glance. Any mapmaker will tell you that a map is made up of points, lines, and polygons. To consider only of these is to navigate without a full complement of information.
The same goes for gauging customer experience. Monitoring the end-of-the-line snapshot will tell companies about their successes, but there are many more people who took an alternative route on the buyer’s journey, and there is important information to be gleaned from abandonments, too.
Understanding where buyers end their journey begs the question of why they abandoned in that place. This renewed focus enables companies to refine their customer offerings along the entire journey and, over time, to create a fine-tuned customer experience from awareness through purchase, and after.
Depending on the questions being asked surveys, phone calls, and messaging are all great options for soliciting information about various aspects of the customer’s journey.
Publish Date: November 10, 2015
It seems that nary a week goes by without a headline running rampant on the internet and in print detailing yet another healthcare entity that experienced a data breach. The industry as a whole is twice as likely to experience a data breach, and already sees 3.4 times more security episodes than other industries. As we evolve, globally, into a society that increasingly relies on digital technology, keeping all those precious ones and zeroes secure becomes an important task.
It used to be that identity thieves targeted your bank accounts and credit cards. All you had to do was simply not reply to that email from a foreign prince, right? Even if your credit cards are compromised it is easy enough to get a new card. Yes, it’s a pain in the rear to go through the rigmarole, but the point being that the long-term impact of “old school” identity theft is limited in today’s world. Once the alarms are sounded and flags raised about potential fraud that specific account ceases its duress rather quickly. Of course, it used to be much more difficult to identify and correct, much like medical fraud at present.
A new type of identity theft
The impermanence of financial data is one reason that hackers have turned their attention to patient health data. While you can trade in an old credit card for a shiny new one, the same isn’t possible with a medical diagnosis. The ne’er-do-wells who purchase and use stolen patient data typically leverage it to acquire prescription medications or even someone else’s insurance for themselves. This could be a recipe for disaster for the victim.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, medical records often include additional private information, such as social security number, home address, relatives, place of employment, and financial data. We’re basically looking at a one-stop shop for all of someone’s most critical information. A single record can be sold on the black market for $50 or more, which makes recent data breaches that include millions of records very lucrative for hackers.
IT security matters in healthcare
Making matters even worse, the IT infrastructure of many healthcare providers and insurers leaves much to be desired vis-à-vis what is available. This is a major reason why the U.S. Government allocated $17B for the healthcare industry in 2009 as part of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Part and parcel to this was an emphasis on electronic medical records, which forced many facilities to update their hardware. However, this has yet to penetrate the entire industry and places remain that rely on outdated, and therefore more vulnerable, legacy systems.
Even companies with up-to-date infrastructure are at risk though. Six years after the ARRA set the wheels of upgrades in motion, the healthcare industry continues to lag behind other industries in terms of internal software security and practices. If a breach does occur, it may not be automatically detected. In fact, it could take months or years to recognize that a breach occurred and what was taken.
Employees function as an important variable in the data breach equation. Malicious conduct certainly occurs, but more common is simple negligence, often unintentional, that leads to breaches. This could be from stolen devices or computers, or weak passwords.
A recent study found that in 2014, the healthcare industry accounted for 42% of major data breaches in the U.S. Given the value of this type of data on the black market, those numbers are not likely to go down anytime soon.
A disturbing trend
A quick look at the Department of Health & Human Services HIPAA enforcement data shows almost a constant increase in the number of reported HIPAA related incidents, violations, and resolutions. With figures extending back as far as 2003, there were only two calendar years in the period where the total number of incidents declined from the previous year.
It’s not a stretch to think of medical records that get into the wrong hands as Pandora’s Box; once opened it’s impossible to get everything back in the box as it was previously. Tracking what happens to patient medical records after a breach is another challenge, and adds a layer of complexity to the entire situation. Companies need to practice constant vigilance in anticipating threats and securing their patient data.
Hope for the future
All of this seems pretty grim, right? Fortunately, it is possible to be proactive in the war against hackers. This means upgrading IT infrastructure and procedures, like password complexity, to conform to current security best practices, and limiting partnerships to external vendors that are HIPAA compliant. For example, at Plum Voice we take data security seriously and our DEV platform underwent rigorous audits to achieve HIPAA compliance.
Another useful practice is employee training about the impact of data breaches on the healthcare industry to reinforce those policies. Pretty much everything requires a password these days so if you’re going to force employees to change theirs at regular intervals it’s best to make sure they understand why.
Publish Date: November 4, 2015
Needlessly looking for a reason to worry?
