Customer Spotlight: Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Authority

Northeast Mental Health Authority header

Switching to a new phone system can feel daunting, especially for companies with smaller IT departments. However, many customers find that transitioning isn’t nearly as difficult – or disruptive – as they initially feared. Plus, with advances in technology since their last update, there are plenty of new options they can use to help solve their communication needs. 

Hearing directly from those who have already gone through this experience on the customer side of migration gives others practical and encouraging insight into what it’s like. 

Recently, we talked with Dennis Bannon, Director of Technology at Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Authority, about his experience migrating from an on-premise PBX to a Cloud-based PBX with TelNet Worldwide. 

He also shared how they are expanding their field communications capabilities using WebEx, transitioning to HIPPA-compliant digital fax service, and adding e911. 

Northeast Community Mental Health Authority is as phone reliant as any organization could be. Some of their complex needs include:

  • Crisis phone lines running and accessible at all times
  • Multiple locations across different counties
  • Field employees and people working remotely that need access to office extensions
  • Monitored and dedicated phone lines that run 24 hours a day
  • Constituents that may not have internet access or skills
  • HIPPA Compliance

We asked Dennis to share some thoughts on their journey, from deciding to migrate to the cloud, to the installation of their system, to their ongoing usage and newfound communication capabilities. 

He shared that transitioning a complex, high-needs phone-reliant company or organization to a new system is a bit of a journey. You don’t have to view it as one major project where you have all the answers before starting. For him, the first step was moving from on-premise to the cloud. Then they started adding additional communication capabilities to test how it could improve their workflows, flexibility, and stability. After getting through the initial rollouts and adoption, they started thinking about how they could use the newer technology available to them to make their system as bulletproof as possible.

“We knew we needed change. We knew there was stuff that could give us more flexibility. We’ve talked about it internally for a long time to make this change. We replaced a phone system that was almost 20 years old. 

In the last 20 years, technology has changed. The flexibility of software and what you can do now as an end user is just unbelievable. We’re learning as we go, but it’s been a good journey. There are obviously some bumps every time you make a change like this because you’re going from such old technology to such new technology. It requires a little culture change, but the upsides are great.

Our biggest concern was how important our phone lines are. Many people we serve are low-income. They don’t have all the nice fancy gadgets. They need to be able to make a basic call. 

We have what’s called an access line, and the state mandates that we pick up any call that comes in within a few seconds. And we have to monitor that call and prove that wait time. We also can’t leave them on hold for any length of time. We had challenges monitoring those wait times or hold times with our old system. It’s a lot easier to manage and meet the requirements now. 

We also like the flexibility of our new system more and more. We are especially excited about how we can connect more people out in the field. We’ve started using WebEx with a small team to get acclimated, and we’ve just started using hotelling. 

We’re going to be moving more people that way, and we’re going to be adding even more extensions or more lines onto our system. We can add extensions for people that have never been in our phone system. Our field staff is now going to have the ability to call the person that they need to call and talk to them and not have to worry about disclosing their private number. That is very important to us both for the people we serve and also for our staff.” 

What helped you decide to update your phone systems and move to the cloud?

 “The biggest driver was COVID and remote work. Our people who went remote during COVID couldn’t take their phones home. We needed to have a way for our employees to grab their desk phone, grab their laptop, go home and connect to the internet to be up and running. 

So obviously, it would be better if our system was managed in the cloud. I also knew that companies that move to the cloud have better backup systems. For that, we realized that having a vendor manage it for us would also make it easier for us to administrate.”

Person Working Remotely with Laptop

Since then, have you seen the benefits of better supporting remote or hybrid fieldwork?

A lot of our people have chosen to take their phone home when needed. What we learned so far is that we have a lot more room to improve our capabilities by expanding WebEx to more of our team and setting more of them up on hoteling. That’s one of the main priorities for the next year. 

Now that we are up and running in the cloud and have tested WebEx out with a smaller team, it works well out in the field. We have issued cell phones to many of our staff members, but we want to ensure they have an internal extension number too. 

That way, if one of our people moves on or we need to change a cell phone number, the consumer on the other end will have a number that comes back into our system instead of a singular cell phone number.  We will also be able to support team members who choose to use their personal cell phones rather than carry two cell phones. Those employees can use the WebEx app on their personal cell phone to connect to their office extension. That keeps them from choosing between carrying two phones or giving out their personal cell phone number. 

Going even further, we have about 200 laptops that have cellular connections, and we are going to connect WebEx on those to give even more team members an extension number in the agency. 

Is it making it easier for your customers or your end users to have one number to contact your staff?

Our staff have the case managers phone number. Sending calls directly to that extension without going through the front desk has been great. 

Our biggest concern is always that the system routes calls appropriately if one of our consumers is in crisis. Our new system handles that really well. 

Some of our consumers have the direct number for their case manager, but they also have the 800 number in case of crisis. That 800 number directs them to our Access Center or automatically escalates their call on weekends to a monitored line where someone is always available.   

Employee talking on headset

You mentioned that you hoped the move to the cloud would make administering your system easier. What has your experience been like?  

For the user side, we had to re-educate our switchboard staff on the new software. There is a bit of a learning curve there. Not that it is difficult, but more that they are used to the old software and how it operated. But after that initial adjustment period, they are as efficient, if not more so, than in our old system. 

For our IT department, it has been easier to make phone changes. Additionally, it has been nice to have additional support for all the random questions from our end users. That was a two-fold worry for us with a new system. First, our team knew the system really well, and they would have to learn the little things all over again. Second, we wanted access to a support team for the more significant issues or questions. We had our last system for quite some time. Over time the company we purchased from had been purchased by a bigger third party, and sometimes the support was bad. It was tough to get to a person, and their support system became cumbersome.

