Contact centres

Charity contact centres are key to a charity's contact strategy, whether in relation to clients, beneficiaries, supporters or donors. To read about how best to run your charity's contact centre, click on the headline links below.

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The right fit with an outsourced contact centre

For years, charities have struggled with limited resources. Diminishing grant funding and organisational restructures have left some charities struggling to spread the workload. In recent years, in order to relieve some of the burden and help ensure they are able to focus on their core activities, many charities have chosen to outsource major functions, such as enquiry handling. Indeed, having an effective point of contact or contact centre is a crucial resource for a charity.

While outsourcing once was seen as a luxury for only the larger charities and mainly used for donation lines, charities of all sizes are now realising the benefits of appointing a specialist outsourcer to handle a wide range of both inbound enquiries and outbound communications - whether they are related to fundraising, what the charity does, specific campaigns, or even general enquiries.

And with the popularity of outsourcing across the board increasing, particularly on a campaign by campaign basis, charities must now get clued up on the benefits, risks, and dos and don’ts of appointing an outsourcer.

Outsourcing to provide agility

For many charities, enlisting the help of a specialist to deal with enquiries can help significantly ease pressure, particularly in times of peak demand As well as standard enquiries funnelled through a charity’s main contact number, outsourcers are also being appointed on more temporary basis – if a charity is in the midst of a media campaign, trying to recruit new volunteers, or if a key event is taking place, for example.

Increasingly, outsourcers are being appointed to fulfil a variety of communication tasks and free up some much needed breathing space for charities.

Outsourcing is often a popular option for charities for obvious reasons – such as the fact the charity does not have to bear the costs of hiring someone full-time, yet a consistent high level of service can be maintained. Put simply: when the outsourcer isn’t needed, the charity doesn’t need to pay it. Outsourcers can be up and running quickly and cost effectively and are able to scale their operation up and down to adjust to changes in demand.

This is particularly beneficial for smaller charities which may not have the capacity for a specific customer contact operation, lack the knowledge and experience to understand the full scope of the customer contact service that is required, or simply don’t have the skills in-house to complete the job.

Aside from the obvious benefits, outsourcers can also help charities to gather an unbiased opinion on their enquiry handling operations. Whereas in-house employees may be too absorbed in a project or campaign to notice areas for improvement, an outsourced partner can provide much needed perspective and expertise to give a more unbiased opinion, and is often able to offer invaluable advice and insights which can help increase reach, grow supporters and even raise more income.

Then there is also the help in providing an improved interface with customers (beneficiaries), particularly where they have strong need and expectations of an effective response.

Considering the risks

Despite its benefits, charities have traditionally shied away from outsourcing, for fear of losing social interaction, expertise, or even compromising the integrity of the charity. And they’re right to be cautious – outsourcing enquiry handling is something that can easily tarnish the reputation of a charity, should it be managed incorrectly.

Any potential risks are even more likely to be significant factors, due to the fire some charities are under in the media and in Parliament. Aggressive fundraising methods, doubts around the security of donor data, and dissatisfaction surrounding the salaries given to charity bosses are just some of the contributors which have led to significantly in recent times.

To try to restore this trust, charities will need to engage with the public in more effective ways than ever before, and will be under considerable scrutiny to deal with any enquiries efficiently and competently. They’ll also need to consider more carefully, the various channels consumers are using to communicate, and ensure they provide a joined up service across all of them.

Nowadays, outsourcers are being called upon to not only manage telephone enquiries, but also handle email, social media and website queries too. Failure to get this contact right can cause potential reputational damage, leaving long lasting effects on a charity.

Selecting a culturally aligned partner

Often, a charity’s contact centre is the first point of communication with a member of the public, so charities must be sure that the outsourcer is culturally aligned with them, shares in their mission and values, is a great brand ambassador, and is able to immerse itself in the charity’s world – working to protect the brand as if it was their own.

When it comes to outsourcing customer contact, charities must be especially careful that the outsourced organisation is able to deal with all manner of enquiries with as much empathy and understanding as anyone within the in-house team would.

Depending on the charity, enquiries could be extremely sensitive, taboo, or upsetting, so it’s crucial that an outsourced customer contact team is experienced in this area and trained up to the highest standards. Unfortunately, the importance of soft skills can sometimes be ignored, with hard skills often prioritised more. However, in a customer contact situation, particularly for a charity, soft skills are in fact one of the most important attributes of a contact centre agent.

Developing a strong relationship

It’s also worth considering your relationship with an outsourcer, from the very beginning. Charities should be wary of using an outsourcer which doesn’t put in the work in advance of a campaign. An outsourcer should spend as much time as possible with the charity before it even begins the contract with it, learning the scope of work, how the charity works, and its key messages. Failure to do so can signal one that is disinterested in your brand, and is simply there to get the job done and get paid.

Good outsourcers might sometimes move some staff to the charity's site for a few days, so they can work alongside the core team and really integrate themselves into the business and see how the operation lives and breathes in the real world.

Through a combination of observation and in-depth training sessions, outsourcing teams should be able to understand the areas they need to replicate, as well as where they can add value based on the knowledge and skills they have acquired over the years. This allows them to both understand the charity's core values and operate effectively as a fully integrated arm of the organisation.

To outsource or not

Ultimately, for charities, the decision of whether to outsource certain services is not one that should be taken lightly. The scrutiny the charity sector is currently under makes this decision even more important. If a charity decides to enlist the help of an outsourcer, it needs to be completely sure that the outsourcer is able to match or, even better, exceed the service that an in-house team could provide.

