Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Predicting the Future

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

It seems that seldom a week goes by when I don’t receive a call from someone wanting to interview me. Over time, I realized that the tenor of these interview requests falls into three categories. The first group is those who are trying to better comprehend call centers. The second category of questions revolves around outsourcing. The third group of questions revolves around the future. “What are the major call center trends that you see developing over the next 12 months?” Or, “How will technology impact the call center?”

Other questions are less informed, such as “Will the Internet affect the call center industry?” Or “Do you think computers will ever be used in call centers?” Sometimes the questions are nonsensical, along the lines of, “With the documented increase in demand for left-handed widgets in the Pacific Rim, how will the ongoing viability of the home-based agent in rural America be assured?” I ignore questions like that and give a benign reply, such as “We can be assured that technology will play an increasingly important role in tomorrow’s call center infrastructure.” That seems to make them happy.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In truth, I am reticent in making future prognostications. So, it is with great trepidation that I stick my neck out about the future.

Home-based agents will be key. There is a shortage of qualified people to fill agent positions, especially in triage centers, which rely on nurses – who are in even greater demand. Therefore, the option of home-based agents will expand the labor market for hard-pressed call centers. Some people are homebound by circumstances, others by choice, but many are otherwise employable. So if they can’t or won’t come to your office, merely extend your office to their home. With today’s technology, this is not only possible, but also quite feasible. Yes, there are training, supervision, and management issues, but these can all be successfully dealt with. There are also advantages, such as lower infrastructure costs, increased agent loyalty, greater job satisfaction, and lower employment related expenses (no commute and no dress code). Call centers with home-based agents in their workforce have the opportunity for higher quality (not settling for a lesser qualified candidate on-site), better staffing levels, and lower absenteeism.

Call center outsourcing will be more common. Notwithstanding the opportunities afforded by home-based agents, call centers will increasingly look at the costs, the problems, and liabilities of running a call center and decide that outsourcing their operation is the way to go. This will allow them to focus on core-competencies and better manage resources. Certainly, this will not be an option for everyone, but more call centers will give this careful consideration.

Offshore outsourcing will continue, grow, and succeed. True, there may be unaddressed quality issues and political ramifications today, but those will diminish. My good friend, Mike Leibowitz, succinctly summarized the situation, “Remember when ‘Made in China’ meant the products were of low quality? For that matter, ‘Made in Japan’ had the same stigma a generation ago. But they learned and improved and now Japan and China produce the some of the highest quality items. So, don’t discount the Indians and Pakistanis just because they are having some issues with call center performance today. They are smart, they are motivated, and they will get better – much better.”

The Internet will become even more important. Lack of Internet acumen will relegate call centers to second-class existence – or worse. First, there are the basics.

  • Call centers must have an Internet presence. This could be your own website (especially for outsourcers) or a section on the parent organization’s main website.
  • All staff members need to have their own business email address. Having one email address that everyone uses is, well, appalling and second rate.
  • Your email addresses must convey professionalism. Is 2blond4fun@CheapEmail.com an email address that your call center can be proud to use?
  • Make sure that you actually test and check your published email addresses. In sending messages to the “contact us” email addresses on websites, I have found that about 15 percent are rejected and that about 65 percent are never answered.
  • Beyond these essentials, you need to be thinking about user services on your website, “talk-to-me” and chat options, high-speed Internet access, and hosted services. These will be future differentiators.

Voice logging will become necessary. With the legal liability that can surround any call, especially those that are medically related, recording all calls is becoming of increasing importance. Training and quality assurance advantages aside, call logging provides an absolute record that eliminates those annoying, “he said” – “she said” disputes.

If your agent is vindicated by a call recording, which is generally the case, then a lawsuit can be averted. In those rarer instances where the agent did error, then action can be taken quickly to reach an amicable resolution. Voice logging is less of an option and more of a call center essential.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) will become expected. When properly implemented and offered as an option, IVR is a timesaving, cost-saving, caller-appreciated service. (But whatever you do, don’t force IVR on callers and always let them “zero out.”)  Some common applications are to give commonly requested information such as location, hours, and directions; allow for self-routing of calls; or retrieve test results.