With the holiday season on the crest of an approaching wave many companies that already do the majority of their customer service over the phone will likely see their call volume swell even higher. Likewise, even companies that favor service options using other communications channels will see spikes to their call volume due to the sheer number of customer interactions that precede or follow a sale. Clogged phone lines mean busy signals or dropped calls, both of which are bad for business.
Considering this it makes sense for companies to think about their call infrastructure and to ensure that they have the necessary capacity to handle call increases that could be double or even orders of magnitude higher than normal.
However, using the right telephony provider makes worrying about call spikes a waste of time and energy.
A model for worry-free service
Here at Plum Voice, we take great pains to collect data and model trends pertaining to call spikes. We use the resulting analysis to fortify our infrastructure, making call spikes a non-issue for our clients.
Creating a model is easy for us because we have an abundance of call data. That’s what happens when you’ve been doing this sort of thing for over a decade! When going through all that data we aim to answer some specific questions.
First, we want to know what the busiest hour of the year is for each and every client we serve. To determine this, we look at peak utilization for every day of the year and then apply some statistical models. Once completed, this gives us an upper threshold for every customer’s call volume.
This process is repeated internally for our own infrastructure. When we ask “what is the busiest hour of the year for our infrastructure?” we’re not thinking about a particular client; we’re looking at our entire network. There are 8,760 hours in a year and after aggregating the usage of all of our clients, we identify the single hour over the span of an entire year with the highest call volume. The load borne by our network during this hour is our call spike.
How Plum stacks up
After going through the analysis and modeling process, Plum discovered the following:
- Individual customers experience spikes that are quadruple their average daily peak hour utilization
- Our infrastructure experiences spikes that are double the average daily peak hour utilization
- Individual customer spikes are never large enough to push our infrastructure-wide utilization beyond 2x
Our infrastructure is designed to always have double the redundant port capacity available based on what we see by way of average utilization. With three domestic data centers, we never allow our steady-state daily traffic to exceed 33% of our installed ports. Once the utilization of our entire infrastructure begins to creep toward 33% usage on a regular basis (not accounting for any planned or predicted traffic increases from specific customers) we begin adding circuits from our carriers.
In the simplest terms, we always have enough capacity to handle whatever call spikes any of our customers experiences.
Know your vendor
Planning ahead and choosing a telephony vendor with sufficient call capacity that is proactive with maintaining that level of service, whether growth occurs on the client or the vendor side, is key. With Plum, for example, finding a reliable, scalable system supported by the experts who created it isn’t as hard as it may seem; it’s what we do.
Here are four things to know, or ask about your telephony vendor:
- The number of data centers they operate
- The level of redundancy built into those data centers
- Their average daily port usage and what proportion of total redundant capacity that comprises
- If they have a model for predicting spikes and usage that is tied to proactive system upgrades
Once you know how your vendor handles them, you won’t have to worry about call spikes again.
Publish Date: October 28, 2015
All about that base
Most people have spent time building with Legos at one point in their lives. The great thing about Legos is that you can build virtually anything you can imagine with those little interlocking bricks.
What makes Lego creations even better? When you have a base plate to go along with all those bricks. The addition of a base plate adds an incalculable degree of stability to your creations, setting the stage for architectural greatness. Whether that is a replica of the Eiffel Tower, a life-sized Santa Clause, or a simple tower that you want to reach from the floor to the ceiling, the possibilities are endless.
What do Legos have to do with technology, you may ask? The point here is that having a solid foundation is the key to building awesome stuff. What you build on that foundation is only limited by what you can imagine.
In this way a Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS) is like the combination of Lego bricks, in this analogy the programming language and APIs, and a base plate, the platform that runs the code. Inevitably, someone will ask what a CPaaS does, but there is no single function that it’s designed to do. It’s a blank slate upon which virtually anything can be built. One thing is for certain, a CPaaS can do a lot more than just traditional IVR.
Here are a few examples—some hypothetical, others already in existence—that barely scratch the surface of what is possible.
Car 54, where are you?
Knowing where things are, geographically speaking, is helpful on a whole number of levels. When it comes to the intersection of communications and geography there are plenty of possibilities to build something really cool.
For example, integrating a CPaaS with other systems could result in a location-based notification system. Linking communications technology with a Geographic Information System (GIS) could have many different applications. For instance, a trucking company may have concerns about their on-time performance if drivers don’t follow their assigned routes or run into major delays.
The GIS and other backend systems can be used to automatically determine a threshold for how far drivers can deviate from their route, or the amount of time it should take to make a delivery. Once those system determines that a truck is beyond the threshold established for its route or is delayed by a certain amount of time, it can trigger the CPaaS to call the company so that they can find out what caused the detour or delay.
