It was early March in 2020 when the COVID-19 virus began spreading in Saskatchewan. Literally thousands of callers were trying to get through on the 811 HealthLine telephone service. That system—meant to handle maybe hundreds of calls a day, not thousands per hour—became overwhelmed. We spoke to the Director of Network and Unified Communications for eHealth Saskatchewan, Kevin Vaxvick, to find out how the province rose above its challenges.
What call volumes were you experiencing at the beginning of the pandemic?
The call volume was so high that people weren't able to get through. We could see the queues dropping off and people sitting in the hundreds waiting for an agent to answer. And, of course, the actual queuing mechanism was completely overloaded, so we didn't have a clear picture of how many people were trying to call.
Were there timeline implications for addressing the volumes?
We needed something immediately, fully appreciating that isn't reality. You can't just put a new system in place with the flip of a switch. But this was an urgent scenario, and SaskTel and Intermedia—their cloud contact centre—had a solution for us within hours. It’s called SaskTel Hosted Contact Centre or HCC.
Over the next few days, we worked with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to fine-tune the service to what was needed. We worked with SaskTel to properly scale it, looking at call volumes, looking at the vast number of calls that were dropping. Through that exercise, within 72-plus hours, we had a call system capable of handling literally hundreds and hundreds of calls simultaneously.
How did SaskTel work with 811 to fulfill your timeline request?
We quickly built this system to handle several hundred callers in the queue and then additional capacity was put in to give people a proper notification saying, “due to call volumes, we are unable to take your call right now,” just to alert people that the system was currently at capacity. I believe, at the peak, we were able to handle just about 1,000 people waiting in callback queues. People could elect to sit and wait and listen to on-hold music, or they could put their number in and then wait for the system to call them, which was extremely popular. Our goal was to be able to handle 1,000 callers in the queue and, for the most part, we did handle the demand. Once we implemented HCC, we were never technically overwhelmed or overloaded in capacity.
Did the system need to be changed after it was put in?
The HCC that we implemented in those early days has gone through several evolutions to accommodate different needs. People were conscripted across government to help with phone calls, so we've been using HCC for a lot of outbound calling also. Contact tracing can be in the safety of their homes using their cell phones making calls to complete strangers while still protecting their personal cell phone numbers. All of that was one evolution we took on shortly after the initial panic. The next evolution that we had incredible success with was the vaccine booking line 1‑833‑SASKVAX. We have literally hundreds of people from various organizations working that call centre.
What was the best feature of Hosted Contact Centre?
Because it's cloud hosted, operators really don't need to be in a physical location. They can access it—become an agent—from literally anywhere in the world. We found it extremely adaptable to the workforce that was pretty much sent home at the start of the pandemic. That was the biggest strength the system had. We simply created an account and, as long as our operators had an Internet connection and some kind of phone, they were good to go. You could literally do this anywhere.
With HCC, are you set up for your future needs?
I spoke about the number of different evolutions and changes that we made to the system. Most recently, the SHA has implemented what's called the System Flow Command Centre, which is a distributed workforce across the province that basically deals with the hospital bed availability. They're using the system now and are distributed throughout the province using the work-from-anywhere model that the hosted cloud solution provides. We hope to keep this system on a permanent basis and the nice thing is, to scale it up or down, all we have to do is acquire the appropriate number of licenses.
In our province’s greatest time of need, SaskTel had a solution. Hopefully the circumstances that created that need will never again be so extreme. Businesses and organizations across the province will once again be able to enjoy the benefits of SaskTel HCC for more enterprising pursuits—like boosting sales and providing personalized customer care. If you’re interested in learning how SaskTel HCC can contribute to your business, please call 1-844-SaskTel to speak with a sales representative about a solution that’s perfect for you.
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