Integrating technology with the traditional telephone service drives efficient central stations

Successful implementation can be difficult, but when done well this can significantly increase central station capacity and customer satisfaction

The plain old telephone service is a central station’s lifeblood. Signals are received and alarms dispatched using the same technology Alexander Graham Bell invented almost 140 years ago. While this is changing with the move to signals received over cellular and IP devices, for the time being operators are likely to continue to interact with customers over the telephone when handling alarms, scheduling service calls, managing billing questions, and other customer queries. Managing calls efficiently can be difficult and is a key differentiator between cost effective and non-profit-making central stations. High volumes for a typical central station mean seconds count.

Interactive Voice Response systems can drive efficiency

Large companies have for many years, loosely integrated their central station software with telephony systems, letting the operator dial the phone directly from the software. In recent years, dramatic improvements in technology now allow computers to support complex integrations with telephony systems, collectively known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems. For example, converting computer text into spoken language is now sufficiently clear to make IVR a suitable solution for providing information to the customer without operator intervention.

This technology is no longer only available to large central stations. With cloud based IVR services, smaller companies are able to participate without significant upfront costs. Cloud companies now provide transparent per call fees of less than two cents per minute, access to newer technologies, integration into existing telephone systems through Voice over IP, and a lower cost of ownership.

The cloud technology is mature. In 2007, almost as much was spent on cloud based IVR solutions as those that were premise based. Since integration standards often remain the same, well designed central station software that has been integrated with existing premise based solutions should also be able to integrate with cloud based versions.

IVR is widely used within financial services for personalized account management, helping customers locate their closest branch or ATMs, providing alerts or reminders, and updates on account balances. With tighter integration into the central station software, the more advanced processing is also possible in the security industry.

Upfront investments are generally returned in less than a year

The potential cost savings and increase in call handling capacity when implementing an IVR solution are significant. On average, once the technology is implemented, handling a call via IVR costs around two to four cents a minute, versus an operator at 20 to 50 cents a minute.

Central stations report that up to 40% of all calls made by an operator can now be managed with IVR intervention. While this can translate into cost savings, freeing up operators can also enable quicker responses to higher priority calls. When implementing newer technology, the return on investment can be as fast as one year after going live.

Customer satisfaction with successful IVR implementations is high. Interacting with a machine can take less time than talking to an operator, and the knowledge that priority situations will be dealt with faster than central stations without a similar technology can be comforting. As for the operators themselves, they usually report spending more of their time providing a service to customers, rather than wasting time waiting for a connection or talking to an answering machine. This combined with the knowledge of who the customer is when they call and their likely issue increases operator job satisfaction.

Take care in choosing what to automate

With any technology, following good practice is essential to achieving the goals established upfront. Time and effort spent analyzing existing calls made and received by an operator will be well spent.

For a central station, analysis starts with defining the categories of calls and determining the level of automation desired. This will be a balance between factors such as complexity, the types of customers served, and the priority of the signal. If a cloud based solution is used, care has to be taken to review the terms of service carefully, since many do not permit calls directly to emergency services. Best use of an IVR will vary significantly from one central station to another.

Automation can either be for outbound calls, where the system dials the customer, or for inbound calls, where the IVR intervenes when a customer dials the central station. For inbound calls, the customer will generally be prepared for a conversation and already has the mental context to complete the task. For an outbound call, the lack of context will impact the attitude of the person receiving the call and their willingness to receive the information. They will therefore be prone to ignore calls if they are delivered inefficiently. Giving the option to reschedule an outbound call can increase success.

The automation may be partial, where the system may deal with certain aspects of the call before passing it to an operator, or full, where the system manages the whole interaction. Even small interventions can make a big difference. Implementing an automated greeting when customers dial in and displaying the customer record to the operator enables a more professional response. For a monitoring station managing 50,000 residential accounts, saving 10 seconds on each call can free up an operator half a day every week.

Technology also plays a part in call selection. Modern IVR systems are able to detect the presence of an answering machine. When integrated with the central station software, this permits new types of automation not previously possible. For example, when verifying an alarm, the list of contacts can be dialed by the software, and only presented to an operator when a successful call to a contact has been made. When the IVR detects an answering machine has been reached, an automated message can be left informing the customer appropriate to the alarm type. In this scenario, the operator is no longer required to wait for a connection, wait for the end user’s voice message greeting, or leave the actual message. In addition to the benefit of an IVR’s ability to leave messages with consistent information, operators may also be able to verify alarms quicker by connecting with an available person on the call list.

In instances where life or property is not endangered, some central stations are now managing signals without any operator intervention. A common case is informing customers that a panel battery may be low. IVR implementations that have been tightly integrated with the central station software may also inform the customer that a service is necessary and schedule an appropriate time for a technician to be on-site.

IVR technology can also help manage catastrophic events that may affect a large group of customers or the central station. When power failures occur across a geographical region, callers to the central station can be informed of the appropriate action to take, increasing the capacity at peak times to deal with higher priority calls.

There will always be instances where call automation is not appropriate. Calls required for complex accounts that require quick thinking or represent unique cases which are hard to translate into hard and fast business rules are better left to skilled operators. The IVR is better thought of as an assistant to improve communication rather than a way to entirely replace the role of the operator. That is why a successful IVR implementation will always provide the option for the customer to be put through to speak to a live person.

Learn from other industries

IVR has been successfully used in many industries outside of security. Some basic guidelines have been developed that should be followed if the investment in IVR is not to be lost.

Whenever a set of options is provided to a customer on a call, these should be kept short and be ordered so that customers are not frustrated by a long series of unnecessary menus. Five options is generally the maximum that should be offered. Offering rarely chosen options before popular options are all signs that the menu system is not likely to work well.

Voice prompts should be recorded by professionals to ensure they are easy to understand. In a multilingual environment such as Canada, providing the prompts in the language appropriate to the customer will also be essential. Even in the United States, providing a choice of languages can be a market differentiator for the central station.

Measuring and tuning the IVR after it has been implemented is vital. In the same way that a central station monitors the types of calls and adjusts the processes an operator will follow, IVR requires the same attention. Key metrics that will help with this include: call completion rates, the category and type of calls, the time and purpose, the number of calls required for resolution, and number of calls requiring operator intervention.

Whatever the scenario, keeping the customer informed is essential. In October 2013, the Federal Communications Commission will implement new rules that require prior written consent before auto dialing of numbers when this results in advertisement or telemarketing. Making the customer aware that a machine may be used to schedule service calls or handle lower priority alarms will avoid debate at a later stage of whether an auto-dialed phone call constituted advertisement.

Start with your goals and central station software vendor

Good implementations of IVR are not easy. Selecting the right types of call and choosing the telephony technology all impact the implementation. Within the security industry, the level of integration with the central station software is also a key factor.

The first objective should be to define the purpose of implementing an IVR. This goal can be, but is not always, reducing costs. Providing a better customer experience may also be important. The goal will drive the definition of the return on investment. For example retaining existing customers through better peak demand management will require different measures compared to maximizing the automation of operator tasks. Where existing telephony solutions have been implemented, the goal may be to make better use of that technology through tighter integration with the central station software.

Once the goals are clear, one of the first people to contact before choosing to implement a new IVR or augment existing telephony systems is the central station software vendor. In many cases they will have implemented solutions before, and will know what expertise is required. They should be able to guide you in the types of automation that they have successfully developed in partnership with their other customers. They are likely to know IVR implementation experts that understand the specifics of the alarm industry. They will also have strong partnerships with telephony and cloud IVR technology firms. With a knowledgeable vendor, you can be up and running quicker and achieve your goals faster.

The rewards for customer satisfaction and efficiency at the central station are well worth starting the exploration.