Delivering helplines with a heart: How to deal with the most sensitive calls

With increasing demand for access to information, advice and support at the touch of a button, it’s more important than ever that helplines are delivering the best possible service to those who need it the most.

For example, the Samaritans’ annual report recently revealed that the charity received more than 5.7 million calls to the helpline in 2016 – an increase of nearly 300,000 on the previous year. This is indicative of rising demand across the sector, and emphasises the vital support that helplines offer people across the country.

Charity helplines are often real lifelines for people in times of difficulty, and the way a call is handled can have a major impact on the individual calling.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to focus on the vital importance of delivering high-quality helplines with a heart for people in need.

Why your helpline needs a heart

Whether it’s a friendly voice at the end of the phone, advice or a referral, helplines are vital in delivering support to people when they need it most.

As the nature of some calls can be highly delicate, it is crucial that they are handled with the utmost sensitivity. Helplines should offer a safe place for individuals to talk anytime they like, in their own way, about the issues or challenges they are facing.

As a trusted contact centre partner to the third sector, our job is to provide a reassuring and empathetic service to all callers, no matter how big or small their problem.

One of the most important things a call handler can do is make the caller feel heard and persuade them that they’re not alone. These listening and empathy skills are so important to the service we provide, and are key to everything we do.

How to ensure every caller gets the very best experience

So how do we ensure we’re ready to help a vulnerable individual in their time of need?

We recognise that every phone call is different, which is why I believe it’s vital not to take a blanket approach when dealing with calls. Our call handlers deal with people who have different emotional states, expectations and manners of communicating.

We often get asked how we prepare to answer a call when we have no idea what problem is waiting at the end of the line. For me, it starts with our culture, first and foremost.The benefits of a diverse workforce for an empathetic culture

As we work with some of the most vulnerable people in society, we wanted to build a team with different backgrounds, skills and reasons for wanting to make a difference.

We know that personal experience can often inspire people to want to make a positive change to others in difficult situations.

A diverse workforce provides a much better service as it can meet the needs of a wider range of people from a position of understanding and empathy. Quite simply, having an understanding of the difficult circumstances individuals could be facing makes for a much better service.

Our helplines help make a positive difference to the lives of more than a million people every year, and we believe it’s important that they are delivered by people who understand what they’re dealing with.

For example, 50% of staff that manage the Royal British Legion helpline we operate are from ex-forces backgrounds.

This allows them to provide appropriate information, advice and support to those calling, and communicate it in a way they understand and feel comfortable with.Retaining the ‘human’ in your helpline

One of the most important things we do is put the human touch at the heart of all we do.

In an increasingly digital world, service users want – and expect – to be able to engage digitally. So why is it still important to keep the human touch in your helpline?

No matter how far contact centre technology advances, the helpline’s greatest function is still providing one-to-one emotional support to those in need.

Developing a strong, empathetic – yet professional – relationship with callers is crucial in helping them open up and share their concerns. This is borne out by research by the Samaritans, which found that three in four people said they felt more understood and less anxious after speaking to someone on the telephone.

It’s important to note that a real conversation with another human being is irreplaceable. The personal touch delivered – and the emotional connection you can make – through contact centre solutions such as call handling will be very difficult to replace with AI, no matter how sophisticated the technology.

However, as technology continues to advance, it is more important than ever that the human being at the end of the phone has the necessary knowledge and compassion.

The importance of training

Providing staff with sufficient training is crucial to meeting the needs of every charity we work with.

When embarking on a new partnership with an organisation, our contact staff undertake a five-week period of intense training. During this time, each operator immerses themselves in the charity to gain as much first-hand insight as possible.

They are also paired with an experienced member of the charity’s own team, where they can listen in on calls and learn how best to work with and support service users.

As each call handler is allocated one charity to work on, they’re able to build a deep expertise and offer tailored advice and support.Invest in digital

Even with the most intense training, helpline staff can’t be expected to know or recall everything while on a call. Helpline providers should invest in a digital knowledge base so that staff have the latest information at their fingertips.

If they don’t know the answer, they can instantly access the information rather than guess or be unable to respond.

We find this approach works particularly well for complex cases or multiple client accounts.Keeping the heart in the helpline

We are privileged to work with a number of organisations that make a positive difference to the lives of vulnerable people. Many of these view their helplines as their most important channel for helping their users.

With mental health conditions sadly on the rise, the need for further support will only increase, and it will become more important than ever to deliver helplines with the human experience at their heart.

At Connect Assist, we recognise the positive impact quality helplines can have on individuals in need, and that remains central to our mission to deliver helplines with a heart.

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