Main Number Handling: Response Groups, pt 1 – Intro and Groups

This post is part of my series on Main Number handling. The most feature-rich call handling solution native to SfB is Response Groups. Response Groups, while nowhere near a full contact center, offer a great deal of flexibility and capability for an organization.

In the overview post, I provided a brief outline of Response Groups – they are an on-prem solution that offers hunt groups or IVR trees to assign calls to a Queue, and you can designate agents to handle the calls within that Queue. Response Groups are comprised of a Workflow, that receives and processes the call, passing it off to a Queue. Queues have Agents that are offered the call. To “Offer a call” is Microsoft’s terminology for the Response Group service ringing a particular Agent’s phone, so that they have the option to answer the call.

You might think at first that the Workflow would be the best place to begin any kind of deeper explanation. I’ve found that the opposite is true, so let’s being by taking a look at Groups, and since a picture is work a thousand words, here’s a screenshot of where to find the Response Group configuration page in the SfB Control Panel:


You can see the three components: Groups, Queues, and Workflows. The components are homed on a Front-End Pool, so you will need to select a pool each time you create or edit one of these objects.

Diving into Groups and selecting New, we see this page (it’s the same page for editing):


Note that while these components are homed on a particular pool, users who are Agents in a Group can belong to any on-prem pool in your organization.

The Name and Description fields are self-explanatory. Note the red star indicating that the name is a required field. You can edit the name after creation, but make things easy on yourself and come up with a naming scheme before you start.

Note that you’ll need names for Groups, Queues, and Workflows. If you call all three components “sales”, life can get confusing for you, especially if you find yourself in PowerShell. The easiest way to alleviate this is to add _Group or _Queue to the end of the name for these components. Users never see these names, so don’t worry about confusing them.

Great naming standards are always a win in my books, but do feel free to leave notes in the description field that provide more insight into the purpose of the group.

Participation Policy has two options, Formal and Informal:

  • Formal requires your agents to sign in and out of the Response Group. You do this via a web page and not just a button on a phone or in the client. I personally find this annoying. The lack of other Contact Center functionality in Response Groups makes Participation Policies somewhere i
  • Informal means there’s no login/logout required. You are essentially always logged in. This is the most common selection that I see.

Alert Time  is generally how long SfB will offer a call to the Agents before it’s passed back to the Queue. There are two timers in Response Groups, one at the Group level and one at the Queue level. Any decent conversation about these timers needs to include how the two timers work together for you (or against you, if you’re not careful) so more on timers in the upcoming post on Queues.

Routing Method is the pattern that the Response Group service user to select Agents to offer calls to. Your options are:

  • Longest Idle: The Agent who has been idle the longest, as long as their presence is Available or Inactive.
  • Parallel: The call is offered to all Agents whose presence is Available or Inactive.
  • Round Robin: The call is presented to each Agent based on the list of Agents, so long as they are Available or Inactive. The RG service keeps track of the last agent that was offered a call, and will start with the next agent for the next call. Over time, you will get a roughly equal distribution of calls, assuming your agents have similar presences statuses for similar amounts of time.
  • Serial: Similar to Round Robin, but follows the order of the agents as you have them in the Agent list, so long as that user is Available or Inactive. Unlike the Round Robin option, the RG service will start again at the top of the Agent list for the next call. This is a great way to prioritize your agents so that one person typically answers calls, but calls will immediately go to their backup(s) if they’re not available
  • Attendant: The RG service will offer the call to all agents, regardless of their presence (Save for DND and Offline). One key difference is that the calls will “stack up” in the Agent’s notification window, and they can cherry pick which call they answer. On the downside, agents will hear ringing and see toast for each call that is coming in. If you have a lot of calls stacking up, this gets really annoying. (Use Queue overflow settings to alleviate this)

Agents are last. We have a dropdown that allows you to build your own ordered list of agents, or select an existing AD distribution list. The distribution list can be a great option however there are a couple of gotchas:

  • The Response Group service is updated overnight through SfB maintenance processes. If you need to add an agent to a group faster, you can either fiddle with triggering updates manually or use the “customer group of agents” option instead.
  • The Response Group service can’t take advantage of nested groups. Only direct members of the group you select become agents.
  • Agents must be enabled for Enterprise Voice.