Speech recognition will go mainstream. Twenty-five years ago, the conventional wisdom was that speech recognition would be viable in “about two years.” That prediction seemed to resurface annually!  Finally, we are seeing practical and workable speech recognition running in the call center. While the early adopters are implementing it now, expect it to go mainstream quickly.

VoIP cannot be ignored. Sending voice calls over the Internet (VoIP) is an opportunity that every call center must consider. It allows home-based and remote agents to be cost-effective and viable and has the promise of lowered telco costs. Your next “switch” (maybe even your current one) will likely be IP-based. Be sure to choose your VoIP vendor with care; many will not survive.

Telco costs will go down. It was once postulated that the rate for long distance would converge at one cent per minute; rates will continue to move in that direction. However, with the aforementioned VoIP, the incremental cost of a long distance call could become zero!

Consolidation and mergers will continue. Consolidations and mergers will continue unabated. This will occur with phone companies, with equipment and software vendors, and among outsourcing call centers. They will need to grow by capturing greater market share, entering new markets, or finding a niche (preferably multiple ones) in which to focus, excel, and lead. The status quo is not an option.

Government will be an increasing force. Expect new laws and policies to affect call centers, especially relating to privacy issues and outbound calling. The degree to which the FCC does or does not regulate telephone, the Internet, and related services will have far-reaching ramifications in terms of service availability, feature richness, pricing, and taxation. It is hard to predict what will happen, only that something will happen – and that we probably won’t like it!

Adopt a mobile strategy. Do you know that half of all long distance calls are placed from mobile phones? Increasing numbers of consumers are jettisoning their landline phone in favor of a mobile phone, which affords them greater flexibility, “free” long distance, more features, and often lower rates. Our society is going mobile, and the call center needs to strategize around that trend.

Some predictions will be wrong. This includes not only the preceding comments, but those from everyone else, as well!

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Reputation, Referrals, and Credentials

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Your call center may be an in-house operation or an outsourcer processing calls and contacts for other organizations. If you are an internal call center, you will be viewed either as a profit center or as a cost center (outsource call centers are always profit centers); also you could be under the control of another department, such as telecommunications, IT, or even marketing. Plus, there is the issue of who the call center director reports to. Does that person understand the critical role that the call center plays in your organization? Do they comprehend your technological needs and the importance of a reliable infrastructure? Or is their primarily concern that you don’t make waves?

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Regardless of the type of call center you work in, its place in the money stream, your department assignment, or the boss’s affinity for your operation, there is a common need for increased, positive visibility. Increased call center visibility is necessary in two key areas. The first is budgeting; the second is your center’s ongoing viability and existence, that is, in self-preservation. Relating to both of these is staffing costs, technology upgrades, and additional software. And then there is respect.

One option is to do nothing and hope for the best, which typically ends in frustration. The other option is to be proactive. Does this mean making demands and becoming a general irritant to upper management? No. But it does mean taking careful and deliberate steps to elevate your call center to a point of earning the respect and admiration of the decision makers in your organization. There are three strategies to do this: reputation, referrals, and credentials.

Reputation: For your call center, reputation as a quality operation plays a critical role. Whether you are an outsourcing call center in search of new business or an in-house operation fighting for more funding or a better standing with upper management, your center’s reputation will go a long way towards reaching that objective.

When a reputation for quality service, fair dealings, and ethical practices exist, your call center moves towards the top of the priority list. The converse is true when negative connotations exist. Then it migrates towards the bottom, frustrating marketing efforts and political efficacy. As a low priority, it requires more time and energy to make the sale, obtain your targeted funding, or garner your CEO’s attention. Although it takes time and focus to earn a positive reputation, the road to a bad reputation is much shorter and quicker. Once a bad reputation has been established, it is incredibly difficult to overcome.

Reputation – either good or bad – is a great influencer of opinions.

Referrals: For the outsource call center, the second and perhaps easiest way to gain new business is when others do the work for you. To obtain more business, you can ask clients if they know of others who could use your services. These leads are generally pre-qualified and often pre-sold. Some outsource call centers and answering services have successfully added many new clients by merely asking existing clients for referrals. Some of these call centers elect to reward these “referring” clients with monetary or material gifts; others find that a sincere “thank you” garners even greater results.

