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Judy Ward
Judy Ward
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Can You Hear Me Now?

Community bank improves service and cuts costs with VoIP phone system from AltiGen.

To improve customer service and employee efficiency, Citizens Bank, N.A., officials knew that they needed to upgrade the bank's telephone system. The Fort Scott, Kan.-based bank needed to improve the voice quality of its phone system, and executives wanted a user-friendly system that offered reliability and seamless customer service, according to vice president Paul Newman. "And for the IT guys, we wanted to make sure that it would not be too much of a demand on their time," he says. "The company was looking for a system that would give us the capability to do a lot of the upgrade and support work in-house."

Newman relates that the bank previously had tried one vendor's Voice over IP solution, but found it lacking. He declines to name the vendor. So, in the third quarter of 2003, Citizens Bank ($240 million in assets) sent a detailed request for proposals to vendors, trying to avoid its unsuccessful first try at VoIP. "It took a good amount of time to answer all the questions," says Shannon Billinger, the bank's network administrator, so the bank knew that those vendors that took the time to complete it "wanted to play ball with us," he adds.

Billinger says that the committee considered each vendor's footprint in the Voice over IP industry: how widely it was known and used, and its long-term survival prospects. The availability of technical support from the vendors also made a big difference.

By the fourth quarter of 2003, the bank selected an AltiWare phone system from AltiGen Communications, a Fremont, Calif.-based manufacturer of VoIP telephone systems and contact center solutions. Committee members liked AltiGen's service offerings and how well its system might fit the bank's future needs, Billinger says. "Their system seemed to conform to our network system the best," he adds. "And they were right on target with the price."

Citizens Bank rolled out the new system to one or two branches a week at the end of 2003. It installed AltiGen phone servers, each acting as an internal PBX system with land lines connected, at seven of its 10 branches and deployed AltiWare phones and software at all the branches.

Network Innovations, an independent provider of customized hardware and software solutions that sells AltiGen products, did much of the installation. "It was fairly simple," Billinger says. Network Innovations also did the on-site employee training. A model phone system was set up in a training room and Network Innovations employees went over the new system's different functionalities. Each class lasted about 90 minutes.

Now, every phone line within the bank has a four-digit extension that allows employees and customers to connect with other branch locations as if they were making a local phone call. "We have so many branches spread out over a large area, and it allows seamless communication between our banks and for our customers in different locations," Newman says. For example, "A customer could make a call into the Fort Scott office, and that call could be forwarded to the Kansas City office. It would not be necessary for the customer to place a long-distance phone call."

And Citizens Bank saves money. "We do not have to pay long-distance charges for employees to make calls within the bank," Billinger says. The bank also needs fewer phone lines, since it is using its internal network rather than an external provider to make many calls. And Billinger can take care of software changes at any of the branches from the home office, rather than traveling to the sites.

Citizens Bank likely will expand its use of AltiGen's software, Billinger says. It is examining AltiView, a desktop call-management product that enables features such as point-and-click dialing, integration with contact-management software and better call screening.

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Snapshot

INSTITUTION: Citizens Bank, N.A. (Fort Scott, Kan.).

ASSETS: $240 million.

BUSINESS CHALLENGE: Upgrade its telephone system to improve customer service and employee efficiency.

SOLUTION: AltiGen Communications (Fremont, Calif.) VoIP-based AltiWare phone system.

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