When you extend a critical lifeline to those in need, that last thing you want them to hear is a busy signal.
Lifeline Australia provides a nationwide, 24-hour telephone counselling service manned by volunteers spread throughout the country. The service was founded in 1963 by the late Reverend Dr Sir Alan Walker, and originally operated out of the Methodist Central Mission in Sydney.
Today it has grown to rely on more than 4,000 Australian volunteers across 63 sites, many in regional areas. The service receives roughly one call every minute, with the average call lasting around 20 minutes.
Growing demand meant more than half of incoming calls were going unanswered, says Lifeline Australia chief executive Dawn O'Neil. O'Neil is also the Deputy Chair of the Mental Health Council of Australia and a board member of the Commonwealth appointed National Advisory Council for Suicide prevention.
"In the early nineties we went to a '13' system, which allowed people to access our service through a single phone number, however the technology sitting underneath remained exactly the same. Initially people could only call the 13 number and connect to the nearest Lifeline centre. Over time we were able to overflow those calls if that line was busy to another location, but only four locations in total."
Looking for a better way to utilise its available volunteer base, Lifeline Australia spent eighteen months examining how it could matching demand and supply.
"Was it that we needed more counsellors? Was it that we needed them in different locations? When we added up the amount of counsellors and the number of incoming calls we actually had enough supply to meet demand but we just couldn't get them to match up," O'Neil says.
"We needed to set up some sort of virtual call centre so that we could flow the calls around the country nationally and match supply with demand. We could also certainly see the trend into the future was for people to want to access services like ours through a whole range of different mediums and technologies, such as email and SMS."
After one false start, Lifeline Australia turned to IT services company Getronics - which implemented Cisco's Unified Communications Manager and Cisco Unified Contact Centre. The system uses Voice over IP to allows calls to be re-routed to any available line at any Lifeline site in the country - using a mixture of ISDN lines and DSL to provide a minimum 512 kbps link.
The key to the project was clearly defining Lifeline Australia's requirements, says Getronics consulting services director Rob McCabe.
"When the project started Lifeline Australia wasn't really sure about exactly what they wanted. They knew that they weren't working efficiently because of the infrastructure they had. The knew there was technology available that could address those issues, but they didn't know what it could provide in terms of the bigger picture."
"We had to get them to think about and articulate what they actually wanted so we could get a final solution in place."
With Getronics onboard and the project back on track, Lifeline Australia made fast progress.
"We set ourselves an initial target which was to have an eighty five per cent call answer rate, so that callers at least getting place in the queue. We achieved that within the first month. Prior to that it was about forty per cent which is just dreadful," O'Neil says.
"More than half of our centres are in rural and regional Australia. In most of those locations they did not even have a PC on the desk. So the very first thing we had to do was familiarise the telephone counsellors with a PC. Now we've rolled out computers, IP phones, routers and printers to all the locations. Since then we've fully integrated our CRM system with the phone system so when a call comes in it automatically populates part of the call record."
"Now we have visibility. We know how many calls are waiting in the queue, how many counsellors we have available across the country at any time of the day and how many are on calls. We can view all that real time, so we can finally see what we're dealing with."
This was first published in January 2008