The ultimate level of referrals occurs when clients tell their associates about your call center, suggesting they use your services. This is a sure sign of a delighted client. Sales via referrals occur when your actions match or surpass your words – you don’t just say what you will do, but you do what you say. These referrals are earned through the provision of quality service and are reinforced by honorable business practices.

For the in-house call center, you do not need referrals to gain more business, but you do need all the friends you can find when it comes time to expand your department, get budget approval for new equipment or additional staff, or provide new services. If your center’s work has earned the respect and admiration of others in your organization, they are much more likely to come to your aid when you need them.

Again, all you need to do is ask for help. When an agent receives a compliment, ask if they will pass it on to the manager, director, or upper management. Written compliments and recorded messages of accomplishment are even better, as they can be easily passed on to decision makers.

Credentials: Credentials are also important to call centers. You say and believe that your call center is the best, but can you prove it? Sure, you have callers or clients who say how much they value and appreciate the service you provide and written testimonials about your quality and professionalism. But doesn’t every call center possess that? How can you truly distinguish yourself? To substantiate your call center’s high level of excellence, you need credentials and you need someone else to provide them.

A credential is a verifiable recognition from an independent third party that you have achieved a standard level of performance. Having one credential puts your call center in a unique category that few can match. Having two or three moves you towards the top of any list. There are three general types of credentials: agent testing, certification, and benchmarking. Each provides an independent, third-party validation of your call center’s value.

Agent testing: When I was in the operations side of the industry, I enrolled our call center in a third-party testing program. Initially, I viewed its results as a quality report card. It wasn’t until after we earned this recognition that I realized it was an important, powerful mark of distinction that needed to be promoted.

The resulting scores provided 400 data points that could be analyzed to reveal areas of strength and weakness, as well as areas of consistency and inconsistency. (Here is something to consider: you may be better off being consistently weak in an area than to be inconsistent. At least when you are consistently weak, your callers know what to expect and you deliver it every time!)

Certification: Likewise, certification is when a third party organization verifies that your call center meets and complies with certain pre-existing and published criteria or values. The certification could range from technical viability, to agent quality, to adhering to best-practice standards. (The inability to become certified could signal a need for more funding, but that argument should be advanced carefully or it could backfire!)

Benchmarking: A third external source of credentials is benchmarking. Benchmarking focuses on quantitative call center measurements. For this reason, many CIOs and others in upper management like benchmarking; it gives a score on how one call center compares to other comparably sized operations. A good benchmarking analysis will also indicate performance gaps (even the best call centers will have some), make recommendations on options to close those gaps (which is a great asset when working on the budget), and may even include a cost-benefit or return-on-investment analysis of those expenditures. Hence, benchmarking offers a quantitative score and is one more credential.

Whether you are pursuing a client, requesting more funding, or seeking better visibility in your organization, it is my hope that you will have some credentials to share. That will make your job a whole let easier!

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Call Center Credentials

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

You say and believe that your call center is good, but can you prove it? What you need is a credential. A credential is the verifiable recognition from an independent third party that you have earned and met a standard level of performance. Credentials fall under three, sometimes overlapping, classifications: agent testing, certification, and benchmarking. The following organizations provide one or more of these services:

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

BenchmarkPortal manages the call center database originated at Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality. This data warehouse of call center best practice statistics includes thousands of call centers in 24 industry segments. These performance data are used to establish best practice call center goals.

With this information, BenchmarkPortal is able to offer a call center certification program. It is based on a quantitative approach, rather than a qualitative approach (where performance issues depend upon the judgment of a trained auditor). It begins with a thorough statistical comparison between the call center seeking certification and a peer group of similar call centers in the same industry sector.

The certification is based on a balanced scorecard approach, which assumes that certified call centers are able to manage calls at a high level of both efficiency and effectiveness. Specifically, it means that they deliver high quality in terms of results and do so at a low cost. Using established scientific methods to measure the achievement of certifiable best practices standards, the results pinpoint areas of high performance and quantifies gaps in areas of low performance.

The Call Center School supports industry testing and certification in several ways. Students may attend an entire track of Masters Series programs or one of their two-day classroom programs to earn certification in a given topic area from The Call Center School. Upon completion of coursework, students may to take a mastery exam to demonstrate knowledge in a subject area. Those students with a score of 80% or higher are awarded certificates from The Call Center School.

