The increasing effect of digital convergence and the undoubted cost and other benefits of VoIP networks has led to their widespread adoption in all sizes and types of business. However, as with all things, there are two sides to the coin, and maintenance of an acceptable level of service for your VoIP system is of paramount importance.
Before looking at monitoring techniques it is important to see what we are looking for.
Typical complaints and their cause include:
This is the common experience of a call abruptly terminating with no apparent reason. The reason is often insufficient bandwidth, incorrectly configured Quality of Service parameters, or something as simple as a defective handset.
This is one of the most common VoIP issues. The usual symptom is callers hearing their words repeated, often with a slight delay. The reason is usually that the handset volume is set too high, the microphone hears the incoming call from the earpiece and rebroadcasts it.
The obvious cure is to turn down the handset volume at one or both ends. Another resolution is to use a headset.
This often described as “breaking up”. Each caller loses whole or parts of words or sentences, often making a conversation impossible. This is caused by the network losing voice information. Voice conversations are carried in data packets, and if the connection is unstable and packets arrive in the wrong order, (“jitter”) the conversation becomes scrambled with missing information.
A common cause on office networks is insufficient bandwidth, either inherent or following use of video-conferencing or streaming video.
Delays are basically lagging in the voice information There is an excessive gap between the caller speaking and the words being heard. This can result in callers speaking over each other or interrupting each other.
Delays usually result from high latency, causing packets to take too long to reach their destination.
The key to a successful VoIP implementation is to monitor call quality to ensure an acceptable level of service to users of the VoIP system.
Here are five suggestions on how to monitor a VoIP implementation to address the issues outlined above.
Good Monitoring Software
The key phrase is “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. Addressing hearsay complaints about call quality is made much easier by using network monitoring software. There are several software applications available that run either in-house or in the cloud that can monitor the immense amount of data generated by VoIP activity in real-time and produce meaningful information about calls.
Key metrics include latency, jitter, and packet loss.
- Latency should be less than 150 milliseconds.
- Jitter is the latency of arriving packets. This must be minimised to ensure that packets arrive in the correct order.
- Packet loss. Packet loss is a specialised form of jitter, in that there must be a minimum of lost packets. If a packet is lost, the audio is recreated without the missing packets, thereby creating choppiness.
When calls are transmitted, they are compressed, digitised and made into packets. The formula used to do this is called a Codec. The wrong Codec can degrade call quality, particularly if the organisation is reaching its bandwidth limit.
If call quality is degrading, checking the Codec and if necessary choosing a more bandwidth-efficient codec can alleviate and possibly remove call quality issues.
The prudent operator will check their Internet connection equipment configuration router to ensure that VoIP traffic has priority.
Network Equipment Configuration
Networks are not static. They require monitoring and from time to time to be reconfigured particularly after equipment or software upgrades.
This consideration also applies to the overall configuration of the corporate network. It is essential to ensure that Quality of Service has been configured to prioritise VoIP, and regular monitoring of equipment upgrades and replacement to ensure that this situation is maintained is essential. Increases in complaints in a particular network segment is an indicator of misconfigured equipment.
Your Service Provider
Not all VoIP problems are internal. It is essential to monitor the performance of external service providers such as your Internet Connection provider. Once voice traffic leaves your network, you have no control over its route or if their configuration prioritises voice traffic.
You need to agree and check regularly with your service provider that VoIP traffic has priority over data traffic. This is one of the more difficult problems to resolve.
The universal adoption of the Internet has led to the use of digital communications as a standard part of the business environment. Most companies are creating and implementing digitally based unified communications strategies incorporating VoIP communications built around VoIP phones, video conferencing and perhaps CCTV as integral parts.
They are doing this to take advantage of the business benefits to be gained from moving from the unlinked analogue systems to an integrated digital platform. The simplest example is the use of VoIP phones to transfer from tolled calls over the PSTN to essentially free voice communications over the Internet.
There are many other reasons to make the switch from a legacy analogue phone system to a digital VoIP system, both financial and operational.
The first and most compelling reason for making the switch is large cost savings, especially for organisations that make long-distance, national and international, calls.
In legacy systems, communications are carried by the local PSTN service provider and are tolled calls. The costs can be very high, particularly for long-distance and international calls. They are often caps on the amount of data that can be used, and the communications speed offered by the service supplier.
In contrast, once the initial and recurrent costs of operating an internet connection have been made, usage is essentially free. There are now many software and hardware offerings that support the creation of a unified communications platform operating over a digital connection. Many organisations have created a web presence to support marketing and customer communications, so it is probable that the connection already exists. The move to cloud-based platforms has accelerated this process.
Bear in mind though that not all equipment can move to digital. Some modems, fax machines and alarm systems, usually older ones, do not have digital interfaces and must operate over a legacy analogue platform. Most VoIP systems cater for this and will automatically switch inward and outward calls between the digital and analogue modes. Obviously, a small analogue frame linking the PSTN and VoIP systems is needed for support.
So, moving to VoIP and making calls over the internet can result in complete or nearly complete removal of PSTN toll charges. These savings can be substantial for large organisations.
The additional range of options provided by a VoIP system can bring operational advantages to an organisation.
