Out with the old, in with the new

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Tucked away in not much more than a plain hallway with a nook in the nary-traveled basement of the Hearnes Center, it sits on a well-used desk of nearly the same age. It serves out its remaining days toiling arduously away just as it was designed to do, and most of it still works as designed.

This is the Missouri Western switchboard, crafted during the Cold War and in service here longer than most Western students have been alive.

Each tear off of the nearby page-a-day calendar signals the switchboard is getting closer to its end. The campus switchboard’s days are numbered.

Fortunately, Western is planning to replace its aging 23-year-old telephone switchboard.

“If our aging switchboard goes out and fails, we won’t have any way to replace it since replacement parts are no longer available,” Carolyn Long, telephone services coordinator, said.

The university switchboard receives thousands of calls from people off campus and is used to manually route calls to their proper extension on campus. Anyone who has ever called the main phone number, 816-271-4200, was routed through the switchboard.

Stacy Temple, a freshman accounting and business finance double major, is one of the part-time student switchboard operators. She is one of those students born after the switchboard began servicing Western.

While Temple is at the console, a call comes in and the switchboard rings in a unique tone not made by today’s phones. Through a long series of deliberate steps, she answers the call, flips through the book, locates the extension and then delicately keys each number using the noisy spring-loaded keys as though any one of her touches could signal the end of the road for the board.

Besides replacement parts being hard to come by, the outdated system adds time that callers must wait before they are transferred. Long said flipping from the phone, to searching the book and then back to the phone again adds time.

“We got to have it as we don’t have a choice on it,” Long said, knowing that if the current switchboard quits, the incoming calls to the switchboard will not be routed through.

Long expects its replacement to be a computer-based system from T-Metrics, who she described as a leader in switchboards. She plans to travel on April 16 to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to learn the pros and cons of their T-Metrics board. Long hopes that their experience with it will help her better manage the changeover for Western.

Being computer based, the T-Metrics switchboard will do away with the large paper book currently used by the operator as the phone extensions will be available to them at the click of a mouse. Long said not only will the system be more environmentally friendly, since the book won’t have to be printed frequently, but callers will also benefit from the quicker transfer times.

She said the new system will also allow for a computer-generated voice answering system. However, that feature is not likely to be used, so callers will still reach a live operator from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. After-hours callers will not notice any difference as calls will still be forwarded to voicemail as they are now.

The feature most likely be used is call recording, something the current system does not allow.

Long was quick to note that the recording will only occur on incoming calls and will cease once the call is transferred to an extension. She also said every call won’t be recorded, but feels that having some calls recorded can help during misunderstandings or when operators face difficult callers.

However, Long said there is a drawback to a T-Metrics switchboard. It won’t let operators forward calls when someone is unexpectedly out of the building — for example, in the case of an illness.

Temple likes the few quick keys it offers, which allow her to quickly route calls to frequently used extensions, though she looks forward to the increased speed that a new system will bring.

“Financial aid, admissions and the registrar’s office are my big three,” she said, as those departments get the majority of calls to the campus and each has its own quick key.

According to the T-Metrics customer feedback site, Mike Hansen, telephone administrator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said, “Since the installation in March 2006, we have discovered that the system is an extremely versatile system. It is a great solution for both large and small call centers.”

Hansen feels there hasn’t been a situation yet that they haven’t been able to address with the system or that T-Metrics hasn’t been interested in helping them find a solution for.

Long said knowing that the current switchboard is on its last leg, Western budgeted $1,500 for its replacement.

Since having her travel and conference budget cut due to cost reductions, Long said it is harder to network with other telephone administrators to see what they are doing to replace their older systems. She plans to use her brief visit to UNL as an information-gathering session and to make sure the T-Metrics system is the best fit for Western. She knows this new switchboard will be expected to last a long time.

As long as the current aging switchboard keeps ringing and letting operators transfer the calls it receives, it will continue to serve dutifully just as it has every day of its life since 1989. Only time will tell if it will give out first, or wait for its replacement’s debut before it retires.

Paul Dickman

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