For some students, this certification is an end in itself. For others, it is an intermediate means of preparation for the industry-wide Call Center Industry Advisory Council (CIAC) certification testing. As an official Training Consortium Partner of CIAC, The Call Center School offers organizations the option to purchase combined training/testing packages for one-stop shopping for education and certification.

The Senior Partners of The Call Center School have been involved in certification since its inception in 1995, serving on the initial CIAC Board of Directors. The Call Center School is the only training organization where all its faculty members have earned the CIAC Certified Call Center Management Consultant designation.

CAM-X (Canadian Call Management Association) offers two testing programs addressing agent performance and quality. These are the Award of Excellence and the Call Centre Award of Distinction.

The Award of Excellence program, started in 1989, is a benchmarking tool to test call center agents at telephone answering services in telephone technique, call control, client knowledge, and overall service quality. Over a six-month period, participating organizations are called ten times by mystery callers. Independent judges listen to the recordings of the calls and assess a score. The average of all ten scores becomes the overall score. Those achieving a score of 80 percent or higher will receive the Award of Excellence, presented at the annual convention.

Call Centre Award of Distinction: The Call Centre Award of Distinction program was created by CAM-X in 2000 to meet the needs of members who serve call center and contact center clients. The program focuses on customer relationship management, courtesy, etiquette, and proper call techniques, providing unbiased testing for quality assurance. The Call Centre Award of Distinction operates in the same manner as the Award of Excellence, however the evaluation criteria is geared towards advanced call processes not covered by the Award of Excellence program.

Customer Relationship Metrics offers CATs® (Completely Automated Telephone surveys). CATs programs are cost-effective, have high response rates, and a fast Return on investment (ROI). They are designed to accurately measure the service performance of callers. The company’s proprietary, comprehensive reporting provides information regarding performance at the business unit, team, and agent levels. This provides a call center with an action plan for improving service, training, and coaching to exceed customer expectations. The program supports call centers in their efforts to improve customer satisfaction, increase operational efficiency, attract more clients, and develop best practices that are in alignment with customer needs.

CAT surveys provide higher value than conducting telephone interviews using a live interviewer. Also, with the national “Do Not Call” list, customer research using live callbacks is no longer an ideal method. CATs allow call centers to collect caller feedback automatically and in real-time (at the close of a call) that is statistically reliable and valid. In most cases, CAT surveys can do everything a telephone interview does while completing more interviews at a lower cost.

In addition to providing CATs to call centers, Customer Relationship Metrics can also benchmark your calls with those of other companies (they do tens of thousands of surveys every month). This is done at no additional cost each quarter; they can also provide monthly comparisons upon request. This program is a useful means to assess how one center compares to others.

JD Power and Associates offers a call center certification program. Call centers that become certified by JD Power and Associates can show that they are “process-oriented, professionally managed, and focused on providing high levels of caller satisfaction.” Further, this effort helps call centers to “improve caller satisfaction, increase efficiency, attract more clients, and develop best practice standards.”

Phase one of their certification includes evaluating a call center’s:

  • Recruiting, training, and employee incentives
  • Management roles and responsibilities
  • Standards for performance measurement
  • Quality assurance

For those centers that meet phase one performance standards, phase two is surveying a random sample of callers. The intent of the survey is to ascertain caller satisfaction. The survey results are quantified and compared to a national benchmark. Those operations achieving a score of 80% or higher may then become certified by JD Power and Associates. Certified call centers receive a trophy and relevant promotional material.

For more information, contact Jonathan Brookner at 203-354-4593 or jonathan.brookner@jdpa.com.

NetReflector provides automated solutions for agent and contact center performance monitoring and benchmarking. The company integrates multilingual online survey technology with CRM (Customer Relationship Management) applications and incident management tools to measure caller satisfaction and loyalty scores in real time. NetReflector combines these quality indicators with internal call performance metrics to generate a series of balanced scorecards by geographic region and individual contact center, all the way down to workgroups and individual agents. This provides an accurate, up-to-the-minute picture of contact center performance and effectiveness – in any language.

