With so many companies focused on major IT-driven transformation, it's easy to forget that even small changes can have a big benefit. For road motoring group NRMA Motoring & Services, however, a highly focused middleware implementation project has provided a new communications channel for hearing-impaired customers.
Part of NRMA Limited, NRMA Motoring & Services provides 24 by 7 emergency roadside assistance via a fleet of more than 1000 vehicles that services around 2 million customers throughout NSW and the ACT. It also acts in a motorist advocacy capacity in relation to road- and travel-related government policy >
FY2004-5: Operating surplus of AU$2 million on revenues of AU$29.1 million (group profit of AU$52 million on revenues of AU$206 million)
It's not known how many of Australia's 20 million citizens are hearing impaired, but a 1998 estimate by the Centre for Population Studies in Epidemiology suggested 3.25 million people could be suffering hearing loss greater than 25dB.
For such customers, communicating with phone-based emergency services such as the NRMA has been extremely difficult. The NRMA has long maintained a basic TTY (teletype) contact number that lets deaf and hearing impaired users contact the call centre over a telephone line, but such equipment is hard to come by generally and completely unavailable when travelling by car.
That meant hearing impaired NRMA customers were often forced to rely on family members, or the kindness of passing strangers, to phone in requests for help. In many cases, hearing impaired customers were simply unable to summon assistance.
Hearing impaired customers account for a small percentage of the two million customers and 1.7 million calls for help that NRMA handled last year; the typical day only sees four or five TTY requests come through. However, after being approached by the Deaf Society of New South Wales, the company began laying plans to improve access for people with hearing impairment.
-TTY is old technology now and good technology, and it still gets used," says Graham Dempsey, integration manager with NRMA. -But the road breakdown service needs to be able to cater for people on the move."
It soon became clear that the best replacement would be SMS -- which, with the ubiquity of mobile phones, is both well understood and widely available to NRMA members.
However, NRMA needed to make sure the new system was well integrated with its existing call centre environment so that SMS requests for assistance could be easily dealt with alongside conventional phone enquiries. The search for an integrated messaging solution began with requests to the company's telecommunications partner, Telstra, and soon led to Soprano Design, an IBM partner who worked with NRMA to scope out its requirements.
Soprano's solution was based on its Corporate Gateway Platform for SMS, which combines a host of IBM back-end systems including the Express Runtime middleware, WebSphere application server and DB2 database. Working together, the system receives and routes incoming SMS messages to a Microsoft Outlook inbox within the NRMA call centre.
Routing messages was only one part of the solution, however: NRMA needed to ensure that messages were received and acted upon as quickly as possible, and that customers knew they were being attended to. To make sure this happens, the SOPRANO solution includes a feedback mechanism that replies to incoming text messages, and monitors the time it has taken for the message to be acted upon. If busy call centre representatives haven't been able to attend to the message within a certain amount of time, an alarm is raised and calls automatically made to supervisor phones.
The old TTY system is still available to those who want to use it, but the addition of SMS has gradually gained popularity amongst NRMA's customer base: more than 30 messages per month are trickling through the contact centre.
That's hardly a high-volume application, but Dempsey says the system has more than met its business goals by improving access to NRMA's services for a particular group of customers. The system may also come into broader use by allowing the contact centre staff to more quickly contact the organisation's more than 1000 drivers with dispatch or other information.
-It's hard to do this when you've got to have someone [in the call centre] staring at the screen all the time, but the audible alarms and checks we put in it give hearing impaired customers a level of confidence when they're out on the road," he says. -They expect the SMSes to be handled in the same way as any other call, and this system has given us exactly what we wanted to make that happen."