In mid-May, Byram Healthcare Centers Inc. officially launched automated voice assistant (AVA), an interactive voice response (IVR) system that's expected to greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its customer response.
"We take thousands of calls each day and want to make sure that each time a customer calls in they are answered promptly and routed to the customer service team that can best assist them," Jeff Mignone, the company's senior vice president of operations, stated in a press release.
A distributor of disposable home medical supplies and services to patients at home, Byram Healthcare's livelihood depends on how fast and effectively it can respond to queries and orders from customers across the country. While the company supports some Web-based ordering with healthcare organizations, it deals with hundreds of thousands of customers over the phone.
"Making sure every detail of their interaction with AVA is exactly right has been a monumental undertaking," notes Philip Mutino, Byram's manager of telecommunications.
Indeed, the company has spent about 18 months and just more than $1 million designing and deploying a network infrastructure to support its IVR system, according to Richard Entrup, Byram HealthCare's CIO. The infrastructure utilizes voice over IP (VoIP) and multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) class of service to ensure that voice calls,
Byram implemented VoIP to support both the IVR project and a major process engineering initiative, launched earlier this year, called Customer Management Process (CMP). The overall goal of CMP was to increase the percentage of orders that traverse Byram's ERP system, from customer service intake through cash receipt, without the need for either manual intervention or "touches." The latter involves calling the customer in order to deal with issues such as account problems, outstanding balances and billing or insurance verification.
Patients are referred by doctors and endocrinologists. They call the company directly, often on a regular basis, to order products to treat chronic diseases like diabetes and ostomy. Often, they also have questions. Prior to the IVR system's launch, callers were being directed to one of several call centers around the country. Sometimes they were directed automatically, based on automatic number ID (ANI); sometimes, when ANI wasn't available, via a handoff that required the customer to hang up and dial another number, Entrup reports.
AVA's purpose is twofold, according to Entrup. First, it will streamline call flow and increase call turnover, cutting call center costs. At the same time, it will ensure that customers get an immediate response to their calls, and if necessary, are routed quickly and efficiently to an available human operator with the expertise to answer their questions.
VoIP enables Byram Healthcare to route both voice and data over an internal IP network, for which it pays a set, per port rate. This means major cost savings compared with sending voice through the telco cloud and paying a long-distance carrier by the minute.
In terms of cost benefits, "Byram was a perfect VoIP candidate," because so much of its voice traffic travels between corporate sites, says Bob McGuire, a managing partner at New York-based iWave Inc., an MCI/Verizon partner that helped Byram deploy its MPLS network. "A lot of companies only have 5% of calls traveling between offices. But VoIP gave Byram a huge opportunity to reduce voice costs and take advantage of WAN bandwidth."
The CMP project, including IVR, is expected to reap annual savings in the mid-six-figure range after 18 months, according to Entrup. In addition, the hosted Verizon MPLS and VoIP system is expected to yield $150,000 in annual savings by outsourcing wide area network (WAN) administrative and management/monitoring costs.
More importantly, VoIP traffic can travel over an MPLS backbone that uses class of service to prioritize voice calls over less critical data transmissions. This in turn ensures that customer calls don't get sidelined or delayed during peak traffic periods Entrup says. In terms of priority, voice comes first; then ERP applications, then e-mail, then Web-based traffic, he adds.
NextiraOne (now part of Black Box Corp.), supplied Byram's Nortel VoIP platform, and also provided VoIP traffic projections in order to size WAN bandwidth correctly.
The AVA rollout will begin in Byram Healthcare's Downer's Grove, Ill., facility and expand to West and East Coast centers over the summer. Phase one will involve two of Byram's three call centers and about 100 out of 400 customer representatives.
The company initially migrated from AT&T's frame-relay service to its MPLS offering in late 2004. However, when the time came to deploy VoIP, it found that AT&T could not provide viable Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) backup links to all major sites, Entrup reports. "We now have more eggs in one baket, so we need that redundancy."
Byram is also keeping its non-VoIP PBX system operational so that, even if the MPLS WAN goes down, voice calls can still go through. However, the ISDN links are important because "We still want a working backup for data," Entrup says. "And we very much want our VoIP and IVR to stay up and running."
The company finished migrating to MCI's (now Verizon Business) MPLS backbone in April. Based on initial testing, Entrup says, both class of service and network reliability are working fine.
Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This was first published in May 2006