Behind the Scenes at a GiveDirectly Call Center

Link post

Note from Aaron: GiveDirectly re­cently signed on to have their blog posts cross-posted to the Fo­rum (just like GiveWell and a few in­di­vi­d­ual users), so I’m start­ing with their most re­cent post (which I also liked a lot).

Whether you’re an in­di­vi­d­ual or you rep­re­sent an or­ga­ni­za­tion, send me an email if you’d like to have your own con­tent au­to­mat­i­cally cross-posted!


The room is quiet — ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional clack­ing of heels on ce­ment floor­ing, the soft sip of tea, the click­ing of com­puter keys. Then the hotline rings.

When re­cip­i­ents call the GiveDirectly hotline, they could be call­ing about any­thing: to ask about the sta­tus of a trans­fer, re­port theft, or just say “thank you.” GiveDirectly has a call cen­ter in ev­ery coun­try we op­er­ate in, and all call cen­ter agents are lo­cally hired. Agents both field calls from the hotline, as well as make fol­lowup calls to re­cip­i­ents who have been en­rol­led to re­ceive cash trans­fers.

This sum­mer, we in­ter­viewed Sithem­bile Nyondo, a call cen­ter agent in our Malawi office, to hear what she’s learned on phone calls with re­cip­i­ents. You can read the in­ter­view here.

GiveDirectly call cen­ters track met­rics such as call an­swer rate and drop rate, av­er­age an­swer time, talk time, pause time, and more. Op­ti­miz­ing our call cen­ters aids us in im­prov­ing our effi­ciency, and we’ve ex­per­i­mented with var­i­ous types of staff train­ing to hit ag­gres­sive tar­get met­rics (for ex­am­ple, you can read about how we im­ple­mented typ­ing speed train­ing in 2017 to in­crease pro­duc­tivity in our Kenya call cen­ter). The more cost-effec­tive our call cen­ters are, the more money we can de­liver di­rectly into the hands of re­cip­i­ents.

Track­ing these met­rics also holds us ac­countable in de­liv­er­ing a top-of-the-line cus­tomer ser­vice ex­pe­rience to re­cip­i­ents. Every suc­cess­ful cus­tomer-fac­ing com­pany has mechanisms for en­sur­ing qual­ity ser­vice. We think re­cip­i­ents of aid de­serve the same and have de­signed our pro­cesses ac­cord­ingly. We record calls and re­view a sam­ple set each week to en­sure qual­ity; sched­ule around re­cip­i­ent availa­bil­ity by re­main­ing reach­able on week­ends and at odd hours; and find al­ter­na­tive meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for re­cip­i­ents who can­not speak to GiveDirectly over the phone (for ex­am­ple, we re­cently hosted a deaf re­cip­i­ent in the call cen­ter office to com­mu­ni­cate in per­son).

As cus­tomer ser­vice hubs, GiveDirectly’s call cen­ters ex­ist to make re­cip­i­ents’ ques­tions, con­cerns, and ex­pe­riences heard. Our call cen­ter agents — who talk with re­cip­i­ents day in and out — there­fore offer a unique lens on re­cip­i­ents’ ex­pe­rience with GiveDirectly. So we sat down with Sithem­bile Nyondo, a call cen­ter agent in GiveDirectly’s new Malawi call cen­ter, to catch a glimpse into what a typ­i­cal day looks like in the call cen­ter and hear what she’s learned from re­cip­i­ents so far in her role.

Parts of our con­ver­sa­tion with Sithem­bile have been lightly ed­ited for clar­ity.

To get started, tell us a lit­tle bit about your­self, Sithem­bile.

I’m 26-years-old and I come from a fam­ily of four kids. I come from a place called Mzuzu, which is in the north­ern part of Malawi. I grad­u­ated with a de­gree in busi­ness ad­minis­tra­tion and worked part-time with the Air­tel call cen­ter, and then worked as an in­tern in the fi­nance de­part­ment of the Mzuzu City Coun­cil. GiveDirectly is ac­tu­ally my first per­ma­nent job, so it’s ex­tremely ex­cit­ing!

Why did you de­cide to work at GiveDirectly?

I figured that GiveDirectly was ac­tu­ally helping a lot of peo­ple, and I felt like, “OK, if I join this or­ga­ni­za­tion, not only will I be helping out to im­prove peo­ple’s lives, but I’m also go­ing to work on self-de­vel­op­ment that can also help me.”

What makes a suc­cess­ful call cen­ter agent?

We need to be pa­tient when we’re talk­ing to re­cip­i­ents. We need to be very un­der­stand­ing. We need to hear what they’re say­ing. We have to have listen­ing skills so we get the right in­for­ma­tion and are able to give them the right in­for­ma­tion. We also have to be re­ally good at mul­ti­task­ing. And also we have to have a sense of hu­mor. When the re­cip­i­ents crack a joke, even if it’s not funny, we in­ter­act with them.

Do the re­cip­i­ents of­ten crack jokes?

Yes! The re­cip­i­ents are ac­tu­ally very funny. To­day we’re mak­ing fol­lowup calls to re­cip­i­ents who have re­ceived funds, and they tell us, “Oh, I’m so happy, you don’t un­der­stand, I had noth­ing.” And they’ll laugh and crack jokes, and talk about how they danced when they re­ceived the money. So far, all the re­cip­i­ents have been very joyful. Of course there are some that had a few com­plaints. But most of them are very joyful.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to the call cen­ter?

