Beth Marrs and Elizabeth Meimann like to say that, at AnswerLine, “if we can’t be your last call, we want to at least be your second-to-last call.”
That was the case on one unforgettable day.
One caller was self-cleaning her oven, and the process got out of control, creating flames in the oven.
“She said, 'I have a fire in my kitchen, what should I do?'" Meimann recalled. “It’s like, ‘Hang up and dial 911!' Other people were eavesdropping (on my call),” Meimann said. “She said, ‘This is just the best service!’ We were telling her to clear everyone out of the house, go to the neighbor’s, call the fire department. On and on she went.”
Meimann had the right idea in that situation – if your house is on fire, obviously, call 911 – but the caller’s thought process illustrates the bond that AnswerLine has built with its clients. Over the last 40 years, the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach hotline has become a highly trusted resource for the people of Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota, providing information and resources on home and family questions regarding everything from child development to cleaning to food safety, nutrition, laundry and much more.
The program has grown from a 16-county pilot program to a multi-state program that now connects by email or phone with around 20,000 clients on an annual basis. And they are always looking for ways to reach new audiences.
“We try and do everything we can,” Meimann said. “Because we think of ourselves as the front door of Extension and Outreach. We’re a friendly voice. We’re happy to talk to people. We get a lot of, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to talk to a real person.’ We want to be as service-oriented as possible and just provide great customer service.”
A Pilot Program Takes Off
AnswerLine began on March 1, 1975 as a six-month pilot program tested in a pair of eight-county areas surrounding Des Moines and Creston, headed up by founder Mary Jo Williams.
“She wanted to make a resource for all the county home economists that were trying to prepare programming and do things in their own counties, but would have to stop their work to answer (questions) like, ‘How long does this cook, is this still good, can I make this ahead of time,’” Meimann said. “So she saw a toll-free number where consumers could get help like that as a way of easing the burden on home economists.”
According to an Estherville Daily News article titled “ISU Watts Line Answers Problems,” Williams got some unusual questions, like the man who asked “how high rabbits can jump” in order to build a garden fence, how to get melted Tupperware out of the oven and how to build a smokehouse.
The program was a hit and quickly spread across Iowa, receiving permanent funding.
“After a year they said, ‘This is working,’” Meimann said. "'No reason to keep testing this.’”
Pre-Internet, AnswerLine was a little different. Four four-drawer file cabinets stored all of the information that, today, is at our fingertips, a Google search away.
“A lot of those questions were timing, safety, things that maybe consumers in general wouldn’t know,” Meimann said. “Similar questions, a lot of quick and easy answers, how do I know if this cake is done, this is how you test it, laundry stains. Those sorts of things that consumers didn’t have as easy access to as they do now.”
A Modern AnswerLine
These days, the questions have changed, due to the Internet’s proliferation. AnswerLine has a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, as well as a twice-weekly blog.
“We use the Internet quite a bit but we only use research-based information,” Meimann said. “So we know how to search to get just that kind of information to come up.”
AnswerLine also uses the cache it has built up to reach a number of different audiences. The line (800-262-3804 in Iowa) is open 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, and with a staff of just three specialists, relationships are built, sometimes on a first-name basis.
“We’ve got the people who have had our number, people who’ll call in and say, ‘I’ve been calling you ladies for 38 years and I got this phone number from my mom,’” Marrs said. “Now with our social media presence, we’re trying to target a different market. We’re trying to hit some of the younger people rather than the older base who were the original callers.”
And that younger group needs to know how to do things safely as well.
“People say, ‘How can you do your job? People can use the Internet,’” Marrs said. “But they don’t know how to use the Internet safely. They need research-based information and they’re calling for a reason. They’ve got a question in their head and they know something’s not right.”
Personal service on all levels is important, Meimann explained. They always try to return missed calls, especially if they’re pulled away by a fire drill or something similar, or they see a caller hang up without leaving a message.
“If something happens and we miss a call, we want to not be creepy like we’re watching you,” she said. “On the other hand, if someone tries to reach us and we’re on a long call that we can’t end because it’s really important, but you see someone’s waiting a bit and you’re afraid they might drop off, sometimes we’ll write down their number and call them immediately after and say, ‘We saw you were trying to get in. How can we help you?’”
Changing With the Times
In 2013, 67 percent of AnswerLine’s calls dealt with food, food safety or food preservation, and Meimann said the growth of home food preservation has changed how they approach their job, with more one-on-one interactions and extended teaching.
“Now, we do a lot of hand-holding, a lot of teaching,” she said. “We’ll get folks who say they’re using the open kettle method – they heat something up in a pan, put it in a jar and put the lid on and call it good. That’s very unsafe. A lot of people, that’s what they remember Grandma doing. So we’re going through, explaining the hazard, explaining the proper method and all the things you need to have.”
“We’re trying to discourage the use of Grandma’s information on canning,” Marrs said, “because Grandma’s information is more than likely not scientifically sound. Things were different way back when.”
Always There for You
AnswerLine’s overall busiest period is the three days before Thanksgiving, when food calls come pouring in before the holiday, but they actually spike highest overall between mid-June and mid-September.
“We really do flow with the weather,” Meimann said. “So if there’s an early planting and gardening season, with rhubarb and strawberries, those calls come earlier. If there’s an early frost we get the end of the gardening questions earlier, but if summer stretches on, those canning and freezing questions stretch on.”
House fires aside, AnswerLine is a resource for those in crisis following disasters or life changes, from power outages to floods and more, especially regarding food safety.
“People have an immediate resource,” Meimann said. “We’re here all the time. And we find we watch television differently than we used to. If they talk about a product recall or something is going on, we try to be well-versed in where we get information so we can help people.”
And if they don’t know personally, they can direct callers to a resource which can help them, leaning on Iowa State University and its research-based information. As Meimann says, “we try not to leave people adrift. We want to get their questions answered.”
After all, that’s what AnswerLine has been all about for 40 years – and plans on for at least another 40, no matter the technology.
“Everyone is so grateful,” Marrs said. “Even if they don’t start out grateful, by the end we have convinced them that what we’re telling them is right and it’s the right thing to do.”
Original publication date: August 20015