Implementing a mass notification service can be a daunting task, and getting buy in from front line staff can be the trickiest piece of the puzzle!
Improving the way that you communicate with your staff isn’t just a case of finding a communications solution that gives you what you need technically. You need to be able to make it work from the ground up and get buy in from everyone involved – otherwise, no matter how good the platform is, you won’t get the results that you need. How many times have you heard comments like these, or even thought them yourself?
As a service provider, it’s very easy for us to tell you what we do and how well we do it, but as a customer, it’s not always easy to distinguish fact from fiction and salesman’s patter from genuine customer feedback. So today, we’re going to let one of our customers do the talking and tell you all about their experience of implementing Alert Cascade for the first time.
Meet Giles de Burgh, Head of Resilience for Great Western Hospital, Swindon Clinical Commissioning Group and Wiltshire Health and Care …
“We work in complex organisations in a disparate system. Communication is a big issue for us. Some of the organisations we work with work from a single site, some have over 20 sites spread over a whole county. We work with many different IT and telecommunications systems and work with a broad spectrum of staff with varied IT competencies. As Head of Resilience for multiple organisations (NHS Acute, Community and Commissioning organisations), these issues create problems with communication and co-ordination that have at times seemed insurmountable. They are always at the top of the debrief list of problems.
Initially, we were looking at Alert Cascade for a direct replacement for the radio paging system we used to alert our on call teams. What we have found is that Alert Cascade provides a service that not only replaces our old radio paging system but also surpasses it in terms of functionality, usability and accessibility in every way. We have moved quickly at looking at Alert Cascade for our on call team to rolling this out across much larger parts of the organisations.
We have been implementing Alert Cascade over the last several weeks and there is a genuine buzz developing as a result. It is so flexible in the way you can set it up by team, location, role, training that we can have bespoke but linked systems for different parts of our organisation. Want to know if staff can make it to their shift in heavy snow? Want to know if staff can get to another base to cover a shift? Want to send a message to all on call staff currently on shift to report to the Control Room or dial into a teleconference? Simply want to tell people to stop using their personal email addresses during an incident and to use the incident email address single point of contact? This can all be achieved quickly and effectively.
It is a testament to the simple layout of Alert Cascade that through the training briefings we have been running over the last several weeks that people simply get it. Our Team Leaders are genuinely excited about being able to communicate easily with their teams to fill a vacant shift rather than spend hours calling around individuals, leaving messages on answer phones and then missing the call when someone calls back because they are on the phone to another member of staff. One of our team explained this process can sometimes take hours. With Alert Cascade, they will be able to send it out to the whole team and monitor the response. This aspect alone will save our teams time and money and enable them to spend more time focusing on patient care.
On top of all this, the team at Alert Cascade are excellent. They spend time developing a relationship with you, they listen to the problems you are trying to solve and often come back with pragmatic solutions or else explain very nicely that Alert Cascade already does that.
Myself and my teams are looking forward to working with Alert Cascade over the coming years. I have no doubt that communication will not be top of the debrief report next time we have an incident.”
DESPITE THE RISE OF APP BASED MESSAGING, OLD SCHOOL SMS TEXTS STILL PROVIDE VALUABLE BENEFITS AS PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY MASS NOTIFICATION SERVICE KIT BAG.
• The number of monthly texts sent has increased by more than 7,700% over the last decade
• 4.2 billion+ people text worldwide
• Over 18.7 billion SMS texts are sent and received every day (not including app to app)
• More than 98% of text messages from brands or businesses are read
• 90% of SMS text messages are read within three minutes
• Approximately 95% of the UK adult population owns a personal mobile phone
• 99.6% of the UK has 2g coverage (sufficient to allow receipt of an SMS text message)
SO, WHY WOULDN’T YOU USE SMS TEXTS AS PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEM?
