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Living with Lync: Reception and Switchboard

As you move from using Lync just for instant messaging and presence to using Lync as a complete telephony replacement, you need to figure out how to handle receptionist and switchboard functions. In this article, I will explore some of the challenges and opportunities in using Lync in this capacity.

For this discussion, the switchboard function refers to answering calls and directing them as required. The receptionist function includes greeting visitors arriving at a location. In many organizations, the receptionist also performs the switchboard function.

Focus first on the "What"
If you have read many of my other articles, you likely know that I believe in understanding "what" you are trying to accomplish from a business standpoint before you start considering just "how" you will do it.

In terms of dealing with switchboard, some questions you should ask yourself include:

1. Do you want external callers to reach an "automated attendant" or an actual person when they first call?
2. Do you need to provide external callers with a toll free number?
3. Do external parties expect to call a local number to reach a local office?
4. Do individuals in your organization have DIDs (direct inward dial numbers)?
5. How many different people in your organization handle the switchboard function and where are they located?
6. Does your switchboard blind-transfer or announce then transfer calls (performing some form of call screening)?

And then the "How"
Microsoft Lync provides several mechanisms to address switchboard functions; although it is really Lync plus Exchange Unified Messaging (Exchange UM) that is designed to provide a complete telephony replacement. Exchange UM provides voice mail, auto attendant (directory lookup based on name) and most IVR (interactive voice response) services. Lync provides the voice services, call queues (Lync refers to these as response groups, which also include some IVR capabilities), and call transfer functionality.

Lync also provides you with choices of several different endpoints you can provide to the switchboard/receptionist(s): The standard Lync client, the Lync Attendant client, a Lync IP phone. Each of the different endpoints has pros, cons and considerations:

Standard Lync Client--Familiar to most users; transfers require more steps (no dedicated transfer button); makes it easy for anyone to start answering main line switchboard calls (in case primary switchboard operator is away/unavailable).

Lync Attendant Client--Designed for higher call volume scenarios; dedicated transfer button; caller notes capability; designed to be full screen application (making it harder to run both Lync Attendant and other applications at same time); challenging to have both standard Lync client and Lync Attendant installed on same machine (this works but can cause issues when joining conferences); ability to have unanswered blind transfer calls return to the switchboard (this is a unique capability of Lync Attendant); not clear if there will be a Lync 2013 Attendant client (there currently is not, you can use Lync 2010 Attendant with Lync 2013 environment).

Lync IP phone--If signed into resource account, may allow anyone to simply sit down at switchboard and answer calls; difficult to manage more than two stacked calls, transfer process can be more difficult, and if authenticated users are required then logging in on the phone can be cumbersome.

Other differences between the standard Lync client and the Lync Attendant client are highlighted here. If you choose the right solution for your organization, Lync can provide very solid reception/switchboard capability. Here is what Mike Palmer from the Living with Lync Experts Panel had to say about his organization's use of the Lync Attendant client:

"At the City of Langford, it's important to us that a live person answers the phone. The Lync Attendant Console gives our receptionist much better insight into who is available and when. She has a lot of contextual real-time information available to her about staff availability, which lets us help our residents get to who they need as quickly as possible. The Attendant is powerful, easy to use and it scales well."

Similarly, in the past 2 months I have deployed Lync Attendant solutions at 7 offices ranging in size from 35 to over 600 people and these have worked well. That being said, there are both opportunities and challenges that should be considered related to Lync at reception.

Opportunities related to a Lync-powered switchboard:

* Opportunity to use automated attendant as opposed to live answer (Most likely provided by Exchange UM)
* Ability to implement IVR call trees (either using Exchange UM or Response Groups)
* Switchboard duties can be performed from any location (other offices or even from a home office)
* Presence and instant messaging provide better capabilities to direct (or screen) calls and better service your customers.

Challenges related to a Lync-powered switchboard:

* If switchboard agents need to make outbound calls anonymously (i.e. show the main number as opposed to their personal DID/extension) then there are some current issues when transferring inbound calls to voice mail. (There are solutions but they can take some work.)
* Night mode works differently as compared to a legacy switchboard console.
* The Lync Attendant client is available in multiple languages, however unlike the multi-lingual Lync standard client, the Attendant client is a separate EXE for each language.
* Sharing a single computer for multiple receptionists may require people to logoff and login when changing receptionists, depending on your security policies, and this can take 3-5 minutes.
* The time to connect call to transferred party or connect call to switchboard operator after clicking "answer" in some environments can "feel" too long. See this article for more details.

Not surprisingly, documenting your business requirements, evaluating the many different options Lync provides, testing your selected solution, and providing strong communications and training will greatly improve your experience in Living with Lync at reception and switchboard.

Additional resources:
TechNet: Capabilities of Call Management (Response Group, Lync 2010)
TechNet: Overview of Response Groups (Lync 2013)
NextHop: Lync Server 2010 Response Group Application Frequently Asked Questions

Previous Living with Lync Articles:
In part 1 of this series I looked at the some "relationship rules" that can help make living with Lync more rewarding: think beyond voice, consider you are calling a person not a device, and select the right endpoint for your different user types.

In part 2, I explored a three items that can cause "irreconcilable differences" between your organization and Lync: network issues, underestimating the complexity of voice, underappreciating the importance of training and communications.

Next up: Living with Lync and Interoperability Challenges.

Do you have experiences related to Living with Lync you would like to share? Please comment below or via twitter @kkieller.

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