I have emphasized in many posts the value of a robust mass notification system. If you have a mid to enterprise size organization I believe it is essentially to have an automated system. Manual call trees break down fast. Every second can count when notifying people. Think tornado, tsunami, earthquake… I have successfully implemented multiple Mass Notification System solutions so I speak from experience. Mass notification is one of my favorite subjects and I consider it one of my top specialties.

To save you time you can also read my recommended mass notification platform solution, why I use it and how I use it.

In this post I list the questions I ask of vendors. As a technologist, my questions cut to the core capabilities of their products. You might find some questions in the list that you can add to your list. Perhaps, this will make your evaluation more comprehensive. Of course, you must do thorough due-diligence in your evaluation process.

* If you read the How to Select a Situational Awareness Tool post that precedes this one you can skip the next few introductory paragraphs as they contain similar important information or you can browse them as a refresher.

Features in a Mass Notification system are important to me if they provide benefit to my employees. If a feature is included in a system but it does not provide any benefits, I do not care about those empty bells-and-whistles.

Your first step is to do a thorough needs analysis within your organization prior to embarking on a tool selection project. The tool you ultimately select will depend on your specific needs. Decide on the value you need. Be thorough in what you expect from the system.

Do your research and/or contact me for my short list of systems that might meet your needs. Read case studies. Go through vendor’s websites. If you like what you see speak with a salesperson and have them do a high-level webinar for you. You can use some of the tips in this post during the webinar but don’t ask them all on the first webinar. The first webinar will have info about the company and then they will go through the product.

If you like what you see and hear you can do another more in-depth webinar with them and get more in-depth questions answered.

Along the way be sure to get current and past references from the vendor and speak with them. But remember, these are the people the vendors are giving you so they probably will be positive – ya think? Definitely go beyond those cherry-picked references. Do your research and see if there are any horror stories out there. Then pick up the phone or send an email and try to get the scoop. They might give you critical info. The worst that can happen is you make a contact and maybe they say” no comment’. It is worth the effort.

But there is more you have to do. You must do a ‘pilot’ for each of the finalist’s products!!! Kick the tires and really learn the capability of each system. It will be well worth the effort. If you skip the pilot it very well might come back to bite you and you will have no one to blame but yourself. I have seen it play out too many times not to warn you. A pilot will provide a lot of clarity.

If you are a vendor reading this: as a buyer, I feel good when a vendor strongly advises I do a pilot. It shows me your product will speak for itself. Words are cheap – ‘the proof is in the pudding.’  Impress us.

Below are benefits I seek when evaluating mass notification systems. The value of each benefit is in italics. You can mix these in with your own questions on vendor calls and in your RFP (request for proposal):

  • Ease of use to learn the basics. If the system is not easy users will hesitate to use it. This becomes critical during a crisis event when every second may count
  • Intuitive user interface. You are seeking a simple, clean and robust interface in their app and desktop
  • Robust documentation that empowers admins to ‘deep dive’ and ‘stretch’ the product. Sometimes vendors lag in providing robust documentation. I will temper this in saying that, from vendor feedback, I dig deeper than most any admin which I attribute to my technical background. In the long run, they appreciate my ‘stretching’ their product and making suggestions – in a nice way
  • User security. If security is lacking, you will likely be in for big issues
  • Strong in-house (not outsourced) 24×7 tech support. There will be times you or a user will need to reach the vendor for support. It may not be frequently but when you need to reach them – you need to reach them
  • Mobile- do they provide native apps or responsive HTML5 – Android and/or IOS. In my opinion, native is not a requirement if they have a good HTML 5 or cross-platform app
  • Localized language sets for multilingual messages – be careful of the translations. Test thoroughly to insure the proper message is being conveyed in the translation or there could be trouble
  • Inbound bulletin board to check-in, get messages and post crisis pictures
  • Application Programming Interface (API). Is it free or is there an extra fee? What other tools, security hardware, sensors do they currently integrate with through the API? Ask for a couple of client case studies that align with your goals
  • Employee contact feeds – SFTP, JSON, other methods. What type of upload file do they accept – CSV, Excel…?
  • Employee contact hot syncs with SAP and BCM tools. Can they instantly update contact info based on triggers?
  • The ability to create custom fields. I find it important to have that option to add customized fields to the contact record
  • Strong non-proprietary relational back-end database with the ability to easily query the data
  • Who do they host with? Do they utilize hot-hot failover with zero down-time?
  • Which BCM systems do they currently integrate with? Is it two way or one way integration?
  • Does their system identify duplicate contacts during an activation? Important! If an employee belongs to multiple groups in scope for an activation you do not want them to receive multiple calls. Do that with a ‘Finicky VP’ and you are toast!
  • Strong secure network infrastructure, redundancy and security. They will be hosting sensitive data
  • Strong / flexible internal user entitlements to access employee records, activations and reports. It should be easy to filter what users can and cannot see and do. It should include the ability to assign users to groups with common rights. Role based access is a good methodology
  • Multiple replicated data centers – geographically dispersed national and International
  • Triple DES Encrypted Data or similar high encryption if hosted in a 3rd party data center
  • Corporate vision – is the vendor innovative? Do they stay on the cutting-edge? Do they have plans for social media communication modes including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other modes of communication LED signage, push notifications and desktop alerts?