And have you found the TelNet Worldwide support process more user-friendly?

We find TelNet Worldwide support services more user-friendly, and I think we’ve got better technical feedback from them too. Several times the TelNet Worldwide team has been the one to help us discover what the root cause is, even when we find out it is coming from a third-party provider like Verizon or ATT. That’s been very nice for us because TelNet Worldwide helped us identify answers where we had a problem running some of our more unique configurations, like the dedicated lines to client homes that we have open 24 hours a day. These lines go out to consumers that need a specialized level of assistance. Given our business, those lines are essential. It’s a requirement for the state, and we guarantee them to the consumers or the consumer’s guardians.  

How many locations does your system support?  

We have four offices and two micro offices across multiple counties running on our phone system. One of our micro offices has just a couple of phones. The other one now just needs a cell phone that has a WebEx connection on it. 

When Mother Nature comes along and makes it miserable up here, we don’t have a problem with phone systems going down. You know, that right there is a gift as far as I’m concerned. 

I live 30 miles away from our main office and have had to come in because the phone system went down. You know, when it’s snowing cats and dogs and everything’s slick and miserable. It’s been nice to know that I don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff.

Right now, our internet is routed through our main office in Alpena. Now that we are cloud-based, we are thinking of adding more redundancies to our system. We plan to change it so everything will go directly to the cloud from each location.

That way, if our generator at the main office shuts down, it won’t take down communication in our other locations. So far, it’s never happened. We have lucked out. But one of our future benefits will be making sure that can’t happen.

You also added HIPPA-compliant digital faxes and e911 to your system. Could you share a little about how you feel about these capabilities? 

We are excited about the new portal that’s just come out and the flexibility to be able to work on expanding our e911 capabilities. We’re going to set that up for our two main offices so that 911 knows exactly where a call would be coming from inside our buildings. That’s going to be phenomenal. 

We were working with our local telephone provider, and they wanted us to pay them a couple of thousand dollars a year to access their database and update their database with the locations for our extensions. So this is going to be nice for us to finish that inside our own system. And it’s not going to be hard to do either. 

The digital fax system through TelNet Worldwide is phenomenal. We don’t get faxed documents of 1-2 pages. We get documents that might be 100 pages long. It used to be a regular pain to deal with our internal fax machines. Sometimes it would receive the message well, and sometimes, it wouldn’t.  

Digital faxing handles those document sizes easily, sending them directly to the recipient’s email address. It’s amazing how technology can solve these little daily frustrations that you don’t think about. Having to resend faxes with big documents, or even having to get up from your desk and go down the hall to a different room to look for a document. Eliminating those small frustrations has made our team happier.

Cloud Based PBX System

What tips would you share to help others who are considering migrating to a new system?

The first thing you have to do is make sure you understand your old system. Make sure you have everything documented about your old system. Analyze how your system works so you can work with your provider, like TelNet Worldwide, to be able to explain what you need, and they can translate that over to the new system and give you ideas to improve.  

You have to have all that pre-work done. And that’s where Tim Carr at TelNet did a great job with our System Administrator Jason Lepper. Jason handled most of the pre-work, and Tim did a great job making it easier for all of us to understand. 

Everything I had worked on in the past was on copper lines. With the newer technology, it’s so much simpler to understand once you realize how it works. You just have to grasp the concept that I’m not going out to grab a line. 

With our old system, we had a T1 circuit out there. We have 24 lines, everyone knows you have 24 circuits, but you can only use 23 of them. If you use all 24 of them, then you can’t call out because you don’t have a circuit to use. When we went to VOIP, they explained to our tech department  not to worry if you need to put on a 25th line. We can add the 25th line. If you need to expand more, this phone system will be able to handle that.

Can you explain what the migration process was like?

It was easier than expected. I was feeling a lot more bumps in the road and a lot more problems. I thought in the beginning that it will be cut over, and then we can’t cut back. That’s scary when you think about it like that.

It wasn’t as long as I thought it probably would be. We were moving over 300 phone numbers from one provider to another. That used to take days, not hours, not minutes, days.

That old migration process is what I had in my mind. How stressful is this going to be on everyone? How fast is this going to work? How long will we be down? 

So when we got closer to things going and cutting over and when everything was done over on the new system, it was just such a relief that everything was working and how fast TelNet Worldwide cut over our system.

I don’t think we were down more than a few hours total for anything. We did a phased approach, and a lot of stuff was up almost within minutes which was just amazing. 

How did you end up choosing TelNet as your provider?

Once we decided to move forward with the project. We chose ten companies and sent out a brief questionnaire for them to complete. From there, we narrowed that list down to five companies. We had each of those five come in to make a presentation to our committee. 

Out of those five, we narrowed it down to two. One of the things that influenced us to choose TelNet was their partnership with Merit. Merit is our internet provider. We are part of a consortium of nonprofit agencies in our area, and we share a fiber ring up here between us. I talked with some other members of the consortium about their experience with TelNet Worldwide. Additionally, TelNet had one of the best presentations. One thing that gave me a clue of what it would be like to work with them is that they came in person even though we were several hundred miles from their office. And they did a walk-through of our office afterward and got an understanding of how we do business. That extra effort, combined with the Merit partnership and the references, helped us make the final decision.

Interested in learning more about what it would take to migrate and update your phone service? You can find more information and learn about the customizable options here. But you don’t have to research alone. Our team can help you understand which solutions fit your specific needs and is happy to answer questions. 

Lily Suau

Lily Suau

Lily Suau is a part of TelNet's software development team. She is an avid believer in clean and well documented code. When not writing APIs or designing pages, she spends time producing electronic music, rock climbing, and building furniture.

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