Why Your Phone Tree is a Liability—And How to Avoid It

By February 5, 2019 May 6th, 2019 Communications
phone tree

Remember the game “telephone”? One person starts by whispering to the person sitting beside them until the message reaches the end of the line. The sentence eventually becomes so jumbled it barely resembles the original.

This, essentially, is a phone tree. And if you can also recall from your childhood the laughter and chaos that would often ensue by the time that sentence reached the last person, you can probably infer that a phone tree isn’t exactly a sound strategy for delivering effective, timely emergency communications.

Some organizations may still choose to utilize a phone tree as part of their communication mix to deliver non-urgent information. But when it comes to delivering critical, time-sensitive communications, there is a better way.

A Brief History of the Phone Tree

Before the advent of modern technology, the phone tree was an ingenious step forward in employee communications. No longer did a single individual have to phone employees one-by-one until every individual had been reached. The phone tree was efficient compared to other available options considering the times. But the truth is, the way we work, communicate, and live have all changed dramatically.

A manual phone tree—also known as a call tree—is quite simple by design. Each member of the tree has a set handful of pre-determined people, perhaps two to five, they must call to relay information to if and when they themselves are phoned. It proliferates from there, with each subsequent member of the tree also responsible for calling a handful of people, until everybody in the organization has been contacted.

But manual calls trees are highly prone to misinformation and long delays. With a manual phone tree, it can take hours for the message to reach everybody, especially in larger organizations. In critical situations when messages are urgent, the majority of the tree may not receive the information in time. And in rapidly developing emergency situations, the event status often changes before the call tree even reaches its last branch.

There’s also a high call-link failure rate with phone trees. What happens if you can’t reach a single person in the tree? You try calling them again later to ensure they actually received the message. What’s more, everybody underneath them on the tree is affected as well. Add in situations where you need to pass information back up the tree, and a phone tree becomes impossibly difficult.

The Mirage of the Automated Phone Tree

To overcome the challenges posed by manual call trees, many organizations have turned to automated phone trees—or phone tree applications. Automated phone tree software removes much of the grunt work that has historically plagued manual calling trees, allowing organizations to automatically send out a text message or pre-recorded voice message to any number of contacts instantly.

Churches and religious groups, for example, sometimes use automated phone tree apps to communicate with congregation members about prayer requests, volunteer activities, and schedule changes. A health care organization might use it to send out flu shot and appointment reminders. And youth sports leagues can utilize phone tree software to update parents about field changes or rain delays and cancellations. And, for the most part, the use of a simple phone tree app might suffice in these types of situations.

But all of these scenarios have something in common: None are true emergency situations.

An automated phone tree app—thanks to its ability to quickly and inexpensively send bulk calls or texts—may have a place in helping you quickly deploy non-urgent messages that need to be blasted to your entire organization. But during critical events when seconds count, a phone tree should never be your primary communication strategy.

How to Ditch Your Phone Tree “Strategy”

With modern emergency communication software, organizations can effectively communicate with their people during critical events to keep their people safe, informed, and connected through relevant, streamlined mass notifications. Emergency communication systems centralize and deliver messages so you can quickly and easily communicate with your audience from anywhere, at any time, using any device.

An emergency communication platform offers many distinct advantages over a manual or automated phone tree, including the ability to:

Instant Communications with Entire Audience

1. Maintain Accurate Contact Information

With its ability to integrate with existing systems that store employee records—such as your Active Directory, HRIS, or travel software—an employee notification system allows you to easily import and maintain your people data. This means you always have access to the latest contact information for employees, helping you ensure everybody in your audience receives important notifications as intended.

2. Communicate Over Multiple Channels

Today’s preferred communication channels are dramatically different from those even a decade ago. If you target only one or two channels, you may miss a significant number of employees who may be in harm’s way. With an emergency communication system, you can simultaneously send messages across multiple channels, including email, SMS texts, push notifications, voice calls, intranet updates, social media posts, and even custom channels.

3. Segment Your Audience

Employees will quickly tune out if they receive messages that aren’t relevant to them. To target your messaging, an emergency communication system allows you to segment employees into accessible groups based on location, department, or any other attribute. And since location is usually a primary factor in determining who is at risk in an emergency, an emergency communication system can even help you leverage location data, sending unique messages based on an employee’s home address, office location, physical location, and more.

4. Enable Event Page Functionality

With the event page functionality available within an emergency communication system, you can provide a single online repository for everything related to a specific event. Instead of having employees wait to be phoned with updated information—especially in rapidly developing situations where event details are changing constantly—they can continually visit the provided event page link, making it easier and more efficient for organizations to keep employees informed every step of the way.

5. Support Two-Way Communication

One of the biggest downfalls of the phone tree approach is its inability to establish two-way dialogue with employees during critical events. Emergency communication systems enable your audience to interact. This expands the eyes and ears of your organization to protect against emergency situations. Modern systems include audience communication features such as read receipts, surveys, incoming messages, and “need help” requests.

Branching Out

Traditional methods of communicating with employees during times of crisis are no longer as effective as they once were. Phone trees are rapidly becoming a thing of the past—and for good reason. Advances in emergency communication technology have given organizations a much more effective way to disseminate critical, time-sensitive information to employees.

In today’s digital age, employees expect real-time information during emergencies delivered where and when they need it. Relying on a phone tree during critical events is akin to setting your organization up for a communication failure. When minutes can mean the difference between a minor incident and a major disaster, communication failure is not an option.

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