Oh wait, that’s not the case at all. It was Alexander Graham Bell, in the U.S., with a patent. While that may read more like winning recipe to the game Clue, it’s actually what happened in 1876 with Bell’s invention of the telephone. If you’ve ever wondered what the public switched telephone network (PSTN) is and how it works, then you’ve found the post you’re looking for.
Over the better part of the ensuing century following Bell’s patent the PSTN network evolved into a communications behemoth, where by the 1970s AT&T owned and operated virtually the entire Bell system spanning the U.S. and Canada. What follows details primarily the United States PSTN, however, the pieces and functions of the components are largely the same in other countries, although the actual configurations may vary.
Good ole Ma Bell’s monopoly on the PSTN in North America eventually led to a lawsuit from the U.S. government. This resulted in the breakup of the Bell network in 1984 into regional corporations in an effort to increase competition for long distance service.
As carriers entered the picture, they each carved out pieces of the PSTN pie for themselves. When thinking about how telephone technology works today it’s important to remember that significant variances exist between the capabilities and infrastructure of different carriers.
Originally the PSTN was “designed to support only continuous, real-time voice communications.” The system didn’t set out to provide the backbone for our modern communications infrastructure. In fact, it was designed for an average call duration of three minutes or less, relying on limited bandwidth–a mere 64 Kbps over a twister-copper-pair wire. This analog system is commonly referred to as Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS).
Although there have been a lot of upgrades to bring the components of the PSTN into the digital realm, the most common access method for landline telephones remains this analog, copper wire connection. The cost for telco operators of replacing “the last mile” of copper wire with fiber optic cable or other higher bandwidth media is prohibitive, especially with the progress that has been made in wireless technology in recent years.
The decline of the landline has made headlines in recent years as people forego their home phones for mobile smartphones. In 2008, the number of homes without a landline stood at around 25% in the United States, but that number increased to 40% by 2014. That percentage is even higher among those living in urban areas or in their late 20s.
On the surface, the drop in landlines may suggest a corresponding decline in the relevance of the PSTN. Actually, the opposite it true. Sure, the analog “last mile” component isn’t an issue with mobile phones, but aside from the method used to connect to PSTN exchanges, everything else about how calls are processed and routed remain the same. Mobile phones can’t function without the PSTN.
The modern PSTN still has plenty of copper wire in it, but it also includes fiber optic cables, cellular networks, communication satellites, and undersea cables. These transmission media have much more bandwidth available and can accommodate much more than just voice communications. Video, for example, is one type of media that requires much more bandwidth than the 64Kbps that twisted-pair connections provide. Unless, of course, you’re a big fan of waiting for Netflix to buffer.
The circuit-switched PSTN opens up a continuous connection between two phones, that begins with a dial tone and ends when the phone is hung up.
To start you can have an individual subscriber, or a group of subscribers, like a business that requires multiple access lines. Individual subscribers connect directly to the local exchange, while businesses often use a private branch exchange (PBX) to manager all their connections. So the call starts with the actual phone and either connects directly to the Local Exchange or to the PBX and then to the Local Exchange, if the call comes from a business with multiple lines.
From the local exchange network, depending on where the call is going, it is pushed to international carriers, interexchange carriers, cellular providers, or internet service providers.
The number of layers of technology a call passes through varies depending on where the call is destined. This is one of the reasons that telephony can be so confusing, the sheer number of variables involved in making a “simple” phone call.
Taking a step back and really looking at the pieces that comprise the PSTN puzzle makes it abundantly clear just how far from “simple” telephony is.
The PSTN is comprised of a complex web of interconnection nodes and transmissions links. Different infrastructures exist at the local, regional, and national levels, but regardless of how each section is configured the pieces function in the same way. There are four different types of nodes: customer premises equipment (CPE), transmission, service, and switching. Transmission links constitute the physical wires or fiber, as may be the case nowadays, that interconnect the various nodes.
The CPE node is the equipment on site where the call originates. That could be an individual subscriber line or a PBX.
The transmission node consists of the equipment and media that carry information between nodes of a network. This can include things like amplifiers, repeaters, multiplexers, digital cross-connect systems, and digital loop carriers.
The service node is responsible for signaling. This means determining when to setup, hold, charge, and release connections, and getting that information to the correct outlets that maintain and bill for each section of the network.
The real meat of the PSTN are the components of the switching node. In a PSTN setup there are four different types of switches.
