At PowerHRG, appointments initially made with a live person. This could be at an event, some retailer where we have an area set up, or an employee who knocks on doors.
An appointment will get scheduled for a remodeling consultant to visit the homeowner. At the same time, we’ll also get any written permission we need in order to contact the homeowner. A confirmation email is sent as an appointment reminder.
Remember, it’s not legal to call a cell phone without prior written consent. Since many people only have cell phones, we wouldn’t be able to call them otherwise.
Life happens. We prefer to find out if the homeowner can’t make the appointment before we send somone out to see them.
In our experience, calling to confirm as close to the appointment time as we can is the most accurate way to ensure the appointment can be met.
Automating the call
Talkbox, our Adhearsion server, is constantly looking for upcoming appointments during business hours.
When it detects any unconfirmed appointments coming up within the next few hours, it will make sure we have agents signed in to take calls and then initiate calls to those homeowners.
Confirmation agents are signed in and waiting in a their own private audio conference room setup by Talkbox. This way the agent is instantly ready to talk. Otherwise, we waste time with Talkbox attempting to negotiate the call.
When the homeowner answers the phone, Talkbox bridges the call with an available agent’s conference room. The homeowner’s name and number appears on the agent’s desk phone. The agent can see instantly who they are talking with.
At the same time as the call is connected, Talkbox sends a message to Nitro to refresh the agent’s application window with the homeowner’s appointment info. This could take a few seconds so the desk phone display is useful because it’s quicker and offers confirmation that the information on the screen is the for the correct homeowner.
What happens when we can’t reach the homeowner
We obviously can’t reach the homeowner directly one hundred percent of the time.
No answer: If the call isn’t answered at all, Talkbox will re-queue the appointment to call back in another twenty minutes before calling them back. We do this until about thirty minutes past the originally scheduled appointment time.
Voicemail: Talkbox will leave an automated message asking the homeowner to call someone back to confirm their appointment. Alternate numbers will be called as with a no answer.
If we simply can’t reach the homeowner at all to confirm the appointment, we schedule a call for the next day to reschedule for another time.
How does Talkbox know it reached a person or a machine?
There are a few behaviors that can be key in an application detecting whether a live person or an answering machine is answering a call. Nothing is one hundred percent accurate.
People typically answer the phone by saying something right away. So if there’s a delay in hearing any audio at all there’s a good chance it’s an answering machine.
Most people answer the phone by saying “Hello”. Answering machines tend to respond with a sentence or two at least. So the length of the initial greeting is another indicator.
Adhearsion has answering machine detection with configurable settings to adjust for the specific needs of a business.
You can’t just load up a bunch of phone numbers into a database and start calling them. There are laws. Don’t break them.
Our automated outbound calls fall into three categories which I’ll cover in follow up posts. For now, I wanted to touch on some information anyone should know about before hooking up an application to make phone calls. Particularly when it comes to telemarketing and autodialed calls.
Back in 1991, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was passed. It restricts phone solicitations and the use of automated dialing. It covers SMS messaging and faxing in addition to normal voice calls.
Here are some of the primary restrictions. There are more, so don’t take this as a complete list.
Don’t call anyone before 8am or after 9pm. If you do business across time zones, you need to deal with that.
You need to maintain you’re own do not call list. If someone asks to be put on it, add their number. You have to honor it for at least five years.
Not all calls are unsolicited calls. You may just being trying to confirm a scheduled appointment. Regardless, you want to be courteous to the people you call.
Don’t make excessive calls.
If you get voicemail, and leave a message, give the person some time to respond. Don’t call back every five minutes until you reach someone.
If you talk to someone who requests a call back in three months, you should respect their request. Leave them alone for those three months.
What is a Robocall?
Robocalls include automated phone calls made using autodialers. This includes calls that only contain pre-recorded messages and those where you speak to a live person.
What is an Autodialer?
Any type of equipment or computer software that dials phone numbers without human intervention.
How can you determine if a phone number is a landline or a cell phone?
A variety of sources exist to assist businesses and telemarketers to tell if a number is a mobile number. For example, NeuStar, as the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, the National Pooling Administrator, and the LNP Administrator, makes information available for the purpose of identifying phone numbers assigned to wireless carriers.
One of the most basic things you can do when you tie an application in with your phone system is implement click-to-call. You click a phone number on your web page, or within your application. It connects you to that phone number.
What the user experiences
From the user’s perspective within our application it goes down like this:
Click a phone number link in the web page.
In a few seconds your phone extension will ring.
