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Care at the end of a keyboard

Today, one in four smartphone owners in the UK don't even make one voice call a week. And for Gen Z – or the iGen as they’re often dubbed – communication is more likely to take place inside instant messaging apps than over a call. These young people have grown up with digital connectivity. Studies show that 96% of 16-24 year olds use a text based application to communicate every day, and 79% of Generation Z consumers display symptoms of emotional distress when kept away from their personal electronic devices.

For organisations working with young people, this presents a challenge. Universities can offer places over Snapchat, and brands can target social media influencers to support their campaigns. But what about organisations focused on supporting – not swaying – Gen Z?

For support teams concentrating on the more sensitive aspects of care, how can you connect in a way that bridges the popular and the protected; the informal and the informative? In Southampton, the charity I work for, called No Limits, is paving the way.

Helping young people

No Limits supports young people under 26 who live in the Southampton and Hampshire region. Through a mix of advice, counselling, support and advocacy, we offer a supportive environment where young people can explore the issues which are affecting their lives — all for free, and all confidentially.

We help thousands of young people a year by being a safe place to turn to for advice and information. From homelessness, to bullying, to sexual and mental health problems, we’re there to help with whatever is worrying young people in a judgment-free environment.

Gen Z communication gap

For all the connectivity surrounding them, today’s young people often feel isolated. A World Health Organisation survey carried out in 42 countries found that young men and women in the UK are among the least satisfied with their lives.

People under 26 face a plethora of problems. To help with these problems, our support at No Limits has to be perceived as being accessible and is also something with which they are comfortable. We already offered help over the phone, through email and through our dedicated advice centre, but were striving to be even more approachable.

For example, we know that young people experiencing anxiety don’t always want to leave the comfort of their home to visit us. Similarly, young people who feel nervous or embarrassed by their issues might not want to pick up the phone and dial in to discuss them.

Our challenge was to help this vulnerable audience as effectively as possible. We make it our job to help young people, so we needed to be where they are. Increasingly, that place is online, and within instant messaging tools.

Live chat software

They may be heavy smartphone users, but young people have a dislike for talking over the phone. Only 38% of Generation Z prefer to talk to customer service reps over the phone, compared to a (still low) 49% of millennials.

For many young people, instant messaging is the go-to communication option of choice. The call is no longer a first port of call, and services like iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger and Kik are a more typical means of contacting friends and family. This kind of digital chat feels familiar and relaxed, and we wanted to embrace its popularity in our own comms.

So, to encourage more young people to get in touch with the charity, we decided to add a live chat option to our website. Our goal, ultimately, was to expand our existing support with a channel that was ideally placed for young people: informal, user-friendly and appealing.

A safeguarding challenge

Instant messaging may be an appealing channel, but it can pose a safeguarding issue for organisations offering support to young people. Naturally, anyone divulging their private personal problems in a confidential conversation doesn’t want those issues to then be stored in a public cloud, or openly accessible to multiple teams.

We knew we wanted live chat, but it had to be a channel that could tick all our safeguarding boxes. The privacy of the young people we help is of paramount importance, and we stand by a promise of complete confidentiality.

For us, that meant that we needed a chat channel offering watertight security, that could be installed onto our own on-premises servers. Our web team was tasked with finding a live chat solution that met all our strict safeguarding requirements, and researched multiple providers. It was WhosOn by Parker Software that ultimately fitted the bill.

Testing the waters

Adding a new communication channel to the mix is not a step that should be undertaken lightly. Before branching out into unexplored territory, it’s important to research chat usage both internally and internally to find out where and how the channel should be used.

We started off with a free 30-day trial to test the waters. In these initial stages, our team leaders used the software to see whether it was a good organisational fit. We also tasked a focus group of Youth Ambassadors – young people who we work with at No Limits – with using the chat and giving us their thoughts.

It’s imperative to us that we’re offering relevance and value to young people, so the feedback from the focus group was a pivotal factor in moving forwards. When employees and end users alike were positive about the live chat channel, we knew we were making the right decision to expand our comms.

Getting it right

Charities like us must operate in a business-like manner to support the huge numbers of people they serve effectively. That includes all the strategy and preparation you’d expect in any organisation, and I would like to say that No Limits is no exception.

To ensure the chat deployment worked as smoothly as possible, we worked with Parker Software to get training on WhosOn and its features. This helped us to get accustomed to the chat before we launched it as a communication channel, as well as ramping up excitement for launch.

We wanted the channel to slide into our organisation seamlessly. As part of that, the supplier provided us with a custom chat window that matched the look and feel of our site. For the chat to be a success, it had to be an option that young people could trust. A branded chat window helps add a level of authenticity, so that users know they’re chatting in a safe place.

From a more operational perspective, we wanted the software to be as useful to our employees as possible. So, we also worked with the software company to get custom reporting on our chat sessions — allowing us to tag and categorise conversations based on the user’s query.

We now have a secure, installable live chat solution that fits our needs perfectly. And, more importantly, it also fits the needs of the young people we’re committed to helping.

A stepping stone

For No Limits, the addition of live chat software has created a casual entry point between young people and advisers. The incognito, online nature of chat creates an inviting stepping stone between that initial contact and more in-depth support.

So far, we’ve taken web chats for a broad range of issues, including housing, emotional support, school difficulties and bullying. comments Jess. It can be scary to ask for help no matter what age you are, and live chat helps reduce the pressure of reaching out. Young people can feel safe behind their screens while starting the journey to support.

As an example, one chat user contacted us to enquire about counselling. We talked the young person through the process, and gave them advice inside the chat session. That relaxed route saw the young person coming in to our advice centre for one-to-one help – with web chat having opened the door.”

A view to the future

Despite being in its early stages, live chat software has made a positive business impact on No Limits – an impact that is anticipated to grow over time as we increase the time allocated to the live chat channel each week.

We’ve found that live chat fits into our operations smoothly, and allows the team to catch up with admin while running chat in the background. Since we’re often away from the desk having face to face sessions with young people, this online option allows us to maintain contact while getting important computer based jobs done.

We hope to increase our usage of live chat software moving forwards. It’s comfortable, it’s current, and importantly – it places care at the end of a keyboard.

No Limits’ Jess Sulzmann – a branded chat window helps add a level of authenticity, so that users know they’re chatting in a safe place.
"…we needed a chat channel offering watertight security, that could be installed onto our own on-premises servers."
"The incognito, online nature of chat creates an inviting stepping stone between that initial contact and more in-depth support."
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