A child from Honduras, 16 years old, has reunified with her mother in North Carolina after spending several months in a U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter facility. The beginning of the school year is approaching, and the mother needs specific educational and medical records from the shelter to register her daughter for school. She calls the ORR National Call Center.
Or perhaps a dad calls in because he’s concerned for his 17-year-old son, who has begun to show signs of distress, run away from home, and may be using drugs. On a separate line, the son calls in, reporting that he has moved out and away from his father.
Regardless of the circumstances, call centers are crucial lifelines for delivering needed social services—especially for vulnerable populations. Will your call center team stand ready to support these callers?
Drawn from our experience managing call centers over the past 11 years, we’ve found these six success factors ensure that social services call centers meet their populations’ needs:
Professional, empathetic, and solution-oriented staff who provide respectful interaction with customers
In the industry, there is often a division of approaches for call centers. Some companies focus on key performance indicators (KPIs), pushing staff to handle calls in a certain amount of time that limits the ability to focus on the human aspect of the solution. Others focus on developing a compassionate staff who strives to build rapport and place the caller at ease. That rapport also opens the door for the call specialist to fully understand everything the caller needs, anticipate needs they may not have thought of, and provide them with the appropriate resources.
Vulnerable populations often do not know exactly what they need as they move through the system. By creating an atmosphere that is solution-oriented through training and process guides, callers come away with clear guidance and confidence to accomplish their goals—a benefit that can only come from being empowered by an empathetic staff and respectful interaction.
First-call resolution that provides accurate solutions, reducing escalation
First-call resolution focuses on reducing the need for multiple return calls. When a call specialist is racing against the clock to meet KPIs, a caller may receive only part of their answer before the call is disconnected. A solution-oriented staff leverages skillfully created and organized learning tools and documents to probe deeper into the needs of the caller, answering all their questions without requiring additional return calls or escalations to more senior members of the team. This lessens the burden, not only on the call center, but also on the callers by avoiding barriers before they reach them.
Accurate, up-to-date content, and easily editable knowledge management systems (KMS) combined with ongoing training
Knowledge management is an industry hot button, with there being various software and systems available to meet these needs. However, having the software does not guarantee accurate or up-to-date content. First, the KMS should be integrative to prevent call specialists from navigating in multiple systems and allowing them to provide correct responses with ease. Second, the system should be intuitive, and the knowledge articles should be written in a way that is easily understandable for the staff. Third, keeping the system up to date requires a dedication to excellence, subject matter expertise where appropriate, and acute awareness of the work environment.
Ability to reach and serve underserved, at-risk, and difficult-to-reach populations through multiple channels
Call centers have been a cornerstone in the customer service industry. But the industry is shifting as artificial intelligence, technology, and busy schedules begin to push towards alternative options. Particularly in the case of underserved, at-risk, and difficult-to-reach populations, where access to calls during standard operation hours is not guaranteed. Furthermore, customers have no desire to wait on the phone for hours before speaking with a human.
Research and understanding your core populations and their behaviors can lead to improvements to your methods of communication. This may include live chat and chatbot, conversational text messaging, and more. (Editor's Note: Learn how intelligent automation can support call center mission delivery.) Additionally, it is important to reflect on the visibility of the call center. Does the community know it’s there? Are there reminders about the call center’s availability, or is there more we can do to be present in communities that need us? These are critical questions when working with vulnerable populations. For example, if you’re in a technological desert with limited service options, it is important to reflect on how to continuously broaden your availability.
Good reputation among customers and potential users through word-of-mouth
High-impact service providers risk their reputation due to customers’ frustration with poor experiences. Poor customer service can leave a bad taste in customers’ mouths. By combining the methods above with a robust quality assurance program, you can address deficiencies in knowledge, training, empathy, and issues with technology—and then mitigate them quickly and proactively. By raising a concern as soon as a problem happens, the proximity of the event helps to reinforce the correction as it is fresh in the call specialist’s mind. Customer satisfaction surveys provide an additional view into the perception of the call center and experiences. It opens the door to gather feedback on whether the hours of operations, channels available, etc., meet the customer’s needs.
A culture of continuous improvement driven by quality and customer satisfaction
With increased data comes increased opportunity. A robust reporting system combines information from the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA’s) IT Modernization Centers of Excellence (CoE) guidance, which validates these six success factors. It says, for example: Human-centered design techniques, hiring to ensure the right call-center representative attitude, and ensuring first-call resolution are some of the best-in-class elements of customer experience. An engaged workforce committed to the mission is essential to a positive customer experience. Best-in-class and emerging technologies, including work-at-home technology, encourages innovation, increases employee productivity and customer satisfaction, and enhances mission delivery. Ongoing training, including for soft skills like call specialist behavior, is essential for sustainable knowledge preservation, evolution, and appropriate usage. And omni-channel features including intelligent IVR, click-to-chat, callback, and secure email are important to reach audiences.
In 2020, Forbes declared that “call center agents are today's heroes.”
At-risk populations who rely on the Maryland Department of Human Services required alternate channels of support due to pandemic forced office closures, particularly in Baltimore City. The agency directed the Baltimore City toll-free number to our existing call center infrastructure. Together we triaged incoming questions about resources and benefits to quickly serve people who depend on refugee and asylee assistance, emergency food assistance, adult services, child support services, and other essentials.
During times of poverty and persecution and in crises like abuse, trafficking, hurricanes, and war, call center teams serve vulnerable populations on behalf of federal, state, local, and tribal agencies. Using human-centered design, data, training, and purpose-driven solutions are at the core of helping agencies better reach and better serve non-English speakers, immigrating people, people with disabilities, the elderly, those without internet or computers, and other at-risk populations—with understanding, empathy, and respect to keep children and families safe.
Read our new paper on how three public agencies are facilitating meaningful customer engagement.