Activation requirements:

  • Easy to activate under pressure. If the demo is confusing multiply that by 1000% during a stressful real activation
  • Multi-modal methods of communication – voice, email, SMS (text messaging), push notifications, desktop alerts, IP phone displays, signage…
  • Two-way interactivity. The recipient must be able to provide feedback by toll free number, email link, SMS
  • Boolean language (AND, OR, EQUAL TO…) support to build and mash-up dynamic groups on-the-fly. One of my favorite benefits! The ability to filter data and build on-the-fly ad-hoc granular lists in seconds can be critical.
  • The ability to create user definable custom groups – both static and dynamic – using departments, cost centers, company codes and any other fields you desire…
  • Polling / Survey capabilities – Yes/No, Multiple choice. How many questions can you ask in a notification? Getting feedback from recipients can be critical
  • Follow-up notifications linked to the response received from an initial notification. For example, if you ask ‘Do you need assistance’ and recipient responds ‘Yes’ – a follow-up customized notification is automatically sent by the system without human intervention
  • Variables in outgoing messages – in the body of a message the ability to embed variables pulled from backend database related records. Hierarchical/relational logic if possible (very hard to find but at least one solution has it)
  • Multiple activation options:
    • o Blast – all devices at once to everyone in the activation
    • o Escalation – for all people in activation escalate through their devices – stop contacting that person when one of the devices is answered
    • o Person-to-person (P2P) – sent sequentially to one person at a time. Do not use for a mass crisis alert. A use-case for P2P would be a system error that needs one technician to fix it. If the first person responds the activation stops
  • PIN Support for sensitive messaging. Do not use for time sensitive mass crisis alerts
  • Call-in message creation (usually limited functionality but valuable in a pinch). Activator can call a phone number and trigger an activation with a code
  • Text-to-speech message creation – and the ability to easily have it played to you before sending the notification
  • Real-time activation delivery tracking is important. You need this information during an activation – as it happens
  • Support for phone extensions – and ask how they do it. For example, what do you have to provide in the contact record to indicate an extension umber
  • Support for VOIP
  • Support for GIS
  • Multi time-zone sensitivity. The ability to consider multiple time-zones in activations
  • GEO Fencing – the system must understand when an employee is travelling or badges-in at another location
  • The ability to send a notification by web, app or dial-in to toll free number
  • Drop-in conference call bridging – make sure the vendor provides sufficient conference call numbers by default or if you can add your own. Also, if they provide the lines, ask how many attendees each conference line supports. You do not people to call and hear, ‘the line is full’ during a crisis meeting!
  • Customizable caller ID so you can brand outgoing calls. This will greatly increase recipient responses. Otherwise, many people will think it is a telemarketer calling, and they will not answer the call.
  • SMS Short Codes supplied for free to brand text messages. Vanity codes will cost extra.
  • Call can be delivered without recipient having to say ‘hello’ or another verbalization? Test this. The capability varies from vendor to vendor. Even if they tell you we use ‘whisper technology’ – test it.
  • The ability to schedule future activations. I have been responsible for global programs – so this allowed me to sleep rather than having to be at the keyboard to send a test at 3 a.m.
  • SLA for activations. The vendor must provide robust message through-put even at high utilization periods during a widespread crisis event
  • 24/7/365 system and support availability – if you need the system it MUST be available

Reporting:

  • Activation status report must be real-time! You cannot wait until everyone has been contacted to create a status report
  • Canned reports must be included with the default system. You must have the ability to clone these to create your own custom reports
  • You must have the ability to create new reports using a flexible report writer

Other thoughts and considerations: 

  • If competing products are equal in functionality consider tools that integrate well with your BCM and/or situational awareness tool(s)
  • Does the product include situational alerts? Some systems now have them although usually limited for free but can integrate with commercial situational alert vendors through an API
  • If possible, standardize the tool across your enterprise. This will provide the ability to leverage and cross-train associates as well as possible contractual advantages
  • You want a flat rate for sending unlimited messages, including call list tests, rather than metered domestically
  • How are international voice messages sent: international data center, VOIP / phone company… is there a charge?
  • Panic button – at least one vendor has a great implementation. Simply tap an app button and an alert is sent out AND they have a very visionary feature/benefit where you do not even have to act to send an alert. Imagine you are travelling and feel you might be in danger in route to your hotel. Simply set the panic button on a predefined time – say 5-minute countdown. Every time the app counts down to zero it must receive an acknowledgement from you – or it triggers an activation. An elegant solution if you are not able to pull out your phone and click the button

Remember, when you get to the finalists you must do a pilot for each system!  Also, you must send a thorough request for proposal. The pilot and RFP will greatly enhance your ability to decide on the best tool for your needs.