by Georgina Swan

South East Water taps into unified communications

Jun 10, 2010

As one of Melbourne’s three state-owned water retailers, South East Water provides water, sewerage services and recycled water services to about 1.4 million customers in the Melbourne’s South Bank through to the Mornington Peninsula and Gippsland. The company has about $2 billion of assets in the ground and about 800 information workers.

Given the distributed nature of the organisation, it’s not surprising that having flexible, robust communication systems is vital. Add its busy, industry-recognised contact centres into the mix and it quickly became clear to CIO, Marcus Darbyshire, that the company required an innovative approach to its communications technology that would provide a platform for the future.

The organisation was running a Telstra CustomNet Spectrum telephone system, a hosted solution provided by Telstra. Everything was served from the exchange and, while the system had served South East Water’s needs well, there were some risks associated with staying with the solution.

“It was an ageing product and we were getting the sense that, really, Telstra were looking to migrate people away from that platform,” Darbyshire said. “When we did the financial analysis and tested the market, we saw that we could do it in-house for less. That’s when we decided to go to the market proper and look for a combined IP telephony and unified communications solution.”

South East Water had dabbled with IP telephony trials before, albeit without a great deal of success. Those who have already gone down the unified communications path are well aware it requires a significant change management. But the company had been gradually moving towards a unified communication approach; it was already using Microsoft’s Office Communicator 2007 as well as instant messaging technologies and presence.

“We had been preparing for it in a way,” Darbyshire said. “In terms of the network architecture, we had good quality, recent model Cisco switches that provided the bandwidth and capabilities to do the quality of service around voice. So we didn’t need to invest in major new infrastructure. It was really a matter of bolting in a modern, IP telephony solution.”

South East Water wanted a system that would meet the needs of its business for the next 10 years and see it through its current phase of growth. The team shortlisted three vendors, choosing Avaya and its integration partner, NSC, on the back of the vendor’s fit with the Microsoft UC platform.

“They had the most competitive proposal from a price perspective and great reference sites with NSC. It turned out to be a really good selection in retrospect because they delivered a terrific project over the next four months.”

The system covers three offices: The corporate headquarters and main contact centre in Heatherton, an operations and emergency contact centre in Lynbrook and its design and construction office in Dandenong South. Combining desk phones with faxes and modems, South East Water is using about 950 telephony devices.

Not bad for a system that is budgeted to save $200,000 per year in direct costs, productivity benefits notwithstanding.

A key objective for the project was to update the technology that drives South East Water’s emergency contact centre and customer accounts contact centre, which receive about 3000 calls each day. The centres are already highly regarded within the industry — a situation Darbyshire puts down to a great training program and employees who work hard to gain customer trust; nearly 93 per cent of calls are responded to within 30 seconds.

“We really needed to provide an already high performing call centre with more modern call centre technology and continue to improve that service,” he said. “Now they can use unified comms features such as click to call, pop-ups ‘toasts’ when new customers are calling in and voicemail sent from colleagues through the email system. The real-time call centre reporting allows the call centre managers to get more agents on the phone very quickly when there are peaks and the skills-based routing lets the calls be routed to the experts the first time rather than having to be transferred. It has increased our customer service significantly and the call centre management team are really pleased with that.”

The project also delivered another useful outcome: Consolidating about 12 different types of handsets to three. Over the previous decade, various evolutions of analogue handsets had crept into the business, making it difficult when staff had to move desks or work at another office. The UC platform means about 90 per cent of staff are using the same model handset. It has simplified training requirements and means the organisation can use hotdesks without worrying about productivity; once a person logs into his or her phone, contacts and quick-dial numbers follow.

The system also includes disaster recovery in the event of a major network outage; should communications at one office fail, the PBX can be switched to route the remaining traffic through to the other offices.

Not bad for a system that is budgeted to save $200,000 per year in direct costs, productivity benefits notwithstanding.

“Many IT projects struggle to find a good return on investment and this was one where we could easily demonstrate the significant savings,” Darbyshire said.

He was also “pleasantly surprised” with the timeframe for the project.

“I thought it probably ambitious when NSC first started but they delivered on their promises,” he said. “And they were really flexible.

“After we signed the contract, we opened a new office in Dandenong South. It was a major change; we needed another 75 handsets on desks at that point and NSC delivered a solution really quickly and were really flexible in their approach.”