For charities, it is vital that the outsourcer is culturally aligned with it and shares in its social mission. Those deciding to outsource a contact centre to handle enquires should make sure that the outsourcer is a great brand ambassador and can deal with all manner of enquiries with empathy and understanding. Finding the right match can take time.

However, once a charity finds a trustworthy and reliable outsourcer, the benefits can be endless. Outsourcing can lead to exceptional customer experiences being delivered in a cost effective manner, as well as the delivery of valuable insights which can help increase trust, increase donations, and shape future campaigns and services.

Echo's Karen Banfield - if a charity decides to enlist the help of an outsourcer, it needs to be completely sure that the outsourcer is able to match or exceed the service that an in-house team could provide.
"For many charities, enlisting the help of a specialist to deal with enquiries can help significantly ease pressure, particularly in times of peak demand."
" a customer contact situation, particularly for a charity, soft skills are in fact one of the most important attributes of a customer centre agent."
Deloitte advert

A script is not for charity call centres

Using a script is not the way forward for charity call centres, whether internal or outsourced. Instead using prompts and signposts is the best way to help people. Charities should ditch the script if they want to have compassionate and personal calls with service users.

Mastering the art of the script is not just for performing actors; it is a skill that must be practised, tweaked and perfected in front-line customer service call centre roles, where the call handler is responsible for upholding brand reputation over the phone.

In a commercial call centre, reading from a script enables a call handler to seamlessly whittle through a checklist of crucial points, from determining the purpose of the call to detailing terms and conditions. Each sentence is carefully thought out to adhere to company values and rigorous auditing standards.

There is no room for superfluous rhetoric – every caller is managed in the same way. Companies spend thousands of pounds on script training to ensure the right questions are always asked and brand messages are consistently delivered. Put simply, many managerial teams believe that if the content of a flawless call is already planned, there is minimal room for error and an aftermath of wider disruption.

Detached and impersonal

But I would argue that for charities, communicating with service users in this way can be detached, impersonal and limit the prospect of harnessing long term relationships or supporting positive outcomes. Callers can easily detect a generic script, and are quite frankly intolerant of any correspondence that implies they are just another nondescript caller waiting in line.

In any contact centre context, this way of corresponding with callers has a number of pitfalls. But for charities working with service users who are often feeling vulnerable, offering a personal, one to one service is absolutely crucial. In short, empathetic human contact makes the biggest difference to a caller’s wellbeing.

Why are scripts used? For all organisations, reputation is fragile and a favourable public image is critical. Scripts are often used as a safety net to prevent any negative outcomes. However, script reading is a technique that is unfairly put on a pedestal due to the many mythical benefits associated with it.

Below I list them, and share my thoughts on why prompts and signposts are the best way to help people:

MYTH : A SCRIPT IS ESSENTIAL TO ENSURE STANDARDISATION. Scripts are often used to standardise every call. The provision of a standardised service is key, and specialist contact centres are able to monitor and manage the quality of the service delivered to users to ensure this happens.

Working with call structures

While maintaining certain standards, a good outsourced firm will understand the need for flexibility and ensure agents are guided by callers’ needs. Call handlers would work with call structures, which ensure key points are addressed, while at the same time callers still receive a highly personalised service.

MYTH: A SCRIPT IS THE MARK OF QUALITY. In some instances, for example when used at a product help desk, a script can ensure all details are shared accurately. However, when supporting people in challenging circumstances a scripted phone call denotes a superficial attitude. Quality includes the call handler having an empathetic understanding of the caller’s needs and the ability to go the extra mile for service users. This ensures that those most in need can receive optimum attention.

A highly trained adviser, supported by a well designed customer relationship management (CRM) system, should be able to determine the best way to offer callers ongoing support, where necessary. So the user seeking telephone advice about employment will get advice over the phone followed up with an email with relevant resources in their local area, and so on.

But it wouldn’t end there. Follow-up emails could be sent at regular intervals to nudge the user into seeking support, and to gauge their feedback on progress. This allows an ongoing dialogue that is timely, relevant and designed to meet the user’s needs.

MYTH: SCRIPT IS A SIGN OF SKILL. There is a perception that scripts bring out knowledge and skill in an adviser, but actually the opposite is true. Many of us have been in presentations and watched somebody read directly from notes, and whilst the language can be articulate and the points strong, the presenter isn’t showcasing their internal knowledge or passion for the subject. The best speeches are those that have prompts, but ultimately the speaker is drawing on their experience.

Training at the outset

So how does this relate to call centres? Giving advisers substantial training at the outset of their employment makes the need for a script redundant because staff should be hired for their expert skills and passion in dealing with vulnerable service users. Of course, they may not have knowledge about the charity they are representing, so they must undertake training to meet the needs of every organisation the company works with.

Charity helplines are often real lifelines for many people, so it is important call handlers immerse themselves in the charity in order to gain as much first-hand insight as possible. During this time, each operator should be paired with an experienced member of the charity’s own team, where they are able to listen in on calls and learn how best to work with and support service users.

Knowing where to triage callers to, and how to deal with each enquiry individually, is where real skill comes in, and makes a real difference to the experience users receive when they pick up the phone.

For example, The Samaritans recently conducted research into their service user experience after noticing an increase of 100,000 new calls to their helpline between 2013 and 2014. They found that, for almost everyone who accessed their support, it was the human contact and speaking to a real person that they valued the most. In fact, 3 out of 4 people said they felt more understood and less anxious after speaking to someone who understood their needs on the telephone.