It’s a good question … and there isn’t really a good answer. Alert Cascade has worked with customers to provide emergency and business continuity communications for almost two decades; technology has continued to evolve during that time, so where it may once have been the case that SMS text messaging wasn’t resilient enough for an emergency notification system, that no longer rings true.
MYTH NUMBER 1 – SMS MESSAGES HAVE A POOR DELIVERY RATE
There’s a grain of truth in this one. But as ever, the headline doesn’t tell the full story. Delivery problems are usually the result of poor telecoms routing, not the result of sending an SMS text. Some SMS providers opt to keep their prices low by using “grey routing” – this typically means that your messages are routed via another country, in order to avoid paying a fee to one of the telephony networks involved.
It’s not uncommon for grey routed SMS traffic to be bounced through a series of countries in order to avoid detection by the network operators. For you as the end user, this results in hold ups and lost messages. Even worse, because the routing is so convoluted, delivery and read receipts become almost useless as you may them receive hours, days or weeks late … or not receive them at all. So, you may never even know if your message has been received; far from ideal if you’re using SMS as part of your emergency mass notification service.
There’s an easy fix for this though – don’t use grey routing! As an OfCom registered telecoms company, Alert Cascade guarantees to only use white (i.e. legitimate) telecoms routing. We have direct links with the major UK networks, ensuring your messages are only ever sent through reliable, tier one connections. This guarantee is what allows us to give our customers a minimum uptime of 99.999%, and is why our customers are so confident in using our resilient SMS text messaging as part of their business continuity plan.
MYTH NUMBER 2 – WHEN SMS MESSAGES AREN’T DELIVERED, IT’S TRICKY TO FIND OUT WHY
As we established with Myth number 1, the problem here really isn’t SMS related – it’s cheap routing related. If you are using grey routing, there is no guarantee that you will get any kind of receipt back from the carriers involved, and even if you do get a receipt, there’s no guarantee that you will receive it in time for it to be of any use to you. What this means in layman’s terms is that you may send your business continuity message out to 100 staff via SMS text, but if you’re using grey routing, you may never know whether the message was delivered.
Alert Cascade SMS is guaranteed to run through white routes. This means that not only are we confident in delivering your message, we’re confident in telling you exactly what happened to your message and when. Our telco status also makes us different from our competitors – it means that when we tell you a message is delivered, we know it has been delivered to the individual handset, not just that the network has accepted delivery.
Message delivery statuses are available to all customers, all of the time, via our live reports dashboard. You can quickly and easily see whether messages are delivered (to the handset), pending (accepted by the network but not yet reached the handset), invalid (the phone number provided was invalid) or expired (if you set an expiration time and your SMS hasn’t been delivered by the end of that time, the message content will expire). Occasionally, we do still see the dreaded undelivered status, where the number provided is valid, the network has accepted the message, it’s been sat at pending for 48 hours but it hasn’t reached the handset. With our 99.999% SLA, the only time this happens is if the handset has been switched off or out of signal range for the entire 48 hour period.
So, if you use white routing, your message will be delivered. And if it hasn’t been, you will know whether that’s because the number is invalid, the message content has expired or the handset has been out of range for longer than 48 hours. Either way, it’s definitely not tricky to find this information!
MYTH NUMBER 3 – SMS TEXT MESSAGES ARE TOO SHORT TO BE USEFUL
The first SMS text message was sent on 3rd December 1992 (a 22 year old test engineer send “Merry Christmas” via the Vodafone network), and yes, at that time there were character limitations. And there still are character limitations today, depending on the handset you’re contacting and the region or network you’re working in. But let’s be realistic here – during a business continuity disruption, do you really need to send a message that’s longer than 1000 characters?
Alert Cascade SMS supports both the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) and Unicode character sets; GSM was developed for use in Europe and includes the letters A to Z, numbers 0 to 9 and symbols such as @, ?, !, & etc, whereas Unicode supports more complex characters such as the Cyrillic alphabet and the Chinese, Arabic and Thai languages. In January 2017, there was even a request to add Klingon to the Unicode Registry, so whatever language you use, you can send your message by SMS.