These scorecards are delivered in an online reporting environment designed to fit the needs of all internal audiences, from agents to upper management. It provides the actionable, real-time insights necessary for successful change strategies to drive operational efficiencies and enhance company profitability.

NetReflector is a wholly owned subsidiary of GMI.


The National Certification Corporation (NCC) offers a variety of credentialing options for healthcare professionals. Although certification is limited to nurses, subspecialty examinations which lead to a certificate of added qualification are open to multidisciplinary populations including physicians, primary care nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, physician assistants, and others. More than 60,000 professionals have earned their RNC (Registered Nurse Certified) or certificate of added qualification.

Core examinations awarding the RNC credential are Telephone Nursing Practice, Inpatient Obstetric Nurse, Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse, Low Risk Neonatal Nurse, Maternal Newborn Nurse, Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner, and Neonatal Nurse Practitioner. Subspecialty examinations are Electronic Fetal Monitoring and Menopause Clinician.

Computer examinations are available throughout the year. There will be a paper and pencil examination administration on August 19, 2005 for institutions with six or more candidates for any exam mix. Exams are given at the institution sponsoring the opportunity.

SNUG (Startel National Users Group) has developed “a three-tiered educational program to provide members with certification levels covering the areas of their business with the focus on achieving 99.99% annual run-time,” said Dan L’Heureux, SNUG executive director. The three areas are CSR (customer service representative), supervisor, and site.

CSR Certification: The CSR certification program is designed for a telephone answering service to certify and accredit CSRs. The goal of the CSR certification program is to offer CSRs a professionally prepared program where they can be tested and accredited in customer service skill sets based on the features of the accredited telemessaging platform.

Supervisor Certification: Examination candidates are given problems and case studies to solve. They also answer questions in essay form about system operations and procedures. Supervisor Certification is as much a test of character as it is a test of knowledge.

Site Certification: The 24/7 site certification program sets forth nearly 60 criteria to be met or exceeded. These specifications represent a collection of the best practices and guidelines to which call centers must adhere. Certification specifications have been developed for Startel systems, the Amtelco Infinity system, the Telescan Spectrum, Professional Teledata’s PInnacle, and Alston Tascom’s Evolution.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Call Center Benchmarking

A Path to Self-Improvement

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Benchmarking is the comparison of your call center with statistical results from the norm of industry peers. These numeric measurements are called metrics. Metrics can be in the form of financial figures, operational quality and efficiency, human resource efficacy, or whatever is deemed the most valuable to the participants, though typically and primarily they are operational in nature. “If it can be measured, it can be improved,” asserted Kelly Doran of Simcoe Message Centre in Barrie, Ontario. The “objective measurement of quality standards can help highlight areas of strength and weakness in both individuals and teams.”

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

Successful benchmarking follows a progressive path towards a desired outcome. First, there must be a desire to obtain, have, and use the information. Next, you need to determine who will be invited to participate. The basic requirement is for participants to have an interest in the results and a commitment to contribute. Beyond that, it is imperative that all participants are in sufficiently similar business niches within a common industry. In many cases, it is wise to select those using a common hardware or software platform, since operational metrics are hard to reliably compare when their source is different, employing dissimilar statistical standards. Some will assert, that from the caller’s perspective, a call center is a call center and therefore it doesn’t matter who your center is benchmarked with as long as they are of similar size. Yet everyone knows that a telephone triage call center is much different than an order-taking operation and a physician’s referral line has different objectives than a literature request function. Quite simply, it makes no sense to compare your call center to another one that is in a different industry, pursuing different goals, and with different cost-benefit standards.

The third step is to determine which numbers to measure or gather. It is recommended to start small, obtaining only a few key numbers. As participants become engaged in the process and realize the value of it, then other metrics can be added. This is followed by developing a standard determination of how the information will be gathered or the calculations will be made. For without a standard methodology each participant will make the calculation as they see fit, rendering any results unreliable. These two steps can be both time consuming and contentious. Assistance from someone with experience in benchmarking or a background in statistical analysis is most beneficial at this point, serving to greatly simplify the process and save valuable time. Also, if this person does not have a direct stake in the results, they are able to more objectively guide the process.