This is the structure of the PSTN, broadly speaking, in the United States. As mentioned above, other countries may configure their systems differently (like those using eight-digit phone numbers).
The ownership relationship between all of these nodes and transmission lines can be equally confusing. Different companies own different exchanges, and they may or may not also own the physical lines that link these pieces together.
Someone in New York trying to call San Francisco would go from their CPE, to the local exchange in New York on a trunk line, to the toll office on yet another trunk line, then back to a local exchange in San Francisco on a different trunk line, and finally to the CPE of their California contact along one more trunk line. In this situation, it’s possible for every trunk line and node to be owned by a different company.
Similarly, a call destined for an international number would again originate at the caller’s CPE, travel along a trunk line to their Local Exchange, and then be passed to the international gateway along another trunk line. Once the call is passed to the correct country’s PSTN, it then travels along a similar path in that country to reach the called party.
Therefore, if you have an automated voice solution and only callers from a specific area are unable to connect to your system, there’s a good chance that your technology is working just fine, but that there is an issue at the carrier level in that area.
The PSTN remains a critical and integral piece in the modern global communications network. As the system continues to see technological innovation and bandwidth increases its centrality to modern communications will only increase.
Publish Date: September 9, 2015 5:00 AM
In an era of digital communication and vast social media influence, it has become incredibly easy for consumers to voice their opinions about the companies they frequent, support, or vilify. One disgruntled customer can rally thousands in a matter of hours with nothing more than a 140-character blurb gone viral. Every individual has potential access to the digital megaphone of social media and thus, companies must put forth the utmost effort to maintain a high level of service and satisfaction for their customers.
Yet, this begs the question, how does a business go about ensuring its representatives meet corporate standards while fostering a positive experience for its client base? By going straight to the source – the customers. That’s where Interactive Voice Response (IVR) surveys become a major asset. Survey platforms such as Plum Insight afford enterprises a great deal of flexibility in collecting client feedback and ultimately, improving company performance through data-driven, customer-oriented decision making. With thorough planning and adherence to some basic tips, you’ll be on the right track to getting the most out of your IVR survey.
1. Know your objectives forwards and backwards
Formulating a concise set of objectives may sound like a simple task, but don’t underestimate its importance within the early stages of survey planning. Just as a house is only as sound as its foundation, a successful IVR survey depends on adherence to clear, well-defined objectives. Who will your survey target? What insight do you hope to discover with your questionnaire? These are the most basic examples of questions you should answer prior to the IVR polling stage. Be as specific as possible to gather targeted information from your customer base.
2. Start your analysis early
Now that you know what you want to ask, it’s time to think about what analysis is necessary and how you will use the information gleaned from the survey. The actual crunching of data doesn’t occur until after you’ve launched your survey, but outlining how the data will be used during the planning stage will save you plenty of headaches later. This is also the time to determine how to handle incomplete surveys, figuring out whether to weight specific questions, or any other tweaks that may affect your final results. Develop a system of analysis procedures early so that you can spend more time drawing conclusions from the data, not sifting through it.
3. Take a test drive
To borrow a phrase from those Head & Shoulders shampoo ads in the 1990s, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This philosophy extends far beyond managing dandruff and is especially applicable to surveys. Before starting a survey campaign, test the waters with a pilot group that is reflective of your target demographic. A small focus group is the perfect medium to judge the effectiveness of your survey questions and remedy any problems before sending out the poll in mass.
4. Soft-launch to a sample group
As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to sample size, the more the merrier. In order to gather usable data that is representative of a larger target population, it is essential to have enough respondents. (That haunting echo you hear is probably the voice of your statistics professor of yore.) Luckily, there are a variety of resources available to help survey creators determine the optimal sample size for their particular needs.
5. Motivate survey takers with a personal touch
Users are more likely to provide feedback if your survey stands out from the crowd. Don’t beg for participation. Instead, tell your customers why you’re requesting their individual feedback. Mention a specific experience based on a recent interaction that each customer had with your company or brand. A bit of personalization within the invitation to the survey is invaluable as a mechanism to appeal to potential respondents.
6. Get to the point
Surveys should be succinct, easy to understand, and most importantly very quick to complete. Don’t plan to take more than a minute or two of your customer’s time. A post call survey may sound exciting to you, but not all of your customers will be as enthusiastic. The more questions you include in your survey, the more skewed responses tend to get. Longer-than-expected surveys are not only frustrating for customers, but they almost entice users to quit the survey before finishing. Respect your customers’ time, tell them up front how long it will take and how many questions they will be asked to make the survey process as painless as possible.
