When Gary Dickson, SFHA Digital Lead, asked me to write a short piece on our recent project to implement a hosted VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone system in Cloch Housing Association I wasn’t really sure where to start?
Like most workplaces across the world, the Global Covid-19 pandemic forced rapid change to the way Cloch HA functioned. One day staff were working in the office as normal and the next we were working from makeshift offices in our own homes, struggling to find the room with the best Wi-Fi signal and learning that you have to unmute if you want to be heard on a virtual meeting.
I am pleased to say Cloch HA staff coped excellently with the fundamental changes to the way we had to work. The IT systems already in place facilitated remote working, and, although there were some hitches along the way, we were able to have all staff working from home to continue delivering services to customers. The one downside was telephony. Cloch HA still used a traditional digital phone system installed in the office. This meant we could only offer a messaging & call back service to customers, which went against the Cloch HA ethos of first-class communication and customer service. On the plus side, we had previously migrated our traditional phone lines to SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) Trunks, so our phone lines were already internet based.
Around four weeks into lockdown, I got a text message from our Corporate Services Manager tentatively asking questions about hosted phone systems and the feasibility of migrating our current digital phone system to a VOIP hosted phone system during this period. My IT Manager instinct immediately went on the defensive highlighting all the pitfalls attempting this type of project would and could have during the current working environment, and this was relayed back to her. Despite being sympathetic to these concerns, the response was something along the lines of, “I take all those points but we want to push on with this, Paul (our Director) has advised this needs to happen and has even given a deadline to deliver the project - around 6 weeks from now”
And so it began!
A key part of the project was planning, knowing what the Association staff require the phone system to do and the features it should have was as important as the compatibility of the phone system with the current IT systems and environment. This meant ensuring the project team included staff members from all sections to give us the best chance of determining an accurate phone system specification.
One we had settled on a specification then came procurement. Due to the short timescales, Cloch HA decided to accept a short-term contract (one year) to avoid having to go through a longer procurement process. Due to government restrictions we were unable to use traditional methods of inviting suppliers to the office to demo products or even visit other HA’s to see any phone systems they had deployed. We had to go down the video call route (as most of us now know all too well) and suppliers were able to pitch, answer questions & demo systems via screen sharing. This worked well and allowed us to select a product to trial.
We spent around one week trialling the initial product selected, however, during this time it was discovered some parts of the product were not compatible with our current IT Systems.
Note: If you utilise a Remote / Virtual desktop environment and want to use a soft phone client make sure it is compatible in this environment.
The second product we trialled was the one we eventually purchased. 3CX was compatible with all our IT Systems and had all the features we required from a phone system. Installation and testing went well and although there were some small configuration issues to overcome, which were mainly down to the audio quality via our Thin Client / Remote Desktop environment, the system proved to work well in trial.
Note: If you are planning to use headsets with your hosted phone system, make sure you test compatibility with your product and your IT environment and check stock levels prior to roll-out of the phone system. There are literally hundreds of options out there (wired, wireless, single ear, double ear) from hundreds of suppliers, so it is important to get the products that suit, to avoid any excess hardware costs!
It is also worth noting that if you have not previously migrated your phone lines to SIP Trunk internet communications then you will need to factor this in. If you already have SIP Trunks, as we did, and you intend to change phone line provider there will be a cost and time taken to port the SIP Trunks and direct dial numbers to the new provider. Both of these processes are out-with any project control, as timescales for this are determined by the phone line provider. This has to be factored into your project completion timelines. The day your phone lines are ported to a new supplier should be coordinated with the day the SIP Trunks are tied to the new phone system. Effectively this is the day your new phone system will go live. The supplier you have purchased the phone system from should manage this process for you, to avoid the nightmare scenario of having phone lines left in limbo.
The final part of our project was the training of staff and the big go-live. The project team did an excellent job of creating simple procedures and running video call training sessions to help staff adjust to the new phone systems. It was important to take staff with us on this project due to the phone systems being a fundamental part of all Cloch HA staff’s daily roles. It could never have been the case that we rolled out a system and let staff get on with it, without assistance.
Cloch HA’s new phone system went live on the 23 July. We decided to keep the automated attendant running for a few days to allow staff to get used to the system making internal calls. We then opened the phone lines for staff to take incoming calls for limited times throughout the day. This let frontline staff get used to answering and transferring calls. It also let us monitor the call queuing system to see if it was working correctly or if it needed tweaking. Incoming calls were opened up for normal working hours on the 3 August marking the end of the project (albeit with a few snagging issues to take care of) within the six week deadline.
The implementation of a hosted phone system instantly changed the effectiveness of Cloch HA’s communication lines to the public. With staff able to answer incoming calls from the office, from home or remotely via an app on their mobile phone, it allows Cloch HA to deliver the customer service that the association prides itself on. As the phone system is no longer based in the office, and accessible from anywhere with an internet connection, it also improves business continuity, which can only be a good thing.
To recap, the key areas we had to consider during the project were:
- Assemble the correct project team. (Key staff who use the phone systems, not just IT and senior staff)
- A detailed specification of requirements of the system to provide suppliers.
- Trial products and make sure any phone system works fully in your IT environment and has the required features needed. Test, test, test!
- Hardware (Headset / Handset) testing and procurement.
- If changing phone provider be sure to give enough time between cancelling the current contract and starting the new one. Have an overlap of contracts, it may be a double cost for a short time, but will save the headache of having no phone lines should there be any issues with suppliers moving them.
- Bring staff with you; keep them informed during the project to ensure you have staff buy in. The migration of a new phone system involves a lot of change management, as it is changing a fundamental system used by the organisation.
The delivery of a VOIP hosted phone system at Cloch HA was a team effort. It involved a huge amount of work to meet the project deadlines in a challenging working environment during the pandemic’s Government restrictions, but it has paid off. It has enabled Cloch HA to continue to provide excellent customer service and communication at a time when it is more important than ever.
Project Team (Liz Bowden – Corporate Services Manager, Andy Thomson – Housing Manager, Louise Carlin – Customer Connectors Team Lead, Ewan Barr – IT Manager, Richard Browning – IT Assistant)