A custom audio tour
One very interesting use of audio communications we’ve seen is Museum411’s custom audio tour. An innovator with their application, the company turns content from museums into a script that visitors can access via their mobile phones. The museum assigns a code to certain displays and visitors then call a number while in the museum, enter the code, and hear pre-recorded interviews with artists and curators about a piece or an exhibit. Find out more about how the application works and the benefits Museum411 experienced here.
Put your CRM to use
The possibilities for CRM integration are almost endless. Companies that do most of their sales over the phone can connect their CRM database(s) to the CPaaS so when customers place an order they can present them with a number of post-transaction options, like the survey mentioned above, or the choice of having a receipt emailed to the address on file.
The CPaaS can take that request and either send a basic email directly. Another, more robust and customer-friendly route, however, would be to have the application trigger an action instructing the company’s email workflow to generate the appropriate invoice. Once the request is received, the business logic of constructing an email commences. This may involve pulling in personalized customer data from their CRM database, building an email invoice according to the company’s brand specifications, and sending it to the email address on file. All of this can be done at the point of sale without any extra actions taken by the customer.
On a scale from 1 to 5…
Receiving feedback from customers can make a huge impact on customer service and satisfaction, but a generic survey may not be sufficient. Integrating a communications application with a customer CRM allows for personalized messaging that not only increases the likelihood that a customer will respond, but also provides more granular feedback.
Something like this could be as simple as asking a customer to rate their most recent interaction with a company, or delving deeper into customer data and asking about specific products or services. If there are multiple locations this feedback can be tied to specific stores or offices to provide accurate data.
Your very own concierge
If we subscribe to the argument from Tom Petty that “the waiting is the hardest part,” then making life easier on others, especially customers, deserves some consideration. Sure, Siri or Cortana can remind you about your doctor’s appointment, but do they know when your prescription is ready at the pharmacy? How about the current status of a work order?
Because these types of tasks require access to a company’s specific data it’s up to the company to build apps for this purpose. But think of how nice it is to receive a phone call or a text message stating that your Rx is ready instead of having to wait at the pharmacy.
Similarly, companies and customers alike can benefit from this technology to determine the status of things like work orders, support tickets, and other multi-step processes. Knowing whether your work order, for example, is pending, in progress, or complete can be an enormous advantage when trying to prioritize tasks.
The Files are IN the computer
Considering how much trouble Derek Zoolander and Hansel had with figuring out how computers work, how do you think they’d fare with smart phone apps? I think they’d be ok because the visual and intuitive nature of most mobile apps makes them relatively easy-to-use.
As mobile devices become people’s preferred medium of communication, companies with mobile apps can leverage a CPaaS to build communications features directly into their apps that take advantage of these preferences.
Most major banks have mobile apps and offer a number of different features and services. If someone wants to inquire about obtaining a car loan one option is to copy (or write down) the phone number, exit the app, open the phone app, paste or key in the number, and make the call. Or, companies can make things easier on customers and use the features and APIs of a CPaaS to integrate voice calling directly into the app, reducing a five-step process to a single action.
Make everything awesome
These are just a few possible applications you can build on a CPaaS. For more ideas check out our case studies to see how others have taken advantage of CPaaS technology. There is a little bit of something for everyone given that a wide range of industries and applications are listed there.
With such a powerful platform it’s no stretch to transform into the communications equivalent of a Lego Master Builder, but whether that’s in the style of Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, or Emmet is up to you and the application you want to create.
Publish Date: October 23, 2015
Going Home Isn’t The End
When a patient leaves the hospital the last thing they want to do is go back. Yet, re-admission happens all of the time. Studies show that one of the most common reasons for this is insufficient communication between healthcare providers and patients.
In a pressure-cooker work environment like a hospital it’s almost understandable for doctors to focus less on their bedside manner and more on working through their case load. Almost.
Honestly though, it’s not fair to lay the blame for the lack of communication solely at the feed of physicians. There are systemic inefficiencies that lead to communications breakdowns between doctors and patients as well.
Re-admission rates are important metrics for hospitals, and becoming even more so, because it is one of several factors tied to Medicare reimbursements. Hospital Consumer Assessment of Health Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) is a standardized survey given to patients following hospitalization. One of the contributing factors to a facility’s score is re-admission rate. Hospitals that don’t earn satisfactory HCAHPS scores could be subject to a 1.5–2% reduction in Medicare reimbursements. This may not sound like a significant number, but it can easily equal millions of dollars for a single facility.
So if communication between providers and patients affects re-admission rates, where are the communications stumbling blocks in this dynamic?
Help is Just a Call Away
“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” said every manager ever.
Ok, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but you have to admit that it makes sense. For someone dealing with multiple, constantly moving parts, sweating the details isn’t a very effective use of time.
