If your company or department has on-call responsibilities, determining the on-call rotation is only half the battle. Once you know who is on-call and when, it’s important to establish a solid procedure for contacting personnel and escalating calls when a given contact is unavailable.

Despite being critical to the on-call process, many organizations fail to establish exhaustive on-call contact procedures, resulting in downtime, delayed responses, lost business, and even legal action (depending on the severity of the situation needing attention).

Providing on-call services to hundreds of organizations across countless industries, we have a lot of experiencing assisting companies with the implementation of their on-call procedures. Below are some of the best practices we have uncovered along the way.

Understand Client Needs & Expectations

For the purpose of this article, the “client” is anyone requesting on-call assistance. In healthcare practices you may be responding to patients or other medical professionals; IT departments may be assisting co-workers or external users.

Before you can establish guidelines for contacting on-call staff, you need to determine what types of calls you will be responding to and what expectations the client has for receiving a response or resolution. There are numerous variables here, including the type of client you are responding to, the severity of the problem, the ramifications of the issue not being addressed, and your ability to adequately address the problem.

After assessing client needs and expectations, you can set a goal for response time and ensure all related processes are appropriate for the situation.

As an example, if your medical practice only responds to urgent situations after hours, you may give your on-call personnel a very small window to respond before the patient is asked to call 911.

One Size May Not Fit All

Based on the assessment of your client’s needs and expectations, you may realize that there are a wide variety of issues that may need the attention of your on-call staff. If that’s the case, be sure to scrutinize your processes and determine whether one set of instructions is truly adequate.

Often, a given on-call employee may only be equipped to handle certain situations. Instead of wasting valuable time having that employee escalate the call to someone else, why not have different instructions dependent on the situation?

For example, if only one member of your team can resolve software errors, there’s no need to run those calls through your general distribution (unless others can be trained to handle certain tasks, of course). Establish a different on-call procedure for those calls and save everyone some time.

Establish Exhaustive Escalation Procedures

Every set of instructions you implement should be exhaustive. Every contingency and “what if” situation should be accounted for and there shouldn’t be any guesswork necessary on behalf of your call center, clients, or staff.

Here’s an example of incomplete on-call instructions (what you don’t want):

  1. Contact Bob via text message.
  2. If Bob doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, call him at home.

What if Bob doesn’t respond to the text message and he isn’t at home? Should the dispatcher hold the call indefinitely? Should the instructions repeat? Should someone else be contacted? These instructions are a recipe for disaster.

A complete set of on-call instructions can be achieved with a few additional steps:

  1. Contact Bob via text message.
  2. If Bob doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, call him at home. If no answer, leave a voicemail.
  3. If Bob doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, call his cell phone. If no answer, leave a voicemail.
  4. If Bob doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, text Jim.
  5. If Jim doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, call him at home. If no answer, leave a voicemail.
  6. If Jim doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, start over from step 1.

All we did here was bring another contact into the mix and ensure the steps would repeat until someone was reached. Obviously these steps will vary based on your needs, but the point is that they’re complete and leave no room for guesswork.

Personalize Individual Contact Instructions

The amount of flexibility you have here is likely dependent on the system you’re using to contact on-call personnel. (Our call center software allows for complete personalization of on-call contact methods, for example.) If possible, you should personalize contact instructions for each member of your team. By reaching them through channels that are best for their situation, you’ll improve your response time and ease some of the discontent that sometime comes with being assigned on-call duty.

As an example, the second step in your contact instructions may be to call the on-call at home if you were unable to reach him or her by cell. If one of your team members has children and most of your calls come in overnight, maybe he or she would prefer you try a spouse’s cell phone before calling them at home.

Lastly: Get Everyone on the Same Page

Transparency is paramount. Everyone involved in the on-call process should have a solid understanding of your procedures.

  • Customers and users should know when to expect a response when requesting on-call assistance and how they should proceed if they don’t hear back.
  • Your call center staff or dispatching team should have a complete, step-by-step set of instructions for ensuring a situation is handled.
  • On-call staff should know how they will be contacted, how long they have to respond, their duties upon responding, and where they fit into the on-call rotation (primary, back-up, etc.).

Of all the tips we have for setting up your on-call procedures, this is perhaps the most important. Ensuring all your policies are crystal clear to the parties involved will help you avoid confusion and conflict when it is time to actually put them in place.

We hope you have found these best practices helpful. Do you have any best practices we may be missing? Perhaps instructions specific to an industry like healthcare, field service, or technology? Please share in the comments. There is always more to learn and we are always looking for information we can pass along to our clients.