Gotchas to watch for when adding a user as an Agent to a Group in a different SfB Topology Site

  • An user in the same site as the pool hosting the Response Group will receive a banner on their client advising that they’ve been added to the Response Group as an Agent. A user outside of that site will not receive any notification that they’ve been added to a Group.
  • An Agent in one site cannot place calls on behalf of a response group in a different site.
  • When an agent hits their default logon/logout page via the client, it will only have Response Groups from their own site. They’ll need to manually bookmark the login/logout page for any other sites that host Response Groups that they are a member of.
  • You can leave a group without any agents defined, but you cannot use that group for anything. (Stay with me here, this applies in a more advanced call handling scenarios that I’ll get to later).

And that’s it for Groups. Next up will be a post on Queues, where all of the interesting stuff happens.



Main Number Handling: Solution Overview

In the first post in this series, I provided some basic guidance on how to plan for you main number scenarios. In this post, I’ll outline each of the technical options that you can use to address you main number requirements.

Your call handling functions include:

SfB Response Group Hunt Groups

Response Groups are a hunt group/IVR solution built into SfB on-prem. Response Groups have three components: groups, which are your users who will handle calls, queues that present the calls to groups, and a workflow that will play a greeting and send the call to a queue.

Workflows have options for business hours, holidays, music on hold, recorded or text-to-speech greetings. A call can be distributed to a queue, or based on work hours and holidays it can be disconnected (really? Who would ever do that?) or forwarded elsewhere.

Response Groups have some other features like Agent Anonymity so that you don’t reveal the name, SIP address, or number of the agent receiving or placing a call. A Response Group can be Formal or Informal. With Formal Response Groups, Agents must log in and out of the Response Group, whereas with informal Response Groups they’re always “logged in”.

You can also scope a Response Group to a manager, so that you can easily delegate all the fiddly settings like greetings and hours and group membership to an administrator.

Once the call is in a queue, there are a variety of timeout and overflow options. Within Groups, you can set the method used to pick which agent(s) is offered the call, and how long the call will ring before it’s sent back up to the queue for alternate handling.

SfB Response Group IVR

The Response Group type I described above is a Hunt Group, where an incoming call has only one destination queue. An IVR Response Group allows you to provide options to the caller, and route their call to a different queue based on their responses. This can be via keypress or speech recognition. You can also record that ubiquitous “Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed” greeting that everybody seems to have, regardless of how old their IVR structure is.

Response Groups are pretty versatile (and free) and are commonly used because of this. However, they’re not without their limitations. I’ll explore these more in a future post.

Exchange Auto-Attendants

Exchange Auto-Attendants aren’t an SfB feature, they’re a component of Exchange Unified Messaging. They’re available online or on-prem, and are fairly simple to configure. When an Auto Attendant is called, a greeting is played and the call can do things like an address book looking, enter an extension, or similar to the IVR Response Group, press keys or use voice recognition to play messages or reach destinations. You also get business hours and holidays, and can change behavior based on these.

Unlike Response Groups, there are no queues or groups in Auto Attendants, however the Auto Attendant doesn’t care what’s at the number that you forward a call too, so you could forward a call from an AutoAttendant to another AA, Response Group, user, or your annoying coworker’s mobile.

SfB Standalone/Phantom “user” or Common Area Phone

You could also chose to have a main number ring a regular phone or SfB client, typically one that isn’t assigned to a person. I’ve seen these called “Standalone” phones or “Phantom users”. This solution is common when your call volume is low, or when you have a rotation of people through a reception desk. The users can logon to the PC as themselves, and would have a phone on the desk for the main number. I have also seen organization load an Attendant console on a small form factor PC with a touch screen, and have this sit on the desk beside the regular office PC.