MYTH NUMBER 4 – SMS TEXT MESSAGING CAN BE EXPENSIVE
Again, there is a grain of truth to this one, depending on your provider. If you’re being billed in arrears for your usage, you’re probably not getting the benefit of any bulk purchase discounts, whereas if you’ve pre-purchased an SMS bundle, your cost per message will be lower – a quick search of the internet will show you that if you buy a large enough bundle, you will pay around 3p per SMS text. That’s still not necessarily a comfortable position to be in though. When you’re dealing with an incident, the last thing you want to have to think about is “Do I have enough credit to send this message?”, or even worse, “What happens if I run out of credits part way through this incident?”.
Depending on the incident you’re dealing with, you may need to send one message to a select handful of people, or you may need to send numerous messages and updates to your entire staff headcount plus members of the public. From our point of view, the main point of a mass communication system is that you use it to communicate, and we don’t want to put hurdles in the way of you doing this. So, our business continuity pricing plans are all inclusive.
You pay your annual subscription fee for the platform, and the costs of your business continuity messaging are included within your subscription fee. This makes sense for you operationally as a customer (because now you’re free the use the platform whenever you need to without worrying about your budget), and it makes sense for us operationally as a provider (because now we’re free to focus our resources on support and development rather than monitoring usage and billing cycles).
MYTH NUMBER 5 – SMS TEXT MESSAGES ARE TEXT ONLY
Visual elements such as images, symbols, colours, fonts, tables etc are all great ways of conveying complex information to a diverse audience, and the phrase “SMS text” leads people to the natural conclusion that SMS messaging is all about the text content. Modern text messaging however, doesn’t have to rely just on traditional text content.
Our SMS for business continuity packages include the ability to add links to relevant documents, to create trackable web links, and to create surveys and forms to capture relevant data about the wellbeing of your contacts. Feature rich SMS enhances traditional text based content by helping you convey information in graphical format for a diverse contact list, provide additional instruction or detail via an infographic and consistently brand your messages so that contacts know it is a genuine alert.
Once you’ve got your audience’s attention by using an SMS that will be received by 95% of the population, read by 98% of the people who receive it, and opened by 90% of those people within three minutes, you can link out to somewhere more visually appealing and provide more detailed information.
So, you can benefit from the high open rates of SMS text messages and combine it with the complex visual elements usually found in emails by adding links and forms to your message … the best of both worlds.
SO I’LL ASK YOU AGAIN – WHY WOULDN’T YOU USE SMS TEXTS AS PART OF YOUR EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEM?
LATEST BUSINESS CONTINUITY INSTITUTE REPORT SHOWS “LACK OF UNDERSTANDING FROM RECIPIENTS” AS THE LEADING CAUSE OF FAILURE TO ACHIEVE RESPONSE RATE TARGETS WITH EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SERVICES
The recently published BCI Emergency Communications Report 2016 made interesting reading. Whilst it’s encouraging to see the numbers of respondents with an emergency communication plan in place rising year on year, it was surprising to read the reasons given for organisations failing to achieve their targets for getting responses to their emergency communications – especially given that 49% of the organisations surveyed had a target response rate of 80% or less.
The top cause cited was lack of understanding from recipients, with lack of accurate staff contact information coming in a close second. We’ve discussed the importance of accurate contact data before (you can read our post “Garbage in, garbage out!” here), but what can be done to help recipients a) understand the message and b) respond in the way that you need them to?
WE HAVE A FEW SUGGESTIONS …
1. RECIPIENT TRAINING
We frequently see organisations spend time training the people who will be sending the message, but it’s rare that we see them engage with the contacts who will actually be receiving the message. Bear in mind that (hopefully) you won’t be triggering your emergency notification service every day of the week, so you need to be proactive about keeping people’s knowledge fresh. We always recommend at least quarterly testing to your full headcount across all contact devices (and the cost of this is included in our annual subscription fees). This serves two purposes; firstly, you weed out any inaccurate contact data before you have an actual crisis, and secondly, you have an opportunity to help contacts better understand what is required of them when they receive a live message.
