When Covid-19 hit in March, FirstCare faced a spike in demand that tested our systems, our technology and our people more than we could have imagined. In this article, Ed Lane and John Coyne explain how the we maintained critical services during the first wave pandemic... and how we prepared for the second.
Since 2004, FirstCare have been helping large organisations improve the wellbeing of their employees. Our focus isn’t just on reducing absenteeism, our goals are improving productivity, greater resilience and early intervention whenever problems arise.
We work with a very broad spectrum of large employers including food manufacturers, transport companies, the police and healthcare, so it’s fair to say that most of our Members are ‘key workers’.
FirstCare. First point of contact.
As our name suggests, we’re the first point of contact when staff need to take unplanned leave; whether due to medical reasons such as illness or injury or because of non-medical reasons, like caring for loved ones.
In short, when we receive a call, we absolutely need to ensure our team of nurses and advisers can respond quickly; 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The onus of responsibility is further emphasised when you consider that over the years FirstCare has supported over 500,000 NHS workers.
At the best of times managing capacity in a call centre is notoriously difficult. But in contrast to a call centre in ecommerce business, the personal and financial stakes are a lot higher for our team. Ours has always been a critical service. Even before the ‘new normal’, lost working days cost the UK economy in excess of £56B per year.
Lost working days cost the UK economy in excess of £56B per year
However, the need for reliability and urgency is truly highlighted when you consider that many of these calls are what we call ‘Code Red’. These relate to serious medical conditions such as cardiovascular emergencies or mental health crises.
With all this in mind, a global pandemic is just about the biggest challenge we could ever face. To give you a sense of the scale, here are a few statistics.
- During the third week in March there was a 400% increase in all inbound calls.
- During the busiest day, the volume was 872% higher than the average for 2019.
- Code Red calls, half of which are typically received in the night, increased by 117%.
But due to some very timely planning, we were well prepared. Throughout a stream of Government directives, WHO briefings and with clinical advice from our own Governance team, we changed almost every aspect of our operations.
Thanks to some amazing technology and even more amazing people, we adapted and grew stronger as a business.
Technology, training and tenacity
Any downtime or service degradation can seriously impact our client because any drop in our performance can impact their ability to staff safely. Near-live data is therefore critical. Our new FirstCare Insight platform came into its own, providing analyses and alerts as the pandemic emerged. We were able to give clients invaluable updates on symptoms, highlighting infection hotspots and ensuring guidance and support was always on hand.
The latest cloud-based systems also enabled us to switch to remote working quickly; routing calls and managing cases via the secure IT systems. Crucially, these were systems that we’d planned for as part of a major investment in company-wide digital transformation programme.
Notably, although the impetus behind this programme was to improve customer experience and productivity, it did include a contingency plan for a 'extraordinary events'. The pandemic was exactly that. Extraordinary.
Even day-to-day operations switched to ‘virtual’ with staff induction, training and quality control all being delivered remotely via computer screens. In just one ten day period, we moved all staff from our HQ in Watford to homeworking.
With the huge volumes of calls, complexity of queries and urgency we needed to ensure that the service we were delivering was consistent and remained up to date with current Public Health Guidance. In tandem we wanted to ensure our colleagues felt valued and supported throughout, so we invested additional resources in quality auditing, coaching and support for staff.
More time with callers
Our bespoke recording system also brought other benefits, including enabling our nurses to spend more time helping callers rather than navigating legacy systems. One statistic that we’re particularly proud of (and might surprise some people) is that through this period our average handling time increased by 27% (March – June). We consider this to be a positive. We’re a life-line in difficult times and have made a conscience decision to invest more time in each conversations with Members.
Callback management systems also ensured that our nurses were able to follow up inbound calls to check-in with those who needed further support. Machine learning and AI algorithms within our work force management solution also helped us to maintain the optimal levels of staff in the face of constantly changing levels of demand.
Crucially, at this time, through better call prioritisation, our nurses were able to improve triage efficiency, make more timely interventions, and get members at serious risk referred quickly. This undoubtedly helped to save lives. Other clinical objectives included providing:
- COVID risk assessments and guidance from our Medical Advisor
- A new COVID control protocol for prevention of cross infection
- New COVID absence reasons
- A new COVID return-to-work interview form with line manager training notes
So, what have learned?
On reflection, the rigorous controls and processes gave us more than just practical resilience. They were also great for moral. Although under considerable pressure around the clock, our planning gave management and staff a real sense of confidence during some of the toughest times.
If ever you wanted proof of the value of Information Security, Quality Assurance and Business Continuity standards, we have a pretty compelling case study...
None of us can be sure of what the future holds but we are certain about one thing. We are ready!
One final footnote:
We’re delighted that the success of our teams has been acknowledged by the European Contact Centre & Customer Service Awards (ECCCSA) in which we are Finalists.
Our sincere thanks go out to our staff and our wonderful NHS heroes.
Thank you also to our customers who gave us an average satisfaction score of 90% in a recent survey.