Hamilton sees VoIP as means to call centre improvement

The City of Hamilton is saving $1.5 million a year with its voice over IP implementation, according to its director of IT services.

“The more we looked at IP telephony we realized we had an opportunity to save money, so we investigated it further,” said Christine Swenor. 

Hamilton, which has had the system in place for a year now, expects to see a return on its $6.8 million investment within four years, said Swenor.

“We were running two systems,” she said. “We have an infrastructure we put in place that we used to send any data from any of applications in network, such as e-mail and running applications from servers. We had a separate network for our phone system so we were paying for two different systems.” 

Now the city runs both voice and data over a single network.

Swenor said the city first started looking at VoIP in 2002 as a way to reduce both costs and the complexity of its existing systems. Hamilton went through an amalgamation of six area municipalities, each of which had its own phone system with different features and functionalities.

“For example, some users had to dial a 10-digit number to get a colleague at another location, some had to dial a four-digit extension and others a three-digit extension, and it was very confusing,” she explained. “Also, not everyone had voice mail, and it was very costly to add that function to the systems.”

Hamilton chose Bell Canada as the provider in January 2003, and Cisco as the hardware vendor, and started with small pilots. By the end of last year, it had rolled the phones out to 3,500 users in more than 150 locations.

Mohammed Nakhooda, associate director of media relations for Bell Canada, said Bell’s strategy is to work with customers over a period of time to move them to an IP infrastructure and layer on applications such as voice as the organization is ready.

Public sector is a large market for Bell’s IP offerings due to the nature of its structure – it tends to have many offices spread out across the country.

There were only minor glitches with small numbers of users, all of which were quickly resolved, Swenor said. 

Swenor advised other municipalities that are looking at IP to make sure users are properly trained on the IP. Otherwise, IT will be overwhelmed with support calls, she said. As well, organizations have to ensure they have the expertise on-site to configure the network properly.

“That is crucial, particularly where you have a large network that is complex to start with, you need to ensure you have the technical expertise to design it right,” she said. 

In addition to providing city employees with more consistent functionality, however, implementing voice over IP also positions Hamilton for future transformations, Swenor said.

“It’s almost like a territory unexplored in a way,” she said. “There are a lot of things out there I know are going to be of benefit to the city that we haven’t even found or defined yet.”

The obvious one is that IP allows municipalities to set up virtual contact centres, so calls can be easily redirected to another area in the organization. “So you have a lot of flexibility and you can automatically route calls based on specialized expertise,” she said.

Residents can also get automated information that can be designed so menus are consistent across different departments, she added.

“It creates a level of convenience for the resident; they know they’re phoning the same organization,” she said. 

Hamilton is also looking at implementing unified messaging, which would eliminate the need for phones on a desktop entirely.

“I’m not sure if that’s where we’re going to go but that’s an option,” said Swenor. “We have a screen on all our phones and we can connect them to the Internet. We can also transmit messages from our internal intranet site and communicate messages directly to the phone. 

“Those are small things that can be of great benefit and convenience to our staff.”

The city has also set up a wireless network and has provided mobile city employees with wireless IP phones to overcome the unreliability of wireless across cellular networks, she said. As well, Hamilton is looking at using its IP network for mobile vehicle location and tracking. 

But its first priority is to focus on its contact centre to provide more effective, efficient services, Swenor said. “Then after that we’re going to have to do a strategic planning exercise across the organization to find out what their needs are and how the phone system can help them. There are so many opportunities out there. We want to approach it strategically and say, what are our priorities? We know we saved money already but how can we further our investment?”

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