This article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of CUSTOMER magazine.
The colossal Cisco (News - Alert) Unified CallManager phone system manual doesn’t allot much space for on-hold messaging. It is simply one feature in a massive universe from the Cisco perspective. Yet on-hold messaging is a significant piece of the puzzle for businesses that use the application as a marketing component. The On Hold Messaging Association quotes sources stating that 70 percent of callers get put on hold.
The traditional on-hold messaging process was simple for many years: Service providers produced the messaging – typically a mix of music and promotional material – and delivered content to businesses in the form of physical media. That media was added to a player with a direct wired connection to an analog PBX (News - Alert) phone system.
Time moves ahead, however. Physical media is on the backburner as service providers move to electronic file-based distribution, reducing costs dramatically and delivering a faster and more reliable service. Meanwhile, businesses are migrating from analog to digital VoIP systems such as CallManager and Asterisk (News - Alert).
Businesses can play file-based on-hold messaging over digital and most analog phone systems, but there are recognizable challenges associated on the digital front. Those challenges are being faced with more frequency as migrations from analog systems increase. One challenge is that larger digital phone systems typically lack a physical socket where a media player would normally connect. This means that digital on-hold messaging requires uploading to a central server.
Traditionally, the admin department or a service manager oversaw the operation and care of analog PBX phone systems, which were straightforward and easy to manage. The migration to digital phone systems transfers that responsibility to the IT department. These VoIP systems do much more, and are correspondingly more complicated to manage.
With this role change, on-hold service providers face a greater challenge to ensure that new messaging files are correctly and swiftly applied. There is a sale date with on-hold messaging, as with all marketing material. Playing last month’s sale information will create confusion, and potentially lead to bigger headaches for both the business and its customers.
IT and On-Hold Messaging
It’s no secret that IT professionals don’t want unknown parties to put strange files on their servers. This is precisely the challenge that companies like Thanks For Holding, an on-hold messaging service provider based on Portland, Oregon, face on a daily basis.
“Companies like Cisco make great phones and with top-shelf functionality, but they haven’t done a very good job of interfacing on-hold messaging with their digital systems,” says Michael Newman, president of Thanks For Holding. “So it quickly became a huge problem as to how we distribute our content to a third party. I’d e-mail the file to somebody in an IT department, with no idea if it was applied.”
This is not to suggest that IT departments are filled with lazy and incompetent people. Quite the contrary; but they have many tasks and even more distractions. This means that initially, requests are often met with indifference due to prioritization; or with resistance due to security concerns and unfamiliarity.
The options for delivering on hold messaging files quickly became:
- e-mail it to the IT department and hope they follow instructions; and
- ask the business’ marketing representative to convince the IT department to allow a direct file upload.
The issue with this second point is that it becomes a three-way conversation. A service provider such as Newman is communicating with the marketing department, while both parties work to convince the IT department to open a port, or allow access to the server. It was abundantly clear that while these large digital phone systems were far more complex for on-hold messaging applications, the biggest obstacles were human.
A Direct Solution
The rise of audio over IP has introduced cost-effective, multipoint audio transport to many industries and market verticals. As more businesses replace aging traditional phone systems with new IP-based systems, there is a clear opportunity to adapt some of the same technology and infrastructure for the benefit of on-hold messaging.
Essentially, audio over IP technology enables a better delivery system for the digital telephony age – a timely consideration as the telecom industry in general moves toward touch-free, IP delivery.
MOH Technology and Barix have designed a complete solution to directly stream IP audio for on-hold messaging into CallManager, Asterisk and other VoIP systems. The architecture allows the phone server to take delivery of an on hold audio stream from a trusted hardware device that sits within the secured environment. The process keeps costs low and addresses network security concerns while ensuring that on-hold messages are updated as required – eliminating the burden for IT departments as they are not required to do anything once the system has been installed.
The network configuration is slightly different depending on the phone system, but remains simple. CallManager systems, for example, will look for a multicast RTP stream from a specific IP address. Asterisk systems actually request the audio stream from the assigned hardware device, which will then deliver the stream via a TCP connection.
For the service provider, life is equally straightforward: On hold content is uploaded to a web based central management system. Customer sites have a Barix Exstreamer that calls into the server, and downloads and applies any content or configuration updates. The on hold messaging is output to the device’s audio outputs and onto the network for a VoIP system to pick up.
The result is a maintenance-free solution that puts the service provider in complete control of the on-hold audio for the client and reports the status of each device for complete peace of mind.
The scalable nature of the architecture ensures that phone systems of all sizes can cleanly integrate on-hold messaging, with specific content for different regions. Defined network zones on a regional, national or global basis can comprise multiple hardware playout devices, each manageable over a central web-based package.
Installation is usually simple and virtually maintenance free. Once the delivering device is connected to the local network, it contacts the central MOH server for the audio files and any further configuration settings. In many customer environments, this is a zero config act; however, where static IP addresses, name server entries or router configurations are needed due to IT policies, the device can be initially configured via any common browser.
The control aspect extends further than simplified delivery. The central management software alerts service providers to errors in two ways: graphically on the CMS, with information to help diagnose cause; and via e-mail alerts pointing to operational issues, detected automatically through routine communications with the device.
The entire concept delivers an automated and routine, yet reliable, solution. Thanks For Holding was the first to prove its validity, with a successful deployment for the Kendall Auto Group of Alaska. Newman is using the solution to update a mix of background music, ads and promos at three dealership locations (Fairbanks, Wasilla and Anchorage). The dealership recently migrated from an analog system to CallManager.
“The benefit for Kendall Auto Group is that we can manage and monitor their on-hold messages, with remote and automatic program changes that require no action on their end,” says Newman. “Changes to programs are made remotely and automatically, requiring no action on their end. “Customers calling in hear a mix of instrumental music and information meant to educate, entertain and ultimately inspire them to become buyers.”
There are certainly going to be challenges moving forward, especially as more companies explore cloud-based phone systems. This potentially removes the physical telephone server from the equation, moving services to a third-party central server farm that provides telephony services to many customers. This is certainly an evolution in both business terms and also in the physical architecture, though the cloud-based concept is still in its infancy.
Companies are also inquiring about live audio feed injections directly into their phone systems. This uses a similar architecture to the one explained above, though the information source more often comes from an in-house department or an external media source rather than an on-hold service provider.
Whatever the purpose, on-hold messaging is a way to inform and captivate customers while keeping them waiting. Occasionally, they hear the information they were seeking in the first place, potentially turning a call into a new sales opportunity. Statistics prove that businesses with meaningful messages retain listeners on hold for longer periods, and keep those listeners calmer and in a better frame of mind to continue the call. Simplifying the setup, installation, operation and maintenance of the on-hold messaging systems can keep your service providers and IT departments calm as well.
Johannes G. Rietschel is CEO of Barix (www.barix.com) and David Gostick is product manager at MOH Technology (www.moh-technology.com).
Edited by Brooke Neuman