You can use a standard SfB user for this, or a Common Area Phone. Using a SfB user consumes a license, where a CAP does not. However, CAPs are not yet available in SfB Online, and cannot offer voicemail.

SfB Team Ring or Delegation

When a standalone phone or phantom user proves too limiting, such as when there isn’t a reception desk or you need a ring a group of people, you can use Team Ring or Delegation.

Team Ring allows one user – your phantom user – to have their calls ring on their teammates SfB clients or phones after some delay (0-15 seconds). They’ll get a unique ring/toast so they can identify that the call isn’t to their individual number.

Team Ring and Delegation are very similar, with one key difference. With Team Ring, you can only answer calls on behalf of the phantom user. With Delegation, you can receive and place calls on behalf of the phantom user.

This is a popular, free (other than the SfB license for the phantom user), self-serve option, but it’s not a scalable solution.

SfB Simultaneous Ring

A similar option to Team Ring is to use the Simultaneous Ring feature. However, Simring only allows you to assign one destination user or phone number, so you can’t alert multiple people for an incoming call. This option is useful for a single user or phantom user, when the person who would normally answer the call is away from their desk – an admin person making some photocopies, or a security officer doing a patrol. They can setup simring to a mobile or cordless phone, and wander away from their desk while being able to answer the phone. Note that options for call transfers are limited in this scenario.

They could also simring a coworker who is staying at their desk, who would have the usual SfB call transfer options.

Call Pickup

Call pickup is a relatively new option in the SfB world. The idea is that when your phone is ringing, your coworkers can enter a code on their phone to pickup your call. This was a popular function in traditional PBX environments that didn’t have things like delegation or team ring. Call pickup is a bit of a pain to administer. Frankly, I get the feeling that this feature was added to SfB to satisfy a large customer, or to gain another point or two when organizations are scoring RFP responses.

Shared Line Appearance

A Shared Line Appearance is another legacy PBX features that has crept into the SfB world, at least partially. The idea here is that you would have a button (or two or three) on your phone that would be a duplicate of the line on another phone. Think of an admin who can have buttons on their phone for the main number, the bosses’ number, and maybe a coworker. They can hit this button to answer the other line(s) when they ring. In most legacy PBXs, the button also offered a busy light, and could either act as a speed dial to call that person, or a “place call on behalf of” function. In SfB, this functionality is limited at present to just Polycom VVX phones, it’s not available on other phones or the SfB clients. The button also doesn’t do anything other than answer the call.

I’ve seen limited uptake of this feature, and again I suspect it’s to provide some level of comfort to a large SfB customer or for RFP scoring. There are better, less limited ways to handle most scenarios where SLA is mentioned.

Coming soon to the SfB offerings are Cloud PBX Organization Auto Attendant and Cloud PBX Call Queues. These are meant to offer functionality similar to SfB Response Groups in Online deployments, and to eliminate the need for the Exchange UM role for Auto Attendant functionality. These features are currently in preview, and I’m hopeful that they’ll be released soon so that I can provide more concrete details.

AudioCodes Auto Attendant

AudioCodes offers an application that they call AutoAttendant, though it’s more like the Response Group than Exchange Auto Auto attendant. There are no directory lookups, but there are decent options for queueing and IVR handling of calls.

Full-blown Contact Center

If these solutions don’t meet your requirement, you may need to look at a full blown contact center solution like Computer Talk ICE, Clarify Connect, or Enghouse’s offerings. This isn’t as daunting of a concept as it once was. You no longer need to deploy one or more servers and installing software. Most call centre software is now available in the cloud as a service, with functionality and pricing on a per-user, per-month basis.

Next up…

In the next several posts, I’ll provide more in-depth details on each of the items above. If I’ve missed your favorite main number handling option, hit me up in the comments!