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3/21/2006
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Keeping the Phones Ringing

Keeping the lines of communication open allows knowledge workers to continue to collaborate even under adverse circumstances.  This week we look at how one company keeps the phones ringing.

Centract Residential Property Services, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, is a single source for all property-related services, including relocation, technology, legal, appraisals, recovery, and real estate.  Related companies include Centract Settlement Services, providing appraisal, legal, asset recovery, and commission financing, Centract Franchise Services, manager of the Royal LePage Franchise Services Fund that owns Royal LePage and other real estate brands in Canada, Centract Move Services, owner of Royal LePage Relocation Services, and Centract Marketing Technology Solutions.

The company has three call centers housed in one building, each with ca. 50 agents; the building also houses the company’s management and administrative personnel.  The call centers service all of the above business units.

In January 2004, the company’s Nortel PBX suffered a software crash, and all phone traffic came to a sudden and unexpected halt.  As a result, corporate management decided to maintain near 100% uptime for the call centers and key personnel – about 300 users in all.

Anne Taylor is the manager at Brascan, which owns Centract, who was tasked with the job of finding and deploying a disaster recovery and business continuity solution that would allow Centract to meet the 100% uptime mandate.  The goal was to find a system that would allow calls to continue to flow in the event of a PBX failure or telephone company outage, or if employees were unable to enter the building, due to any number of events including natural disasters or SARS.  Taylor immediately noticed that there were a limited number of solutions available and, after considering one from a Toronto-based company that she termed “expensive,” selected the PBX Parachute offering from Virtual PBX, which also met the company’s requirement that the disaster recovery plan be deployed quickly.  

With the PBX Parachute, Centract was able to create a mirror image of key aspects of its hardware-based communications system, including custom ACD menus.  Centract purchased 50 mobile phones, which are kept charged, in standby mode.  In the event of an outage, inbound call traffic would be rerouted to the Virtual PBX switch which then uses the public switched telephony network (PSTN) to route calls to the mobile phones, which function as wireless extensions.  In most cases, employees and agents accept calls on these mobile phones, and call the caller back from mobile phones which are not linked to the PBX Parachute.

Although Centract hasn’t had to use the PBX Parachute in a real outage, the company tests the system regularly.  From start to finish, it takes 30 minutes to get the PBX Parachute functional, including the assessment of the situation, rerouting telephone lines, and physically handing out of mobile phones.

The company is very pleased, especially about the cost of their business continuity solution.  Even including the monthly cost for the mobile phone service, Centract estimates that the service costs the company ca. $18,000 p.a.

Taylor has advice for managers who are selecting their own disaster recovery and business continuity systems for voice communication:

1) Consider ease of setup and maintenance.  The greatest challenge we faced was integrating tools and services from different suppliers (e.g. voice, fax, telco, PBX management, in-house technical support).  

2) Obtain senior management sponsorship of your plans from the start (people will need to be persuaded that an outage is possible) – or middle management will balk at costs and management overhead

3) Document, document, document, and document.  Then test, test, test, test – and test (both procedures and the technology itself).  Perform the ultimate test: interrupt your service with no advance warning and see what happens.

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