Hosted telephony and business continuity – five killer questions.
They say that what goes up must come down; the questions here are how long before it is back up again, what do we do in the meantime and how can we stop it going down in the first place?
We are used to thinking about business continuity in terms of key IT services such as network and internet access, business applications and even email, however, the most common communication tool in business, the telephone, is often forgotten. In the new world of hosted telephony such complacency may be very dangerous indeed.
To be honest, some days the thought of the phone falling silent for an hour is very tempting. However, being pragmatic, an hour without telephone communications in most businesses would be a disaster. We depend on the telephone; it enables us to do things ‘now’, for the customer to place an urgent order, for us to check things with colleagues, to chase suppliers and make sure that what needs to get done, is being done. Businesses need to operate in the ‘now’ and as such they need the telephone.
For a service that is so critical to the business, it cannot be left to chance; before selecting a vendor to work with you need to sway the odds in your favour by asking the right questions, selecting the right services and having a plan in place.
Don’t worry, we think about this a lot and have noted down the questions you need to be asking.
Last year a major provider of hosted telephony in the UK went down for four days. Four days… What would be the impact on your business and reputation of such a failure?
What Is The Impact Of A Phone That Doesn’t Ring?
Question one is to ask yourself and your business – What is the impact of a telephony failure? This is not as simple as it may sound as the level of impact can change over time; it is unlikely to be linear but probably exponential. For example, if your phones are down for an hour, it is likely that a customer calling to place an order will simply phone back later. If your phone system is down for a day, there is an increased chance that the customer will go elsewhere – a very real financial impact.
You need to assess the impact of no phones across your entire business i.e. finance, sales, services, etc. You need to understand the point of impact i.e. immediately for productivity, less than an hour for customer service, after an hour for sales, and also the scale of this impact.
Regardless of how ‘hypothetical’ this analysis is, it gives you a perspective on the criticality of your phone system and the importance you need to place on business continuity. It also helps build an investment case to build a more robust infrastructure if you believe that could help avoid it.
Suppliers will talk in terms of two metrics that you need to understand so you can relate these to your business. These are Recovery Time Objective (RTO) – if something fails how long it will take to be back up and running and the second is the Recovery Point Objective (RPO) when the system is recovered what will be lost, any changes made today, this week, this month, etc.
Being able to quantify the impact lifts the internal discussion far beyond a utility and into a mission-critical capability.
Where Are The Weakest Links?
Whereas hosted telephony has inherently more fault tolerance built-in, not all hosted telephony services are equal and availability figures can be very misleading (and, as we all know, the difference between 99% and 99.9% uptime is over 3 days)
By understanding what the points of failure are, you can then ask your supplier the killer questions regarding how they address weak links or single points of failure.
At the highest level, any hosted telephony service is comprised of four elements:
(i) connectivity to the public network (PSTN)
(ii) the telephony server
(iii) the link between this server and your office(s)
(iv) the way you deliver telephony to your end users
The reality is that each one of these components need to be functioning for your managing director to be able to talk to your most important customer, or for any other telephone conversation to happen. So when your vendor quotes 99.99% availability, are they referring to the telephony server or the end to end service as it is the latter that really matters. And if it’s just a small component of the four-part supply chain then you need to ensure you have constructed your own robust back-to-back SLA model
Hosted telephony is a four-part supply chain. Each component must be tested for robustness and protections built in. Only one part needs to fail for you to fail too.
Are You Confident The Weak Links Are Covered?
Any reputable vendor will be used to answering business continuity questions and comfortable outlining resilience and contingency architected into the service they offer – so don’t hold back. Be like the child repeatedly asking ‘Why?’; this will give you the depth of confidence you need and test the vendor’s own resilience.
In terms of connectivity – do they have multiple connections to the PSTN? Are these connections to multiple exchanges or points of presence? What happens if one connection fails; are calls automatically routed over another circuit? What happens to calls currently in progress?
In terms of telephony platform – is this virtualised across multiple physical servers? Are these servers in different locations? What happens if a server fails; does the service continue on other servers/virtual machines – is there any degradation in performance?
In terms of connectivity to your offices – is telephony delivered over a single circuit and if so the inevitable will happen if that fails. What are the options to balance over multiple circuits either simultaneously or as a back-up? What is the cut-over delay? What is the impact of calls in progress? Would this have an impact on quality of service?
In terms of voice delivery to your end-users – is this dependent on a dedicated router? If so what happens if this fails? What dependency is there on your network? What dependency on power?
All of these are valid and necessary questions; you are unlikely to be unique and a good vendor will most definitely have options to address each of these areas.
Gaining peace of mind is important; don’t be afraid to ask questions until you are completely satisfied.
How Would Your Vendor Respond To Your Disaster?
It is not just a failure in the world of your telephony vendor that you need to consider, but also potential disasters in your world that you may need their help in responding to.
If an issue stopped you from entering your office or one of your offices, what happens? Can calls be automatically routed to another office or can your users access phone services from home, a temporary office or from their mobile? It is important that you have a Plan B for such an event and you also need to know who is in control and can execute on the Plan B.
If calls are to be rerouted, is this something your telephony provider needs to do and how long does this take – minutes, hours or days? If it is you, how can this be done and how quickly?
We also need to take into consideration mistakes. Yes, they do happen. The administrator who gets distracted when removing a user who has left the business and accidently removes a whole department, or that tiny change to a routing rule that accidently sends all inbound calls to a voice mailbox. We can either hope that nothing like this ever happens or have the reassurance that you are able to roll-back any mistakes quickly and easily, preferably without having to place a support ticket.
What Comes As Standard, And What Costs The Earth?
You would not be the first person that was told the solution does something, only to find out later that it does, but not for the price plan you selected. This final point is where the rubber hits the road. If you have followed our killer questions, you know the impact of a failure on the business, you know what the points of failure are in your telephony service and you know what options your vendor provides to mitigate or recover from such failures.
What you now need to do is understand the cost premium of business continuity and assess this against the potential risk to the business.
As mentioned in section 2, hosted telephony inherently provides greater resilience. This is because you are sharing an infrastructure with many other businesses, albeit segmented and isolated for each particular user. This economy of scale enables service providers to remove single points of failure and have redundancy built into their architecture.
We have a simple way of looking at this. If you are asking for something that is normal i.e. not unique to your organisation, then this should be a standard part of the service being offered. If you are asking for something that is unique, then you should expect to pay a premium.
Why Do We Know The Right Questions To Ask?
Because we have been delivering hosted telephony to our customers for over fifteen years now. We know what is important and how to deliver the service that businesses want, expect and need.
We are proud of the fact that we deliver the best possible solutions for our customers and we are equally proud that we deliver telephony that is available when our customers need it and does not let them down.
What we think makes us and our hosted telephony different:
1. We value reliability of our service and have ensured we have only selected partners who have architected resilience into our hosted telephony platform.
2. We recognise that each of our customers are different; their business needs vary and so too does the criticality of service delivery – we take the time to understand these differences and deliver what is important to each customer.
3. Finally what is built into our DNA is to always be there for the customer. Things will happen and when they do, businesses need a partner that is responsive and competent.
If you want to quiz us on telephony business continuity or anything to do with our solutions or services, then we would love to hear from you. You can contact the IP Solutions team on 0800 988 2020.