Front desk friendlier with VoIP

You can say as much as you like about VoIP lowering costs or simplifying management, but for Fran Lorion, CIO of the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston, a key test for the technology was how front desk receptionist Lovey Pulsifer would react.

“She was two feet off the floor for the first few days we had the new system,” says Lorion of Pulsifer, who handles 350 calls per day, roughly 200 from patients. “Believe me, she wouldn’t have pulled punches if it wasn’t working.”

The nonprofit agency, which employs about 500 people and provides service to some 15,000 patients per year, ditched a burdensome Centrex contract and an out-dated call centre system and switched to a US$300,000 in-house IP PBX system last summer that Lorion says should pay for itself before long.

The reason the system makes such a difference to Pulsifer, one of several receptionists in the organization, is that it automatically identifies callers by their phone numbers and presents their data on her computer screen as she answers the phone. With patients speaking many languages or having accents, the system cuts down on communication problems. “Most patients seem to like being greeted by name,” she says.

The VNA of Boston is running a converged voice and data network across four sites based on 14 ShoreTel PBXs (1U-high servers) and about twice as many Asante Ethernet switches, which provide power over Ethernet to a few hundred ShoreTel IP phones. The VNA has devoted a subnet to its voice traffic, says Dave Hanley, manager of systems operations.

The application supporting Pulsifer involves the ShoreTel system, through its Call Manager software, delivering caller ID information to an application from Traxi Technologies that sits on the receptionist’s desktop. The application then grabs the phone number, queries a Microsoft Access database containing a subset of patient data and delivers pertinent information to the receptionist’s desktop.

“The fascinating thing to me about this sort of application is that it wasn’t just built into any of these systems. It seemed so obvious to me that it would be,” says Lorion. “A lot of the vendors can understand this application in a call centre environment, but hadn’t thought about it for other environments.

“The vendors in this VoIP market seemed more focused on making a technology replacement as opposed to understanding business problems. That might work in an immature market, but somewhere down the line these guys need to start looking at it as a business solution.”

The software being used by the VNA to support its eight-person call centre served the organization well since the mid-1990s, but was “well beyond its useful life,” Lorion says. With the organization figuring to swap out its Centrex system for an internal PBX system, the VNA had the call centre system built into it, Lorion says.

Lorion says the VNA wasn’t predisposed to going with VoIP. “We all knew about VoIP, but were still pretty naive about it at the time,” he says. “But even all the traditional PBX vendors were recommending a VoIP solution or a bridge, so the message to me was pretty clear about where the future is.”

Lorion, who joined the VNA of Boston in 1997 to oversee its IT department, says he had “avoided phones for as long as possible,” as they fell under the jurisdiction of the organization’s facilities and administration group. “But it didn’t take much to think that, with convergence, voice and data needed to be in the IT department,” he says.

Among the efforts undertaken by the joint voice and data team was ensuring that the VoIP network would stay up and running. The VNA upgraded its network to 10/100Mbps to the desktop and 1Gbps within the data centre. Most cabling stayed the same. The organization’s sites are connected primarily via T-1 links.

“Network performance and capacity are key areas for evaluation,” Lorion says. “We believed we had a robust data network and had planned to increase bandwidth anyway, but it was still a bit of a challenge to get the network where we needed it to be to support the voice component.”

To ensure network availability and keep costs down, the VNA has retained some analogue phones and lines.

Now that the VNA’s VoIP system is in place, Lorion says he is looking forward to rolling out other applications. “Based on what we’ve already been able to do, we can go in any number of directions with this.”


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