The Call Center

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Establishing a Call Center
Staffing a Call Center
Maintaining Resource Information
Collecting Data

Step 1: Establishing a Call Center
Even the best services are not helpful unless they can be easily accessed when needed. Telephone services have proven to be an effective single point of access to community resources. They are cost-effective, easy to promote, efficient in identifying needs, and effective in supporting callers and triaging to appropriate services. They also can be used to collect data on both resources and callers. If call centers in your area are already serving families and children, partnering with those centers is the most efficient way to create access to services.

The first step in establishing a call center is researching those that may already be operating in your service area. Resources to assist in locating local services include:
  • The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) has information on information and referral (I&R) services throughout the country.
  • The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referrals Agencies (NACCRRA) has information on local child care resource and referral agencies throughout the country.
  • Local United Ways often fund I&Rs. Information available through the United Way of America Web site.
  • The Child Find provision of the Individual with Disabilities Act requires all states to have a "comprehensive Child Find system" to ensure that all children in need of early intervention or special education services are located, identified, and referred.
  • The Early Intervention (Part C) system in your state. This is an entitlement program for families whose children under age 3 have significant developmental delays or disabilities.

  • The State Health Department, which is responsible for administering maternal and child health (MCH) programs, including the MCH (Maternal & Child Health) hotline. Federal legislation (1989) mandated the operation of an MCH hotline in every state.
  • Local hospitals and universities.
  • Community/local foundations. Many fund call centers in their communities.

    Arrange meetings with call centers that are potential collaborators. Before a meeting, learn as much as you can about the service. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to promote service expansion. Make sure you know answers to the following:

      This information can be gathered through Web sites, either those of the call centers and/or their funding sources, and through annual reports or other publications. You can also make contact with the call center to experience firsthand how the staff members handle calls. Prior to the first meeting, begin to develop a proposal on why this expansion is appropriate for the call center and what added resources and value you bring to their service. Existing call centers are likely to anticipate additional funds to support marketing, new staff, staff training, and data collection.

      The initial meeting and your research should provide enough information to develop a budget and identify potential funding sources. Having your single point of access housed in a call center that is already in operation is both cost-effective and promotes "one-stop shopping" for families—benefits that appeal to funders. Many resources and Web sites offer guidance in researching, concept planning, and proposal writing, including the Foundation Center's Web site, which includes a short course on proposal writing and project planning.

      Your research will likely identify additional potential collaborators and champions, such as other call centers, direct service providers, advocates, parents, and legislators. Develop strategies for inclusion as soon as possible.

      Step 2: Staffing a Call Center
      The staff who answer the phones are crucial to a successful system. Callers must feel safe, respected, and heard. The center must be adequately staffed with individuals who are trained in telephone casework and cultural sensitivity and who have backgrounds in child development.

      In phone interviews there is no eye contact or observation of body language and no opportunity to provide feedback or encouragement by nodding or smiling. However, seasoned and well-trained telephone caseworkers have honed their listening skills—How does the caller sound? Are there background noises, such as a baby crying?—as well as their telephone interviewing techniques, which are based on guidance developed for I&R telephone interviews.

    • Collaborating with a call center that is already operating helps to ensure you are working with a staff experienced in telephone casework. However, depending on the call center's target population, additional staff training in child development and early childhood behavior problems may be needed. The following Web sites have information on these topics: DBPeds.org, the Centers for Disease Control's Learn the Signs, Act Early, Zero to Three,.

      Step 3: Maintaining Resource Information
      In order for call center staff to make appropriate referrals, resource information must be maintained and updated. Ideally, the inventory of resources should be supplemented with up-to-date information prior to making a referral to ensure that there is no waiting list and that service criteria have not changed. Community-based program staff are an excellent source for keeping information current. Other options include: developing reciprocal referral agreements in which agencies immediately respond to referrals from the call center and contracting with community-based agencies available for home visits.

      The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) and Info Line of Los Angeles offer support and guidance on developing a "human service taxonomy," defined on the AIRS/211 of LA County Taxonomy of Human Services as: "a classification system that allows you to index and access community resources based on the services they provide and the target populations they serve, if any. It provides a structure for your information and it tells people what is in your information system and how to find it."

      As you research and meet with call centers within your area, keep the following in mind:

        Step 4: Collecting Data
        Call centers are in a unique position to collect data that reflect system-level issues—information not only on who calls and why, but on what happens to families seeking help. All call centers should collect:

          Many call centers also have the ability to track barriers experienced by families referred for services. Think about what information you would like collected, how the data should be generated, and with whom you would share the data. 

        • What is their current target population(s)?
        • Who funds them and how is the funding provided?
        • What is the call volume and staffing level?
        • How is resource information collected, maintained, and made available to staff?
        • How and how often and by whom are updates made to the system?
        • What types of information would you like made available to call center staff and ultimately to families?
        • Be aware of possible legal issues related to referring to for-profit services or practices. If those are important resources for families in your area, think about how that information can be shared.
        • information on how callers heard about the service;
        • caller demographics;
        • facts about the person in need;
        • information on what assistance is being requested;
        • records of actions taken to assist callers; and
        • outcomes of the contacts with the call center

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