Whether it’s a mobile or a landline, the telephone is one of the most ubiquitous communications tools in existence. Healthcare providers looking to maximize the capabilities of communication technology should definitely plan to incorporate phone-based communication in some capacity.
In the spirit of the adage above, here are some voice-enabled solutions to common communications problems that can contribute to hospital re-admission.
1. Follow-Up Care/Instructions
Problem: Going home is probably the best part of any hospitalization. But just because you get to go home doesn’t mean that you’re out of the woods yet. Typically, there is a laundry list of things that need to be done at home to ensure progress on the road to recovery.
This can include a medication regiment, physical or occupational therapy exercises, or follow-up appointments with your general practitioner. Depending on the course of treatment, follow-up care can be complicated. Failure on the part of both healthcare professionals to effectively communicate this and patients to fully understand what’s required can lead to re-admission.
Solution: There are a couple of different ways to utilize automated care instructions. The first thing to do is to determine which post-care instructions are the most common. The patients that require that information could then take advantage of a voice application containing those instructions. The system could either make outbound calls to discharged patients or allow patients to call in whenever they needed a refresher.
Outbound calls could be automatically linked to a patient’s medical record so that the system pulls the correct set of instructions. Similarly, with inbound calls a patient would only have to verify their identity to receive their follow-up care information. Any system tied into patient medical records needs to be HIPAA compliant so take extra care to ensure your solution fits the bill.
2. Medication Usage
Problem: The phrase ‘medication regimen’ in itself suggests a level of complexity above and beyond simply “take one pill, three times daily.” Although even that can be challenging for some. Whether it’s creating a new routine, even for a short period of time, or simply forgetting that there is medicine to take, some people have difficulty taking medication.
Solution: Whether it’s remembering to take or refill a prescription, failure to do so could have detrimental effects on a patient. Designing an application that can help patients with these tasks is totally feasible. It would be possible to call patients with a pre-recorded reminder to take their medication, or to send a text message that simply asks whether they took their medication. Using an application like this could also help keep track of when refills are needed.
It’s possible to build a custom application for these types of processes, or leverage a service like Pleio, which offers a similar solution.
3. Adherence to Treatment
Problem: Some aspects of treatment are easier to follow than others. Maybe taking a pill once a day is much easier for a patient than doing leg exercises. Understanding what treatments are effective and the context that enables a patient to adhere or abandon a prescribed treatment is helpful not only for a patient’s long-term prognosis, but also to improve treatment plans for others with the same or similar ailments. Without this type of information providers can’t make informed decisions going forward.
Solution: Post-hospitalization treatments are not limited to medications. Speech, physical, occupational, and other therapy departments may wish to track patient adherence to treatment plans. To ensure optimal progress a voice application can serve patients with reminders to perform exercises or to check to see if they did their exercises that day.
4. Missed Appointments
Problem: Missed appointments create a whole slew of problems for healthcare providers, and aren’t just related to hospital re-admission rates. Although, obviously, they can be a contributing factor there as well. A missed appointment is a bygone opportunity to adjust a patient’s care plan.
Certainly for medical researchers, the failure of test-subjects to show up can be extremely frustrating. And for the family health practice, missed appointments create headaches for doctors and staff alike.
Solution: Short of making house calls, the best way for healthcare professionals to understand how a patient is progressing is through a follow-up visit. Using a voice application to help schedule, re-schedule, verify, and remind patients about up-coming appointments can save both time and money for healthcare facilities that deal with a high volume of patients.
A voice application can even be used in tandem with self-service web portals and other technologies to ensure all communication channels are covered, and that reminders can be sent regardless of how the appointment was booked.
5. Patient Feedback
Problem: Medicine is such a complex profession that many patients are intimidated by doctors and don’t think or know that it’s ok to ask questions. They may not even know what questions to ask. With this as a baseline perspective in many cases it can be challenging to get useful patient feedback. If doctors don’t know what their patients think about their care, then how can they be expected to improve?
Solution: Hospitals that want more granular patient feedback than what is generated by the HCAHPS survey can easily reach out directly to patients with their own survey. Advanced survey technology can deliver the same survey through multiple channels, allowing providers to leverage voice in combination with SMS/MMS and the web, giving patients the convenience to respond via their preferred medium.
6. Health Status
Problem: Just because someone follows their treatment plan doesn’t mean it’s working. For some patients it would be helpful for doctors to monitor their progress daily. Are things progressing, regressing, or staying the same? Few, if any, physicians have the time for that kind of individualized attention, however. In this instance there’s a breakdown between the utility of information and the ability of both parties to communicate easily.
Solution: In the absence of daily appointments, the best way to get a status update from patients is to ask them. A voice application can easily solicit this information from patients. For instance, it could be designed to send a text message to a patient asking for a pain index on a scale of 1 to 5. That data can then be added to the patient’s medical record, making it easier to identify recovery trends.
