Creating a Dialplan in Asterisk 1.6: Part 2

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Advanced Call Distribution

What exactly is Advanced Call Distribution ? Many phone systems tout this feature, but most do not adequately define what it means. Basically, it refers to using call queues, parking calls for another user to answer, and Direct Inward Dialing (DID).

So that we keep our focus, we will look at each of these elements individually.

Call queues

We have already configured call queues through the /etc/asterisk/queues.conf file. As we go through how we’re going to use our queues, we may decide we want to change the way our queues are configured. There is absolutely no problem with changing the configuration so that it more accurately reflects our needs. Just remember that we need to issue a reload on the Asterisk console, or type #asterisk –r –x reload at the command line.

The power and flexibility of other ACD systems can be matched or exceeded by Asterisk. As we evaluate our needs, we should remember that configuring a single aspect of Asterisk sometimes requires changes to more than one file. For example, queues will be configured both in the queues.conf file and the extensions.conf file. We will discuss how to set up extensions.conf to give us the desired result.

When dealing with call queues, we need to think about the two types of users we have. First, we have the caller who calls in and waits in the queue for the next agent. We can think of this person as our customer. Next, we have the agents who work the queue. We can think of these people as our users.

As a business, we have to decide what we want our customers’ experience to be. Our call queue can make it sound like a phone is ringing. Or we can use music on hold while the customer waits. We can also announce call position and estimated wait time if we want to.

When we place customers in a queue, we use the Queue application. To place a caller in the queue named bob, we would use something like:

exten => 1000,1,Queue(bob)

Suppose we have an operator’s extension. As Ollie the operator may have more than one call at a time, we decide to give him a call queue. His calls are always about a minute long. The customers waiting for him are going to be there because they got lost in a system of menus. His queue will be named operator.

In this instance, we will choose to have the customer hear the ring, so they will believe they are about to be helped. The sound of ringing should not last more than about a minute. We will not announce call queue length because our customer should not know that he or she is in a queue.

The entry for this queue would be:

exten => 0,1,Queue(operator|tr)

Notice our use of options. Options for the queue application include:

  • t: Allow the user to transfer the customer.
  • T: Allow the customer to transfer the user.
  • d: This is a data-quality call.
  • H: Allow the customer to hang up by hitting *.
  • n: Do not retry on timeout. The next step in the dialplan will be executed.
  • r: Give the customer the ringing sound instead of music on hold.

Thus, we told the Queue application to make the customer hear the ring, and the user (Ollie) the ability to transfer calls (as he’s the operator).

Now, suppose we have Rebecca, the receptionist at SIP phone 1006. When Ollie goes to the bathroom, we want our poor lost customers to be routed to her. So we could use the following in our extensions.conf file:

exten => 0,1,Queue(operator|trn)
exten => 0,2,Dial(SIP/1006)

Now, Rebecca had better answer this. Until she does, the phone will continue to ring. Notice that this call will never end up in Rebecca’s voicemail, as it is not transferred to her extension, but instead dials her phone directly.

We have adequately addressed the customer’s experience. But now we need to look at how our users will join and leave the queue. Previously, we discussed the power and flexibility of using agents in queues. As with most things in Asterisk, there are many ways we can associate members to queues. The three main ways are—statically, dynamically, and by using agents.

Our first option is to have members statically assigned to the queue. In order to do this, we use the member directive in the queues.conf file. This is most helpful when we have a queue with fixed members, such as a switchboard queue.

Our second option is to allow members to log in dynamically. We do this through the AddQueueMember application. An example of this would be:

exten => 8101,1,AddQueueMember(myqueue|SIP/1001)

Whenever anybody dials extension 8101, the telephone handset SIP/1001 would be added to the queue named myqueue. All that we would have to do is define a login extension for every member of every queue.

What happens when this member no longer wishes to be in the queue? We use the RemoveQueueMember application, like this:

exten => 8201,1,RemoveQueueMember(myqueue|SIP/1001)

With this configuration, whenever anybody dials extension 8201, the telephone handset at SIP/1001 is removed. Again, we would have to define a logout extension for each member of the queue.

