Many agencies have challenges with their hotline systems that impact the quality of care they can provide. Here’s a look at the top challenges and best practices to consider when building and optimizing your hotline.
Will this article help me?
This article is focused on 24/7 hotlines where agency volunteers or staff answer hotline calls on cell phones after-hours.
Each hotline is unique in significant ways, and this article isn’t meant to be comprehensive. What we’ve seen work at other agencies may or may not apply to your agency.
Why listen to us
We’ve collaborated with crisis hotline coordinators, volunteer coordinators, and executive directors around the country to solve their unique hotline system challenges. The author has personally worked with hotline leaders to design and implement over two dozen phone, chat, or text systems and has presented on hotline system challenges nationally.
Hotline System Best Practices
Fully train your hotline operator(s)
Does the hotline operator really need in-depth crisis intervention training? Why not just some scripts along with some very specific instructions?
Here’s what might happen if you’re not able to fully train the operator(s):
“We currently have an answering service and a lot of times the operators will kind of go off and do their own thing. They’re very inappropriate with our callers …”
We’ve heard of well intentioned (and partially trained) third party operators violating specific agency policies:
- Turning away in-need callers for inappropriate reasons.
- Propagating myths that the agency is working so hard to combat.
- Attempting to provide the agency’s services themselves (without sufficient training).
Even if you’re thinking “we use an answering service, but we don’t have any problems”, I’d still encourage you to try the Hotline Audit (at the end of the article) because it may help you serve your community better. Here’s what one manager shared, after they audited their hotline system:
Our answering service doesn’t answer automatically. We called, and it took 6 minutes to be connected to a counselor and that’s not acceptable. We’re non-compliant … [paraphrased]
Track how calls are being routed in real time
Once you’ve set it up, your hotline system should accommodate:
- All your on-call schedules
- Your on-call order(s)
- Data tracking for internal or grantor reports (such as VOCA)
- Key hotline related policies (e.g., policies around caller privacy, inappropriate callers, and repeat callers).
But setting it up is just the beginning. Your hotline system may not just keep working over time, or work equally well in all scenarios. It’s important to regularly monitor your hotline system to make sure that it continues to work. This is one place where good data matters.
For example, let’s say that a senior backup staff advocate is getting lots of calls, and is wondering “Did the primary volunteer just forget their shift?” What data do you need to determine what actually happened and to prevent this tension from arising in the future? Here are just a few of the possibilities you’ll have to consider:
- Was the primary on another call at this time?
- Was the primary’s phone out of reception?
- How long did the primary’s phone ring for?
- Did the primary forget about their shift?
- Was the primary even called?
It’s important to learn from mistakes, but it can be very stressful to reach out to someone to determine if/why they missed a call. Good data can let you learn from mistakes, avoid awkward confrontations, and inspire confidence in both your staff and volunteers.
Build a shift-request approval process
Making the hotline shift schedule can be very complicated. Setting up the right process at the beginning can save your agency a lot of time and frustration. While it may seem easier to set up multiple disconnected systems to make the schedule and route calls, consider the difficulty of updating multiple disconnected systems every time there is a schedule change or error.
As you’re thinking through your requirements, consider:
What context do you need?
When deciding to approve / deny a shift request, consider the context you’ll need to make a good decision. For example:
- Does seniority affect who gets a shift, or is it just based on the shift request order? Are staff unionized?
- Are all volunteers equally trained/experienced? Perhaps you know some shifts are harder, and need more senior staff / volunteers for that.
- Volunteers often have to commit to a certain number of hours per week / month. Would it help to know how many shift hours they’ve taken?
- Even experienced advocates can burn out if they take on too many difficult shifts, and losing key advocates could wreak havoc at the agency. How will you know if someone is at risk of burnout before you approve their shift request?
Choose how to approve/deny shift requests
It may be problematic for all shift requests to have to go through one person. Instead, it may be possible to share this workload.
How can the correct person be notified about last minute shift requests? Are there any shift requests you’d be willing to automatically approve?
It’s important to widely request feedback on your proposed workflows. What do your less tech-savvy advocates think? Does your approach work equally well for advocates that have limited English Proficiency, or have disabilities?
We recommend thinking through all of this carefully— we’ve seen agencies save nearly half a full time employee by getting this workflow correctly built into their hotline system.
Pre-schedule one-off shift changes
Most agencies have pretty consistent shift schedules, but changes to the schedule happen, and tracking them can be a big time-sink. Someone may tell you that they can only cover half of their usual shift next week, or the day before a holiday two months from now (because they scheduled PTO).
We recommend setting up your hotline system so that you’re able to just split the shift and input that shift change into your hotline system immediately. The alternative is to track this information externally and then login and make the change at the right time. However, this can be very problematic if it happens regularly, and for overnight shifts.
