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How Project N95 streamlined its volunteer-staffed support using Zendesk

To date, Project N95 has provided more than six million units of PPE to healthcare workers throughout the U.S.

By Heather Hudson

Published March 15, 2021
Last updated March 15, 2021

As we enter year two of “life after coronavirus,” procuring proper personal protective equipment (PPE) can be just as difficult as it was in the early days of the pandemic. While most hospitals have a good supply, it can still be tough for small health care facilities and regular citizens to pick up a cache of affordable, high-quality PPE.

That’s where Project N95 comes in. The non-profit organization bills itself as the National Clearinghouse for PPE in the United States, protecting healthcare, essential workers, vulnerable communities, and anyone who needs to be safe in their community by providing equitable access to PPE.

Founded in March 2020, the organization initially addressed the PPE supply-chain issue for smaller health care providers, community clinics, dental offices, nurse practitioners, and home health care aides.

While most hospitals have a good supply, it can still be tough for small health care facilities and regular citizens to pick up a cache of affordable, high-quality PPE.

“At that time, there was no PPE to be found. Larger hospitals and health care facilities had figured out the supply chain issue, but smaller organizations were not able to participate,” said Kimberly Paulk, Project N95’s communications team lead.

Project N95 stepped in to facilitate smaller purchases of PPE, everything from N95 face masks to gloves to hand sanitizers, buying in bulk from trusted suppliers, then working with partners to package orders and send them to customers across the U.S.

To date, Project N95 has provided more than six million units of PPE to healthcare workers throughout the U.S.

As the pandemic wore on, the organization recognized that everyone, not just medical professionals, needs better access to “vetted, safe PPE” and opened up their services to anyone who needs PPE to work and live safely in their community. “Today, you can go to our marketplace and order PPE from a trusted source. We’re making that process easier for everyone and providing fair market prices,” said Paulk.

While access to PPE is important, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, ensuring your face mask is authentic has become another issue.

“People don’t know what’s legit, and they don’t know which suppliers are legit,” Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95 told the NYT. “We’ve had that issue since the very beginning of the pandemic.”

To date, Project N95 has provided more than six million units of PPE to healthcare workers throughout the U.S.

In addition to offering only verified PPE options on their website, Project N95 provides tips on how to look for high-quality PPE on their blog on Medium.

As an organization, Project N95 has come a long way in a short time. With just over 100 volunteers nationwide—some as far as UAE and Mozambique—they work in smaller teams such as supply, tech, customer service, fundraising, partnerships, finance, and more.

“We have a vetting team that does nothing but vet different categories of products. We have playbooks that help us vet each product to make sure we take it through its paces,” said Paulk.

How Zendesk helped Project N95 level up internal processes

The breakneck speed at which Project N95 ramped up meant that a patchwork of organizational, customer service, and communications tools were employed. Recognizing that the organization needed a more holistic solution to managing everything, it submitted a COVID-Sponsored Accounts application to Zendesk’s Tech For Good program.

In November 2020, N95 integrated the Zendesk Support Suite with its systems and saw immediate results. With the suite, the organization’s volunteers can answer questions across email, chat, phone, and self-service channels.

“Zendesk has been a literal life-changer,” said Rachel Lewin, head of customer experience at Project N95. “Before we started using it, everything was a lot less integrated and more piecemeal. We used a bunch of different tools, which meant our volunteers needed to log into a lot of different places to get information.”

“If you wanted to do phone support, you needed to log into one thing to see the ticket and another thing to make the phone call,” she explained. “And then you had to go into our database to see the customer information. It was a lot.”

Zendesk Support has centralized “pretty much anything we do,” says Lewin. Of the approximately 100 volunteers that run Project N95, about 75 use Zendesk. Customer support agents can sit in Zendesk and accept phone calls using their cell phones and easily record notes. The software integrates with N95’s e-commerce platform, so that order information is accessible to those who need it.

“There’s a lot more user-friendliness now. It’s made the process of serving customers, taking orders, searching for information, and a lot more so much smoother,” Lewin said.

While Zendesk Talk and Support are N95’s primary tools for channels of support, Lewin said they’ve also found Zendesk Chat valuable. “People can get real-time answers if they’re having trouble registering or navigating a feature. It’s so helpful to provide live help rather than asking users to send an email and wait for a response. We’re even planning to implement a self-help center so it’s easy to find all the answers we’ve seen come through Chat.”

“People can get real-time answers if they’re having trouble registering or navigating a feature. It’s so helpful to provide live help rather than asking users to send an email and wait for a response.”— Rachel Lewin

Integrating a new e-commerce platform made for a few challenges, but N95 was grateful to have Zendesk’s support to help users through the transition. “We’ve had a lot of real-time success in getting through the registration process because we had that support.”

Email support has helped centralize tickets inside the system, while Zendesk Explore allows the org to ‘slice and dice’ reporting so that it can drill down on anything. “It’s incredibly useful to understand what’s going on with agents and customers,” said Lewin.

After the New York Times article that quoted Miller came out, the organization was flooded with tickets, jumping from 800 to 1,000 in a very short time. Lewin says the volunteer team was able to clear it down to 50 tickets within four days. “Honestly, I would be proud of that in a non-volunteer organization.”

Project N95 is making the most of Zendesk’s technology to achieve its mission of providing healthcare and essential workers—and all of us—with equitable access to high-quality PPE.