Phone Services: Going Beyond the Phone Tree

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Back in the old days, everyone got a phone list, and a shortlist of people they were assigned to. When the big news came in, one person received it and called three people—or five or 10—and they called three people, and so on. On the Internet, it's called viral marketing, but in the earlier world of grassroots self-help and activist groups, it was called the phone tree.

Then the Internet happened, but don't dismiss telephones and answering machines yet. You may still want to form a phone tree, at least on a limited basis, for emergencies, and large organizations will need to build phone services back into their organization, too, as they are able to staff them.

Message systems can use voicemail or physical answering machines. Voicemail has many advantages, but answering machines that can be accessed remotely might well be easily obtained cheaply or for free, as can phone lines without voicemail activated. As a simple way to disseminate information to people who have spotty Internet access, they are still eminently useful. Even people with broadband connections at home might need to be in contact with your organization while traveling or at a hospital.

People-Intensive Ways to Use the Phone

Talking on the phone requires a live person on each end of the line. Although a fast method of communication, it must happen in real time, and this can be complicated by distance. It may involve charges. And there is only so much information that most people want to give or receive in a phone call.

Live phone services are an excellent choice for quick, simple messages. These following uses are organized in order of urgency.

The classic phone tree: The classic phone tree is activated by a short, easy-to-share piece of news. A piece of legislation has been passed. A school is being closed. An emergency has happened. A phone tree sends information out from a central location to a widening fan of recipients.

When people have to know now, even organizations with solid email contact with members may still want to mobilize a phone tree. A use similar to the phone tree is a simple automated phone system, such as a phone machine that plays an outgoing message which is changed as circumstances demand.

The hot line: A hot line is a staffed phone line that can give information immediately, usually about urgent information. The classic hot line model is the crisis clinic. This is a highly labor-intensive method for giving information and is likely too expensive for any but large organizations to offer reliably. A hot line may be staffed by a combination of live responders and people who are paged by a phone answering service during low-volume calling hours.

The "warm" line: The "warm" line is similar to a hot line but deals in information of lower urgency. A warm line is often staffed, and designated as a place for real-time help for minor issues, such as technical support in a business or a general nursing line at a hospital. Calls may never receive a live answer but simply operate using an answering machine in combination with regular pickups and responses to messages left by callers.

Automated Phone-Related Services

Audio-response systems: The answering machine that plays an announcement and takes messages is a simple audio-response system, but even small organizations may benefit from more automation.

Automated directing of calls: Marketed to roommates, your local phone service can often increase the value of a single phone line by allowing you to specify voice mailboxes. Your callers are greeted by a message inviting them to select a mailbox, allowing your single phone line to serve as a voicemail service for multiple people in an organization. Best of all, your callers only have to know one number.

Automated responses to requests: Beyond the multiple mailboxes, automated phone systems can offer brief menus of information. For example, these menus might direct callers to "press 1 for directions," "press 2 for mailing address," and so on. These systems can also take messages in specific areas, for example, inviting callers to leave an address to receive an information packet.

Fax-back services: Another output that automated systems can have is to offer a menu for types of information and invite callers to enter a fax number. A moderate-length document is then faxed to the user. This is a good way to offer broad access to educational information (such as checklists or orientation pieces) that most people would wish to review more than once, and that are too detailed to be communicated effectively to a phone caller taking notes.

Large automated-response systems: Large organizations may look into multilevel audio response systems with large menus of disparate information. These systems are expensive and require extensive customization.

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