This type of application would be very useful when used in conjunction with data about patient medication usage and adherence to other treatment regimens.
7. Linguistic/Cultural Differences
Problem: Linguistic or cultural differences can exacerbate any of the above problems even further. While it may seem that patients understand a doctor’s instructions while under the direct supervision of medical professionals, that may not continue to be the case at home without that oversight.
Solution: All this talk about voice applications is great, but what happens when a non-native English speaker tries to use one? Even if you don’t think you need multi-language support at the outset, it might be necessary to add later. Doing due diligence at the outset and opting for a platform that can support multiple languages and a vendor that has experience deploying multi-language voice solutions is the best course of action.
All of these examples illustrate a need for clear and effective communication between healthcare providers and patients. Taking the extra time to make sure patients understand and follow their post-hospital care plan can pay dividends, in terms of both patient well-being and the bottom line.
Because time is so limited, taking those precious seconds and investing them in automating this type of communication deserves some consideration. The ability to save time and improve communications simultaneously isn’t outside the realm of possibility with the right tools.
Automation can streamline many common communications issues that healthcare professionals face. At the same time, when deployed strategically these types of applications can also provide critical information for patients and physicians alike. Better patient outcomes go hand-in-hand with improved patient-facing communication.
Publish Date: October 13, 2015
Recently I called my local hardware store with a question about a scheduled door installation. The phone menu had an option for the windows and doors department, but it was about the twelfth option on what one would consider the second “page” of the menu. The store created even more confusion when an employee answered the phone, saying “Millworks.” Millworks? What was that? I wanted windows and doors. Not only was getting the correct department difficult, but a lack of consistency between the terms used for phone menu and those used by employees in-store created even more confusion.
If anything thing this would be considered a mild annoyance, but the potential for outright frustration with an IVR certainly exists. It’s not difficult to visualize someone, hair mussed and face flushed with incensed ire, screaming at an uncooperative speech recognition application. Perhaps you don’t even need to try to conjure up a mental image. Some days you may just have to look in the mirror.
When customers call, a sure-fire way to get them frazzled is with a difficult-to-use interactive voice response (IVR) application. Putting in the time and effort to optimize and improve your IVR can drastically reduce customer frustration and improve both call containment rates and customer satisfaction.
Identify Bottlenecks and Weak Points
There is no shortage of potential bottlenecks and weaknesses in a call flow. Identifying these items is the first step to fixing them.
One example of a call flow problem is a high rate at which calls are transferred out of the IVR application to a live agent. Considering the cost difference between a live agent and an IVR handling a call, which is significant, companies want to keep the calls best served by automation contained within the application.
The best way to identify these weak points? Use data.
By tracking the selections that callers make when interacting with your IVR, you to see precisely where callers are exiting the application. If large percentage of callers transfer out of the IVR at the same place in the call flow that is a strong indication that something in that menu requires attention.
Call data can reveal a wide array of trends. What options do callers select most frequently? Where are callers transferring to? When do callers hang up? At what point does error handling kick in? These are some of the more common items to keep an eye on when looking to optimize your IVR.
Implement, Measure, Repeat
If you think back to high school science class, the scientific method says to form a hypothesis and then to test it. After using data to support or refine that nagging inkling that you had that something was awry with your phone system it’s time to put the solution to the test.
There may be a tendency to treat optimization like a Ron Popeil rotisserie oven–just set it and forget it. This perspective, however, assumes that business and customers alike are static. Because this isn’t the case it’s necessary to keep an eye on those same analytics going forward.
Rolling out a new product? Altering the breadth of customer support? More likely than not another area for improvement will rear its head in the wake of seemingly unrelated business decisions. So keep an eye on the data your IVR generates and continually optimize it.
Don’t Over Do It
Now this might seem antithetical to the previous statement, but don’t overdo optimization either. An incremental approach is best because it allows you to determine which variable accounted for a given result. Implementing an extensive list of changes in one fell swoop just muddies the waters. You never know, a high priority change could be a greater cure-all than anticipated, saving considerable time and resources in the future.
Along similar lines, tinkering with your IVR application too frequently has the potential to frustrate customers. Frequent callers are used to a certain menu structure and they’re not going to like it if that structure changes three times over the next three months.
Finding the balance between getting good data, optimizing the application, rolling out changes, and analyzing the results may take some time, but will be beneficial in the long-term. Remember, having fewer frustrated customers is a boon to your live agents, not to mention for those formerly-beleaguered-but-now-satisfied callers. Go ahead and ask them.
