Notification systems are vital for crisis communications and a big investment for business continuity departments. Editorial board member Mike Keating, Vice President of Business Continuity Management at Reinsurance Group of America, recently upgraded his organization’s notification system and learnt a lot about the latest features in the process. He speaks with Continuity Insights about why he upgraded, the features most important to him, the purchasing process and how he put the vendors through their paces. Please note that notification systems are not one-size-fits-all and what is good for one organization may not be good for another.
Continuity Insights: What notification system features were most important to you going into the purchasing process?
Mike Keating: Our legacy system was incredibly difficult to maintain. It was all manual – no automation at all. We figured out that if we could automate the updates to contact numbers, people and lists, the system would pay for itself based on the amount of time we were spending to do this manually.
As we learned more about how we would use the tool, the use of dynamic groups became important to us. That is, not being limited to pre-constructed groups. You don’t know ahead of time if you will need to send a message to all managers in a certain part of the world, for example. So we wanted to be able to dynamically create groups based on attributes in someone’s contact record.
And reliability was big for us. We have to believe that when we push the button the message will go out. So we had our telecom people get involved in screening all the providers to make sure they are reliable.
CI: What are some of the new notification system features that stood out to you?
MK: Dynamic groups: When you create a contact record a lot of information is imported from our HR records, such as title, location and those that report to you, for example. We can then indicate if they are a member of our business continuity team or if they have a unique client relationship – whatever we want. This allows us to go in on the fly and send a message to people that meet certain criteria. In the older systems you could only set up groups in advance.
One thing we liked was (x)Matters’ Relevance Engine, as it can be used to send custom messages to different devices. So it will send one message to a SMS device, one message to text-to-voice and one message to email. You only click send once, but it is smart enough to know which components of the message go to which device.
You can even mesh the dynamic groups feature with the Relevance Engine in order to send a message to one group and a scaled down version of the same message to another group. It’s designed to send customized information to different audiences based on one message.
CI: How are vendors incorporating social media into their notification systems? Do you plan to take advantage of these features?
MK: I didn’t see a lot on social media but we weren’t asking about it. We want to manage any social media contact in a separate, more manual way.
CI: Some notification vendors are pushing the benefits of VoIP functionality. Was this a factor in your selection?
MK: It was. MIR3 was the only vendor we spoke with that didn’t use VoIP. We were very attracted to this fact as we perceived land lines to be more reliable; however, the problem with land lines is that you are making a tradeoff in terms of the volume of calls you can make. You have to purchase a certain number of land lines and have them sitting there waiting for you; with VoIP you can push out a lot more content a lot faster.
We liked the idea of being able to leverage the advantages of VoIP so we pushed each notification provider to demonstrate their network’s reliability — that’s where we got our telecom people involved.
CI: Is the request for proposals (RFP) process daunting or overwhelming? What advice do you have for business continuity professionals that are about to embark on an RFP for notification systems?
MK: All the vendors are going to say exactly the same thing: “We’re the best, we send out messages reliably and no one can beat us.” So we didn’t even use a formal RFP process.
Initially we sent out requests for information (RFIs). I then found out which vendors were going to exhibit at the Continuity Insights Management Conference, because I wanted to know they are committed to the field and not a fly-by-night operation.
We whittled it down to five players and then set about getting to know them. Send Word Now was by far the most generous in letting us play around with their tool in a sandbox mode. That really helped them and I wish the others were more generous in letting us play with their tools.
CI: Why do you think most of the notification vendors were reluctant to give you extensive access to their tools?
MK: To hazard a guess, some of the interfaces in these tools are quite bare. The more feature-heavy the tools get the rougher the interfaces get. So they probably did not want people to get lost and frustrated within their tools.
I think Send Word Now had the best interface in terms of ease of use, so maybe that’s why they were so comfortable with us playing with it for an extended period of time.
CI: You recently used the Continuity Insights Management Conference as an opportunity to further narrow down your choices. What are the benefits of having all of your potential notification vendors in one building?
MK: I came to the Continuity Insights Management Conference ready to tell one of the vendors that they were out of the running. When I got to the conference I spoke with a colleague that said, “You really need to speak with so-and-so — he knows his stuff.”
At breakfast one day this exact person sat down next to me and we got to know each other. He ended up winning our business. That wouldn’t have happened had this company not been at the conference.
CI: Do you look at how notification systems have performed during real events when selecting a system for your own organization?
MK: We did some of that. One of the problems is that the tools are so different to what they were even two years ago, especially when you talk about VoIP. In that sense I don’t think history is a great indicator of what will happen in the future. I expect that all the VoIP stuff will get increasingly reliable. This field is changing so much.
CI: We’ve seen a rise in the amount of employees using their own devices for work functions (BYOD), namely smartphones and tablets. Do you plan to include employees’ own devices in notification deployments?
MK: Yes. We allow people to populate their own contact information in our HR information system -- which often includes their own devices. Also, the tool we selected has apps for iOS and Android, so our employees can download the app and register in order to get notifications through the app.
CI: Did you end up going with an onsite or offsite (hosted) solution?
MK: I would never consider an onsite solution. If your data center blows up and the notification tool is in it, how are you going to tell people the data center blew up?
CI: How do you plan to implement the new notification system? Is there a significant amount of staff training required? Does the notification vendor offer any support during implementation?
MK: There is a lot of training involved. The system we selected is the most feature rich, so it’s tough to understand how we want to use it. Feature-rich systems are great but expect to spend more time on configuration and training.
CI: What are some of the behind-the-scenes costs for either implementing or maintaining notification systems?
MK: We were initially quoted a price for 1600 users. Over the course of this process we grew to about 1700 employees. When I indicated I needed to add 75 more users I was quoted a higher price per user.
It’s important to determine early on what it costs to add a user or if there is a minimum number you have to add.
CI: Is there a big gap in pricing for the various notification systems and are the more expensive offerings worth the extra cash?
MK: The pricing on our final three providers was pretty close. One quote didn’t cover messaging but did include a credit towards messaging. I was very surprised at how close they all were.
CI: Any final words of wisdom for readers that are about to purchase a notification system?
MK: The thing I benefitted most from was getting to know the vendors and asking lots of questions. In a way we were testing the vendors to see what level of support and customer service we can expect after we sign on the dotted line.
Everbridge, for example, emphasized that what you get before you make the purchase is what you get after, referring to the level of customer service. They like to introduce potential clients to the people who integrate the systems to help build the relationship and provide an opportunity to walk through the integration process.