Hunting, Call Forwarding and Call Pick-up Groups
In a VoIP environment, extensions can be grouped together. Hunting allows calls to be automatically forwarded to another extension in the group if they are not answered or the requested extension is busy, forwarding allows a user to programme the extension to automatically forward incoming calls to another extension and a pick-up group allows calls to be picked up by other extensions in the same group.
Increasingly, VoIP systems support human operators being replaced by text or voice-based chatbots who take care of common and simple customer support requests. More complex enquiries are transferred, automatically or on request to a human operator. This reduces the number of support personnel needed and the time a customer must wait for support.
A significant difference between analogue and VoIP systems is that users are no longer tied to a physical instrument. Users are recognised in the VoIP system with a profile, including a password.
Entering the password on any VoIP phone allows them to make and receive calls. This means that they can make and receive calls anywhere there is a VoIP phone, sometimes even on a different site using the same VoIP system.
Further, users can be restricted in the types of calls they can make. The restrictions are usually based around local, national and international calls. Because the restrictions are based on the user, not a physical instrument, this means the old practice of using the manager’s phone to make a prohibited call no longer works.
The use of SIP software on a smart device means that people can carry their extension around with them. They can make and receive calls whenever they are connected to the corporate WiFi network. No more hiding.
Nowadays potential and existing customers use search engines to find suppliers and expect to communicate with them using instant messaging and email. They expect to make their purchases online.
They are likely to avoid companies that do not have an internet presence. A similar reluctance also comes about with companies that do not use VoIP as part of their communications strategy.
VoIP enhances company reputation.
If your company does not currently have a VoIP system, then you must give serious consideration to making the switch. Hardware and software solutions are available for all sizes and styles of business. Some businesses should also consider the suitability of an outsourced or hosted VoIP solution.
One of the more significant developments in computing in recent years has been the wholesale adoption of VoIP systems by businesses and increasingly by home and mobile users. Simply put, VoIP systems remove the costs and restrictions imposed by the traditional PSTN service providers.
Because of digital convergence among other things, the initial objective, to replace PSTN connections with digital connections has grown by leaps and bounds into fully-fledged integrated communications environments supporting media connections, not just voice.
Businesses are now presented with options among others to improve their presence and reduce their costs. Here are five such.
Cost reductions through Call Security
In the past, PBX systems were location based. Extension numbers were tied to a physical location such as a desktop. The ability to restrict calls was linked to the physical device. Anyone using the handset could only make the calls that were allowed for that extension number, for example, local calls only, no national or international calls.
VoIP systems are by contrast person based in that an individual uses a PIN number to log-on to the VoIP system wherever they might be. They can log-on from the traditional desktop handset or by using SIP technologies from a smart device. Call security, therefore, becomes person based rather than location based. The ability to make calls resides in the individual profile. Applying call security according to individual needs becomes that much easier.
Using VoIP can make a business seem much larger than it actually is. Two examples are automated call forwarding and departmental assignment.
With automated call forwarding, calls made to a local number are automatically forwarded to a central number. In this way, a company can seem to have a local presence, but in actuality operate a central support organisation. Many companies have done this with their call-centre operation. For example, British Airways operated a centralised call centre in India. All calls to a local or national call centre were automatically forwarded there.
With a departmental assignment, different extension numbers can be published for sales, finance, procurement, and so-on. However, they can be automatically forwarded to a single extension number. The company looks like it has different operational departments when in reality it does not.
Customer Relationship Management (“CRM”)
An organisation that operates a call-centre to provide customer support can tailor its VoIP system to support a CRM environment. The VoIP system can be linked to a database application. In this environment, the call-centre operative will have customer information displayed on a local computer screen when that customer calls in. The data is retrieved using the incoming telephone number. The operator can then answer the call with “Good day <customer name> “ giving a much more personal and warm aspect to the interaction.
Often details of previous and current interactions with that customer are shown giving the ability to deal more effectively with the customer. VoIP provides that capability.
Automated Documentation Support
A large part of customer support is providing documentation, usually product related. This obviously can be accomplished via a website application, but most VoIP systems can also provide this facility.
The requestor dials a number, taken for example from a media advertisement and is presented with the option to email a document to a specified address. In this way, the requestor receives the information they want, and the company has an email address for future marketing activity. All without any manual intervention thanks to VoIP.
Automated Call Handling
There is nothing more frustrating than calling an organisation and being forwarded from extension to extension as your call is not answered. The use of calling, hunting and auto-forwarding groups maintained by the VoIP system can significantly ease that pain.
While they are similar there are differences between calling and hunting groups. Calling groups allow anyone in that group to pick up a call for anyone else in the group. For example, a call to an extension where the normal answerer is unavailable can be picked up by someone else nearby. This is especially useful after hours where desks are unattended.
Hunting groups automate this process. If a call is not answered after a certain time interval it is automatically forwarded to another extension number. Calling and Hunting groups often work together to improve customer service.
Auto-forwarding is particularly useful for support and alarm calls. The VoIP system can be programmed to auto-forward calls to a particular number to another number, for example, the duty engineer. The forwarding can be done manually by manually programming the number into the extension profile itself, or in some cases can be accomplished via a calendar. In this way, incoming calls should be answered, not just ring out.
The increasing sophistication of VoIP systems now enables small businesses to punch above their weight and bring improved customer service levels at little or no cost.
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