MYTH: A SCRIPT PROTECTS THE INTERESTS OF ALL PARTIES INVOLVED (THE CALL HANDLER, CALLER AND THE OUTSOURCED PROVIDER). Many organisations believe that using a well versed script will benefit the call handler, the caller and the brand that is being represented. It is thought that having access to high quality, pre-written lines will help call handlers to deliver key brand messages and efficiently provide enquirers with the information that they need. Simple, right?

However, for charities dealing with unpredictable and complex cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes using a script can limit the boundaries for conversation, which can be detrimental when an adviser needs to help somebody in need of emotional support.

Asking the right questions

Instead of using a script, internal teams or outsourced call centre agents should be highly trained to ask the right questions in order to solve a problem quickly, whilst being empathetic and sensitive. Script budgets should be replaced with investment in staff training and quality assurance.

In short, offering a personal and human approach is a crucial way to create a tangible, long-term relationship between service users and charities. Treating each call on a personal basis will ensure the best outcomes for service users, and ultimately address the needs of the most vulnerable people in society.

Connect Assist's Patrick Nash - offering a personal and human approach is a crucial way to create a tangible, long term relationship between service users and charities.
"...for charities working with service users who are often feeling vulnerable, offering a personal, one to one service is absolutely crucial."
"...when supporting people in challenging circumstances a scripted phone call denotes a superficial attitude."

Connecting staff by facilitating varied communications

Migrant Help is a charity which has over 50 years of experience in delivering support and advice services to migrants in the UK. We provide individuals with the resources and support they need to find safety, access appropriate services and information and develop greater independence.

We deliver a wide range of services that provide assistance to new asylum claimants and refugees, EU nationals, foreign national prisoners and victims of human trafficking. Our vision is for a global society that protects migrants, treats them with respect and enables them to become successful members of their communities.

We work with the Home Office, the Scottish Government, the N.I. Ministry of Justice and other charities to ensure that migrants follow the correct processes when arriving in the UK, especially when it comes to filing the necessary documentation and providing additional support where required.

National network

In addition to our headquarters in Dover, we also operate a national network of regional offices, including major locations such as London, Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, Wakefield and Birmingham. With the help of translators where required, employees at our satellite offices have traditionally provided face to face and telephone advice to asylum seekers.

Previously, each office was equipped with a legacy telephony system that was limited in functionality. Staff were unable to transfer calls between offices or enjoy the benefits of a conferencing facility.

This led to a number of problems that affected efficiency across the organisation, especially when it came to creating three way calls between a Migrant Help representative, a translator (who could be based anywhere within the UK) and the asylum seeker. In addition, employees were unable to quickly communicate or seek advice from colleagues when on a call.

In 2013 we took the decision to build a dedicated call centre in Dover to supplement the work being delivered in our local advice centres across the UK. The construction of the new contact centre provided the perfect opportunity to completely overhaul our existing communications systems across the entire charity.

New representatives

We realised that with plans in place to bring on board 40 new call centre representatives, we needed a platform that allowed employees to communicate with support staff, interpreters, and colleagues based at other locations efficiently and effectively. This decision would also allow us to address historic communications problems at our satellite offices.

We were introduced to internet communications company VIA through our consulting partners Shore Tech Systems with the aim being to create a tailored telephony and communications solution that is hosted in the cloud.

The VIA Voice solution - which incorporates Microsoft Skype for Business - could be personalised to fit our requirements and their developers were happy to build additional bespoke functionality to provide us with a product that ticked all the boxes.

Over a period of months we worked with VIA to create a cloud based communications solution that could completely replace our traditional telephone system, connecting the entire Migrant Help team seamlessly across the UK.

The platform now allows our staff to talk, instant message and email each other across a variety of devices, such as landlines, smartphones, PCs and tablets. By having a number of communication tools at their disposal, our staff can now work as a single cohesive unit, regardless of their location.

We also ensured that the solution integrated seamlessly with our cloud based Office 365 and email network, for ease of access when sharing information and documents.

Multiple languages

Using the VIA Voice platform we have also been able to create a dedicated, fully functioning and highly efficient cloud based telephone network for our call centre in Dover, which opened in April 2014. We operate a multiple language based routing system that allows asylum seekers to receive information in a language they can understand. We also provide a different Freephone number for every different language that we support.

In addition, we deployed a feature which delivers automatic audio messages that provide callers with regulatory information in their chosen language. We have also been able to help those asylum seekers in desperate need quicker than ever before, by implementing a feature that prioritises calls depending on the situation of each individual caller.

The most significant efficiency gains have been achieved by deploying a conferencing feature. With only a few clicks of a mouse, our employees can draft in an interpreter or a colleague to provide extra support or assistance when required. As a result, we have been able to drastically reduce the average time it takes to provide assistance to those in need.

Due to the increase in efficiency on the phones - and by reducing the unnecessary phone calls and emails to ascertain the availability of colleagues and interpreters - we have seen our call handling traffic grow to over 40,000 calls per month. Meanwhile, our staff have rapidly adopted the new technology and we have seen the use of instant messaging grow ten fold – cutting down the amount of time consuming emails people have to respond to.

Unified solution

Our unified communications solution replaces and builds on the functionality of a traditional telephone system. As the cloud based infrastructure is powered over the internet, our employees can stay connected when working remotely or when on the move. We have also built a unique management portal that enables real time management.

By using this system we can observe call trends, evaluate the usage and productivity of employees, and our supervisors can monitor contract KPIs (key performance indicators) more effectively.

