Keith Baldwin has been in the recognition and promotional products business since the 1980’s, building Spike’s, his Philadelphia-based firm, from a handful of employees to nearly 50 as it expanded into events management. In those four decades, he never had to lay off an employee – until this year, when COVID-19 hit with a vengeance.
Virtually overnight, his customers canceled long-planned events. “We didn’t need the mayor of Philadelphia or the governor of Pennsylvania to tell us that we were a ‘non-essential’ business,” says Baldwin.
Under a city order, all of Spike’s regular venues and showrooms had been shuttered for a week before the governor’s stay-home pronouncement left Baldwin no choice: fighting off tears, he was forced to lay off his entire workforce that Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.
“Manna from heaven,” as Baldwin calls it, arrived just 57 minutes later in the form of a call from Beth Packel, Spike’s representative from Philadelphia’s Firstrust Bank, who was aware of the company’s dilemma. Packel volunteered that one of her long-term customers, AnswerNet, a call center outsourcer operating throughout North America, had just been awarded a large contract to make outbound calls for the State of New York to book appointments for COVID-19 testing.
AnswerNet was suddenly in full agent acquisition mode. It needed 300 workers on the New York State program now.
Packel immediately put Baldwin in touch with Gary Pudles, the president of AnswerNet, who offered agent positions to Spike’s entire workforce, at their existing rate of pay!
Baldwin couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Within two hours of cashiering his staff, Baldwin had miraculously hired them all back, filling 45 crucial seats for AnswerNet. In minutes, Baldwin says, the Spike’s team went from “non-essential” to “essential.”
They were off and running. They worked with AnswerNet through the weekend, from early in the morning until late in the evening, getting everyone prepped and trained to help arrange testing appointments for thousands of New York State residents worried that they had contracted coronavirus.
Creating remote call teams, Pudles notes, requires multiple things to happen simultaneously – and quickly. AnswerNet’s team walked the Spike’s people through their team on-boarding process, ensuring that the center systems were compatible with their individual home equipment (personal computer, high-speed Internet, USB headsets, etc.). Each agent needed to be trained via video and screen sharing – and every agent needed to be scheduled and managed based on New York State requirements.
The biggest challenge that occurred while on-boarding the Spike’s team was an equipment shortage. As states began to announce their first shelter-in-place directives, there was, not surprisingly, a shortage of USB headsets as so many contact centers and other Business Process Outsourcers (BPOs) moved their agents home. Fortunately, Baldwin was able to locate several dozen headsets in an Arizona warehouse and had them overnighted to Philadelphia. Five days after Baldwin got the go-ahead from Pudles, they went live, working in shifts around the clock.
The calls have at times been inspiring (the AnswerNet team has helped ignite hope for hundreds of beleaguered New Yorkers), but at other times been emotionally challenging, since many callers are scared and seeking comfort.
In one instance, their outreach was too late; the person had tragically passed away the day before. The news shook up the team. Still, Baldwin and Pudles couldn’t be prouder of the way their people have responded to a calamity that grows worse by the day.
“Every day, I’ve been emotionally moved by the calls,” says Spike’s veteran Max Evans. “It certainly hits at the heart when you hear the concern and fear in some of their voices. Many are coughing and sick. The gratitude they show us with their, ‘Thanks for making calls,’ and so much more. Humbling to say the least!”
“I’m so proud of our people, and so grateful for the opportunity from Firstrust and AnswerNet,” says Baldwin. Through April 4, AnswerNet has set up more than 25,000 testing appointments. Its new goal is to set up 6,000 appointments per day.
AnswerNet’s callers are providing an invaluable service to the State of New York and to all of us. Since the crisis began, AnswerNet has hired more than 700 people, many of whom – like the Spike’s workforce – found themselves through no fault of their own without a job.
“Call centers like AnswerNet are playing a huge role in meeting human needs and helping states, localities and non-government organizations address this crisis,” says Pudles.
“For the past few weeks, it’s New Yorkers who have had acute needs but soon many other states will join them. They’ll need help reaching out to their people.”
AnswerNet is also supporting other government teams, as well as the American Red Cross. But the virus continues to spread. As it does, other call centers will spring into action to help set up testing and medical appointments. It should provide a much-needed opportunity for thousands of out-of-work Americans.
AnswerNet is sharing resumes with other call centers seeking emergency agents. Please go on the Answernet website for additional information.
To suggest that this catastrophe has a “silver lining” is thoughtless as hundreds of Americans succumb by the day. But if we continue to look out for one another – to seize the chances that are out there to help people take care of their medical and financial needs – we can make this crisis a little less awful.
Ask Keith Baldwin and his team at Spike’s.
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Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK. He is a frequent television, radio, online, and print commentator.