phone tree
Communications Jan 04, 2022

Why Your Phone Tree Is a Liability—And How To Improve It

The phone tree used to be efficient compared to other available options. But the ways we work, communicate, and live have all changed dramatically.

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Remember the telephone game? One person starts the chain by whispering to the person sitting beside them until the message reaches the end of the line. Played with enough people, the game inevitably results in the message becoming so jumbled the person at the end hears something that barely resembles the original. This, essentially, is a phone tree.

Some organizations may choose to utilize a phone tree as part of their communication plan to deliver non-urgent information. But, when it comes to delivering critical, time-sensitive communications, there are far better ways to ensure the right message reaches your people.

In this post, we’ll discuss the basic concept of the emergency phone tree and how a modern emergency communication system can help improve communication processes for critical business events.

What Is a Phone Tree?

A phone tree is a prearranged, defined system of informing and activating a group of people by telephone. Today, organizations use both manual call trees—systems that rely on humans—as well as automated phone tree services, which are typically powered by interactive voice response (IVR) technology. These phone systems use touch-tone frequencies to guide the call recipient through prompts to either record responses or direct them to more information.

Diagram showing phone tree communication process

In the earliest days of mass communication, the phone tree was a common way to quickly communicate with a large number of people. Typically, the phone tree was designed to serve as a communication hierarchy, of sorts, dividing responsibility for sharing critical information with a group of people to get the message out faster. When something needed to be communicated, each person on the tree was informed in order of priority according to a predetermined phone tree list, with each assigned a “branch” of additional phone numbers to call and people with whom to share the information.

The manual phone tree system—also known as a “call tree” or “telephone tree”—is quite simple by design. Each member of the tree only needs to contact a small group of people, perhaps two to five, who then relay the same information to a similar or smaller group of people they are assigned to inform. The information proliferates from there—each subsequent member of the tree is responsible for phone calls to a handful of people, following a pre-defined phone tree template, until everybody in the organization that needs to be informed has been contacted.

Before the advent of modern technology—such as voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) services—the phone tree was a practical, albeit imperfect, step forward in employee communications. No longer did a single individual have to phone employees one by one until every individual had been reached. Instead, the information could be cascaded through the organizations—team by team, person to person, with each individual only having responsibility for communicating to a percentage of the workforce.

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Common Phone Tree Communication Challenges

Unfortunately, while phone trees represented a step forward compared to other manual communication processes, they are susceptible to human error and long delays.

What happens if you can’t reach someone in the tree or the call goes to voicemail? What if you’re attempting to reach someone in a call center or customer support role who is nearly always occupied or on another call? Sure, you can try calling them again later to ensure they received the message. But in the meantime, 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 to manage.

Below are some of the most common issues organizations encounter when attempting to use a phone tree for emergency communication.

Phone trees result in employees getting left out

Consider a scenario where a communication leader—or branch coordinator—is made aware of an emergency. With a manual phone tree, the leader first consults a list of priority contacts and starts making calls to make people aware of the situation. Of their initial list of five contacts, four immediately pick up the phone and begin cascading the information to their teams; however, one isn’t available, so the leader decides to leave a message. Now, imagine every member of the call tree has similar success—each reaching four out of every five people on the list. Individually, each may feel they were effective, yet as you can see from the graphic below, the results tell a different story.

Diagram showing impact of failed communication in phone tree

In this scenario, even with an 80 percent success rate, one-third of employees in the phone tree did not receive the information upon the first attempt. Using this manual approach 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 emergencies, the event status often changes before the call tree even reaches its last branch.

Phone trees result in information silos

Consider again for a moment your childhood experience playing the telephone game with friends. You may recall the laughter and confusion that would often ensue by the time that sentence reached the last person. You may have asked yourself how something so simple could get misconstrued so quickly. Research tells us the reason relates to how our brains are wired to retain information.

A 2018 study by researchers at Indiana University found people are typically adept at preserving the “surprisingness” (the degree to which a story is surprising) of information as it is retold; however, the factual information relayed during retelling is more susceptible to being inaccurate. Specifically, the researchers found that factual details, in particular, were commonly omitted during each iteration of the retelling. Additionally, researchers observed that, “the majority of retellings preserved the basic event either fully or partially; but roughly only 25% of stories’ original factual details were present in the third-iteration retelling: on average, 5–6 remained out of 20–24 original details.”

Only 25% of stories’ original factual details were present in the third-iteration retelling: on average, 5–6 remained out of 20–24 original details.

This means that at every level of the phone tree, it is likely that the person receiving the information is only getting a fraction of the context and information that was intended for them. In emergencies—when details often have significant implications on employee safety—it’s clear that a phone tree falls short of expectations when delivering effective, timely emergency communication is of the utmost importance.

The Mirage of the Automated Phone Tree

More recently, 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 provider might use it to send out flu shot notices 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.

Automated phone tree applications have existed for more than a decade, and there are a variety of free and paid solutions available that offer basic, bulk messaging capabilities. Thanks to its ability to quickly and inexpensively send bulk calls or texts, an automated phone tree application 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.

6 Ways an Emergency Communication System Can Help You Upgrade Your Phone Tree Strategy

With a modern emergency communication system, organizations can effectively communicate during critical events to keep their people safe, informed, and connected. Emergency communication software 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:

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

Employees’ 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 intelligence, sending unique messages based on an employee’s home address, office location, physical location, and more.

4. Create a central hub for updates

With a modern 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 facilitate two-way communication with employees during critical events. Conversely, a modern emergency communication system enables your audience to interact with you in real-time. This feedback loop not only allows you to confirm their safety and current status, but it also expands the eyes and ears of your organization, providing you with additional information to make informed decisions. Modern systems include audience communication features such as read receipts, surveys, incoming messages, and “need help” requests.

6. Get ahead of critical events with threat intelligence

An emergency communication solution with integrated threat intelligence notifies organizations when their people or assets are at risk. This solution allows you to view all emerging and current threats on an interactive map—where organizations can also see their office locations, traveling employees, employee home addresses (which are especially important during remote work), and other business-critical assets. When a threat emerges that could impact their company, system admins are notified immediately. Companies can even opt to have their at-risk employees notified directly when a threat emerges so that not a second is lost.

Branch Out Beyond Legacy Processes

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.

For years, Kawasaki Motors Corp. used phone trees to communicate with employees during emergency events like the California wildfires. But Tom Porter, Kawasaki’s former Director of Human Resources and Administration, quickly “recognized that newer technology could greatly improve Kawasaki Motors’ critical communications, particularly a mass notification system.” Adds Porter, “during an emergency, it wasn’t acceptable to continue to rely on dated communication methods. With emails and phone calls, there is always the potential for inconsistent information, and you end up playing the game of ‘telephone.’”

“During an emergency, it wasn’t acceptable to continue to rely on dated communication methods. With emails and phone calls, there is always the potential for inconsistent information, and you end up playing the game of ‘telephone.’” – Tom Porter, former Director of Human Resources and Administration at Kawasaki

Final Thoughts

Employees now 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 communication failure. When minutes can mean the difference between a minor incident and a major disaster, communication failure is not an option.

Why Every Business Needs Emergency Communication

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