Optimization is a win-win across the board. To achieve the best results, use analytics custom-built for IVR applications, like VoiceTrends, which is baked into the Plum Dev platform, to optimize your customer’s IVR experience.
Publish Date: October 6, 2015
It’s not cliché to say that telephony comprise some of the most complex systems that a business has to deal with. One of the reasons for this is that telephony isn’t just one single thing. It constitutes the actual technology, infrastructure, and practices tied to and enabling telecommunications.
Furthermore, the continued evolution of telephony from analog to digital introduced a whole new level of complexity to telephony.
In the analog days of old, phones connected directly to each other. As the number of telephones proliferated local exchanges were created to more easily connect local numbers. Pretty much everyone has seen an old TV show where a human operator processes phone calls by plugging patch cables into a giant switch board. These patch cables created a closed circuit that established a phone connection.
Copper wiring linked phones to these local exchanges and then even more copper wiring, known as a trunk line, connected the local exchanges to other national and international exchanges.
Before too long this network of interconnected devices became too complex for humans to manually control everything and circuit switching became automated. The modern public switched telephone network (PSTN) is the current manifestation of the circuit switched telephone system.
Even though there are digital elements in the PSTN that control switching, the transmission of audio across a direct connection along copper wires is why the system is still considered analog.
Since the 1990s, advances in digital telephony have made it more reliable and cost effective. The development of Voice of IP (VoIP) allows voice and data to travel on the same lines, which helps to reduce costs. Dynamic systems, like SIP trunking, which works in concert with VoIP, make VoIP even more powerful and reliable, offer companies substantial saving on their telephony expenditures.
At the same time because digital telephony is IP-based, integrating voice with other digital communications applications has exploded in recent years. Making telephony as powerful as its ever been.
The ability of computers and telephones to interact also made IVR technology much more robust. Nowadays, IVR can work like a web browser for your phone, accomplishing virtually any task one can think of that requires voice and data input or output.
Publish Date: October 1, 2015
SIP trunking sounds like something one does on a vacation in warm climes with at least one fruity drink in hand. In actuality it’s more akin to those employees at the airport do who wave big light sticks at airplanes. (Their job title is actually Aircraft Marshall or Signaler.)
Before going too far, a roadmap should help shed some light on what’s covered below. Read on for answers to questions like: What are SIP and SIP trunking? How does SIP trunking differ from PSTN calling? What are the advantages of SIP trunking?
What is SIP?
Before discussing what SIP trunking, it’s necessary to flesh out what SIP is. SIP stands for Session Initiation Protocol. In essence, SIP is a method signaling and managing communications.
Every group of friends has that one person who coordinates everything and is a master at getting everyone together. SIP is like that person, but instead of dealing with people it deals with IP-based applications, most notably voice, video, chat, and other multimedia communications.
SIP works by sending packets of information between SIP-enabled devices. There are two types of packets – signal and media. The signal packets establish and end a connection between two devices, which then allows for the exchange of media packets.
Of course, communications are dependent on both parties knowing where the other one is and an ability to understand what’s being said. SIP dictates both of these things by keeping track of device IP addresses, and laying down the rules for which codecs are appropriate for different session types so that all devices involved can process the media properly.
What is SIP trunking?
Whereas plain old SIP is like the aircraft marshal working one-on-one with a pilot on the tarmac, introducing the PBX makes SIP trunking more like the air traffic controller in the tower pushing tin between multiple planes at the same time.
SIP trunking is a VoIP-based media streaming service offered by Internet Telephony Service Providers (ITSP) that provides voice and unified communications to companies with a SIP-enabled private branch exchange (PBX). It basically puts all of a company’s IP-based communications tools in the same toolbox and lets anyone with access to that toolbox use them with each other.
How does SIP trunking work?
Like many things in telephony, the basic concept is pretty easy to grasp, but the actual inner-workings of SIP trunking can be extremely complicated. Staying true to form, this space will cover basic SIP trunking functionality, but suffice it to say this just scratches the surface of what SIP is capable of doing.
The difference between yesterday…
Suppose a company has an office in Los Angeles and another location in Philadelphia. The two offices are connected by a Wide Area Network (WAN) for their IP needs. Each office also has a dedicated PBX for telephone calls that connects to the rest of the PSTN along a Primary Rate Interface (PRI) trunk.
If a customer calls the company’s 800-number it rings the LA office. But say all the lines in LA are busy. What happens to the call? Most likely it gets a busy signal or sits in a call queue until it’s picked up. Which one depends on how many PRI trunks the company leased for its LA office, as each trunk only has 23 channels, or in layman’s terms, is capable of handling 23 concurrent calls. Regardless, whether it’s a busy signal or waiting on hold neither option is ideal for the customer.
