Last night, I signed a contract for a lil database tune up project and I had to list my title in the Docusign file. My title? I wracked my brain and scrunched my nose. “Founder,” I thought to myself, but my-self quickly rebutted, “that sounds like Founder’s Syndrome! Plus, who cares if you’re the founder?” Sometimes I’ve used “Editor” in the hopes that I might one day publish a guest post, but it’s been 2.5 years and that day has not come. Then, I thought about the time I spent last week up close and personal with my time-tracker system, writing updates to the various orgs that I help with data (some for pay, some for free). “CEO?” “NOOOOOO” (okay, okay!). Lots of cool people I know use the word “Principal” but that feels too… school-like for me.
So, I came up with “Chief Problem Solver.” It fit like a Croc. A little squishy, a little dorky, but most of all comfortable and with room to evolve. And boy, oh, boy … did I ever solve some probs in the past couple of weeks!
In this post, some behind the scenes process notes about a project to find the perfect call-forwarding system for a small-scale and super-impactful local nonprofit. Oh yeah, and “I’m” trying out writing in the third-person-epic style.
call me, maybe?
Our fearful (ok… curious… ok… dubious) heroine set off to research automated phone technology – the kind that goes like, “para continuar en espanol, marque 9. Lol, nice try but you will never get a real person on the phone.”
Why this mission? Why now? A community org that she supports needs to forward calls while someone is away. They realized that having members call one person’s cell phone put a lot of pressure on that one person and created vulnerability for the future. What if Sandra* (not real name) wasn’t working there anymore? It would be hard to tell everyone to change numbers. Much better to call a central number that forwards to Sandra or other staff members as needed. Especially important for emergency hot lines!
Our overconfident (?) fearless leader begins the quest with a common fallacy: “c’mon, how complicated can it be?” only to realize that it is not only muy complicado but also very expensive. Like, more than $100 per month for a simple 5-extension-call-fowarding system. She learns that the common abbreviation for this technology is IVR (interactive voice response) but she hilariously/embarrassingly called it IVF on a sales call. Not off to the greatest start…
room of requirements
Our stubborn problem-solver gets to work. Since there are multiple platforms out there that offer, ahem, IVR, she needed a way to compare them to find the best one. So, she used a technique called “Requirements Matrix” where she listed all of the most important features that the organization needed (bilingual menu, able to reassign extensions, able to keep using existing root phone number, easy to use, affordable, etc). Then, she compared each of the platforms according to those features. Her version looked something like this (but without the ugly colors).
Why use a Requirements Matrix? Here’s my top 5 reasons:
- Agree on criteria before vetting companies – that way you don’t get swayed by a “nice to have”
- Be organized with vendor outreach so that you can bargain them down on price (mwah hah hah)
- Be able to compare “apples to apples”
- Makes implementation faster if you’ve already taken them for a test drive and you have detailed notes
- Have a clear rationale for why one vendor is the way to go
Cameo, Pink Lady, Honeycrisp
Next up, she had to pick which vendors to compare – eventually the goal is to compare “apples to apples.” She already knew about one vendor from her previous job. Next, our dogged protagonist reached out to friends, social media, and even clickbait adds to find others. All three of them that she tested were extremely “meh” and overpriced. Not satisfied, she stayed on the trail and kept her senses pealed for more options.
Thanks to a bumpin’ social media post, she learned that (1) lots of other organizations face the same dilemma and (2) she should consider AWS (not the Animal Welfare Society, unfortunately).
Indeed, she came face to face with the many-headed-beast Amazon Web Services and a sub-service that they provide called Amazon Connect. A trusted friend said that the expensive platforms she had already tested are somewhat well-known for being a makeover that sits on top of AWS. Even though she initially balked at using Amazon, since Amazon is trash, and AWS seemed very hard to configure the first time (at the very least, outside of her comfort zone), it kinda seems like there’s no good way to avoid it. Why should we pay more for a platform that put lipstick on the same, old pig? From an ethics perspective, there was no clear veto imperative. So, she decided to give it a whirl.
Our pragmatic, pugnacious protagonist forged ahead, thanks to some pinch hitting assistance from her pal Doug, who apparently has the patience of a saint. Using her hard-fought skills in reading documentation, trial and error, and curiosity, she built her first Contact Flow, which is a visual flowchart of a phone menu (aka “press 3 for Room Service”). And ya know what? It worked!
It’s still not clear if AWS is the way to go. It’s more affordable than the others, but it’s also significantly harder to use (then again, lots of developers know how to use it). Since she was using it for the first time, she had to set up, like, 4 different accounts just to log in according to best practices. Plus, she might have to “own” the account and bill the organization (forever?) based on their usage. There’s probably a way around it, but that would require more research and setup steps. A one-stop-shop really would be preferable (maybe that’s what you’re paying for?). Perhaps Google, Zoom, or some other VOIP (“voice over IP,” aka internet phone) company has cracked this nut in a more user-friendly way.
Plus, we haven’t even discussed the change management aspect of the project. Both staff and members are going to need to adjust to a whole new contact method, and might not like it right away! It will certainly feel a bit more impersonal to call a generic number with a menu than to call the cell phone number of someone you know and trust. There are lots of aspects to consider, and probably more than one “right” answer. Therefore, the next step is to not let “perfect” get in the way of “good.” They decided to do a full steam demo of AWS to see if call forwarding will work out culturally, and then they can go back and tweak the platform and the design.
That’s what makes these kinds of projects so interesting. Our “heroine’s story” isn’t one of hubris, but rather one of humility, compassion, and grey areas. Yes, she needs a drawbridge to cross the moat and yes, she needs to vanquish some beasts. Certainly, having some prior experience with technology platforms makes the quest faster, easier, and likely to lead to a better outcome. But inner strength, research, relationships, and communication are by far the best tools in her kit! And readers – you have those skills, too!
It feels good to be a Chief Problem Solver. It means that I’ll never get bored and I’ll always have new problems to tackle. It means that the process is just as important as the outcome. And most of all, it means that I can do it with my customary character, flair, and quirkiness. I’m not fitting into a mold. I’m making the road by walking.