As the contracted national provider of asylum help services for the Home Office, it is crucial that Migrant Help's communications and client data are secure at all times. In order to achieve this, we use a solution which is hosted off-site. VIA operates two data centres simultaneously - at separate locations - to ensure that the system does not suffer from downtime.

By being more cloud based we have the flexibility to adapt quickly to the varying demands of the sector without compromising security or having to make further significant investment.

Different avenues

The digital revolution has created a number of different avenues for charities like us to explore, not only to increase efficiency but to also reduce their costs. It was our belief that an initial investment to update our own technology would give us the tools to provide higher standards of work, reduce expenditure and to help a greater number of people.

Migrant Help's Iain McArthur - the decision was taken to build a dedicated call centre to supplement the work being delivered by local advice centres.
Whatever the task, Migrant Help staff can now work as a single cohesive unit, regardless of their location.
The most significant efficiency gains have been achieved by deploying a conferencing feature.

Recruiting for charity contact centres

Contact centres have been featured unfavourably in the media of late, with television programmes and newspaper reports covering them in a manner which suggests their operations lack professionalism. Yet, all contact centres provide a service that is integral to many organisations – direct communication with their users.

In the charity sector, this communication is rather unique in its style. Rather than "selling", charities communicate by providing advice and support for their users, whether it is simply supplying information by email or more challenging work such as offering emotional support and counselling over the phone.

As many charities often span beyond single buildings, regions and even countries, many have specialist contact centres to manage their user communications. These dedicated teams will often deal with all types of calls and messages from users, donors and any other interested parties.

So what type of skills should these team members possess? Most importantly, charity staff must be able to communicate well with users in a compassionate and sensitive way. Active listening is another key skill essential in this role.

They must also be prepared to "talk" to their users through a variety of platforms, including phone, email, SMS and – nowadays – even social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Evolve with the times

Charities must continue to evolve with the times when it comes to communication. For example, according to SimpleTexting, 98% of texts are read within one hour of receipt, so SMS is becoming an increasingly popular method of communicating with supporters. Some charities are texting supporters to thank them, tell them about their latest campaigns, ask for opinions or update supporters on their most recent successes.

The most crucial thing is that users and supporters are communicated with via the channels where they feel most comfortable. If they tweet you, you should tweet them back. If they call you, there should be a friendly ear ready to listen.

At first glance, this all seems rather simplistic. However, this is no small task and, as communicating with supporters is integral to every charity, staff must be carefully selected to ensure the charity offers first class support to its donors as well as its end users.

Many charities may also consider whether to outsource their services. This is a decision of the upmost importance for any organisation to make and must not be taken lightly. Charities must ensure that, if they do choose to outsource, their provider understands and values their ethos. If the match is wrong, you can't expect the outsourced provider's staff to be the best possible ambassadors for your brand.

It's important to have complete faith in the provider, as its staff will represent your charity every time they answer the phone or send an email. Outsourcing is about trust and communication. If you commit to a partnership with an outsourced provider, and you are happy that they have properly bought in to your charity’s values and understand its goals, then let them get on with the job.

However, always ensure that there is a two-way communication process and results are rigorously evaluated. After all, outsourcing is generally about reducing your costs, while increasing the quality of your service provision, so it is imperative that you ensure that this is the case.

Whether or not you have made a decision about outsourcing, there are many skills that are essential to charity contact centre employees or volunteers – which apply both in and out of house. Here are my top tips.

Communication and IT skills

As contact centres are no longer focused on just telephone conversations, there are a number of skills that each employee or volunteer must possess which go beyond a polite phone manner and accurate spelling and punctuation.

Team members must be properly equipped to use potentially complex customer relationship management (CRM) programs that have the ability to store and record all user and donor communication, from Tweets to text messages, in one place.

These are generally – depending on the user friendliness of the charity’s CRM software – reasonably simple skills to recruit for and teach.

Social media

Social media is a serious business these days. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are now key channels for charities to interact with their users, donors and prospective team members.

Along with being quick at replying to users’ comments and queries, employees and volunteers must also be adept at monitoring social media platforms to seek out those in need.

Furthermore, all staff members with the responsibility for using social media must be made aware of the importance of that responsibility. The charity’s reputation is at their fingertips, as many messages will be sent in the public domain and read by more than just their recipients.

Also, a charity’s supporters will see the organisation as a whole. They will want to feel as if they are dealing with one team. Therefore communications with supporters needs to be of equal standard over all platforms and a consistent tone of voice is vital in maintaining brand identity. Policies and guidelines should be set across all channels – and team members should be regularly coached in these policies – so that a consistent standard is maintained across the board.

Interpersonal skills

Charity contact centre staff are not looking to "sell" to callers in the mould of your typical contact centre. Instead, they look to offer empathetic support and advice, while building relationships with users.

Team members must be able to listen and comprehend potentially emotionally challenging issues, and provide support and guidance to the person in need.

Furthermore, they must be on hand and ready to provide this emotional support and advice to users in whatever mode of communication they feel most comfortable with. Team members must be comfortable to talk about issues on the phone, or by email or text message. Often, those in need may find issues difficult to talk through over the phone with another human being, and therefore a text or an email might seem easier.

Providing a warm and comforting response by email or text is not an easy task, and therefore recruiting for caring and empathetic individuals is of the upmost importance.

Teamwork support

Team members may communicate with users who are suffering, during potentially difficult times in their lives. These conversations can often be tough and may even affect the call handler after the call has taken place.

