Mission-Critical Communications

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With a population of more than 1.5 million and a surface area of 517 square miles, Phoenix is one of America’s fastest-growing cities. It is the nation’s fifth-largest city overall and the most populated of all 50 state capitals. It is Arizona’s largest employer and has been recognized nationally for a positive economic climate and a skilled and diverse workforce. Its local government has been honored with numerous awards for efficient operations and superior customer service.

But keeping that level of service was getting increasingly difficult with its out-of-date voice messaging and communications system. So about a year ago, realizing that its existing voicemail system was rapidly reaching the end of its life, the city began to consider its options for supporting the mission-critical communications needs of 14,000 employees scattered throughout 40 city departments and agencies. It needed to deploy a robust, highly scalable, and cost-effective solution in a short period of time and with minimal disruption to workers or the public.

By September, city officials had selected Applied Voice & Speech Technologies (AVST), based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., as the vendor to replace Phoenix’s outdated system from Octel Messaging (a division of Avaya since 2000) with a next-generation unified communications solution. By January, AVST’s flagship unified communications solution, CallXpress, was in place at two locations. One is housed at a central location for most city agencies and the other is at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

"It was a pretty aggressive schedule, but the city decided about a year ago not  to renew its licenses with Octel, and we were anxious to get [something else] in place," says Linda Henderson, the city’s IT supervisor.

Because its Octel system was old and outdated, "getting support and maintenance was close to impossible," Henderson says, "and Octel couldn’t upgrade it."

Maintenance for the new system is provided by AVST reseller Black Box Network Services, based in Lawrence, Pa. The company supports the entire system with a staff of six dedicated onsite employees.

Also problematic for the city was the old system’s escalating licensing fees for each new mailbox, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars each year. When the city started with Octel, the licensing fees were about $17 per box each year. Prior to the city’s cutting its ties with the company, those licenses were $40 each.

The new AVST system, which was deployed at a cost of $417,000, allows for unlimited voice mailboxes, greatly reducing the total cost of ownership. "But the main cost savings so far have been on the maintenance that we are no longer paying for the old system," Henderson states.

Costs aside, the real reason for replacing the Octel system was "risk management," Henderson maintains. "We actually lost one of our drives on the Octel system a few weeks before the implementation of CallXpress, so time became even more of a factor for us."

Currently the city has voice mailboxes for about 9,000 employees supporting a host of agencies and departments, including police, fire, child and family services, parks and recreation, the courts, public works, and city hall. Mobile workers, like parks groundskeepers, are not included on the system. Emergency services and 911 calls do not go through the system either, though  emergency services personnel do maintain personal mailboxes on the system.

The system also includes more than 800 auto attendants that route incoming calls through the city’s Ericsson private branch exchange (PBX) infrastructure. By going with the AVST system, the city was able to keep its existing PBXs, saving it a considerable amount of time and money on installation costs.

In addition to the voicemail and call processing components, AVST’s total CallXpress suite also contains unified messaging (UM), fax, notification, and speech-enabled personal assistant capabilities. "We plan to deploy UM and the fax application," Henderson says, noting that the city included such capabilities in the proposal requests it sent out to vendors last summer. "We looked at it originally, but we would not have met our January time line if we did it then," Henderson explains. She hopes to roll out those applications later this year.

"When we do get the UM going, employees will be able to access their email and voicemail together," she explains. "It also has the ability to link to Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, and [employees] can also have their cell phone or pager notify them when they have a message."

Another reason for selecting CallXpress was its ability to support very high call volumes. Each month, employees receive about 600,000 voicemail messages, while about 300,000 calls from city residents go through the interactive voice response auto attendants. Some city agencies, like Family Services, can receive as many as 20,000 calls every hour.

For that reason, Phoenix’s four family services centers also have an appointment-scheduling application in place. "They used to open on a Monday morning and already had a slew of people camped out in the parking lot," Henderson recalls.

For city government, it was crucial that the transition to the new system be as seamless as possible. AVST was able to emulate the telephone user interfaces of the existing Octel system, meaning that there were no real changes made to the system. "The initial prompts are basically the same as with the Octel system," Henderson says. "There was no change as far as the public was concerned. We moved everything over the way it was. If you pressed 2 to speak to an agent at the Public Works Department before, you still do that now."

The one change that is evident, though, is the voice that reads the IVR prompts. "Before, each department had a different script with a different voice," Henderson says. The city worked with GM Voices, based in Alpharetta, Ga., to rerecord the prompts with a single voice across all departments. Black Box helped redesign some of the menus and scripts.

With such a large user base, getting employees familiar with the system also had to be seamless. Together with Black Box, Henderson coordinated training sessions with department representatives, who then went back and trained the rest of the employees. It also helped that the city updated its employees during each step of the implementation process through its City Connections employee newsletter.

And unlike before, getting new people into the system is easy. "When we have employee turnover, we just reset the password. The new hire sets his own password and records his own personal greeting. That’s it," Henderson says.

Beyond that, however, "in terms of enhancing our business processes and service to both our internal and external customers, the benefits are intangible at this time," Henderson says.

Phoenix’s Valley Metro Transit, the authority that runs 81 bus routes throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, already offers a 24-hour voice-enabled trip planning and information IVR using speech recognition technologies from Logic Tree. That service reportedly handles about 6,000 calls a day.

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