Suppose we did not wish to define a login and logout extension for each member. We have the option of leaving off the interface (SIP/1001 in the previous example) and having Asterisk use our current extension. While this is very useful, Asterisk does not always use the right value. However, if it works for all extensions that need to be in the queue, we would only have to define one login and one logout per queue. The code would look like:

exten => 8101,1,AddQueueMember(myqueue)
exten => 8201,1,RemoveQueueMember(myqueue)

This is better than having to define a login and logout for each member of each queue, but sometimes users are not good at remembering multiple extensions to dial. The AddQueueMember application will jump to priority n+101 if that interface is already a member of the queue. Therefore, we could define an extension like:

exten => 8101,1,Answer
exten => 8101,2,AddQueueMember(myqueue)
exten => 8101,3,Playback(agent-loginok)
exten => 8101,4,Hangup
exten => 8101,103,RemoveQueueMember(myqueue)
exten => 8101,102,Playback(agent-loggedoff)
exten => 8101,105,Hangup

When we define it this way, a user dialing extension 8101 is logged in if not already a member of the queue, or logged out if in the queue. Also, we added a confirmation to the action, so that the user can know if they are now in or out of the queue. Notice that before we could use the Playback application, we had to answer the call. If we have a lot of these, we could define a macro extension, like:

[macro-queueloginout]exten => s,1,Answer
exten => s,2,AddQueueMember(${ARG1})
exten => s,3,Playback(agent-loginok)
exten => s,4,Hangup
exten => s,103,RemoveQueueMember(${ARG1})
exten => s,104,Playback(agent-loggedoff)
exten => s,105,Hangup
. . .
[default]exten => 8101,1,Macro(queueloginout|queue1)
exten => 8102,1,Macro(queueloginout|queue2)
exten => 8103,1,Macro(queueloginout|queue3)

And thus we see that using a macro will save us five lines in our extensions.conf for every queue after the first. This is how we can add queue members dynamically.

Our final option for adding queue members is by using Asterisk’s agent settings. We were able to define agents in /etc/asterisk/agents.conf. We create an agent by defining an ID and a password, and listing the agent’s name.

In the queues.conf, we could define agents as members of queues. Calls will not be sent to agents unless they are logged in. In this way, queues can be both dynamic and static—they are static when we do not change the members of the queues, but dynamic when calls will go to different handsets based upon which agents are logged in.

There are two main types of agents in this world. There are the archetypical large call center agents who work with a headset and never hear rings, and there are the lower-volume agents whose phone rings each time a call comes in. Asterisk has the flexibility to handle both types of agents, even in the same queue.

First, imagine a huge call center that takes millions of phone calls per day. Each agent is in multiple queues, and we have set each queue to use an announcement at the beginning of calls to let the agent know which queue the call is coming in from. As employees arrive for their shift, they sit down at an empty station, plug in their headset, and log in. Each employee will hear music in between calls, and then hear a beep, and the call will be connected. To accomplish this, we use the line:

exten => 8001,1,AgentLogin

Through the normal login, the call is kept active the whole time. The agents will logout by hanging up the phone. This allows large call centers to be quieter, as the distraction of ringing phones will be removed. It also allows for more efficient answering of lines, as the time required to pick up the phone is eliminated.

When our users arrive at work and wish to log in, they call extension 8001, where they are prompted for their agent ID, password, and then an extension number at which they will take calls. This is how Asterisk knows how to reach them. Our agents can log out when using AgentCallbackLogin by going through the same procedure as for login, with the exception that when they are prompted for their extension, they press the # key.

It may be a good idea for us to review agents.conf. If we defined autologoff, then after the specified number of seconds of ringing, the agent will be automatically logged off. If we set ackcall to yes, then agents must press the # key to accept calls. If we created a wrapuptime (defined in milliseconds), then Asterisk will wait that many milliseconds before sending another call to the agent. These options can help us make our phone system as user friendly as we want it to be.

Through the use of call queues, we can distribute our incoming calls efficiently and effectively. We have plenty of options, and can mix and match these three ways of joining users to queues.

Call parking

In many businesses across the United States, an operator can be heard announcing “John, you have a call on line 3. John, line 3.” In Asterisk, we don’t really have lines the way analog PBXs do. Our users are accustomed to not having to transfer calls, especially when they may not know exactly where John is.