The fifth step is a critical one. It is to develop the survey form, which includes documenting the source or calculation of the data. Although this seems like a simple and straightforward process, it is one fraught with peril, as a less than ideal survey form will doom the process to misanalysis or failure. Again, someone with experience in benchmarking or developing survey forms will be most helpful. Then, regardless of the quality of the survey form, or its developer, it is of paramount importance to test it. What may seem perfectly clear to those who developed and reviewed the form, it could cause confusion or misinterpretation among those completing it. Therefore, a small field test should be conducted. Any problems uncovered in the test will need to be corrected before the benchmark survey is distributed to all participants.

The next two steps are the most important, as concerns in these areas can cause otherwise willing participants to decide not to complete the survey or to color their responses. Quite simply these steps are to gather the completed surveys and then to compile the results. Concerns reside in who performs these two items. It is imperative that this person or group be trusted, respected by all participants, and that there not be any perception of a conflict of interest. As such, it is recommended that someone not participating in, nor who will benefit from, the benchmarking results be assigned the task of both collecting and tabulating the responses.

The results of the benchmarking survey should only be presented in aggregate form and then only to those who responded. All individual answers must be fully protected. In some cases, such as providing cross-sectional or demographic analysis, certain sections may need to be eliminated due to a small number of responses that would effectively expose one or two members. The results, often along with analysis and a commentary are distributed to all who participated.

Although conducting a benchmarking study once is valuable, the real benefit comes from repeated studies over the course of time. Therefore, it is important to follow-up with those who participated to determine any problem areas needing correction or additional data to be collected. These changes must be made and the survey repeated. Depending on the nature of the information, the survey should be repeated at least annually, possibly semiannually, quarterly, or even monthly. The benchmarking results then become a periodic report card showing your successes, your shortcomings, your improvements, and your relapses – all with respect to your peers. This provides the basis for celebration and self-improvement.

Some Examples of Benchmarking Metrics

Operational

  • Percent of calls answered
  • Average time to answer
  • Percent of calls placed on hold
  • Average hold time
  • Occupancy (percent of time spent working)
  • Average call duration
  • Average wrap up time
  • Number of calls answered per month
  • Amount of time spent on calls per month
  • Schedule adherence

Human resource

  • Annual turnover rate
  • Average employee (CSR) tenure
  • Cost to hire one new employee
  • Cost to train one new employee
  • Starting pay per hour
  • Average hourly rate

Financial

  • Percent of revenue spent on labor
  • Cost per call
  • Value of the call
  • Profit margin

Summary of Steps for Benchmarking

  • Possess a desire to obtain, have, and use the information.
  • Determine who will be invited to participate.
  • Determine which numbers to measure or gather.
  • Develop a standard for how calculations will be made.
  • Design the survey form.
  • Test the form and correct problem areas.
  • Distribute the form.
  • Gather the completed surveys.
  • Compile the results of the collected surveys.
  • Present the findings.
  • Analyze and correct any problems for next time.
  • Determine additional data to collect the next time.
  • Repeat the process periodically (at least annually).

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

This fall, the thoughts of school age children everywhere are focused on returning to school. Some approach the new school year with dread and trepidation, a few with excitement and high expectation, and others with inevitable acquiescence and acceptance. Regardless of their personal perspective, many will be faced with the traditional writing assignment, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

What I did, or more precisely, what my family did on our summer vacation is not noteworthy or unique as far as family vacations go. True, the time together as a family was special and the memories will last forever. The time of bonding, through both the high points and the not so high points, fostered a deepened understanding of each other and a renewed respect for our individuality and divergent personalities. My daughter summed it up succinctly, “Ya know, this is kinda like a once-in-a-lifetime thing!”

Family issues aside, it was also a vacation for me. It is one thing to take a vacation from the office; it is another to take a vacation from work. Taking a vacation from the office means you aren’t there physically, but you’re still there mentally. Taking a vacation from work, means leaving work behind completely. That was my goal; one that I accomplished with a considerable degree of success. Nevertheless, our vacation experience did bring to mind some workplace lessons.

Our vacation was a pull-out-all-the-stops, eight-day adventure at Disney World. The Disney experience and their unique vision for achieving high “customer satisfaction” is legendary and has been the focus of many a discourse. While true and correct, customer satisfaction was not the central theme of the three insights I gained.