7. The KISS Principle – Keep it simple, stupid
No, this has nothing to do with Gene Simmons or face paint. It’s tempting to jam pack a questionnaire with as many inquiries as possible. While you have their attention, you might as well try to gather insight about multiple areas of your business right? Wrong. Shorter, more frequent surveys provide much more accurate picture of customer satisfaction.
8. It’s all about timing
As any comedian can attest, timing is everything – the difference between a successful punchline and a room full of crickets. This is especially true when conducting a survey. When asking for feedback, it is crucial to do so within a reasonable amount of time – typically as soon as possible but no more than 24 hours after an encounter. Memory is a tricky thing. The longer you wait, the less likely your customer is to remember the specific interaction in question. And you don’t want that inaccurate data clogging up your analysis.
9. Ask, listen, then act – User feedback counts
It’s vital to let users know that their input is being heard. Make it clear to survey takers that their responses haven’t disappeared into the ethereal mist; that their opinions aren’t just sitting in a data bank somewhere. Use customer feedback to make positive changes within your organization and then flaunt it! A customer who sees improvements based upon their feedback will not only be more willing to complete questionnaires in the future, they’ll thank you for taking the time to listen. Win, win.
10. The more you gather, the more you can measure
While the main goal of your business’s survey could be to analyze company performance or see which department protocol needs improvement, don’t forget about all of the other data that you’ve collected beyond the arena of public opinion. Cross-analyze customer feedback with internal metrics such as queue-time, agent-id, etc. You might be surprised at the additional trends you identify with seemingly disparate information.
11. Patience is a virtue
You’ve done your research, created, tested, and formalized your survey questionnaire, and now the data is rolling in. It’s exciting, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Wait until enough responses are accumulated before attempting to draw statistically significant conclusions. A provisional data analysis has its uses, potentially as a vehicle to generate a sense of customer opinion, but key business decisions should never be solely based on early figures.
12. Prepare for extremes
When beginning to delve into your survey data, it’s important to understand that the most vocal participants tend to be those who have had a very positive or very negative experience. This is called self-selection bias. In terms of representing a target population, these responses are typically outliers – extremes that cannot be correlated with the entire group because of their small proportion. Yet due to the severity, these polarized attitudes often draw more attention than the sentiments of your normal customer. Don’t let those who shout the loudest drown out the majority of your clientele!
13. Pictures are worth a thousand words
Data can be opaque and difficult to decipher. Yet, it’s through the analysis process that spreadsheets and mountains of numbers gain meaning. Use visual tools to bring clarity to that data. Charts, graphs, and other visual displays showcase your findings in easy, understandable ways. Plus, charts are a fantastic medium for quickly drawing comparisons with past and concurrent campaigns.
14. Share your results to inspire action
So you’ve determined your customers’ likes and dislikes and where your company excels and struggles. Now it’s on to the meeting room to disclose the results to the board of directors. But don’t stop there. Customers rarely, if ever, deal directly with your C-Level executives. Share the results with your entire company, all the way from the bottom to the top. Performance improvement starts with the actions of individual employees and large-scale policy changes can cement improvements in powerful, data-driven ways. Make company-wide changes to complement the findings of your survey and use subsequent polling to gauge satisfaction with the new practices and protocols.
Publish Date: September 1, 2015 5:00 AM
A recent New York Times article addressing the working culture at Amazon raised a lot of eyebrows around the country. The general view of major tech companies is one that includes free lunches, on-site gyms, and generous leave policies, like those at Google, Facebook, and Netflix. Perhaps this is why the negative picture painted by the New York Times, which claimed to peer behind the veil at Amazon’s culture, made so many waves.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who rarely engages criticism of his company, quickly came to Amazon’s defense in a memo to his employees, stating, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.” Bezos added, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”
Stepping back from the particulars here, one of the key takeaways from this exchange is that company culture and employee happiness are extremely important. A Forbes review of Dr. Noelle Nelson’s 2012 book, Make More Money by Making Your Employees Happy, cites a Jackson Organization study, referenced in that text, stating that “companies that effectively appreciate employee value enjoy a return on equity & assets more than triple that experienced by firms that don’t. When looking at Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ stock prices rose an average of 14% per year from 1998-2005, compared to 6% for the overall market.”
