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Improving our call center

Our call center team is a critical part of GiveDirectly’s work in Kenya – it includes about 20 staff, who are based in our main office in Nairobi and handle a range of recipient-facing issues. They contact recipients to confirm that transfers are received successfully and they capture recipient responses for GDLive. The call center team also investigates any issues affecting recipients, like M-Pesa withdrawal issues, potential theft or fraud, and more. And finally, the team fields incoming calls on our toll-free hotline, which are often recipients calling to ask about transfer timing, or even just to say thank you!

GiveDirectly staff taking a typing speed test.


Improving call center operations is one of our 2017 goals, as we think we can improve the experience for our recipients and also be more efficient (reduce the cost per transfer). In past years, the team grew to keep up with GD’s work in Kenya, but technology didn’t – we were still using cell phones for calls. So we brought on board an experienced call center manager, Brenda Onyango, to lead overhaul in this area. Two months ago, we upgraded to an open source call center solution (an Asterisk-based PBX implementation). This has a lot of benefits: a single line for callers, recording and live listening services for quality improvement, and a lot more data on call center performance and individual agent productivity. Instead of cell phones, our agents are wearing headsets attached to their laptops, placing and answering calls assigned to them by the system.

It turns out that one of our biggest shortcomings has been typing speed. The data newly available to us showed that for every 5-10 call minute made to a recipient, our staff spent just as long “paused” afterwards, not taking other calls. During the calls, our agents left incomplete responses in the online survey forms and jotted down additional notes on paper or in a Word document to then complete the survey after the call, because they couldn’t type fast enough to do it live. When we measured typing speeds, the range was 15-40 words per minute, with an average of 25 wpm.

If we can improve typing speed, we can potentially double call center productivity (the number of recipients each agent can call per day), without harming quality. So we’ve set this as a goal, and are experimenting with a mix of carrots and sticks to get there. We’re also taking lessons from other call center-heavy organizations like M-KOPA, which has a monthly touch-typing competition with a trophy and prizes. We hope that, as our staff build their skills and the team is able to absorb more calls (especially as we launch basic income), we’ll be able to further reduce our costs per transfer.

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Mark Laichena is GiveDirectly’s Kenya Country Director. Prior to GiveDirectly, he was a management partner in Kenya’s Ministry of Health, a consultant with McKinsey, and an operations transformation coach in New York’s public hospital system. He has a BA in Peace, War and Defense from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead-Cain scholar.