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It's a Voice Mail Jungle Out There

A phone tree can be a modern miracle for your shelter, but it can also frustrate supporters and threaten your ability to help animals in danger. It all depends on how you use it.

A phone tree can be a modern miracle for your shelter, but it can also frustrate supporters and threaten your ability to help animals in danger. It all depends on how you use it.

"Thank you for calling the Automated Humane Society. Your call is very important to us. But you'll be lucky if you get through to anyone remotely resembling a live person, regardless of whether you're holding a bleeding cat, trying to catch a dog running loose on the highway, or inquiring about our adoption hours. You see, we are unable to prioritize your call because you have now entered The Matrix. There is no escape. Pressing "0" is not an option. You may choose to sit through this incessant message, or you may hang up full of frustration and resentment toward our shelter. Thank you."

Chances are you haven't heard anything quite so extreme on a recorded phone greeting. But if you've ever been trapped in a voice-mail labyrinth that has you pressing buttons till your fingers turn raw, then you know how it feels to be left hanging to the point of just hanging up. And in an environment like a shelter, where a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death for strays in the street or pets in distress, callers can't afford to hold on too long for the next available representative.

Because of the nature of sheltering—with its limited staff, resources, and time—voice mail is something of a modern miracle, freeing up valuable time for employees who would otherwise be providing directions, reciting adoption and surrender hours, or explaining licensing requirements to inquiring citizens. But used improperly, voice mail also has the potential to be a customer service nightmare, making your shelter appear unresponsive and, in some cases, uncaring.

Before the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region revised its voice mail maze, callers were being sent into a virtual black hole—with little chance of escape. By the time they finally reached someone—if they even waited that long—many of them were so agitated that they'd take it out on anyone who would listen. "People would get to your [personal] voice mail, and they would be angry," says Judi Lakin, manager of communications and the shelter's annual fund. "Quite a few people made comments about the voice mail, saying, 'Your phone system's awful, and I wanted to make a donation.' "

Callers to Maricopa County Animal Care and Control Services fared no better—until the Arizona agency changed its system two years ago. When Maricopa surveyed citizens and tracked calling records, managers discovered that 20 to 22 percent of callers were hanging up before they ever got what they needed, says Dan Schriek, the agency's call center supervisor. It was a sizable chunk, especially considering that the agency's two shelters impound 54,000 animals and answer more than 166,000 calls a year.

If This Is an Emergency...

So how do you ensure you're not losing important calls to the bittersweet wonders of technology? You can start by amending your message to give urgent calls top priority, allowing people with emergencies the option of pressing "1" or "0" at the very beginning of the greeting. (If you already do this, you're ahead of the game; some organizations bury emergency instructions in the middle or end of their messages.) If at all possible, provide the option of reaching a live person during operating hours. While this may seem a little risky if you're trying to reduce staff hours spent on phones, there's no need to fear: Many people who are calling for basic information will be content to retrieve it without interference from an operator. That leaves time for the others—those who see modern technology as an impenetrable puzzle.

"Having talked to a lot of people in the last few years, I think there are some people who perhaps aren't as sophisticated as others, and they find any type of matrix or mechanized answering device confounding," says Schriek, whose agency now allows callers to escape the matrix. "And I think [shelters] should provide that option [of pressing '0'] if at all possible."

Tips for Growing a Healthy Phone Tree

  • Provide a clear path for emergencies. Don't make people with genuine emergencies wade through a sea of minutia; tell callers up front what to do if they need help immediately.
  • Construct escape routes. Some people are uncomfortable with technology; at the very beginning of your voice-mail greeting, allow callers the option of reaching a live person. It's also a good idea to let callers press the pound or star signs to repeat a menu or return to a main menu.
  • Put a lid on it. Too many choices can aggravate and confuse; stick to five or six options on your main greeting menu—you can always branch out from there.
  • Preach to a captive audience. Don't hurt people's ears with ding-dong elevator music. Educate and entertain callers on hold by providing information about responsible pet care.
  • Make sense of the labyrinth. Wean people away from the temptation to press zero if it's not really necessary; tell them that by using the recorded system for routine questions, callers help free up operators who need to assist people reporting real animal emergencies.

