Friday, 17 August 2012

Next-generation telecoms for crisis management in Veterinary Practice

Client communications and effective telecoms are Practice essentials, but with many businesses being served by older phone systems, it’s easy to miss the latest technology developments which can make significant improvements to the Practice’s business continuity, efficiency and the quality of client contact.
   
A major shift in the provision of services via the internet brings many new possibilities in improved business performance.  With significantly more reliable infrastructure, so called “cloud telephony” (VoIP/Voice over Internet Protocol) heralds a new era in business systems where speed, reliability, reduced costs and enhanced services provide clear commercial advantages.  These latest developments present compelling alternatives to the traditional phone systems and are certainly worthy of investigation.

In the context of business protection, new improvements in telephony systems provide much greater security and flexibility.  Where quality may have previously been a concern, in the past 2-3 years internet based services have improved so much, they can now out perform traditional systems.  There are now some compelling reasons to take a closer look.

With “cloud” telephony calls are hosted via a chosen provider to deliver a faster, more efficient and reliable service, saving up to 84% off annual costs vs. traditional systems.

New technology brings major advantages:
  • Business protection – the capability to restore normal operations in the event of unexpected circumstances has never been so simple, and rapid resumption of normal trading has never been so simple.
  • Communications flexibility – because of the way the service is provided, you only pay for what you need, and you can scale your system very easily according to your requirements at the time. 
  • Low cost – there’s no system hardware, so you don’t have to invest in servers or equipment which requires maintenance, you only need internet-ready phones which you then connect directly into your network. There are also cost savings to daily operation. For example, a three site practice would normally pay standard call charges to communicate between each site, whereas with a VoIP system call costs between multi-site practices are wholly eliminated.
Protecting your business is easy and having a reliable back up plan in place means Practices can have complete confidence in any unforeseen event or crisis situation. This means your clients will still be able to make contact and your business communications can operate as normal in the shortest possible time and financial losses minimised.

So what exactly is Crisis Management?
Definition of a Crisis: Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property,
seriously interrupt business, damage reputation and/or negatively impact share value. 

Having an effective Crisis Management plan in respect of telecoms enables you to minimise potential disruption to your business and customers. 

The BS 25999 standard sets out detailed advice on designing and implementing a business continuity plan and the actions necessary to obtain accreditation for the plan(s) that have been developed.

Also referred to as Crisis Management and Disaster Recovery, it involves the creation of policies and procedures which provide guidelines and instructions to be followed by employees and managers in the event of an emergency or business critical situation. It protects businesses from down-time and minimises the period where normal functions may be impossible, providing clear steps to be followed as priorities.  

As part of the overall planning process it is recommended to:
  • Identify potential crises that might affect you
  • Consider how you intend to minimise the risks of these disasters occurring
  • Consider how you'll react if a disaster occurs in a business continuity plan
  • Test the plan regularly
For example, where you’re reliant on computer information, there should be a back-up system in place so you have a copy of key data in the event of a system failure.

A disaster recovery or business continuity plan is ESSENTIAL to protect the well-being of any organization. Although this cannot really be over emphasized, many businesses still avoid the issue, or have plans which are unworkable.   There are a number of reasons for the lack of crisis management plans, including perceived complexity and denial that events could impact the business in question. Full business continuity planning incorporates many aspects of the operation; however, we shall focus on the communications aspect.

Business communications are very much taken for granted and we expect 100% reliability, however the reality is that each year many UK businesses suffer losses  or cease trading as a consequence of poor planning and management – yet it’s very simple and easy to provide for.

It seems many veterinary practices currently have insufficient planning for unexpected interruptions to business communications. Although exact figures are not available, it appears the majority of veterinary practices are under prepared.  In other professional industries such as legal and professional services there are clear recommendations to ensure that systems, data and processes are protected to ensure continuity of client service and normal business operation as quickly as possible.  It is usually a Director or Operations Manager’s responsibility to ensure an effective process is in place to minimise any risk and also that the process is clearly understood by everyone.

Rare occurrences such as power outages, adverse weather conditions, personnel unavailability, accidents and infrastructure failures etc DO happen.  The resulting impact on the unprepared business can be enormous, from clients not being able to make contact, data losses to systems failures which can result in significant financial losses.

With traditional analogue systems, Service Level Agreements for repair and maintenance can involve days of waiting, meaning businesses can suffer paralysing inconveniences for prolonged periods – which spells disaster and frustration all-round.  As new technology “cloud telephony” is offered in a completely different way, it can provide business continuity much more comprehensively and efficiently. Calls can be re-directed and diverted so that downtime would almost be unnoticeable.    

For traditional systems an industry standard Service Level Agreement can mean repair in up to 5 working days. With new technology systems, a major fault would be fixed within a 6 hour full fix SLA.

