Age UK: Building safe, scalable, and cost-effective services for volunteers and the elderly
- Cost effective scaling made possible by pay per use. As volunteer numbers increase, Age UK scales per hour rather than via expensive user licenses.
- Increased volunteer numbers (an increase of 242% from 2020). Being cloud based, friendship helpline volunteers can be anywhere, improving the experience for older people who also benefit from greater diversity of companionship.
- Fast implementation. Age UK contacted Zing on a Wednesday, by Friday they’d received a proposal, and work began on the Monday. Within ten weeks, Age UK’s flagship National Advice Line and other customer service lines had been moved to Flex.
- High user satisfaction. By adding web chat functionality and enabling Age UK’s virtual assistant to hand over to humans as appropriate, satisfaction levels average 4.2 stars out of 5.
Age UK is a national charity that works with a network of partners, including Age Scotland, Age Cymru, Age NI and local Age UKs across England, to help everyone make the most of later life, whatever their circumstances.
In the UK, the Charity helps more than seven million older people each year by providing advice and support. It also researches and campaigns on the issues that matter most to older people. Its work focuses on ensuring that older people: have enough money; enjoy life and feel well; receive high quality health and care; are comfortable, safe, and secure at home; and feel valued and able to participate.
Key to the support it provides are advice services via its confidential Age National Advice Line and The Silver Line Helpline which is available 24x7 at any time of the day or night for a friendly chat, and free telephone friendship services that match volunteers with those missing the joy of regular conversation.
Age UK had used Twilio to build a bespoke platform for its friendship service, enabling it to scale-up while conducting safe telephone calls that fulfil its duty of care to volunteers and older people, without lots of manual reporting or administration.
However, its National Advice Line remained on an on-premises solution. So too had the telephony system used for office communications and customer service lines.
“Even before the pandemic, we wanted to simplify our network infrastructure. The on-premises telephony kit at each Age UK office required a very expensive and complicated network overhead,” said Alasdair Stewart, Age UK’s Head of National Services.
When the pandemic hit, Age UK had a ready-made and tested solution to enable employees to work from home, but issues began to arise. For example, incoming calls needed to be dialed out to contact centre agents on their mobile or landlines, which tied up their phones all day.
“We realised early that working from home was going to be a long-term situation. We needed to be agnostic in terms of where people worked. We needed another solution,” said Alasdair.
The contract with an existing supplier was coming to an end and Age UK needed to decide whether to renew for another year, giving it the time to plan, or “bite the bullet” and make the move as soon as possible.
“Despite there being a pandemic, and despite lots of other pressures, we decided we needed to get the right telephony solution now as it underpinned the entire delivery of our national services at a critical time for older people,” said Alasdair.
The decision was made to move to Flex within an ambitious timeframe.
As part of the switch, Age UK wanted to move its partner charity, The Silver Line, onto the same platform. It also wanted to enhance its text-based website virtual assistant, giving it the ability to handover to human agents when appropriate.
“We did our research and chose Twilio Flex. We had experience of the underlying Twilio tech, which we were very happy and familiar with,” said Alasdair.
“But one of the biggest attractions was being able to pay per hour, rather than per user. That was huge to us because, alongside our staff, we have lots of volunteers who may only login and take calls for a few hours each month. To buy licenses for each of them would send costs skyrocketing. So, Twilio’s pricing model was very attractive.”
Age UK also spoke to several development partners.
“It became clear that Zing worked the way we like to work, but crucially, Zing had the ability to deliver in the timescale that we wanted.”
Head of National Services, Age UK
Age UK contacted Zing on a Wednesday, by Friday they’d received a proposal, and work began on the following Monday. Within ten weeks, the Age UK National Advice Line and other customer service lines had been moved to Flex.
“We were very happy to be able to move onto Flex in a timeframe that we would never have thought possible. If someone said we could move our highest volume and most complex telephone lines in only eight to twelve weeks, we would've said, ‘yeah, that's never happening’ but with the help of Zing, that's what we achieved. It was brilliant.”
“Our Advice Lines and Helplines work slightly differently to typical commercial customer service or sales lines – we need extra, different functionality, and with Twilio and Zing, we were able to innovate and build out these extra features for our staff, volunteers, and callers at a relatively low cost.”
One of the reasons Age UK selected the Twilio Flex platform was for the future opportunities with messaging and other text communication channels. After the public-facing services and telephone lines were transferred to the Flex platform, work was also undertaken to expand Age UK's existing website virtual assistant to enable a seamless handover to humans when necessary.
By asking “is this helpful?” and “are we giving you the answers you’re looking for”, the chatbot is constantly checking to see if human intervention is needed. When it is, Age UK’s advisers are provided a transcript of the conversation in Flex as part of the handover, enabling them to pick up and resolve the user’s query.
Twilio Flex has enabled Age UK to scale up in a very cost-effective way. As staff and volunteer numbers grow, it scales in hours rather than expensive user licenses. Before the move, Age UK had seven different telephony systems across different teams and parts of the organisation; it now supports just two, both of which are pay per use, resulting in significant savings.
“This has saved us considerable sums of money, not just on the telephony side, but by reducing the complexity and cost of needing to maintain complicated networks across our UK offices. As everything is now cloud based, we do not need to worry about patching and maintaining physical servers anymore - or the associated costs of doing so,” said Alasdair.
By Zing helping Age UK bring all its telephone services onto a single platform, Flex - including The Silver Line Helpline - volunteers from anywhere in the country can log-in and pick-up calls at any time. Previously, they’d have had to go into a physical office in either Blackpool or London.
“This has significantly boosted the number of volunteer applications and our ability to onboard volunteers across the country, which has greatly improved the experience for elderly callers who get to speak with a much more diverse range of people.
“It’s provided a much more convenient way for people to volunteer. The Silver Line Helpline now has volunteers all over the country, which the older people love. The volunteers they speak to have different accents, different life experiences, different age ranges – a lot more diversity and opportunity for new and different conversations,” said Alasdair.
By adding web chat functionality and enabling the virtual assistant to hand over to humans when appropriate, satisfaction levels are high (an average of 4.2 stars out of 5). The number of web chats Age UK handles has grown from the low hundreds to thousands each quarter.
“It’s a lovely extra channel that has allowed us to reach people in a different way. It's been positively received. Chat is important for a wide variety of reasons, not least because people sometimes come to us with things that they find quite difficult to discuss. Text based chat can really help in these cases.”
“We’re here to help as many older people as possible, especially those most in need,, and the work by Zing and the Twilio Flex platform really helps us do that,” said Alasdair.
“We used to feel like we were trying to put square pegs in round holes. Flex provides a lot of functionality out of the box, which is constantly improving, but because it's so customisable we engaged with Zing and have been able to build exactly what we need.”
“The beauty of the flexibility is that we do not have to worry about the technology in the background. It’s all quite magical.”
Head of National Services, Age UK