By Guest Blogger, Walter Neary, Content Manager, Internal Communications at MultiCare
Thirty seconds into the phone call, there is a piercing scream that would give you tinnitus in your ear if you don’t already have it. J’nai Starks smiles. This isn’t new to her when she answers a call to South Sound 2-1-1.
A child began screaming while her mother is on the phone. Of course, the mom must pause in her conversation with Starks. “I’m sorry I don’t know what just happened,” the mother says to Starks as the mother makes sounds consistent with comforting a child.
“It’s OK. I have children. I can wait for you,” Starks says.
The mom settles the child, and the call to 2-1-1 continues. The Parkland woman had just started receiving food aid, and workers had suggested she call 2-1-1 for other services that might help her.
When you support the United Way, you support this 2-1-1 service. United Way is well known for allocating funding to nonprofits with a proven track record of lifting people from poverty. But United Way also operates a service used by countless MultiCare patients and their families: the information resource 2-1-1. By calling 2-1-1, the same way you’d dial 911 in an emergency, a caller can get an enormous amount of advice and resources to provide support in difficult times. 2-1-1 is operated in South Puget Sound by United Way of Pierce County and supported statewide by a broad variety of United Ways including United Way of Spokane County.
Starks is not only building empathy during the call, but also filling out a form about each caller that then taps a database of thousands of resources. The names, numbers and hours of social service agencies that might help this particular caller fly up on the screen. On her second screen, Starks cuts and pastes those resources for a text message she’ll be sending the mom. It will be a personalized survival guide for someone dealing with poverty.
“Thank you. I don’t know what to ask for because I don’t know what is out there,” the mom says.
Starks is one of a dozen operators in the mini call center at the time of this visit. Some of them have more than a crying baby to deal with. On the other side of the room, another conversation is pausing for a different reason. The caller must be distraught, for the 2-1-1 specialist can be overheard telling the caller, “It’s OK. Take a long, deep breath for me.”
“We get that a lot,” Penni Belcher says later. Belcher is the Director for South Sound 2-1-1 at United Way of Pierce County.
United Way is presiding over a revolution in how they provide 2-1-1 service. The new 2-1-1 is not your father’s 2-1-1 or even your big sister’s 2-1-1. Lately, the organization wants to get to know people when they call. And in a new twist, there are times when 2-1-1 is just as likely to
call someone who might otherwise call in.
Getting to know you
The 2-1-1 specialists are in a call center. They’re not selling anything, far from it, but they’re sitting at cubies and conducting call after call. So that’s why this new approach is so surprising.
In most call centers, you want to make the sale and get the customer off the phone so you can take the next call and make another sale. In the old days of 2-1-1, it was totally appropriate to get one question – What’s the food bank closest to me? – and answer it and boom, all done and good. Next call.
Today, 2-1-1 specialists are told to trust their instincts and try to determine if there might be reasons someone wants the food bank or whatever resource they’re looking for. Have they lost their job? Are their bills overwhelming? Are they about to be homeless?
And so, Belcher’s team is drawing out conversations.
“We want folks to call in because we want to have a conversation with them. We want to hear their story. We want to dive deep and understand what’s going on throughout the household so we can offer wraparound services and build that rapport and trust,” Belcher says. “This is about supporting the person during the conversation, not about spelling out the name of the street that a resource is on.”
So how do you get to know someone on the phone when they’re just asking for one thing?
“Usually our people start with ‘Can you tell me more? Can you tell me why you need help; did you lose your job? What happened that you had to pay this unexpected bill?’” says Denise Cervantes, Transportation and Training Associate. “We might ask them to tell us more about what happened, find out why they don’t have money for their rent. “
So to become a 2-1-1 specialist, you must be able to do more than just look up a food bank address quickly. When hiring, “We look for a high level of energy and personability, the ability to have deep conversations that go on for a long time with people who they don’t know,” Cervantes says.
So you heard it right. This is a call center that actually wants its calls to be longer. Of course… some people just want the address. And that’s just fine. But on the longer calls, 2-1-1 usually finds it can recommend more services than the caller had first predicted.
“A lot of times, people may call about bills or particular services. You may not find out, until you dig deeper, that they need child care to help lift themselves out of their situation,” Belcher says. ”We allow people to tell their story. We’ve trained our people to listen more.
That’s been eye opening.”
2-1-1 calls you
There are a couple of reasons that 2-1-1 might be the one calling you. For one thing, there’s a great emphasis on measuring their results. So when 2-1-1 refers someone to a place, 2-1-1 will follow up with a call to see if the person actually visited or called.
But the most innovative reason to call is a pilot program where 2-1-1 is trying to prevent homelessness. It’s part of a program established by Pierce County to try to help families at risk of homelessness. The program has been going on for years now through in-person visits. Someone identifies the household at risk, and someone from a social service agency then visits the person.
That’s exactly what United Way of Pierce County is doing, but they’re not visiting. They are calling people from the call center.
One of the people making the calls is Elvia Beltrane. Beltrane used to be one of the specialists helping people who call in, but now in the pilot her role is called “Housing Solutions Navigator.”
Beltrane calls people and in a conversation that could take hours, works to identify solutions to their situation and most importantly, help people understand that they have it within themselves to find answers.
“When I hear expressions of self-doubt, I try to encourage them that there’s ways of dealing with their situation. When I hear signs of self-doubt and self-pity, it’s my cue to try to boost them up,” Beltrane says.
She uses the example of a pregnant woman who was living in a car with her first child, who’s now 19. She had originally called 2-1-1 to get resources. The staff flagged her as someone homeless, and Beltrane called her. She helped the woman set some goals and identify temporary solutions; the woman and her daughter now have a place to live and the woman is working in a call center in Lacey.
“The other vital piece besides listening is to work with them on their goals and their next steps. We talked about how we will we take what we’ve learned today to build momentum to get out of this current situation,” Beltrane says.
What that means in practical terms is that people are staying in touch and letting Beltrane know how they’re doing, even after they’re no longer homeless.
Belcher says, “Families are staying in contact with Elvia longer-term, I’ve seen her get messages like, “Hey Elvia, I wanted to let you know I just got my GED. Or I’ve got a job interview. There’s a relationship where she’s been supporting them.”
This is different than the old 2-1-1 where the employee had to be careful to spell out street names and was just trying to offer a resource. Now United Way of Pierce County is offering communications and empathy – and more assistance and support to those who need it most.
Would you like to support 2-1-1 and the United Way’s attack on poverty? Click here to learn how to support the United Way campaign.
United Way of Pierce County operates South Sound 2-1-1, which connects nearly 90,000 contacts each year in Pierce, Thurston and Lewis Counties.