Microsoft Helps Blood Centers Draw Lifeline with New Online Appointment Manager
REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 10, 2002 — Most people tell David Leitch unequivocally that donating blood is a great thing for people to do. But while saying it is one thing, Leitch, manager of the Donor Group Recruitment Program at the Puget Sound Blood Center in Bellevue, Wash., quickly notes that for many people actually donating blood is a very different matter.
“About 5 percent of the population donates blood,” says Leitch. “People have myriad reasons not to donate. Our job is to make it as convenient as possible for volunteers to donate blood.”
To that end, Microsoft employees volunteered to work with Americas Blood Centers, an organization representing 75 regional blood banks across North America, to implement Appointment Manager, online scheduling software from Microsoft Business Solutions that will make it easier for centers to schedule and manage their mobile blood drives. The pilot project focused on Puget Sound Blood Center, which processes 900 donors every day and supports over 70 hospitals throughout western Washington State.
“The online scheduling of appointments will remove a huge obstacle for donors and make donating blood more convenient,” says Jim MacPherson, CEO of America’s Blood Centers. “Online scheduling represents a quantum leap forward in donor recruitment technology, and demonstrates that blood centers are on the cutting edge of technology.”
The project started in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks left blood centers throughout the U.S. overwhelmed with offers to make blood donations. Eric Hennings, group program manager with the Microsoft Business Solutions division, saw an opportunity for blood centers to be more efficient with a real-time online scheduling system.
“Right after Sept. 11, we all saw the news stories about all the people queued up outside of blood banks wanting to donate blood,” Hennings recalls. “Helping the blood banks better manage their scheduling was something we were all immediately interested in working on.”
Appointment Manager is an online scheduling service from Microsoft, available through bCentral.com that enables small and medium-sized businesses to accept appointments online from customers 24 hours a day on their Web sites, and to manage their scheduling and resources to maximize the value of customer relationships.
After more than a year of work, the pilot project will come to fruition in the next few weeks when Puget Sound Blood Center deploys Appointment Manager for use on mobile blood drives. To date, Microsoft has donated US$250,000 in consulting and software to America’s Blood Centers to help member blood banks easily adopt Appointment Manager. Leitch says Puget Sound Blood Center’s goal is to have 25 percent of their mobile drives scheduled using Appointment Manager in the next year.
“We knew right away that the Appointment Manager system would have a lot of benefits to help manage the mobile blood drives,” says Leitch. “Microsoft has worked with us to develop a solution that we think will greatly benefit our donors and donor groups, and ultimately make our blood drives more successful.”
The system will eventually be made available to all American Blood Centers member blood banks. In all, says Hennings, Americas Blood Centers blood banks collect over 7.5 million units of blood each year. Microsoft’s donation extended to software and training that can help all interested member blood banks deploy the Appointment Manager system.
Hennings and his group met with Puget Sound Blood Center staff about a week after Sept. 11, and the project got started. Leitch says the primary thing that attracted Puget Sound Blood Center to Appointment Manager was the benefits it would provide to blood donors. “One of the main things we try to focus on is convenience,” explains Leitch. “About 50 percent of our donations come from mobile drives, and that’s also where most of our new donors come from. We were confident this online system would add another level of convenience for them.”
Hennings says the project has benefited his team as well. During the process of evaluating and testing Appointment Manager, Puget Sound Blood Center gave the Microsoft team several suggestions that were incorporated into the launch of an enhanced version of the service — Appointment Manager Professional — which was released Nov. 16.
Though the final system hasn’t yet rolled out, pilot projects have already shown that the added convenience the appointment tool provides should appeal to donors. I t provides people wishing to donate blood with an easy way of scheduling a specific time at local mobile drives. The system also sends reminders to the donors and allows them to put themselves on “waiting lists” if times they want aren’t presently available. Leitch says the added conveniences help increase turnout when the day of the blood drive comes.
“We created a couple of pilot sites to test the system, and were happy with the results,” he says. “Allowing people to select a specific time to give blood tends to make them more committed to showing up. We had about 25 percent higher turnout than previous drives.”
In user surveys, 87 percent of participants said they were very happy with the experience, according to Hennings, and that they prefer self-service scheduling to calling someone on the phone.
Puget Sound Blood Center will initially use Appointment Manager to manage mobile drives, which account for 50 percent of all donations, and are typically organized by businesses or churches that organize and host the drives.
Mobile drives can pose a challenge to the Puget Sound Blood Center from a business perspective because registration and appointment scheduling is administered by the host group. Collaborating with the donor groups to track appointment scheduling and resources can be cumbersome for both the blood center and its hosts. “Today, our representatives have to repeatedly check in via phone to see how things are going,” says Leitch. “This new system will make it much easier for us to track registration for our mobile blood drives any time we want, and is easy for donor groups to set up and manage.”
The project posed some scalability challenges for the Appointment Manger team. Puget Sound Blood Center works with over 1,100 separate donor groups, and on an average day, the center manages 10 separate mobile drives, each with its own schedule of appointments. “We needed to enhance Appointment Manager to meet our specific needs – Microsoft was very helpful in making those changes,” says Leitch.
With the new Appointment Manager system, both the donor group and Puget Sound Blood Center can monitor registrations for a given blood drive. If registration is going very well, the PSBC can allocate more resources for the drive and make more appointments available. If registration lags, the host group can increase its marketing efforts to drum up more volunteers.
“We’ve found that managing relationships with customers via e-mail is both convenient for donors and helps us efficiently maintain a relationship with our donors,” says Leitch. The customer data compiled will help the blood center understand their donors better and improve planning and outreach.
“There is a great deal of critical business data stored in appointment calendars,” says Hennings. “Appointment Manager allows a business to unlock this data and use it to learn more about its customers.”
Using an online scheduling system will also help Puget Sound Blood Center develop their database of donors. Leitch says during the pilot tests, the number of e-mail addresses captured from donors increased 300 percent. “This makes it much easier to track where donors come from, what kind of drives work better than others, and generally understand the customer better,” says Leitch.
As more and more people use the Web for communicating, Appointment Manager will help them take advantage of technology to improve their service and support of local hospitals by creating better relationships with donors, Leitch says.
“Targeted recruitment via e-mail is something we’re focusing on in the coming years,” he says. “We want to use e-mail to keep in touch with donors, to know enough about them to send an e-mail reminder saying `Hi donor, you can donate blood again. Last time, you donated at such and such a location, and now there’s one coming up in so many days.’
“People won’t give blood if no one asks them to,” says Leitch. “A system like this helps us make sure we’re always asking.”