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GreatCall Connects By Talking to Seniors

The call that came into a vast Carlsbad call center one recent morning was no emergency. Most aren’t. But it could have been, and the woman answering the phone had to be ready.

In this case, the caller, presumably a senior citizen, was concerned because the lanyard had slipped off his phone. After pushing a single button on the device, he was immediately connected with an operator at GreatCall Inc., the San Diego-based active-aging technology company.

The employee pulled up his personal information and a map of where he was that moment, using the phone’s GPS tracker. Once she determined he wasn’t facing an urgent medical matter, she politely walked him through the process for getting the device fixed.

The call center — GreatCall CEO David Inns prefers to call it a “caring center” — is critical to the company’s focus on helping seniors live independently. It functions like much of what GreatCall does, acting as a kind of buffer between aging customers and the high technology they may enjoy but struggle to understand.

The center is also fairly emblematic of what makes the company resistant to competition from startups trying to break into the market for senior-oriented health care technology. The operation is massive, with several hundred highly trained employees spread across facilities in two states — large enough to pose a major barrier to industry newcomers.

Service Over Tech

Even as GreatCall moves to substantially broaden its business by introducing sensors and behavioral analytics to multilevel senior living facilities, Inns sees the call centers as holding still greater potential for meeting the needs of his customers.

An example is the company’s recent work with peer-to-peer transportation network Lyft. Customers in need of a ride dial up GreatCall, whose operators arrange for a driver to pick them up. The charge is automatically billed to the caller’s monthly bill, along with a 15 percent surcharge.

“It’s not the tech that’s important,” Inns said. “It’s actually the service element that comes with it.”

Since its founding in 2006, GreatCall has grown to about 1,100 employees and annual revenue “well over” $250 million, said Inns. He declined to be specific about the company’s size, noting the company is privately held.

Custom Design

GreatCall’s best-known product is the Jitterbug, a phone specially designed for seniors. It has large buttons and an easy-to-read electronic display.

Other products in its lineup include smartphones, medical alert devices and pendants that act as two-way communication links. The newer devices have sensors that can detect a fall and automatically notify call center operators, who can quickly contact emergency responders, caregivers and family members.

In December, GreatCall completed its acquisition of Healthsense, a maker of passive health monitoring products. The Minnesota-based company uses wireless sensors to monitor customers’ daily eating, sleeping and movements. Significant changes in routine produce a notification to a caregiver.

Anticipating Needs

Inns sees Healthsense’s sensors as foundational to GreatCall’s expansion into predictive analytics. He wants to build on the Minnesota company’s algorithms for anticipating customers’ needs. He said this new capability will introduce new efficiencies to independent living communities.

Accordingly, GreatCall plans to ramp up its presence at senior living trade shows and other events. The pitch will be that a closer understanding of what residents are doing from one moment to the next will help stave off transfers to more medically intensive settings requiring greater resources.

“Predicting analytics is going to be huge,” Inns said.

But as he charts that strategic course, Inns is careful not to stray from the call center and the related focus on keeping close contact with family members he sees as equally vital to serving GreatCall’s customers.

Staying Focused

While he didn’t rule out additional acquisitions in 2017, he said the company isn’t working on any now.

“We’ve got so much opportunity here as a company,” he said. “It just seems it’s more often a question of what not to do than a question of what to do.”

The company’s Carlsbad call center, with more than 200 workers spread across two floors, is roughly the same size as its sister facility in Reno. Some parts of the operation are open 24 hours a day; all take calls seven days a week.

Many of the center’s employees are former emergency medical technicians, military veterans or dispatchers. They must go through at least six weeks of training before answering their first call, and are expected to adhere to extensive written protocols for customer interaction.

Premium Services

Although most of the calls are answered and addressed free of charge, part of the center is set aside for premium services costing 99 cents per call. This covers extras like directions to a grocery store, or connecting a personal call.

A supervisor at the center, who asked not to be identified as a matter of policy, said some customers call just because they’re lonely and want to chat. But often enough, it’s far more serious.

She recalled the case of a man who had gone out in the early evening to get the mail and accidentally slipped on a patch of ice. Lying there in the street and unable to get up with darkness falling, the man was relieved to remember he had his GreatCall phone in his pocket.

The man pushed the button on his phone and within seconds was in contact with the call center. An employee there called for an ambulance and stayed on the line with him until help arrived. It was later determined he had broken his leg.

Inns said situations like that give reassurance to customers’ family members, which fosters the level of confidence that allows seniors to live longer in their own homes.

“They (family members) need to know that someone’s going to be there when they’re not around to help their mom,” he said.

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