Shopping for a Notification Service

Category - General
by Lisa Eifert on January 25th, 2016


From terrorism to tornados, there’s been no shortage recently of high-profile crisis situations in the news. Talk to those who have been affected by the tragedies and you hear the same thing over and over – I didn’t think it would happen to us; I wish we would have had a plan in place. As a 5-year veteran of a technology company that provides a mass communication service, I’ve heard many accounts of a communication plan that saved the day, literally. In fact, saved lives.

I often get asked why a mass notification service (I’ll call it a MNS for brevity) is necessary when everyone has smart phones that bring calling, texting and email right into the palm of everyone’s hand. I ask them “Have you ever tried to get a consistent message to tens (or hundreds!) of people quickly?” Picture the telephone game in the midst of fear and chaos. Information and instructions are inevitably misconstrued, often to the detriment of property and human safety. MNS products are designed especially for that application – notifying many people at one time with a consistent message sent with little time or effort required. But the time to evaluate and learn about an MNS is BEFORE the crisis occurs. Here’s a few things to consider:

Consider a system that is versatile (in functionality and pricing) and can be used for multiple purposes. This makes sense for a couple of reasons. One, the more you use the service, the more familiar your organization will be with how to use it. Two, it can be used to streamline a number of other types of communication including customer notifications and reminders, routine staff alerts and recruitment. Consider a service that provides an unlimited calling plan versus one that charges for every call made, and then use it frequently across the organization.

Make sure the interface is easy to use. When you’re in the midst of chaos, the last thing you want to stress about is the technology. Register for a free trial if it’s offered. Send test messages to your friends and colleagues. Thoroughly evaluate the interface to see how intuitive it is. Many MNS products include advanced features such as the ability for a call recipient to transfer automatically to a live operator. Make sure you understand those features and which ones are right for you.

It may seem obvious but I’ll include it anyway: make sure the notification system you choose will actually function in a crisis. Consider all the situations that might occur. Is there a way to send messages if the network is down? The power? Phone lines? Can you discretely use the service to send a notification instead of a voice call in the case of an active shooter situation?

Next, think about how you are most likely to send messages. Voice call? Text message? Email? Do you have social media accounts you’ll want to link? If you will be sending calls, will you want to record those calls in your own voice? Or would you prefer to type the message and have it read for you in an automated voice (text to speech). Those are all important considerations for an MNS; ensure you understand all the possibilities before you choose a provider.

Another important consideration is how you will add your contacts to the service’s database. If you are a business, can you link your company directory to the service so that contact information is updated in the MNS when it is updated in the employee directory? Does the service provide a way for your contacts to update their own information when they choose to? Many services provide a tool that can be placed on a website where parents, employees or customers can update their own preferences. This avoids the arduous task of manually keeping everyone’s information constantly up-to-date.

One more feature I’ll mention before closing – reporting. One of the many benefits of using a MNS is that some services provide detailed records on the result of each call. Did someone answer? Was the message sent to voicemail? Is it a bad phone number? What time was the call received? This is a great feature if documentation is important to you and it would be beneficial to show that a call was, indeed, received if there is a dispute. Don’t just ask MNS vendors about reporting; ask to see sample reports and compare the level of detail and readability.

We never think tragedy will happen to us. But indeed, fate has proven too many times lately that it strikes whether we’re ready or not. As Zig Ziglar so eloquently said – “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and capitalize on what happens.”

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