Are Live Operators Editorial

September 2012 by Rich Avanzino

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

I recently asked a co-worker to call more than a dozen animal shelters, big and small, in every corner of the country, to get a sampling of how shelters respond to phone inquiries nowadays. Here is a typical result*:

"When I first called, an automated voice directed me to view animals on the website. I pressed 2 for adoption info, then 1 for adoping an animal, and it gave me about two minutes of information about the adoption process. Then I was told to press # to speak to a representative, and it took me to another voicemail tree."

Frustrating voicemail systems have long been commonplace at municipal shelters where resources are focused more on animal control services than on customer service. But in the past fifteen years, they've become the norm at private shelters as well.

When I became President of the San Francisco SPCA in the dark ages (1976), a live operator answered the phones using a switchboard with plugs inserted in holes. Even when we abandoned the antique switchboard in 1992, we kept live operators until my departure in 1999. Was I just too behind the times to know any better? No. I believed then and I believe now that there is a great deal of value in making human contact with a "customer", particularly when your organization depends on the involvement of the community to help you further your lifesaving mission and goals.

Many will say that it's too expensive to use live operators today. I would argue that a human voice at the other end of the phone should be seen as a component of your development, customer service and public relations efforts. Research shows that customers remember the first and last minutes of a service encounter much more vividly than the rest of it. A live operator gives you the opportunity to make a great first impression on a potential donor, adopter or volunteer and that's invaluable. And if cost is really a deal breaker, turn the job of telephone operator over to a trained volunteer!

A live operator is a fantastic way to use the power of personalization to move your brand forward and make your organization stand out. Consider Nordstrom and L.L. Bean, just two companies that use live operators to boost the bottom line. Many companies are now switching back to live operators, realizing that it might have been a step in the wrong direction to take out the human element.

You may be thinking, "Talk is cheap. You aren't in my shoes." But when the Maddie's CenterSM opens in 2014, a live operator will be standing by.

*In our unscientific survey, only two out of fourteen shelters used a live operator. Four shelters enabled a caller to speak to a live person as soon as they pressed the button for "adoptions."

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