Asterisk uses a feature known as call parking to accomplish this same goal. Our users will transfer calls to a special extension, which will then tell them what extension to call in order to retrieve the call. Then our users can direct the intended recipient to dial that extension and connect to the call.

In order to be able to use this feature, we must define our parking lot. This is done in the /etc/asterisk/parking.conf file. In this file, there are only a few options that we will need to configure. First, we must create the extension that people are to dial in order to park calls. This can be whatever extension is convenient for us. Then we will define a list of extensions on which to place parked calls. These extensions will be what users dial to retrieve a parked call. Next, we will define what context we want our parked calls to be in. Finally, we will define how many seconds a call remains parked before ringing back to the user who parked it. Here is an example:

[general]parkext => 8100
parkpos => 8101-8199
context => parkedcalls
parkingtime => 120

These settings would mean that we can park calls by dialing 8100, and the call will be placed in extensions 8101 through 8199, giving us the ability to have up to 99 parked calls at any given time. The calls will be in the context called parkedcalls, which means we should be careful to include it in any context where users should be able to park and retrieve calls.

When our users transfer a call to extension 8100, they will hear Asterisk read out the extension that the call has been placed on. They can now make a note of it and notify the appropriate co-worker of the extension to reach the calling customer on. If the call is not picked up within the given parkingtime, then the call will ring back to the user who parked the call.

By using call parking, we can help our users by providing a feature similar to that of previous generations of PBXs. This also allows users to collaborate and redirect callers to other users who are better equipped to handle our customers’ needs.

Direct Inward Dialing (DID)

Suppose we work at a healthcare company with over 100 employees. We have two PRI lines coming in, and only three switchboard agents to handle incoming calls. As a healthcare company, we schedule many appointments, answer questions about prescriptions, and help patients with billing questions. These three agents are always busy.

Now suppose the IT guy’s wife calls in to ask if he wants sprouts or mash with his dinner. Do we want our switchboard agents to have to answer the call, find out who it is and what they want, and then transfer the call, or would we rather want the IT guy’s wife to call her husband directly?

This is where Direct Inward Dialing (DID) comes in handy. DID is a service provided by phone companies where they send an agreed-upon set of digits, depending on the number the customer dialed. For most phone companies, the sent digits will be the full ten-digit number (in the United States). But this can be as small as the last digit.

All right, so the phone company is sending digits. What are we going to do with them? Imagine you have a PRI coming in to your office, and only ten phone numbers—a block from (850) 555-5550 to 5559. Your phone company has agreed to send you only the last digit dialed, which will be from 0 to 9, because you are guaranteed for this to be unique. Asterisk can route calls based on this DID information.

If we have our PRI line’s channels defined to go into a context called incoming, this context could look like:

[incoming]s,1,Goto(default,s,1)
i,1,Goto(default,s,1)
t,1,Goto(default,s,1)
0,1,Goto(default,1234,1)
1,1,Goto(default,2345,1)
2,1,Goto(default,3456,1)
3,1,Goto(default,4567,1)
4,1,Goto(default,5678,1)
5,1,Goto(default,6789,1)
6,1,Goto(default,7890,1)
7,1,Goto(default,1111,1)
8,1,Goto(default,1111,1)
9,1,Goto(default,1111,1)

There are a few things we should notice about this. First, we handled the error cases. What if a glitch at the phone company results in four digits being sent? We cannot allow a simple mistake on their end to interrupt our ability to receive phone calls.

Secondly, we are using Goto statements. We’ve briefly discussed how they can be both good and bad. In this case, if a user moves from one extension to another by using Goto, we have to update it only in the default context.

Finally, we are allowed to send multiple incoming DIDs to the same extension, if we so desire, as in the last three lines shown in the previous code. This might be useful if extension 1111 is the operator, and we do not yet have the number 7, 8, or 9 assigned to a user.

Of course, in real life this is going to get much more complicated, as phone numbers will probably come in with the full ten digits. But the concept is the same—we can define extensions based upon information that the phone company sends when the call is established.

By using DIDs, we can cut down on bottlenecks and give direct access to certain extensions. This tool of Asterisk helps make our phone system fast, efficient, and friendly to our users and customers.

 

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