Change is not only inevitable, it is also necessary and must be ongoing: At each of the parks we visited, we would see signs of change. At EpcotCenter, one whole attraction was being demolished; at MGM, shows present just a few months prior were nowhere to be seen, replaced with newer, fresher alternatives. The MagicKingdom had one area boarded up with the simple explanation, “New attraction under development.” Some rides were shut down for “maintenance,” other areas were being expanded, and new developments were being squeezed in where space permitted.

Even Disney, with its reputation as the premier family entertainment company in the world, is continually reinventing itself. If this is necessary for them, then it is all the more true for us.

If you’re not making an ongoing effort to keep your call center operation fresh and moving forward, then the rest of the industry is going to pass you by; don’t get left behind. The moment you assume that you have everything in place will signal the beginning of the end for your call center.

Nothing lasts forever – no matter how good the idea: Several standard fixtures of the MagicKingdom had been impacted by the march of time. The ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was no more; the lagoon still exists, but the attraction has disappeared. The Tiki-Hut was “Under New Management,” and “It’s a Small World” was, well, smaller – the portion of the ride outside of the building had been eliminated.

Even Disney, which has been thus far successful in re-releasing its animated movies every seven years for a new batch of kids, knows that no attraction will draw visitors and hold their interest perpetually. The same is true for us.

No innovation will last forever, no paradigm is without end, and no idea cannot be bettered. Today’s revolutionary, earth-shattering development is nothing more than tomorrow’s status quo.

Staffing is key: Despite all of the technology, all of the marketing, and all of the organization and structure, the key to Disney World’s ongoing success resides with its people. As I watched Disney employees in action, their performances (remember, all Disney employees are “cast members”) were on a higher level than any other organization I’ve encountered. Certainly they outshone everyone at the airline, which brought us to Orlando, as well as the employees of the shuttle bus company, which took us from airport to hotel, but they also outpaced those at other theme parks. How? Quite simply, they acted as though they enjoyed their work. They appeared to be saying, “I have a choice on how I do my job. I can do what’s minimally required to get by or with little more than an attitude change, I can make my job really enjoyable – for both myself and those around me.” I assume their training played a big part in this, but I also saw many of them switch jobs frequently and conclude that variety and variation played a key role as well.

These are lessons we can apply directly to our businesses. Yes, we all advocate training, but do we really practice what we preach? Do we provide ongoing training, as well as live coaching and silent monitoring? All are required if we are to have employees who outshine the competition. In short, do we merely give our call center agents enough training and support to get by or do we give them enough training so they can excel?

Then there is variety. True, call center rank and file can expect little in the way of significant alternatives in their work as that is the nature of our industry, but even variations on a theme can have refreshing benefits. To whatever degree your staff functions are divided, spread them out for everyone to enjoy. It may be working awhile as “lead” agent, or “dispatcher,” handling text chat, or processing email. Even the opportunity to sort mail, make copies, or stuff billings can serve as nice diversion and refreshing alternative.

To whatever degree is feasible, give your staff as much variation as possible.

Conclusion: It is highly unlikely that your organization will ever achieve the status or prominence of Disney. However, we can all aspire to improve our business and take it to the next level. Rather than be overwhelmed by the formative challenge that the Disney example sets and the enormity of the task before us, we are well advised to start small and put things in proper perspective by recalling the humble words of Walt Disney himself when he stated, “Remember, it all started with a mouse.”

Key Lessons

Change is Inevitable and Necessary:

  • Make an ongoing effort to keep your business fresh and moving forward.

Nothing Lasts Forever:

  • The edge your business enjoys today will not sustain it tomorrow.

Your Staff is the Key:

  • Give your employees the training needed to excel.
  • Give your staff as much variation as possible.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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Healthcare Call Centers

Telephone Answering Service Systems

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Telephone answering services are by definition a subset of the call center industry. However, while the greater call center industry has a history spanning more than 30 years, telephone answering service has an 80-year history. In the 1920s, and the decades that followed, enterprising entrepreneurs began opening localized telephone answering services around the United States. In those days and until around 1980, calls were largely answered when an operator plugged into a ringing line, client data was in paper form, messages were handwritten, and calls were placed using a rotary dial telephone.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

With the advent of affordable computer technology in the late 1970s, a new breed of entrepreneurs, the technologists, began harnessing the nascent microprocessor to automate, control, and organize portions of the call handling process. Thus was born the first-generation Computer Telephone Integration (CTI) systems. Although primitive and basic by today’s standards, they represented a fundamental shift in the call processing mindset. These systems allowed calls to be answered with a single keystroke and a basic repository of client data would be automatically displayed on a computer screen.

