Adopting Unified Communications as a Lifeline

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Every two seconds, someone needs blood, yet less than 10% of those eligible to give blood do so. Providing safe, pure, and potent blood products and laboratory services is the mission of a Midwest-based, non-profit blood bank organization. Ranked among the top 10 blood banks in the United States, this organization employees over 700 workers and has a network of thousands of volunteers and blood drive coordinators.

Every day, employees must contact hundreds of blood donors, schedule appointments, and communicate with hospitals and other staff in headquarters and in far-flung facilities throughout the state. Distances between facilities are often over 200 miles. With thousands of patients depending on the safe, timely delivery of blood products and lab services, maintaining access to reliable and cost-effective telephone services is critical.

The organization's existing telephony equipment fell short of meeting its communications needs. It had a mixture of aging PBXs and key systems from a variety of different vendors. This resulted in few functions beyond the most basic voice service. Donation centers had volunteers answering calls, but phones were not manned at all times. There was no unified voicemail system between offices, and some locations had to rely on answering machines to record incoming calls. There was no systematic way to identify missed calls, and simple functions, such as call forwarding and message management, were difficult.

The old phone systems also proved unreliable, subject to parts shortages, skill set issues, and downed service. The organization processes over a thousand calls each day. Many remote site managers were responsible for two locations with independent key systems, often making communications difficult. A missed call could jeopardize a life.

The organization's senior management realized that moving to a unified communications (UC) solution could help them unify and enhance phone communications across the enterprise. More specifically, UC could improve reliability and lower maintenance costs, and leveraging a IP-based network could dramatically reduce toll costs.

My consulting practice helped the blood bank select and implement the right solution by first identifying the benefits, challenges and costs of UC. We performed an enterprise-wide assessment and analysis, which enabled the blood bank organization to identify the features and functions that were most important to satisfying their unique, life-critical services.

Several feature sets of UC were well received, but implementing presence was identified as one of the most important, as it would allow an employee to quickly communicate with a colleague wherever that person was located. Many surveys have shown that presence and instant messaging (IM) gives employees the same feeling as a quick impromptu meeting at the water fountain. Issues could be quickly discussed, decisions made, and action taken.

Mobility also was deemed business critical. With enterprise mobility, calls to supervisors and staff could be seamlessly redirected regardless of the type of device: desk phones, soft phones, or mobile phones. Management liked this feature because it effectively unified the highly distributed organization. Mobility allowed connecting employees to volunteers, blood drive coordinators and medical staff -- anytime, anywhere.

Lastly, if users could not get to their UC applications, productivity and lives could suffer. To this end, reliability and redundancy was integrated into the system. For example, if a WAN link went down at a remote facility, employees could still use some subset of their UC tools to communicate with each other on- and off-site via a backup connection, whether by using the public Internet or PSTN.

The UC architecture additionally included taking steps such as moving to SIP trunking, connecting all sites with fiber, and upgrading to higher speed network connections. Implementing centralized management allowed for ease of expansion, including simply and immediately adding soft phones and extending UC features to remote sites. It also provided staff with services such as voicemail monitoring and recovery, as well as the assignment of calls/messages to staff. This enabled the added benefit of standardizing the customer experience when it came to on-hold messaging, phone trees, and after-hours service.

What was the return on investment of all this? We determined that payback on the new UC system would be about four years, but there was also soft dollar savings. UC, for example, allowed remote training, which cut costs associated with travel and time.

Throughout this whole process, I kept thinking about best practices for how organizations should proceed when investigating UC. I recommend the following three success factors that could be helpful for enterprises to follow:

UC is becoming more pervasive with the increasing "smartness" of devices to support UC applications, which is leading to an increase in use of video and cloud services. In this scenario, UC provided the blood bank not only with business telephone savings, and increased reliability, but also it unified the geographically dispersed organization with common voice features and functions. It clearly met the organizations mission to provide life-critical blood products and services.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.