If the company needs more channels (i.e. concurrent calls) they need to lease additional PRI trunks, potentially a very costly operating expense. These lines connect directly to a specific PBX so if a call needs to be re-routed it’s up to a person to physically transfer the call.
In a SIP trunking world those PRI trunks are eliminated. Instead, the PSTN connects directly to a router with Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) capabilities that resides on the company’s WAN. As “multiprotocol” suggests, MPLS can handle a variety of different protocols, including SIP.
Also, remember that 23 concurrent call threshold a PRI trunk has? Well SIP trunking doesn’t abide by a fixed number of channels. Instead, the number of concurrent calls depends on available bandwidth. Using compression can make SIP trunking even more bandwidth efficient, too.
Now, replay that same call scenario with SIP trunking. The call moves from the PSTN directly to the company’s MPLS on its WAN network. Using SIP, the router sees that all of the lines in LA are down due to rolling blackouts, but finds an available one in Philadelphia and automatically re-directs the call there. The caller connects with someone right away, creating a better customer experience.
Benefits of SIP trunking
One of the most notable benefits to utilizing SIP trunking is that it typically corresponds to a sizable cost reduction. Eliminating the cost of leased PRI lines is much greater than paying for an uptick in bandwidth. Further, as SIP trunking service fees continue to decline, companies should sustain cost savings in the long-term. It’s not unheard of for a company to halve their telephony costs by switching to SIP trunking.
The bandwidth-to-available-channels relationship means that SIP trunking scales easily, unlike legacy systems. Also, given the fact that SIP trunking consolidates a company’s voice technology at the enterprise level, the need to allocate resources by location exits stage left too. This makes it easier to compensate for call spikes, whether anticipated or not.
As the example above also illustrates, SIP trunking has built in disaster relief capabilities because it can detect which lines are available throughout the entire network and dynamically route calls to available lines.
Because SIP trunking combines voice and data on the same lines and plays nice with unified communications, which typically includes voice, video, instant messaging, and even applications for web conferencing and real-time collaboration, companies can get a lot more use out of the technology than just cheaper phone calls.
The IP-based nature of SIP trunking makes collaboration across multiple locations or with mobile devices easier. This doesn’t have to be limited to two people either, with SIP and unified communications multiple parties in separate locations can talk, web conference, or share screens in real-time. This creates a more flexible, efficient workforce.
Publish Date: September 29, 2015
It turns out there is more than one way to skin a cat.
There’s no need to call the SPCA. No one is actually skinning cats here.
Not too long ago there weren’t a whole lot of options for making phone calls. That has all changed today. If you’re wondering what Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony is, how it differs from the public switched telephone network (PSTN), what pieces make VoIP work, and what some of the advantages of VoIP are then put your feet up and read on.
PSTN vs. VoIP
VoIP provides an alternative method for making phone calls than the PSTN. The crucial distinction between how these differing systems accomplish the task of transmitting information is in the type of switching employed.
The PSTN uses circuit-switching technology. In other words, the PSTN opens up a direct connection between two subscriber lines that allows the system to send and receive information from each party in real time. A new connection is established with every phone call made and is closed when the phone is hung up.
VoIP, however, uses packet-switching technology. The nitty gritty of how this process works is addressed below, but at a high level, the voice audio is digitized and broken up into little pieces called packets that are sent over the internet and follow the path(s) of least resistance to the other end. Once the packets reach their destination they are reassembled in the correct order and played back as audio.
What Is VoIP?
VoIP is a term that gets bandied about quite frequently, but such liberal use of the term has distorted its meaning. Like when you studied for the SAT and the verbal section focused on fine shades of difference between words, so too is the case with Internet Protocol Telephony (IPT).
Really, IPT is an umbrella term that includes both Internet telephony and VoIP. The second edition of Telecommunications Essentials by Lillian Goleniewski provides definitions for each of these:
- IPT, broadly speaking, is the transmission of voice, fax, and related services over packet-switched IP-based networks.
- Internet Telephony is a form of IPT where the principal transmission network is the public Internet.
- VoIP is another form of IPT in which the principal transmission network or networks are private, managed IP-based networks.
System Structure, or What Components Make up VoIP?
Going down the VoIP rabbit hole means that things can get complicated things quickly.
The VoIP network is actually modeled on the PSTN network, but several different pieces of hardware and software exist to make the packet-switching possible.
These constitute the actual handsets, or similar, used to make a phone call. Legacy phones can connect to a VoIP network with an adapter. Other calling options include an IP phones look like regular phones, but they connect to the network using an Ethernet jack rather than a telephone jack. Computers that have the right software and hardware accessories (microphone, speakers, soundcard, headset, etc.) can also be used to make VoIP phone calls.
