30 second read
A two-week pilot in the Contact Centre that is testing if we can train customer service agents sufficiently in empathy techniques that they are able to (1) surface a resident’s need; and (2) signpost them to a voluntary or community organisation that can help them.
3 minute read
There are many reasons why people seek the confidence of Hackney’s several thousand health, voluntary and community sector organisations (VCSOs). They need support and advice on health, immigration, employment, debt, housing, bereavement, loneliness, crime, language, children, disabilities, learning… anything and everything in life. Some tackle incredibly tough situations such as domestic violence or eviction, others the practical inconveniences of the day-to-day.
Some of these organisations are funded by the Council; others rely on donations, legacies or trust funds. Some have paid members of staff, still more are entirely run by volunteers. A few are part of a national or even global chain, a couple operate on a single housing estate. Many we work with already; others we’ve never heard of. In short, it’s a patchwork.
Equally patchwork are people in need of help. Some are explicit about their needs and nigh on demand someone meets them! Others struggle alone because of pride or a quest for independence. We’ve probably all known a Doreen who buys tinned tuna from the corner shop three times a day. She doesn’t eat that much tinned tuna, it’s just it’s the only conversation she has all day. It takes courage to understand what you need, admit you need it and then go and get it.
During periods of stress or change, it’s the security and familiarity of bedrock institutions such as the Council that people turn to. Hence why thousands of residents have contacted us for help. The big hitters of food and medicine are up and running and it’s time to look at other needs emerging from the ‘I Need Help’ programme.
From the I Need Help data, a significant number of residents are after a chat about their particular situation, possibly accompanied by advice but not always. Research into helpline calls last week also showed that every person who called the helpline would like a chat and check-in, as well as whatever else they were calling about. This includes the 20% who had more complex issues; they too felt the need of a simple chat.
The Council does not, cannot and should not provide all these services: our USP lies in knowing someone who does. We are in an almost unique position of being a trusted institution, in regular contact with residents and connected to VCSOs in the borough. We can leverage this by signposting residents to organisations that can help them.
We know from the Find Support Services map that many of the VCSOs in Hackney have switched their usual offer of drop-ins, group classes or home visits to a phone service offering chats or mentoring. We have more than 40 organisations under the ‘Chat and check-in’ category. Our role is to lead the people who need help to these organisations.
We’re seeing how far we get with this via a two-week pilot. At its crux, is our belief that we can sufficiently train customer service agents in empathy techniques that they are able to surface a resident’s unspoken need. It’s about catching on that Doreen cannot possibly eat that much tuna, she’s just lonely. And we can signpost her to a service so she is less so.
Professionals in public health, customer services, ICT and voluntary organisations have come together for this pilot that will run out of the Contact Centre helpline. We’re building on work in social prescribing and community navigation, Making Every Contact Count, 3 Conversations, contextual safeguarding, Finding Support Services and many more.
We’ve devised a set of friendly questions that can be tagged onto a call to identify if a resident needs more support. As broad as ‘how are you finding lockdown?’ or ‘have you spoken to anyone today?’. It opens up a conversation.
We have three agents trained up and, when an agent surfaces a need, they will signpost the resident to one of eight organisations on the Find Support Services map that we have confirmed can help. Some specialise in over ‘50s, others BAME, others carers – many will chat to anyone!
Agents will manually pass on the phone number and url of the organisations to the resident – we hope in the very near future to implement gov.notify so we can text them out. However, it is up to the resident to get in touch with the organisation because, as part of our strengths-based approach, they need to choose to make that call. Our aim is to empower them as much as possible to do so.
If the conversation takes a more serious turn then agents will refer in the usual manner – following safeguarding processes – to the relevant service. If the need is complex, they will be referred to Shoreditch Trust, which has agreed to act as a single point of access to the Community Navigation Covid Network (a group of community navigation organisations) to ensure that the resident’s holistic needs are met. In these cases, ‘referral’ means the agent will email the organisation or service with the caller’s details and they are expected to ring them back.
In brief: the agent will signpost the resident to make the call themselves; or refer the resident to another service that will proactively call them back. These aren’t mutually exclusive options. One resident could be both signposted and referred.
We’re asking agents to complete a Google form when they have signposted or referred someone so that we can track volume and follow up with the organisations afterwards. We’ll also be listening to a sample of the calls to ascertain if our empathy questions are working because much hinges on that. During the pilot, the three agents will also be able to give live suggestions or feedback on Slack, which we can act on immediately if appropriate.
Customer service agents are people-people and are naturally empathetic. This is about giving them the space to be so and not simply measuring performance by the number of calls they get through in a day. For this reason, the Contact Centre has suspended its usual performance metrics. We’d rather a conversation took a little longer and truly helped the resident.
Next week, we hope to be able to share the results of the pilot and retrospective with you, and work out our next steps.