If this occurs, team members should be honest with their colleagues, informing them of the difficulty they faced, and should feel able to ask for support when necessary.

The best teams in all walks of life support each other, and this is no different within a charity – in fact it can be crucial.

Therefore, when recruiting, questions should be asked of the candidates' ability to work as part of a team. Recruiters should also ask them to provide examples of their experiences working as a team and how they have supported other team members in the past.

Out of hours dedication

Charity staff should be prepared to go above and beyond the normal expectation. Many charities – in fact nearly all of them – do not operate on a standard 9 – 5 basis from Monday to Friday. In numerous instances, evening and weekend work may be required, and some charities are even on hand all hours of the day, 365 days a year.

To work for one of these charities is not for the faint-hearted. It requires that extra level of commitment and dedication, and charity recruiters should always ensure they are on the lookout for these types of people. To do this, recruiters should ask potential candidates for examples of how and why they have previously gone "above and beyond" to exceed standards in the workplace.

Remember, with rising numbers of people with caring and other responsibilities seeking flexible working hours to suit their lifestyles, this will widen the pool of available talent.

Skills of volunteers

I have made reference to potential employees and volunteers in this piece. This is because charities should be looking for the same skills and interpersonal experience in volunteers as in paid employees.

The fact is that every person in communication with users or donors, regardless of whether they are paid or not, is a representative of the charity and will be judged as so. Therefore, charities cannot afford to let their high standards slip.

Evaluating candidates

For charities to effectively recruit for important positions within their contact centres, they must conduct themselves similarly to businesses, seeking the best talent available.

However, it must be stressed that the skills demonstrated while working in a charity contact centre may not be easily displayed on a CV. Therefore, to properly evaluate candidates, processes beyond interviews should take place. These should include mock telephone conversations with relevant topics discussed, trial email and text message tasks and social media management (if applicable to the role).

With a structured recruitment process for their contact centres, charities can ensure that their high standards are maintained by selecting the very best individuals for the job.

Once they have hired a candidate, charities should also incorporate professional development opportunities to ensure that they don’t look elsewhere for promotion. Hiring the right employee is the first step; then charities must work hard to ensure that they provide the right level of responsibility and opportunities for the team member. This will enhance the chance of them staying loyal to the charity and, over time, developing their skills to become the leaders of the future.

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Patrick Nash
Connect Assist's Patrick Nash - with a structured recruitment process for their contact centres, charities can ensure that their high standards are maintained by selecting the very best individuals for the job.
"…charity staff must be able to communicate well with users in a compassionate and sensitive way."
Contact centre team
Charity contact centre team members must be properly equipped to use potentially complex customer relationship management programs.
"If the match is wrong, you can't expect the outsourced provider's staff to be the best possible ambassadors for your brand."
"Team members must be able to listen and comprehend potentially emotionally challenging issues, and provide support and guidance to the person in need."
LSE EVents advert

Treating charity callers as customers

For the charity world, today’s biggest challenge is retaining loyal supporters and attracting new ones. Customer service (in other words, supporter service) has become a key component in helping to achieve those primary goals. However, there are many charities which still haven't taken on board the full implications of this. Now it’s time for these charities to take up the gauntlet.

In the battle to win hearts and minds – and the crucial funding that they generate – charities need to start treating donors the same as big brands aspire to treat their customers – in a way that encourages long term engagement and advocacy.

Charities are having to compete fiercely to win donations from hard-pressed consumers who are becoming accustomed to high standards of service from corporate brands and therefore beginning to expect the same from the third sector.

This article looks at some of the contact management strategies and technology which could help charities turn casual callers into long term supporters.

Put the caller experience first

The best rated corporate brands spend a lot of time analysing the customer experience in order to make it as simple and pleasurable as possible. Charities must do the same. Consider how first impressions could impact upon the perceptions of a potential donor. For example, how long is it before a call is answered? Is the person who picks up the call in a position to help? How are callers greeted?

These are relatively straightforward factors that can do a lot to provide the caller with a positive impression of your charity. Pressure on resources might make it difficult to guarantee that calls are answered within a certain time, but cloud-based technology provides a range of solutions.

As soon as the call is initiated – and before it is answered – there is intelligent software that begins gathering information about who is calling and where they are calling from, which can be displayed on the screen of the call centre agent, or used to route the call to the most able handler.

You can put variable digital scripting in place so that the call handler receives prompts or scripts that are appropriate to their seniority or level of experience. Nobody wants to be greeted by a dehumanised charity contact centre agent talking in parrot fashion, so let’s support our call handling teams with useful guidance and help, but bring out the best of their abilities.

Overcoming the peaks

During particular fundraising campaigns or awareness drives, a charity’s contact centre may experience a surge in call volumes. The most obvious pre-emptive step is for charities to ensure their contact centre managers are aware of this and able to prepare accordingly.

Flexibility is an area we’ll tackle later but, assuming resources are scarce, you will need to put measures in place to field a sudden rise in incoming calls. Remember that every caller has made a particular effort to get in touch.

If their call goes unanswered, they may not call back. In fact, they might be so disappointed about not getting through that negative perceptions of your charity might take route and they are lost forever. If they then tell friends and family about their disappointing experience, the damage could be multiplied.

Organisations of all kinds need positive advocates in the community, particularly at a time when views are shared so easily via social media and other online forums.

Consider putting in place a system which explains to the callerthe high volumes of calls being experienced and offers to call the person back within a certain period. Even that may not be enough, but there is now technology which automatically logs abandoned calls and reconnects the contact centre with them. Look out for abandoned call retrieval functions within your contact management platform.

