With over 20,000 volunteers and 200 branches, Samaritans is a charity working across the UK and Ireland to offer round the clock emotional support for people who are struggling to cope with life’s challenges. Samaritans’ vision is that fewer people die by suicide and to make this vision a reality, Samaritans answers a call for help every six seconds and campaigns to make suicide prevention a national and local priority.
When we think of essential services, an operation like Samaritans is toward the top of the list – always, but in an even more heightened sense with the significant emotional toll that COVID-19 is taking on people. Prior to the pandemic hitting, Samaritans had begun a journey to modernize its contact and communications operations with an investment in IFS Customer Engagement. Since COVID-19 has come into play, Samaritans has had to quickly adapt to explore how volunteers could continue to provide support for those in need, without travelling into its branches.
Multi-Channel Engagement Platform Will Expand Capabilities, Improve Reliability
Francis Bacon, Assistant Director of Digital Services for Samaritans is responsible for caller services, which includes support provided by phone, email, the forthcoming online chat service, as well as the recruiting and training of volunteers. He also oversees the intranet, help desks, and leads the charity’s digital journey.
Until recently, Samaritans handled incoming requests through an old telephone system and a completely separate system for email messages. “These systems were outdated, fairly unreliable, and quite inflexible,” says Bacon. “We wanted to modernize operations and set the stage for expansion opportunities by investing in a platform to update and integrate phone and email communications while also adding online chat functionality.”
In addition to the desire for a platform that could effectively handle phone, email, and chat capabilities, Samaritans wanted to increase capacity to enable future expansion, as well as improve security and reliability that the aging, disparate systems lacked. “The old telephone system had to be specially installed on computers and lacked flexibility,” says Bacon. “With a web-based solution, we’d significantly expand possibilities for future volunteering models, such as out-of-home volunteering.”
Samaritans quest for a modernized, multi-channel contact system led the organization to IFS. IFS Customer Engagement creates a single, unified experience across every channel of connection, including calls, email, chat and social messaging. “The IFS CE platform performed well on our selection matrix overall, but what really stood out is the customizability of the interface,” says Bacon. “Our needs are a bit different from the average service customer, in that we’re training volunteers on the system versus employees, and we need to accommodate the unique circumstances that those turning to us for help are in, therefore the ability to tailor IFS CE to our specific needs was a key differentiator.”
Deployment of IFS CE is underway currently in five Samaritans’ branch locations, including its Central London branch. The charity expects to have all 187 U.K. branches online in June and will roll out to the branches in the Republic of Ireland in the coming year. “We expect that investing in this technology will provide a number of benefits, including a more seamless experience for both our callers and volunteers, greater security and reliability, and the ability to scale and evolve our work with a stronger system for engagement in place,” says Bacon. “With the roll out of IFS CE we are anticipate an uptime of 99.95% which will be a significant improvement on our current system and allow us to provide a better service to people in distress and crisis.”
Reacting Quickly to COVID-19 Complexity to Protect – and Scale – Essential Services
As you can imagine, a service like Samaritans provides has become even more critical as COVID-19 has infiltrated our lives. Compounding this need for its services are the increasingly complex conditions in which Samaritans needs to operate. Perhaps most significant is the fact that a large portion of volunteers are unable to report into branch, as typically required, to provide emotional support to those who are struggling. “Our biggest concern has been making sure that volunteers can continue to volunteer,” says Bacon. “As this began we conducted a survey of our branches asking them what percentage of volunteers they thought may not be able to come into the branch, either because they were self-isolating or because they are high risk, and that survey showed 30% of volunteers could not report in. We needed to find a way for volunteers to support and ensure our service can continue to keep running and help those in need.”
While grappling with the issue of how to enable volunteers to serve from home, Samaritans also recognized the need to introduce a new service for essential healthcare workers. “The NHS has been under tremendous pressure in responding to this crisis,” says Bacon. “We wanted to respond to their need by providing a new helpline for NHS staff to be able to call considering the gravity of what they’re experiencing with the coronavirus outbreak.”
Samaritans has been able to quickly explore the opportunities to enable volunteers to support from home, as well as bring on a number of new volunteers to provide the NHS support line. This was possible, in part, by the functionality IFS CE is providing. While efforts have begun in tandem with the deployment of the technology, Bacon says it wouldn’t have been possible to make these pivots without the modernized system. “We’ve been able to begin making these changes and expanding our services with the knowledge that the IFS solution will allow us to do so at scale while also improving the experience of our volunteers and of the public that needs our services. This wouldn’t have been possible with our legacy system.”
While the circumstances are unfortunate, Bacon is thankful for the ability to serve on an even greater scale given what’s going on. He’s also been heartened by seeing how people are stepping up and coming together amidst this crisis. “As we launched the NHS service, we had more than 2,000 people fill out the volunteer form and say they were willing to help within a matter of just a few days. We’ve seen members of the public, even at this really difficult time, putting their hands in their pockets and supporting us on our emergency appeal for funds,” says Bacon. “This is what enables us to continue to work toward our mission and we’re thankful. We know the public needs us, especially now, and we’ll continue to do our best to find ways to step up to meet those needs.”