Thousands of Australians contact crisis support service Lifeline Australia each year via the telephone, and it was only in the last six years did the organisation begin looking at other alternative channels people could use to reach them.
For the first time in 2010, Lifeline launched crisis support chat, an online chat system that was being delivered by a cloud-based telephony company based in Canada. While the intentions to expand its reach were there, Lifeline encountered a number of challenges through this partnership.
Sajid Hassan, Lifeline Australia chief information officer, explained given the time zone difference between Australia and Canada, when problems such as frequent connection drop outs occurred, the technical support was not as responsive as it could have been if the service was in Australia.
As a result, the organisation looked for an alternative service provider. In mid-October 2012, Lifeline partnered with LivePerson, which Hassan said was chosen based on the high profile clients the company was already servicing at the time, such as Telstra, which gave Lifeline the confidence that LivePerson was the right fit.
"We wanted to make sure the infrastructure we were going to be running on was going to be able to provide a reliable service for everyone," he said.
Much like the system its councillors — who are based in Perth, Adelaide, and Brisbane — were using to capture data from their interactions with callers via the phone, Lifeline replicated its existing Microsoft CRM infrastructure and integrated the LivePerson application into it. Meanwhile, a Liveperson widget becomes activated each time the web chat service is available.
Initially, when the chat service was launched, it ran from 8pm to midnight, and more recently, due to receiving additional funding, Lifeline has been able to offer the web chat service for eight hours every night from 8pm to 4am.
Hassan said that, based on research the organisation undertook prior to commencing offering the web chat service, it found people were most distressed during the evening.
"During the day our demand is not that high, as oppose to people who are distressed during the evening hours, so we're opened during the most fundamental period people feel distressed. When we launched we knew what was the best option for us, and being able to extend our operations after midnight that's when we've seen more people really contact us," he said.
Hassan said that, while it would be ideal to offer the web chat function 24/7, much like the organisation's telephone hotline, funding is a large challenge as it's a "bit tight".
"One of the main challenges is not technical. Lifeline relies on community and federal funding, and support from all our corporate partners, such as MLC Super Fund that helped fund the entire project, in providing all levels of support we need. Unfortunately, we can only run a service for those times because of the funding; we even had to do a lot negotiation when we increased the hours from four to eight," he said.
Since offering online chat, the organisation has been able to expand its reach. For example, a majority of people who are contacting Lifeline via chat are those 15- to 25-year-old versus a majority of those that contact via the phone belong to the 25- to 45-year-old age group.
The organisation's post-event analysis has also revealed if an online channel services was not available, people would not have contacted Lifeline because they prefer the anonymity of a chat service, and would rather type than verbalise their feelings to a councillor. At the same time, 80 percent of chat conversations are with females versus 60 percent who prefer to call are male.
"You can already see we are the targeting younger population and that's significant," Hassan said, noting that when the LivePerson chat service was first offered, during the 2012 financial year the organisation was answering 6,000 chats, and by the end of the 2013 financial year it had answered 33,000 chats.
But offering the chat services has not taken away with the number of calls the organisation is receiving, Hassan said. In fact the organisation is answering approximately 800,000 calls per annum, compared to three years ago where it answered 540,000 calls, and at this stage anticipates 950,000 calls will be answered by the end of the 2014 financial year.
The chat service has also enabled the organisation to tap into data it previously didn't have. For example, Hassan said about 7 percent of all calls to Lifeline are regarded as "highly suicidal" where people are on the verge of self-harm, but by comparison to those who contact via the chat service, 22 percent are highly suicidal.
"We didn't have that information before, but as we have done more work we are able capture that," Hassan said.
The next step for Lifeline is launching an app in mid-September that will allow help seekers to search for services in their area, such as where alcoholics can find alcohol-related support.
"Phone and chat are our primary medium, email is another way we communicate, but in addition we want to leverage the social media platform to provide another level of assistance to people," Hassan said.