Make friends using flexibility

Fluctuating call volumes are a fact of life, particularly for charities. So it’s important that contact centres are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Charities which offer round the clock services might want to consider remote working, for example.

Remote working has become a far more credible option for "customer-facing" staff than it may have been in the past, with relatively low set-up costs, workflow monitoring that helps managers keep a check on productivity, enhanced security and multimedia capabilities that allow even back office functions to be performed.

Giving staff greater flexibility to work from home has been shown to improve their loyalty and motivation – which has a direct impact on the level of service experienced by the public. It could also reduce the costs associated with staff turnover, as well as lowering central office overheads.

Another advantage of allowing home working is that it opens up employment opportunities for a greater diversity of workers, such as disabled people and single parents, who might find it difficult to travel into central headquarters every day. Anecdotal evidence suggests such workers relish such opportunities and reward organisations with great commitment and loyalty.

Reduce the strain on staff

Pressure on staff – and budgets, for that matter – can be eased very quickly by introducing automation of certain tasks which help keep charity supporters in the loop. Using automated donation lines allows callers to make a payment, set up regular donations and even establish a direct debit without speaking to an agent.

Using these intuitive systems allows charities to provide cover at peak times, become a 24-hour operation and ensure continuity in the event of a technical disaster.

But in today’s information age charities can connect with supporters and potential supporters in myriad ways. For instance, outbound reminders via SMS text message or email can be generated from the main contact management suite. Information lines, backed up by the latest text-to-speech technology, mean supporters will always have up to date information, and can even integrate automatically with the web, facilitating a joined-up experience for donors.

Keep a close eye on security

Charities of all sizes have a duty of care to protect the information which is provided for them by the public. It’s not just a regulatory requirement but an important part of the trusting relationship that must be established between a charity and a donor.

A looming issue for the contact centre industry as a whole is PCI compliance. Systems must be in place to protect the debit or credit card details of members of the public who call in to make payments, i.e. donations.

Various solutions have been put forward, some of which involve re-routing callers to their credit card providers for verification, but these can be cumbersome, time-consuming and disruptive to continual interaction. Above all, callers just don’t like them.

Charities should investigate newer solutions which keep callers on the line but mask their inputting of card details from the agent, to ensure complete security.

Measuring your success

It’s often said that you cannot manage what you do not measure. Surveys are an excellent way to keep a check on your performance, find out how you are perceived by the public and identify areas for improvement.

The information which is gathered not only provides charity contact centre managers with valuable insights but can also act as a benchmark against which to measure improvement over a given period. Creating the right experience for anyone who contacts your charity is dependent on understanding their needs and expectations.

There are many ways to conduct surveys but the key is to make them as immediate, non-intrusive and informative as possible, without burdening the person answering the survey.

It’s now possible to conduct "in-call" surveys which enable information to be gathered in real time, with the caller pushing buttons on their keypad to indicate their responses to the questions that have been set. Responses are always live, ensuring that wallboards show the opinion of the callers at every step. This in turn helps formulate policy that will improve the service for the customer, as they should now be regarded, and increase donations.

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Ian Cox
Performance Telecom's Ian Cox – giving staff greater flexibility to work from home has been shown to improve their loyalty and motivation.
"Nobody wants to be greeted by a dehumanised charity contact centre agent talking in parrot fashion…"
"Look out for abandoned call retrieval functions within your contact management platform."
"Systems must be in place to protect the debit or credit card details of members of the public who call to make… donations."
Sutton Winson advert

Outsourcing charity call handling

Using call centres to back up fundraising campaigns is an increasingly popular option for charities looking for a cost effective solution to managing donor contact at peak times. Here are some typical scenarios and a look at when it makes sense to outsource a charity’s call handling function.

In a difficult economic climate for charities with fewer people giving, smaller average donations and some charities even fighting for survival, charities are having to be more savvy than ever in their fundraising, and donor retention has never been more important.

Call centres are increasingly being used in the third sector armoury – both for individual fundraising campaigns or as part of a charity's wider marketing and income generation strategy. By working with outsourced partners, who act as a back-up to internal teams, charities can more effectively manage the variable volume of inbound calls generated from fundraising and marketing promotions, thereby providing the very best "customer" service.

With charities trying to maximise revenues from all forms of advertising and many still opting for a traditional mass marketing approach there are invariably resource issues. These issues are heightened when call volumes “spike”, in other words when there are a large number of calls coming in that need to be handled in a short period of time.

Incoming calls

When it comes to incoming calls, realistically a charity may not have the in-house skills, staff or volunteers to run an effective fundraising call centre. Equally, it would not be practical to set up an in-house call centre capable of dealing with calls from potentially hundreds of people responding to a campaign advert which has just been aired. The space needed, the cost and the resources involved would soon negate the benefits of the campaign.

Many charities are particularly busy around the short Christmas period, for example, and certainly don’t need any extra pressure, but do need PCs, telephony equipment and trained call handlers for only a two week period and potentially out of hours.

The option of diverting calls to an outsourced partner during these busy periods may not only be a cheaper option, but will ensure that high levels of customer service are maintained as all calls would be answered promptly and professionally, regardless of volumes. Equally, during periods of low call volumes, charities already on tight budgets would not be paying for "slack" staff.

Typically an outsourced call centre focuses on two main areas to complement the work of a charity – donation lines and supporter services.