The only caveat, says Lakin, is that everybody thinks their problems are emergencies. To dispel that notion, Lakin devised a system that helps callers understand what constitutes a real emergency situation. During normal business hours, people with emergencies are told immediately that they can press "0" at any time to reach an operator; during non-business hours, the shelter's recording explains that domestic animal emergencies are those involving cruelty, injuries to animals, or threats to public safety. People calling about deer or other wild animals are given the number for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Building these emergency options and escape routes into the phone tree was only the beginning of massive overhauls of the voice-mail systems that Schriek and Lakin oversee. Through feedback from their communities, they both discovered that the order of the day—for both emergency and non-emergency calls—was to follow the mantra of all those late '90s self-help books: "Simplify."

Two years ago, Schriek took the ganglia of Maricopa's voice mail system and pared it down to just a few nerve endings: Callers with life-threatening emergencies are directed to hang up and call 911. Callers reporting an animal bite are directed to press "2." Because people who have lost a pet or found someone else's pet account for nearly half the calls to Maricopa, the voice-mail greeting provides information about how to report these cases and refers callers to helpful services such as the nonprofit locator Pets 911. The rest of the menu allows callers to access information about business hours, shelter addresses, dog licensing, impound fees, and adoption fees; it also provides a way to report animal problems or dead-animal sightings.

Since the implementation of the new system, the rate at which callers have hung up before ever speaking to someone has taken a steep dive¡from 22 percent to 6 percent. During one week, the agency hit a record dropped-call rate of only 3 percent. Schriek attributes the success of the system to the newly navigable phone tree and the additional manpower during peak calling times.

Deforesting the Jungle

In Colorado Springs, Lakin took the same approach, chopping away at what had become the Amazon rainforest of voice-mail greeting systems. On the old system, callers had waded through a sea of minutia. Those interested in humane education needed to specify whether they wanted to take a tour or request a classroom visit; they even had to provide the approximate ages of the children involved. Potential donors were also subjected to the madness, says Lakin. They needed to first access the donation branch of the voice-mail tree, and then specify different methods of payments and payment plans. The system, says Lakin, became "phenomenally complex."

"We originally tried to anticipate any question anybody could ever ask, and what would happen is that people got so deep into the system, they didn't know how to get out," says Lakin. "The [company] we worked with on the new phone tree said it was so complex it was like an orchard."

So Lakin cleared the orchard and left one tree standing—with branches that addressed only the most common questions from callers. People can now call the shelter and get immediate help for emergency situations. Non-emergency callers can access five main branches of the tree, including the lost and found system, the shelter hours and location information, a directory of departments, a directory of staff, and a more extensive listing of information, programs, and services.

The new system provides callers on hold with something to ruminate on while they wait. Rather than assault people's musical sensibilities with easy-listening versions of "Let it Be" or "Like a Virgin," the shelter uses a rotating recording of five different greetings that educate and entertain in true sound-bite style. Recorded by a professional who also happens to be a friend of Lakin, the tidbits debunk myths about spaying and neutering, explain why birds don't fall off their perches when they start to nap, unravel the mysteries of purring and kneading, and detail the differences between doggie and kitty tail-wagging.

"We get a lot of comments on how fun the messages are," Lakin says. "[People say], 'Oh, put me back on hold—I want to find out what the cat's swishing his tail means.' "

While she hasn't conducted a formal survey, Lakin believes the new system has helped callers arrive at their destinations more quickly and has improved the image and effectiveness of the shelter. "I think the younger population is used to this automation," she says. "I think most of our complaints—and this is anecdotal—were from the seniors. They really want to talk to somebody. They can be tremendous supporters, and I think you have to be careful just how much you choose to rely on [a phone tree]."


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