“Gateways provide seamless interoperability between circuit-switching and packet-switching network domains.” In other words, the media gateway connects the IP network to the PSTN and allows those two networks to talk to each other. Gateways also handle IP signaling functions and support Local Exchange and Toll switches on the PSTN. On top of all that, gateways can handle a wide variety of traffic types: data, voice, fax, multi-media, etc.
The function of the softswitch is to “control the voice or data traffic path by signaling between media gateways that transport the traffic.” Softswitches use established protocols and specifications to ensure “that a call’s or connection’s underlying signaling information gets communicated between gateways.” This information includes things like caller ID, billing info, and other call triggers. Whereas a media gateway is an actual piece of hardware, a softswitch is software, and can be incorporated into a media gateway.
IP PBXs can do everything that traditional PBXs can do, and a whole lot more. An IP PBX allows companies to leverage its managed intranet for voice and data applications. These can run the gamut from conferencing, to unified messaging, to multimedia, to collaborative applications, and more. IP PBXs can be physical hardware or software, and, as a result, businesses can leverage hosted IP PBXs for their needs.
How does a VoIP call work?
Well that depends on whether the called party is on an analog phone or another IP device. There are many different VoIP providers that facilitate VoIP calls.
If you’re calling another IP device the call doesn’t need to connect to the PSTN. A caller dials the number and the call is passed from the device to a router. The router passes the call to the internet where it reaches one of the VoIP provider’s servers. From there the call gets passed along local internet lines on the other end to the recipient’s router and then to their IP device.
The process for calling an analog phone is exactly the same except with one altered step. After the call leaves provider’s servers, it goes through a media gateway that translates everything from digital to analog and passes the call to the local PSTN. The call is then carried along the local PSTN as an analog signal to the correct subscriber line.
VoIP has useful applications for everyone from individual subscribers to large enterprises. The future is bright for VoIP as the number of applications and its technological capabilities continue to increase. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) has emerged as a technology that complements VoIP quite well. Stay tuned for more information on SIP.
Are VoIP calls free?
Now that you know, in broad strokes, how VoIP works, it’s worth re-visiting the distinction between VoIP and Internet telephony. The conflation of these two types of IPT has created a belief that VoIP is free. Well that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Remember, VoIP relies on private, managed networks. This means that a company leases internet lines directly from a bandwidth provider, which results in better quality of service (Note: an intranet is another type of private network). There are plenty of different VoIP companies, but one that many people are likely familiar with is Vonage. While these providers may offer less expensive options than a traditional phone company, their services certainly aren’t free.
On the other hand, internet telephony operates over the public internet. This is the province of “over-the-top” (OTT) services like Skype, Google Voice, and Apple’s Facetime. OTT refers to any service that is delivered using your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) network, but isn’t provided directly by the ISP. For example, On-Demand movies that you access through your cable box are not OTT, but Netflix and Skype are.
You may not pay directly to make calls with Skype or Facetime, but because those services work on the public internet they are more susceptible to lag, dropouts, and other errors.
Why does VoIP cost less?
The short explanation is because VoIP uses less data.
By way of comparison, a circuit-switched opens a direct connection between two lines and eats up data for the entire duration of a call. Packet-switching doesn’t need a direct connection, instead utilizing any number of routes to deliver the call information. When someone speaks, data is sent, but periods of silence don’t generate data like they do on the PSTN.
Think of this this way. Back in the day, before playlists, iTunes, and Spotify, folks recorded songs off the radio onto cassette tapes. If you had a sixty-minute tape you could just press record and let the tape run in the hope that the song you wanted to hear came on in that thirty-minute window (remember there’s a Side A and a Side B), but this could waste a lot of tape.
The other option was to wait until the song came on and scramble to hit the record button in time. This way you only got the song you wanted and had room to record many more songs too.
VoIP works like option two, except that you don’t have to worry about the rush to hit record.
There are plenty of advantages that go hand-in-hand with VoIP. Efficiency and cost savings are attractive in their own right. The ability to develop unified communications solutions that incorporate telephony also makes VoIP an extremely useful technology. For example, a company can integrate internet-dependent services, including voice, fax, email, instant messaging, and other real-time or data services. Having this application flexibility is a major benefit of VoIP.
Call quality persists as one area where VoIP lags behind the PSTN. The PSTN set the standard for call quality, and doesn’t suffer from latency issues because the connection between the lines is constant. In other words, everything happens in real time.
With VoIP data is sent in bursts. Only when someone talks and audio gets packetized does it get passed between devices. This means that there is greater potential for latency or dropouts if packets get lost or if there are hiccups in the re-assembly process.
Publish Date: September 15, 2015