Donation handlers

When an individual decides to give, a charity has to have "donation line" people on hand to capture the call at that golden moment in time. If they don’t, the chances are the urge to donate will pass and they will lose the donation. Donation handlers must be able to achieve up-sell on inbound calls too, including converting one-off donations to regular donations, ideally direct debits, and uplifting the value of regular donations.

Regular supporters are vital to the ongoing sustainability of any charity so call centre staff provide an important role in maintaining and developing these relationships. These regular donors need nurturing and if the service provided is poor the charity runs the risk of losing out on any future donations.

Taking things one step further, crucially, call handlers will capture donor details and personal information which in turn should feed into a charity’s own customer relationship management and fundraising database.

Replicating your brand

My advice to charities looking to select an outsourced call centre would be to make sure you choose one best able to align itself to match and replicate your individual charity brand. Having trust in your outsourced partner is vital and the call centre must act as an extension to the charity itself. As far as callers are concerned the experience should be seamless.

Understanding the "headspace" of callers is very important – what motivated them to pick up the phone and is there a very personal story behind that action? The actual process involved in handling charity calls is very similar to that of any sales enquiry or information capture call, however it differs in that some may be more emotionally charged due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the use of "shock advertising" which can cause distress or when a contribution is given in memoriam.

Level of empathy

It’s important then that the outsourced call centre is aware of this and demonstrates a level of empathy with callers while being able to respond to general questions and potentially signpost people back to the charity directly for more specific calls.

Training is all important and representatives of the charity should input into this, keeping call centre staff aware of all new initiatives and marketing activity.

Look for a quality call centre which has experience in "selling" to the caller and is of course fully PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant to enable donations to be processed. In the case of supporter services, if the call handlers can drive up donations this will help to improve the overall return on investment.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is a good example of a charity which has used a call handling service as a back-up to its internal team to help manage inbound calls generated from marketing campaigns.

Ralph Welch, NSPCC supporter care manager, explains: “We needed so much more than a basic call centre service. We required an external telephone answering team that could take donations, provide information to callers relating to fundraising activities, answer general questions, update supporter records and pass on calls to internal team members if required.

“It was also very important that the calls handled for us are dealt with in the same manner as our in-house team. To achieve this, the outsourced team needed to understand and adopt the NSPCC’s values, culture and act as an extension of ourselves.”

Donating experience

Charities will see other additional benefits in using a call centre. By reducing the time people spend waiting on hold, the system can improve the overall donating experience for supporters. Having the flexibility to "dip in" and "dip out" of the service to coincide with marketing campaigns also means there is no disturbance to internal staff doing their day job in spite of high volume calls during targeted promotions.

Call monitoring helps improve customer service and is useful for training, while the transparency of cost makes budgeting easier. In addition, detailed management information (MI) and reporting will assist with future campaign planning, providing vital feedback and performance information.

Complete visibility

Charities can and should be given complete visibility as to what is going on within the outsourced call centre. MI reporting should allow the charity to see the quantifiable data such as call volumes, calls by type, durations and such like, and the call centre should also give visibility to a number of the intangible things such as pitch, tone and empathy of the call handler.

This can be achieved by providing the charity access to call recordings which can be used for training and development. There is also a growing need to be able to provide KPI reporting on the level of up-sells and donation uplifts as well as the number of conversions and direct debit monthly payments.

Typical costs

So what is the bottom line – how much does it cost? Well, typically costs are structured in one of two ways with most service agreements containing a set up cost, a monthly management fee and call charges.

Set up fees cover the development of the scripts and call handling processes, taking into account good training of the agents to ensure calls are handled correctly from the start. Monthly fees would typically cover ongoing management of the service such as one to ones, coaching with agents, reporting and account evolution.

Pay as you use (pence per minute) is ideal if you have peaks and troughs in call volume, as it allows the organisation the ability to only pay for calls as and when they are being handled, which is ideal for advertising campaigns where spikes in traffic come suddenly. Essentially this pricing model is ideal if there are sporadic call volumes.

Fixed seat on the other hand is better for a charity needing cover for what is an annually busy period. This model works when there is a clear understanding of the call volumes required to be dealt with. If the volume of calls is spread over a few weeks or months it can be easier and more cost effective to outsource on a fixed seat model rather than incur the costs of resourcing for this internally.

Whichever way a charity chooses to go, it’s a big decision to make the move to use a call centre, but it’s important to remember that very few things can damage a reputation more than poor customer service, particularly unanswered phones or mishandled enquiries. For charities fighting to build stronger donor relationships – and limit risks while maximising marketing spend return, a high quality outsourced call centre can be a truly viable option.

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Adam Tilson
Direct Response's Adam Tilson – very few things can damage a reputation more than poor customer service, particularly unanswered phones or mishandled enquiries.
"…it would not be practical to set up an in-house call centre capable of dealing with calls from potentially hundreds of people responding to a campaign advert."
Call Centre
Outsourced call centres – training is all important and representatives of the charity should input into this, keeping call centre staff
aware of all new initiatives and marketing activity.
"…regular donors need nurturing and if the service provided is poor the charity runs the risk of losing out on any future donations."
"Charities can and should be given complete visibility as to what is going on within the outsourced call centre."

Ascertaining the performance of your call centre

In this digital age more and more business functions are moving online, and many companies are advocating the use of virtual tools for activities that were traditionally done in person or via telephone. Certainly, the market research industry has changed dramatically with the rise of the internet – as can be seen clearly in the skyrocketing popularity of online survey tools and the growing prevalence of web-based research panels. Clearly, the web holds distinct advantages for the research field in terms of saving time, money, and effort.