First we have our team morn­ing meet­ing. To­day, the first thing peo­ple talked about in the meet­ing was the AE’s — the ad­verse events — be­cause some of us are hav­ing trou­ble clas­sify­ing them. Ad­verse events are any prob­lems that hap­pen be­fore or af­ter the trans­fer — like if some­one’s money is stolen or the trans­fer causes a house­hold con­flict. One of the calls I got was that a lady has dis­ap­peared from her home with the money, leav­ing her chil­dren and her hus­band, and ap­par­ently she has moved to Mz­imba, where she is with an­other man. In these situ­a­tions, we try to do what is best for the fam­ily. For ex­am­ple, we’ll talk to both the hus­band and the wife, and ask them what they want to hap­pen. Our op­tions are to con­tinue the trans­fers as be­fore, can­cel any fu­ture trans­fers, or split the trans­fers be­tween the hus­band and the wife.

The Malawi call cen­ter meets for their morn­ing meet­ing.


What hap­pens af­ter your morn­ing meet­ing?

After the meet­ing we get on our com­put­ers for phone calls.

And how many calls did you make to­day?

About 18. And then I started call­ing back the peo­ple who didn’t an­swer yes­ter­day.

Can you tell us the kinds of ques­tions you ask when mak­ing fol­lowup calls to re­cip­i­ents?

Yes, the main types of ques­tions are:

  1. Did you face any is­sues cash­ing out?

  2. Were the GiveDirectly staff po­lite and helpful when they vis­ited you?

  3. Have you had any prob­lems as a re­sult of re­ceiv­ing this money?

When peo­ple call into the hotline, what do they call about?

Many peo­ple call in to ask if they are el­i­gible to re­ceive a GiveDirectly trans­fer. Some call to ask about when they will re­ceive their trans­fer. Others are ac­tu­ally just call­ing to thank. They call to say, “Oh, I just wanted you to know we re­ceived the funds. We are so happy so we just wanted to let you know.” Some peo­ple even call just to say hi, to see who is on the other end of the line.

What’s the most sur­pris­ing thing you’ve heard on a phone call?

One thing that sur­prised me was a lady I talked to who said that there were some peo­ple who wanted to use the money for al­co­hol and things like that, but then they’ve had other re­cip­i­ents talk to them, and now they’ve in­vested in a busi­ness in­stead.

What’s the most com­mon thing peo­ple say they spend money on?

Most are build­ing houses. When I started work­ing at GiveDirectly, I asked, “How come ev­ery­one is build­ing houses?” And I got a very good an­swer, ac­tu­ally. Most of the houses are made of grass, so most peo­ple feel that now that they have money, well, grass, when it rains, it leaks. So they feel now that they have money they want to have a roof on their house.

Is there a phone con­ver­sa­tion you’ve had that stuck out in your mind?

The sec­ond-to-last call I had, I was talk­ing to the chief of one of the villages. One of the ques­tions we ask is about sex­ual ha­rass­ment be­cause we want to be sure that re­cip­i­ents are be­ing treated ap­pro­pri­ately and re­spect­fully. When I asked her, “Did any­one maybe show any in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­ter­est in you?” she laughed and said, “No, I’m old! But thank you so much for check­ing up on me.” Even though she thought the ques­tion was strange, it’s an im­por­tant ques­tion we need to ask.

What do you think GiveDirectly could do bet­ter to en­sure that peo­ple have fewer ques­tions or fewer con­cerns?

I think el­i­gi­bil­ity should be made very clear. Even though we’re told in the call cen­ter that peo­ple in the villages are told at the baraza (the in­tro­duc­tory in­for­ma­tional meet­ing) that not ev­ery­one is go­ing to get money, it seems that some peo­ple don’t know this in­for­ma­tion. That’s why they keep call­ing to ask what’s go­ing on. And when we ask, “Did you un­der­stand what was told at the baraza?” some say, “No that part was not said.” I think that should be prop­erly com­mu­ni­cated so that peo­ple shouldn’t be dis­ap­pointed.

[Note: Our call cen­ter agents con­duct sur­veys to as­sess how well re­cip­i­ents un­der­stand var­i­ous as­pects of how trans­fers work. Below we’ve posted data from our re­cip­i­ent com­pre­hen­sion sur­vey con­ducted dur­ing the Malawi pi­lot pro­gram in May 2019.]

What’s your fa­vorite thing about work­ing in the call cen­ter?

I think my fa­vorite thing is in­ter­act­ing with some­one I don’t know, but get­ting to have a con­nec­tion with that per­son. Get­ting to talk to them. Get­ting to help them. One of the things I re­ally like is when some­one is tel­ling us the im­pact of GiveDirectly, how happy they are, how joyful they are. You know, they’ll say, “Thank you so much, god bless you, we’re so happy.” It makes me feel like peo­ple are happy be­cause of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and it also makes me feel like I am helping out to some­how make peo­ple im­prove their lives. In the call cen­ter, we ac­tu­ally get to in­ter­act with some­body who you have never seen, but some­how can get a con­nec­tion.

What do want to do next in your ca­reer?

I’m still de­vel­op­ing; I am not go­ing to just stop here. I hope that some­day I will be a man­ager be­cause I did study busi­ness ad­minis­tra­tion and one of the profi­cien­cies is you can be a man­ager. So I feel like this is a big step here and I know that one day I’ll be a man­ager, maybe of this com­pany or maybe of an­other com­pany. Hope­fully, as years go by, and I keep de­vel­op­ing, I’ll be in an even bet­ter po­si­tion.