Manage last-minute shift changes in real-time
We all know, life happens. Sometimes an advocate needs to take themselves out of the call rotation order on short notice (e.g., a flat tire). Your protocol to handle this rare situation could have a big impact on staff work-life balance.
For example, if advocates have to go through you, then you might have to be available 24/7 so that your organization can make last minute shift changes. See how this rare situation can cause persistent stress and work-life balance issues for key hotline personnel?
We recommend setting up a process for advocates to mark themselves as unavailable for short periods of time. You can set up an audit trail or receive real-time notifications about availability changes if you’re concerned about this being abused.
Have multiple layers of backups for overnight shifts
There are some cases where you might need more layers of backups than you think. We recommend thinking through the following scenario as you determine what will work best for your community and your organization.
There may be times where your on-call primary’s cell phone is out of service, or has low-reception and only rings for a very short period of time (or not at all) instead of the full 5-6 rings you may have specified.
This can be problematic, especially during overnight shifts. Getting only a few rings at night may not leave enough time for advocates to both wake up and get to the phone. That means your agency may only be able to effectively support one caller at a time, and it’s primarily the responsibility of those on-call advocates that are light sleepers and/or have reception.
Even if everyone does everything right, technical issues like this can translate into one key person effectively answering all overnight hotline calls, leading to burnout.
Consider supporting callers over Webchat, SMS, and WhatsApp
People may be more comfortable reaching out to your agency over webchat, SMS, or WhatsApp than over the phone. Consider providing more channels for your community to contact you in addition to voice-based support.
Lots of agencies want to start a chat and/or text program, but don’t know how, don’t have the capacity, and/or can’t find a way that balances privacy with ease of use. Here are a few key things we’ve learned:
Chat and text notifications can be key to reducing burnout and missed conversations
When someone starts a new chat or text conversation, do you want your on-call to get an email notification, text notification, phone call, or a simple computer notification sound / pop-up?
If your agency expects chats & texts to rarely come at night, you may benefit from allowing the on-call person to sleep and have the hotline system wake them up with (multiple) automatic phone call notifications. Think of this as a system that automatically sets you as available when your shift starts, without you having to log in. You might also want to wake up a supervisor if the chat or text isn’t responded to within a certain amount of time for peace of mind.
We recommend carefully considering all of these approaches, because getting the notification process right can be key to reducing burnout and missed conversations.
Make sure chat includes delivery and read receipts
You may find that people regularly open and close the chat window, or open it in multiple tabs in an effort to reach someone sooner. This means your staff may have to spend a long time chatting with multiple closed tabs just to make sure there isn’t a person on the other end that is just unsure of what to say. With delivery and read receipts, your advocates will be equipped to determine if the chatter is still engaged much more quickly.
Finally, if you’re considering some possible hotline systems, then make sure that chat and text support your privacy policies and are easy to use for people in your community. Pop-ups and confusing pre-chat surveys may deter people from reaching out to your agency.
Call your hotline yourself to identify gaps in the experience
Once you’ve got a hotline system up and running, you can use this quick audit to see what, if any, challenges your callers are experiencing. All you need is:
- 10 minutes
- 1-2 colleagues
- Your phone
- Someplace to jot down notes
- The ability to make last minute changes to your call schedules
- Any necessary approvals
And you’re ready!
The Hotline Audit
Step 1: Call your 24 hour hotline and request service. If you use a third-party answering service, then make sure to call at the times when you’re utilizing them. Keep track of these things:
- Were you connected with the correct on-call person at your agency?
- How long did it take to get connected to the right person?
- Were there any serious call quality issues once you got connected? For example, was the call dropped? Is it the same call quality as if you directly called your colleague?
- If you utilize a third-party answering service, then additionally make note of whether the operator did something that was strictly against your policies such as:
- Turning you away or discouraging you from requesting service for reasons against your policies
- Breaching your confidentiality policy by requesting information they’ve been explicitly instructed not to request.
- Saying something offensive, triggering, inappropriate, or otherwise violating your policies. Remember, this is the first impression callers get when they reach out to your agency. Is it consistent with your values and mission?
Step 2: Before you hang up, have a colleague call the hotline and do Step 1. What happens? Who got called? Does it really roll over (auto skipping someone already on a call) like you expected or did something else happen?
Step 3: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 a few times. If you use a third-party answering service, then do this on different days, and at different times because your vendor may have different operators answering calls at different times.
Step 4: Analyze the results. Are they acceptable for your agency?
Once you’ve implemented these best practices, you are well on your way to providing high quality support while respecting your staff’s time. If your hotline system vendor is unable to support these best practices, then it may be time to consider something new.
At HelplineSoftware.com we have built a hotline system that addresses all of the top challenges out of the gate. We’d be happy to connect to see if we can support your needs. We love thinking about hotline challenges, so if you’ve got a stumper or just want to talk about hotlines, please feel free to reach out to us.
Thank you for being there for the community.