You pick it up and you’ll hear your phone number being dialed.
From that point on it’s just a normal phone conversation. You just didn’t have to dial the phone yourself.
What happens behind-the-scenes
You’re logged in, so the application (Nitro for us) knows who you are and you’re phone extension. This is what happens from the application’s point of view:
It shoots an API call with the user info and phone number to our Talkbox (i.e. Adhearsion) server.
The phone call is initated with Asterisk.
The user’s phone extension is rung.
As soon as the user picks it up, the outgoing phone call is initated.
That’s about it. All this assumes is that we have the user’s extension number stored properly in the database. This obviously isn’t much of a benefit if you’re away from your desk. It does alleviate issues with mis-dialed numbers and makes it a little less of a hassle for dialing when it’s an option.
Initially, I plan to focus on our integration with Adhearsion. I’ll keep things to a functional level rather than getting too in-depth technically.
If you’d like more technical details about a topic leave a comment. I can get into specifics if there’s enough interest. The simple reason is that it takes longer to write a post with code examples. I think there’s sufficient value in describing what’s possible at a business level.
Our production environment lives on a number of virtual servers hosted in our corporate hosting center. Our current setup includes five web servers, five transaction servers and a single server which runs Asterisk and Adhearsion.
The transaction servers run cron jobs, background processes and our call loop which feeds our phone system with numbers to be called. More on that in a future post.
On our Asterisk/Adhearsion server we also have a separate application running on it we call Talkbox. This is a custom Adhearsion app with PowerHRG’s business logic. It runs as a service and communicates back and forth with our main Nitro application via API calls.
So what does Power Home Remodeling Group do?
PowerHRG sells windows, siding, doors, roofing and a few other products. We make a lot of phone calls to do that.
The majority are appointment confirmations and marketing calls. Around 48,000 outgoing calls every day. Yes. All with a single Asterisk/Adhearsion server.
Adhearsion is described as an
open-source voice application development framework.
It actually does a bit more. We’ve tied it into our LDAP server so our phone systems and applications use the same info and security. Adhearsion can even integrate over XMPP (Jabber) to support stuff like instant messaging.
In my next post, I’ll start talking about some of our specific uses of Adhearsion. Stay tuned.
Now that 2015 is here I’m feeling more and more like a bad parent to my site. My new resolution is to change that.
Actually, my full resolution is to get into a daily practice of writing. Writing creatively was something I really loved doing at one point and I want to start that again. While writing somewhat technical blog posts for this site isn’t out of my imagination, writing is writing. So I plan to mix it up.
A long time ago…
Where did this come from? I’ve always loved reading. I’ve always loved comic books and would go to local conventions. One artist who worked for a company called Comico in the late 80’s frequented those local conventions. His name was Reggie Byers. For Comico, he was doing the art for some of their line of Macross comics. He started his own company and comic around a character named Shuriken.
For the hell of it, I ended up writing scripts for a three issue story arc for Shuriken and just sent it to him. He liked it and wanted me to write more. In fact, Reggie was starting up a second series entitled The Blade of Shuriken and he wanted me to the be writer. Images are hard to find, but here’s one that has my name in the credits!
Unfortunately, the series was short lived. One of the victims of an economic bubble bursting within the comics industry. I ended up writing about twelve scripts. Only four were published (Blade of Shuriken #2-#5). Regardless, I had a lot of fun writing them. I thank Reggie for giving me the opportunity. It was a very exciting experience for me.
This year for this site…
Getting back to this technical site, I still am primarily a Ruby on Rails coder. A couple of side projects with PHP, but primarily Ruby.
Back in 2007, I started working with a company in the northeast, Power Home Remodeling Group. At the time, they ran their business off a mixture of Excel spreadsheets and a Microsoft Access-based application that would have problems if more than one person was in it at the same time. I’m involved in writing the software that has taken them from that system, already having growing pains, to what is now a web-based application servicing over 1,300 employees company-wide. While I started alone, we’ve grown a small team of developers, but it’s still hard to keep up with the demand for what they want and need.
PowerHRG doesn’t sound like an exciting company since they sell windows, roofing, siding and a couple of other products. But the complexity of the business and the technology required to support it can be quite interesting. I’m going to write about some of that over this year.
What I’ll be focusing on in my first series of articles will be on something I don’t recall reading a lot of blog posts about in the recent past: telephony. Power’s app has strong ties to their phone system. The interface for this is Adhearsion. We are lucky enough to work closely together with the awesome team at Mojolingo, who are the current maintainers of the Adhearsion codebase.