“Getting that information when you are the only one sitting at the desk and there are five people yelling at you is tough.”
One person inherently creates a bottleneck by his or her limited reach. Getting pulled in different directions by people who have a crisis and want an answer at that exact time was commonplace. Service suffered. Perceived empathy suffered. The staff cares a great deal about helping their clients but a barrage of constant stimuli lowers the level of service for everyone involved.
As we observed, the front staff spent around four hours per week addressing redundant requests. While this time wasn’t necessarily wasted, it was misspent. We formulated the idea of a call center – a way to free up the staff to do what they were trained to do and not answer the redundant requests. ARCH uses an automated call service to answer the exact questions that were still being asked. When we inquired, we discovered that the City of Austin set it up (ARCH is city property) a few years ago, but left ARCH with no easy way to change the information or understand what sort of information was being requested. Callers became frustrated with the automated answers and wanted a real person to answer questions. A help line became a hindrance.
Almost everyone has a mobile phone. No, really. About 70% of the clients at ARCH had their own phone and the remainder either had access through sharing the phone or using their own SIM card. Communicating on the go was no longer a luxury, but a near necessity.
Above all, we learned that when people have a crisis, they want need to talk to someone. People think that their problem is the most important at that exact time. They want to talk to someone to get the answer that best suits their immediate needs without having to sift through numerous options that all appear identical. People in crisis have critical questions that require a curator to provide unique answers.
Our Solution We had to sift through the gad/bad and the old/new. We had to organize the information into useful chunks of data that could be found easily. We had to provide a method to get an actual person to answer the phone instead of a prompted recording.
We had to free up the staff to do what they were trained to do. We had to bring more volunteers into ARCH. We had to find empathetic people that cared about helping others.
We had to find a way to let everyone provide the best service possible with less barriers. We had to make the new system fit seamlessly into the existing system.
We wanted to develop a way that volunteers could answer the ARCH telephones off-site and expertly answer these redundant requests using the service resource library. When we presented our outsourced call center concept to the front desk supervisor, his initial reaction was “ok.” As Chap and I watched the idea wash over him, he realized the simplicity of our concept. He immediately gravitated towards the organization aspect and said that would be the biggest win- a way to digitally collect and edit all the service information. If we did one thing at all, this would be it.
Many signs pointed to Pocket Hotline becoming a reality. We planned to leverage cloud telephony (Twilio and more), ubiquitous mobile phones and generally inexpensive technology (cloud storage). We wanted to provide a way that the community could conveniently volunteer while quickly building empathy and expertise.
Prototyping After concepting the behavior, function, flow and many aspects in between, Chap and I developed wireframes. Testing tour wireframe was easy with Kolko’s concurrent class segment covering design evaluation. Over the next two weeks we employed Think Aloud Testing and Heuristic Evaluation to test varying aspects of the design- all of which illustrated breakdowns that led to actionable revisions.
Neither of us code iPhone apps (yet). However, we found that a recent revision to jQuery mobile exhibited iPhone-like behavior and Chap can code Rails like no one’s business. After outsourcing the data entry (cheap and totally worth it), we developed an interface that provided critical functionality on a mobile phone. The mobile web app totally worked. Now we needed to test it in the wild.
Enter serendipity. Chap heard about an organization (OK4RJ) that could use our help. They were a small grassroots organization in Norman, Oklahoma that wanted to create a hotline amongst volunteers. Their original thought centered around grabbing a Cricket phone, passing it around and creating an ad hoc information source. We thought this opportunity would be perfect. After a mad dash of inputting the data and setting up a number on Twilio, Pocket Hotline was ready to help.
We received feedback immediately. OK4RJ using the app amongst 15 volunteers. They added new data and the feature requests poured in. It was coming together just in time for our final presentation. As Chap fine-tuned the app, I worked on our pitch. We revised the deck week after week but it was finally becoming real. We had to make decisions. We had to say Pocket Hotline is this and not that. We had to make a stand.
The underlying model is applicable to people in crisis finding answers to their questions, but it’s also applicable to others finding answers to their product/service questions. Chap’s example in the presentation centered around his experience changing the brakes in his new VW bus. He read the instructions but needed a little more guidance. Unfortunately his VW friend was unavailable during the critical moments and Chap figured it out nontheless. But what if Chap could call a hotline that connected him with a VW expert- a guy who knew the VW bus inside and out and could articulately answer questions on-demand? Replace “passionate volunteer” with “avid user” and we could provide a service rivaling (and exceeding) customer service help lines. We could facilitate people with critical questions connecting with on-demand experts.
The slide deck below is the presentation we delivered at last week in a pitch symposium with fellow AC4Ders. Be sure to check out the other great concepts as soon as they’re posted to this blog.
Making it REAL In Q4, we’re working on the business side of things: structures, funding, road show pitch decks and so. much. more. But more importantly, we’re figuring out how to help the most people possible. As the deck will illustrate, we are toying with a hybrid business model that will help non-profits and function as a revenue-generating business too. What if the for-profit business portion subsidized the non-profit portion? Could we do more “good” with that?
There are MANY more facets to this concept that we need to articulate. Here are a few:
- How do we train volunteers quickly? Scenarios? Guided training?
- How do we rate the experts? How do we filter the pseudo experts and less empathetic volunteers?
- How do we keep volunteers engaged with the client? How do we keep volunteers engaged and identified with the larger volunteer group and/or organization?
- How much do we charge? Where are the revenue opportunities?
We’re diving deep to explore these options and many others. We’re figuring out ways to meet the user where they are and help them in more meaningful methods than currently available. We’re figuring out how to do the most “good” while answering critical questions on-demand.
We welcome your comments regarding the Pocket Hotline concept and suggestions for organizations that could use this service.