Friday, May 20, 2011

Phones and phone calls

Give the UK public a phone number and they will call it—except when they are suspicious that it is a premium rate line, when they may phone to ask me to call it for them.

The RSPCA National Control Centre takes over a million calls every year. That's roughly two calls every minute, and, since these won't be evenly spread over the 24 hours it gets hammered at peak periods. This is why calls take some time to be answered and why the control centre staff may sound unsympathetic—they can't spend time on anything besides getting down essential details that will enable the field staff to evaluate and deal with the issue.

Judging by the number of calls we get direct to the Cambridge branch, the total number of calls to all the RSPCA branches combined probably amounts to another million.

Altogether that's a LOT of phone calls. We try to deal with it in various ways, none of which are entirely satisfactory. Some branches have set times when calls will be answered, some have rota systems of volunteers, some have a phone that's permanently on answerphone and will sift calls and return those they can help. The nearest thing to an ideal setup is probably a rota of volunteers with other tasks that they can be getting on with between calls, although it does mean a lot of interruptions, and most branches simply don't have enough volunteers who can be available during the 9-5 period when most people are at work.

Then there's the vexed question of whether there should be a single branch number for everything or several numbers that can be treated differently, such as an emergency mobile number that's answered immediately, and an enquiry number that's answered when someone happens to be about.

This would probably work except that callers to the enquiry number tend to get fed up because no-one answers and try the emergency number. If you happen to be the person with the mobile in their pocket and you are on a bike this can make your journey a bit of a frustrating process.

Even for the National Control Centre with its staff who are employed to do nothing but answer RSPCA calls, there have to be trade-offs between various factors to generate a "least-worst" solution. The core staff work all the year round and develop a lot of background knowledge. At busy times of the year they are supplemented by pulling in extra people from the parent call centre company in order to keep waiting times before calls are answered to acceptable levels. These staff are trained, but they give slightly more of an impression of working to a script because they don't have the same depth of knowledge. The trade off here is between the need to keep down costs by using only the number of staff who are really necessary and the risk that animals will suffer if waiting times are too protracted and callers give up. At the end of the day it's pointless having a super-efficient system for taking calls if it doesn't leave enough funds available to actually deal with the problem once it's been reported.

Similar trade-offs apply when it comes to taking action following the phone calls; there is no point employing so many animal collection staff that there's no money left to pay the vet bills for the animals they collect. This is why we always ask callers whether it would be possible for them to take injured animals direct to the closest private vet, as this means the animal gets help more quickly and we can afford to spend more money on the actual treatment instead of on the process of getting the animal to the surgery. It's also why it's more cost-effective to pay for the use of private vets' existing facilities than try to set up lots of RSPCA hospitals which would all have overheads.

This can be upsetting for both ends of the incident—witness the usually calm RSPCA_Frontline's uncharacteristically sharp reaction to a follower who simply will not accept it's not possible to get a collection officer to her address instantly: "For animals in need - call 0300 1234 999. Swearing is unacceptable on Twitter and this account is also followed by children."

Ultimately the only solution is to increase our fundraising.

If you think you might like to volunteer to go on our phone rota, please email 

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