There are plenty of studies, like Nelson’s, that discuss the importance of cultivating employee satisfaction. The thinking here is that happy employees produce happy customers.
Yet, the irony is that in recent years while many companies have ramped up their customer experience programs, they aren’t paying as much attention to employee experience. If the latter influences the former, shouldn’t it get some love too?
Fortunately, for companies that want to understand, measure, and analyze the relationship they have with their employees, technology solutions exist to make this process consistent and reliable. Conducting custom employee surveys is one option for this kind of data-gathering.
When building a program to discern the “voice of the employee” use the following series of questions to create a roadmap for determining just how happy your employees are.
You don’t want to go addressing concerns willy-nilly so having a system in place provides the best route for consistent, actionable results.
So what goes into employee satisfaction? The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) report on the subject for 2015 listed the top five factors affecting employee satisfaction, in the following order:
Seeing benefits and compensation near the top of the list isn’t surprising. Those have been at or near the top since SHRM began conducting this survey in 2002. However, the top two factors, those representing respect and trust, were new additions for the 2015 installment and instantly shot to the top of the list.
Financial factors are much more fixed than soft factors like respect and trust. Yet, considering how important these items are to employees and the amount of control companies have over shaping them, suggests that these may be good areas for companies to begin self-reflection and assessment.
Anyone who ever saw the old G. I. Joe cartoon understands that knowing is only half the battle. If employee satisfaction is one half, then employee engagement comprises the other half.
The importance of engaged employees shouldn’t be understated. In 2013, Gallup estimated that as much as 70% of the workforce was disengaged in the United States and that this disengagement cost companies $450–$550 billion annually in lost productivity.
SHRM also measured engagement and returned these as the leading factors for 2015 (Note: there was a three-way tie in the five slot):
Keeping employees happy and engaged means that companies can spend less money on turnover, recruiting, and training, and put more of that money into supporting their current cast of employees. While recruiting and training may be necessary for growing companies, there’s little to recommend for employee churn that effectively makes the entrance to your HR department a revolving door.
SHRM already laid out the most important factors for employee satisfaction and engagement from an employee point-of-view. Basically, they’re handing you the first few bricks; it’s up to you to build the rest.
Knowing what issues are relevant to the majority of workers will help you to determine what questions are most relevant to your company and employees. Whether those revolve around salary, management transparency, or how meaningful an employee’s work is, asking your employees is the only way to really find out.
Surveys are great for that. Companies that already have a Voice of the Customer program (VoC) in place can use the same framework to also collect “Voice of the Employee” feedback.
Systematically asking employees about these things will provide a much needed baseline for evaluating your employees’ well-being. A well-designed survey can provide critical insights into the areas where your company performs well and where it struggles to meet your employees’ needs. Having an omni-channel tool with robust reporting and analysis capabilities ensures that you get the most out of the data you collect.
Thinking back to the statistic above about how happy employees affect company profitability, it’s worth taking the time to evaluate your employees’ happiness on the job. With the right tools collecting and analyzing that data is easy to do.
Publish Date: August 19, 2015 5:00 AM
No matter what business you’re in, it’s important to remember that customers don’t buy from companies, they buy from people. Your customer support team acts as a critical human face for your company; they are the people that your customers buy from, the team that troubleshoots their problems, and the ones who can make or break your sales funnel or retention efforts.
Your customers are also your best source for understanding the effectiveness of your customer service efforts. And creating positive customer experiences is critical to gaining and maintaining your customer base [pdf]. How can you get their feedback and improve upon their experiences if you don’t ask?
Providing an immediate, post-interaction survey for customers to provide feedback about their experience means you will have more time to analyze and respond to the data that is useful rather than scouring the web for data that may be useful.
Enter the interactive voice response (IVR) survey. A well-designed IVR survey can produce an abundance of data in a short period of time that can be analyzed efficiently. Here are four ways in which an IVR survey aids the process of improving customer experience.
For example, with an omni-channel communication platform like Plum Insight you can present a traditional IVR survey to someone after a call center interaction, and send a web version of the same survey to an online customer following a live chat interaction.
Embracing the voice of the customer in a direct way, like through Plum Insight, provides companies with a roadmap to understand its customers. This clarity then allows companies to better serve their customers and, in turn, cultivate brand loyalty. Don’t let your customers’ voices go unheard. Contact Plum Voice to learn how Plum Insight will benefit your customers and your company.
Publish Date: August 11, 2015 5:00 AM