Utilising new technology, back up occurs constantly so that in the event of an unexpected circumstance, nothing is lost and importantly, the SLA response commitment is such that the maximum duration without service would ordinarily be minutes. Indeed, the future trend for IT services and everyday business computing is increasingly moving towards cloud computing where benefits of security, back up, space saving and significant cost savings can be made.  When considered altogether, an integrated system of Internet based IT and Telephony provides veterinary practices with powerful resources to move forward into a new era of highly versatile company infrastructure. 

Service Integrity and Business Continuity

Source: Pingdom
It goes without saying that service continuity is critical.  Where in the past there may have been cause for concern over reliability, internet technology has progressed and become highly sophisticated and reliable.  The ability to safeguard connection integrity and provide a first class service; with clarity and voice quality being equivalent or better than analogue phones is now an expectation and is indeed the common experience.

As we have described earlier, VoIP is provided through third party, off-site systems which are monitored and maintained constantly to deliver maximum reliability of service and continuous connectivity.  The images below are examples of server monitoring, showing one of the servers and its state. Real-time monitoring and alert screens are provided to systems  managers, whose primary responsibility is ensuring that any server problems are totally resolved within the shortest time, often minutes, compared to waiting for an engineer to call sometimes hours or days later as with traditional systems.  In this case, the server shows 100% uptime over the 31 day period being monitored.

Call Recording

With the best intentions, there can be occasions when things go wrong with clients or suppliers, disagreements occur and it’s perhaps necessary to refer to a prior client or supplier conversation to establish the facts about exactly what has been communicated. Previously this would have been impossible, expensive or certainly very difficult.  Another benefit is that it is much easier to train staff and colleagues.

With a VoIP system the ability to record and recall specific calls is easy as the information is stored on the server and can be held for an agreed duration to suit practice requirements.  There are guidelines for the use of call recording systems however, and this has proven to be a helpful source of recall/redress for many Practices where evidence has been required to be produced to support a claim or resolve a dispute.

Call data is held securely on the remote server and is accessible on demand, subject to agreed storage durations.

Telecoms are often underestimated in their capacity to protect businesses from abnormal occurrences and unplanned events. This is why it’s important for Practice owners and managers to avail themselves of information about the latest telecoms technology developments, which can help enhance services, increase protection and also significantly reduce costs, boosting bottom-line profits.


Hidden savings

We generally expect new technology or enhanced services to cost us more. Not so in this case.

Here’s where some of the major advantages of VoIP are initially less apparent, however they become significant when you consider that there is no server hardware to invest in (just phones), no maintenance contracts and no electricity cost of operating an on-site switch. Over a period of time these sums can add up to a significant budget-saving.  Include the no-cost inter-site communication and you’ve got an efficient and effective solution that can benefit the vast majority of veterinary practices.

More flexible Practice management, communications back up and space saving

Hosted systems are fully maintained and continuously monitored for business continuity purposes. They also benefit from saving space in the Practice, removing the requirement to possess an on-site system.  

In a crisis situation, Cloud (VoIP) telephony enables call diverting and remote-working to be managed by the Practice as required, and this flexibility is one of the major advantages of the latest telecoms technology.  This is not only essential in a crisis but is helpful in everyday operation.  With an IP phone, it’s possible to connect from anywhere and deliver seamless uninterrupted telephone service with the knowledge that no calls have been missed. 
   
VoIP is delivered via an IP handset or smartphone which is allocated its own identity, and once connected to the phone server, the handset receives the user profile and attributes can be used from anywhere, whether it’s in the Practice office, from home or from a completely different location.  This means that you can connect it the internet at a location of your choosing, to provide a seamless client interface, providing flexibility for you, your practice and ensuring client access at all times.  You can of course also divert to other third party back up services if you choose.

The telecoms industry is rapidly changing 

With changes in the telecoms market bringing significant new benefits plus a shake up to pricing and contracts, the next generation of telecoms brings so many reasons to review your existing telecoms arrangements:
  • More secure business operations
  • Great cost  savings
  • Flexible, shorter agreements
  • More efficient practice management
  • Enhanced customer experience
The benefits of new telecoms to veterinary practices are clear. If vets and Practice Managers seize the initiative and challenge existing thinking and habits, they can bring about powerful change for their own businesses.

Crisis Management and Business Continuity are specific areas where Practices are advised to ensure they are protected for unforeseen events and as a result they can also introduce a host of additional benefits which can also bring savings every month. New technology has much to offer the forward thinking Practice in ways which were previously unimagined.

For more information of next generation business telecoms and telecoms for crisis management, please refer to www.merlin-telecom.co.uk/vets/ or call the Merlin Telecom team on 0800 877 8810

Thanks to Jerry Crick of Boness Veterinary Practice, London and Will Blackburn of Minster Vets York for sharing insights on their Practice telecoms.