Hybrid solutions for changing times

However, this does not mean that conventional research methodologies should be completely replaced or forgotten. Rather, it is the mixture of the old and the new that can prove particularly helpful within shifting landscapes. An excellent example of this is the changing relationship between call centres and market research within the operations of charitable organisations.

As more charities discover the benefits of conducting market research online, the interaction between their phone banks and their research panellists has become more reciprocal and nuanced. Telephone recruitment and online performance assessments can create a mutually beneficial circle of activity, wherein one supplements and enhances the other.

More specifically, charities can use contact centres to recruit people for online research panels, and on the other side, online surveys can be used to vet the performance and training needs of both on-site and off-site call centres.

Further layers of recruitment support

There are numerous benefits in using a call centre to recruit members for an online research panel. A phone call gives the charity more time and flexibility to focus on how important market research can be within its overall objectives.

Having a human conversation with potential panellists allows charities to build positive rapports and to point out how people can donate their time in this manner, especially during a sluggish economy that limits the amount of money people are able to contribute. Additionally, calls can allow a deeper exploration of exactly what is at stake, which might help to clarify the purpose of market research in improving services and campaigns.

If people are told about the important role that market insights play in the big picture during an engaging and positive phone call, they might be more likely to participate in the panel. Along with boosting numbers, this process could increase quality by encouraging potential panellists to answer a greater number of surveys and to take more time and consideration when doing so, as they would be fully aware of the critical nature of their activities.

Recruiting research panel members by telephone also has the advantage of providing another level of identity and relevance verification. By supplementing online practices, call centres can help to provide further layers of legitimacy for the charity’s research panel. This is particularly important in certain scenarios online in which several individuals might share one email account and accurate identification of respondents is a critical issue.

By simply calling someone up, a charity can verify they are who their online information says they are and make sure that they would be a viable participant for future research activities.

Direct comprehensive quality analysis

Conversely, online market research can be instrumental in improving the performance of a charity’s call centre, which has become particularly important as more and more are outsourced to overseas locations. An off-site call centre offers many advantages, but one of the disadvantages is the fact that an external location makes it difficult for a charity or neutral third party to monitor its activities.

While most companies providing these types of services readily send progress and performance reports, it is vital that these are backed up by an objective, independent review.

Regardless of the main purpose of its call centre, whether it is for fundraising or to provide a bespoke service, a charity can create detailed surveys designed to assess primary performance metrics and send these directly to those most likely to have had applicable experiences with the call centre – namely, the people on the charity’s online panel who have been recruited from within its community.

Alternatively, if a charity would like to cast a wider net to gauge public perception of the activities of its call centre, then it could address its online survey to millions of people participating in the panels of other trusted organisations.

In-depth training assessment

Even more specifically, online research can provide the information needed to improve the training of in-house call centre team members as well as the quality of the scripts and guidelines they use during calls.

Through targeted surveys, a charity could ascertain whether its employees feel they need further training in certain areas, if common issues arise on a regular basis, if they think the scripts or guide materials are inadequate or ineffective, or if they are dissatisfied by any aspect of their work.

By gathering perceptions of call centre operators in this way, a charity is able to provide an efficient conduit for the identification and resolution of internal issues that could have a negative influence on public perception. Also, by having call centre employees analyse their own needs, a direct and clear picture of training objectives can be determined, rather than going through layers of management and interpretation.

On an external level, charities could utilise do-it-yourself market insight tools, which allow for greater flexibility and transparency, to gauge the way in which their current messaging is being perceived by those who call in. This can be exceptionally useful for charities operating in highly sensitive areas that require a considerable degree of decorum and delicacy.

Perhaps the language being employed in current call scripts and the recommended terms and procedures do not adequately acknowledge the complexities of the role call centre operators play as a liaison between the charity and the public.

By polling their service community, charities could develop a greater understanding of the best approaches to difficult topics and provide their operators with the necessary tools to do their jobs more effectively, and more compassionately.

Additional applications and revenue streams

Of course, market insights can help to inform philanthropic messages beyond the framework of call centres to cover all the activities in which the charity participates. Creating a dedicated online research panel can allow a charity to create surveys on an endless array of topics, from marketing campaigns to trust level comparisons.

Drawing upon the intelligence gained directly from within its own community, a charity can improve on multiple levels across recruitment, fundraising, support services, and public relations. Respondents can rest assured that their contributions of time and thought will go toward helping to improve the charity’s operations.

As an added bonus, if a charity opens its online panel to others, it could earn a small fee each time one of their panellists answers a survey for another organisation. These methods form highly attractive options for donating time instead of money during a period in which many people are struggling financially.

One pixel in the big digital picture

Overall, it is all about developing the right combination of tools to meet the demands of an increasingly complex and constantly changing industry. The world has become more immediately and directly interconnected than ever before, and changes in one part can affect the whole.

Thus, as economies stagnate in some parts of the world and surge in others, as new technological advances reconfigure the playing field, and as the debate between the benefits of on-site versus outsourced call centres carries on, charitable organisations and market research firms alike must be able to constantly evolve – adapting their responses and activities to make sure they are delivering on promises.

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Norrelle King
Cint UK's Stephen Hughes – call centres and online surveys can be linked to provide benefits for each activity, namely improvements in call centre performance and more powerful market research.
"…a charity can create detailed surveys designed to assess primary performance metrics and send these directly to those most likely to have had applicable experiences with the call centre…"
Call centres
Charity call centre operators could be helped to do their jobs more effectively and more compassionately by utilising the results from polling their service community.