2. USE DIFFERENT MESSAGE CONTENT FOR LIVE PEOPLE AND ANSWERING SERVICES
If you’ve used two way messaging and you’re asking your recipients to press 1 to confirm they’ve received your voice call, don’t leave a message on their voicemail asking them to press 1! This causes confusion at best and panic and frustration at worst. Our Answering Machine Detection (AMD) feature allows you to leave a voicemail safe message that gives clear concise instructions rather than adding to the confusion – “You were called by the Alert Cascade service, but we weren’t able to reach you. Please check your SMS texts and emails for further instructions.” is much more effective than half a message, no message, or a message asking you to do something that you physically can’t do. You can find out more about our AMD here.
3. USE A MULTI MODAL APPROACH
Not everybody checks their work emails after 5pm and not everybody has a landline phone any more. Make sure you have a variety of contact information available for you to use, so that you have the best possible chance of reaching your people in a time of need. It’s common for staff to have concerns about allowing you access to personal mobile phone numbers and email addresses, but the reality is that in a true emergency, you need to reach them in any way possible. Alert Cascade gives you the ability to create unlimited contact and data fields, so you can store as many contact methods as you have available; that doesn’t mean you have to use them all every time you send a message, but it does mean you have them ready to use if you need them. We’re also registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office as Data Controllers, so your contacts can be sure that their data is safe with us and won’t be used for any other purpose.
4. IF YOU’RE USING VOICE CALLS, MAKE SURE THE TEXT TO SPEECH ENGINE YOU USE IS INTELLIGIBLE
It goes without saying that a monotone robot voice mispronouncing dates, phone numbers, acronyms or place names is not going to make it easy for your recipients to understand what action they need to take. Amber Alerts in the US and Canada have had some notable failures in this area, which is why we took the decision to partner with Cereproc, the only UK text to speech provider, to give our customers the highest quality voices possible. Not only can Cereproc voices read message content accurately without the need for you to spell words out phonetically, they also come with regional accents and the ability to use emotions. Nobody wants to hear a chirpy, cheerful “Have a nice day!” voice telling them about a major incident or possible bomb threat.
5. MAKE IT EASY FOR YOUR RECIPIENTS TO RESPOND AND MAKE SURE THEY KNOW THEIR RESPONSES COUNT
Keep the response options clear and consistent across the contact devices you’re using, and tailor the options to meet the situation. If you just need to know they’re safe, only give recipients a yes or no option. Our live “Group by response” filter lets you immediately see who needs help (including who hasn’t replied) and send follow up messages accordingly. If you need staff to attend site to deal with a crisis, avoid the need to send multiple messages by making the initial response options relevant to what you actually need to know – “There has been an incident at our London office and you are required on site. Please tell us your ETA. Press 1 for ETA 30 mins, 2 for ETA 1 hour or 3 to tell us you cannot attend”. Now, our live “Group by response” filter tells you who is arriving and when, and you might chose to send a stand down message to those that can’t get there for an hour. Make sure that you don’t keep contacting people who have already responded, otherwise next time round they might not bother – if you’ve received an SMS response your communications platform should automatically stop trying on the voice calls (just like Alert Cascade does!).
One of the key learning points from this report, is that an emergency communications plan needs to be inclusive and take a holistic approach; however you choose to implement your plan, it’s as important to consider ease of use for your recipients as it is to consider ease of use for the people pushing the button.
Other reasons given for failure to communicate included:
• Problems communicating internationally
• Unavailability of mobile network
• Internal IT failure
• Device failure
• Lack of technical expertise in using the process
Using the suggestions above, our customers can overcome all of these challenges. Plus, Alert Cascade’s responsive dashboard includes a 3 click invocation process accessible on any internet enabled device without the need to download a third party app – no “technical expertise” required!