Second generation CTI systems allowed messages to be entered into the computer, giving way to a plethora of distribution methods, including alphanumeric paging, faxing, and eventually email. Today’s leading-edge answering service systems are third generation CTI platforms. These systems dominate the market, offering laborsaving automation, client conveniences, agent-assisting features, scripted call processing, integration with remote databases, and Internet access to web-based tools and information. “The evolution of CTI systems has helped the telemessaging industry grow into a sophisticated industry capable of much more than just answering the phone and taking a message,” stated Linda Osip, Executive Director of the Canadian Call Management Association. “We have so much information at our fingertips that we can now act as a true representation of our clients to their callers.”

Among the benefits afforded by these third generation CTI answering service systems, labor savings is a frequent and well appreciated result. Jim Geary, the owner of Complete Answering Service, in Jackson, TN, stated that with his Startel 5700, he “was able to handle the same amount of call traffic with over 50% staff reduction.” He also cited “a massive reduction in errors” as another important benefit.

Tom Gelbach, owner of Answer Connecticut, in Newington, CT concurs with the labor saving aspect. His center uses an Amtelco Infinity system. “We are barely scratching the surface of its capabilities,” he stated. “We have found that in our dispatching operation alone we have been able to reduce the time per call by 31 percent.”

Julie Barr, Call Center System Director at Banner Health, is equally enamored. “With the help of Amcom’s Smart Center, we’ve transformed operator services. By combining independent call centers into one centralized center, we’ve improved efficiency, reduced operational expense, and enhanced customer service.”

Call center managers of other telemessaging systems are also quick to applaud the features, efficiencies, and effectiveness of their respective call center technology.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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Healthcare Call Centers

Achieving Clinical Excellence in Telephone Triage

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

The first annual Reach for the Stars Pediatric Telehealth Conference was held April 30 through May 1 in Bloomington, MN. The conference, organized by Children’s Physician Network of Minneapolis-St Paul, MN, focused on Achieving Clinical Excellence in Telephone Triage. With nearly 300 participants and a dozen vendors represented, attendance exceeded expectations and represented a stellar first year response.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

Terri Hyduke, CEO of Children’s Health Network, welcomed a packed house to Bloomington and opened the conference by introducing keynote speaker Dr. Barton Schmitt. Dr. Schmitt, a nationally recognized expert on telephone triage, pioneered pediatric telephone triage protocols. Dr. Schmitt’s presentation, entitled “Red Flags: Diseases and Symptoms Not to Miss,” was professionally delivered and well received, setting the tone for the rest of the conference.

Following a morning break in the exhibit hall, Dr. Patrick Carolan, an Emergency Department physician, talked about “Pediatric Trauma.” He was followed by nurse practitioner Nancy Fox Carlson, with the topic “Fever Phobia: When To Worry and When Not To.”

After lunch, Dr. Schmitt returned to the podium, giving advice and recommendations for how telephone triage practitioners can “bulletproof” their call process in order to minimize the risk and impact of lawsuits. His advice gave the audience much to consider in this litigious age. Cynthia Brady, CNP, talked about infant wheezing and the delineation between wheezing and asthma.

Following an afternoon break, Dr. Peter Dehnel engaged an eager and still attentive crowd with his presentation entitled, “Is This Colic, or Should I be Worried.” Closing out the first day’s speakers was risk management specialist Janice Netterfield, a risk management RN with Midwest Medical Insurance Company (MMIC), experienced in process improvement, customer service, and quality initiatives. The day concluded with a reception, compliments of the Children’s Physician’s Network, which provided an informal opportunity for networking with the attendees, speakers, and vendors.

The second day opened with a special, reservation-only, sold-out breakfast with keynote speaker Dr. Barton Schmitt. Dr. Schmitt responded to written questions submitted the previous day. With questions ranging from the practical to highly technical, Dr. