Outsourcing Keeps Washington 211’s Far-Flung Network in Contact With Its Citizens | Article

phoneVirtually every state in the US offers a “211” telephone information portal to its citizens. The three-digit number is assigned by the Federal Communications Commission to all states to provide quick, easy access to timely information about health and human services and other useful public programs.

In the state of Washington, it’s the Washington Information Network 211 (WIN211). The group is cobbled from more than 30 organizations, including The United Way, several state agencies, local community-action programs, and committed private individuals. Through a communication network managed for the state by the 501(c)3 not-for-profit WIN211 Corporation, each independently operated organization maintains a call center ranging from a few people to larger cadres, which assist the state’s residents.

“The advantage of such a portal is the wealth of different information that’s available to citizens,” according to Yankee Group Analyst Ken Landoline, “from charitable assistance and learning how to qualify, or filling out forms, or providing news and coordinating service assistance during a disaster.”

Each of these operations has a telephone system that supports its call center. Win211’s mission is to supply the network over which these organizations interoperate; these groups that have many different types of phone equipment, little of it new.

When it was time to build this network in 2004, WIN211 needed a flexible, distributed contact system to handle these eight geographically-dispersed offices and at-home workers. WIN211 began to realize why going with a hosted solution that kept the IP technology in the network, rather than on its site, was not only the right technology solution, but in the end, most affordable. The perfect formula for success emerged: outsourcing.

“Forcing each participating local contact center to purchase new equipment compatible with our statewide operation was a major obstacle for our smaller partners,” says David Lantis, WIN211 Communications Coordinator. He says purchasing a comparable on-site universal PBX routing system started at over a half-million dollars up front, plus monthly service fees of about $20,000.

Lantis says WIN211 was tepidly willing to pay the big bucks if necessary for its own PBX functionality. But as the executives investigated both PBX and outsourced hosted solutions, they realized the network quality of one outsourcer, UCN’s hosted “inContact” call management suite, coupled with voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony, outperformed the cash-intensive PBX.

Today the entire network is up and running for a bit less than the PBX’s $20,000 monthly maintenance fee and no half million-plus up-front expenditure. Lantis sees nothing but money saved and a superior voice network that WIN211 operators can access to assist citizens throughout the state.

A Quick, Stable Outsourced Network = Responsive, Distributed Workforce

The WIN211 system also had to be flexible enough to rapidly scale up in the event of a disaster, then back, during normal times. It also needed to route calls to any representative working from either a call center or from home since the information database on all programs is universal, thereby making any 211 “voice” a resource for the entire program to any caller.

If one center is down due to an emergency situation or all reps are busy, the system automatically routes the caller to the next available person, even if at a different regional center or home. All in the network can back up all others.

“Speed to implementation and de-implementation is key,” says Jan Johnson, Vice President, Director of Marketing for UCN. “Quickly adding communication portals when necessary, regardless of location, gives WIN 211’s contact personnel tremendous flexibility to be wherever and whenever they are needed.”

The benefits of inContact’s call center software management tool means all WIN211’s contact reps need are a dedicated phone line and a data connection to be in business Johnson notes. Plus, they ramp up or down within UCN’s data center, relieving WIN211 of the task. “All we have to do is let them know how and how much we need, and within a matter of minutes we’ve got it,” notes Lantis.

In terms of usability and reduced training, WIN 211’s workers say inContact was “easy to learn with little need for extensive training.” Other aspects of the tool have strong appeal among supervisors. “I monitor the entire state operation from my desk,” says Lantis. “Supervisors and reps can be anywhere–at the pool, at the shore–and still access the network or monitor their teams and help our citizens.”

In its first full year of operation, Lantis says the system received nearly 230,000 calls by the 75-seat, widely-dispersed WIN211 response team. He adds that it wouldn’t surprise him to see that number triple by the time the third year of the network has passed.

“WIN 211 is a good example of a technology implementation that enhances the effectiveness and overall productivity of the distributed workforce from both a human resource and network perspective.” says Yankee Group’s Landoline. “Furthermore,” he adds, “distributed workforces and outsourcing environments tend to have a mutually advantageous and complementary relationship that results in each benefiting and fueling the demand for the other.”

Shared Leap of Faith Produces Solid Partnership

Lantis and Johnson agree the selection process was unusual, protracted, and intensive. It involved multiple teams of specialists, each team working independently and ranking each solution.

At the end of the process they considered pricing. Only then did teams compare their rankings of the five firms that responded to the WIN 211 request for proposal (RFP).

“InContact ranked first overall at each operational step,” says Lantis. After reviewing all the financials, UCN’s solution was by far more cost effective than any PBX; the PBX leader required over $600,000 up front. UCN’s inContact setup costs were $10,000. Monthly fees were basically the same as PBX’s $20,000.

The WIN 211 team took some chances by selecting non-traditional (at the time) technology, says Lantis. “We were the first to go with a hosted solution for our call-handling platform. However, we are also the first state to deliver–in record time–a comprehensive, statewide, very affordable 211 system with multiple call centers connected by a common statewide call management system and a common database platform.

It also called for a corresponding leap of faith by the provider. “When UCN knew we wanted this, but before executing a formal contract, they moved ahead and set it up because we were on a very tight deadline,” says Lantis. The date of the contract execution and full implementation were almost simultaneous.

“We did that based on faith in WIN211,” says Johnson. “But we also did it because we can,” she adds, noting that UCN’s inContact is used by Toys for Tots and other major events that have “up today, down tomorrow” communications.

Next up for Lantis and WIN211 is to operate 24/7 throughout the state rather than just King County and the surrounding area. “Hopefully with the money we’ve saved, the legislature and our partner organizations will want that too,” he says.

“Our people and UCN’s network make a great team,” Lantis adds. “And when other state 211 managers and I visit, they learn very quickly why I’m a big fan of this partnership. Several of them have contacted our provider to learn more.”

Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:

  • Remotely hosted VoIP outsourcing contact providers offer a minimum savings of six figures over the purchase of enterprise-class PBX systems during the life of the engagement.
  • By outsourcing contact center management and hosting, buyers avoid ownership hassles represented by more traditional PBX systems, which quickly become a rapidly depreciating asset.
  • Outsourced VOIP contact providers empower distributed, portable workforces that can expand and contract within minutes and are more responsive to specific communication needs at specific times.

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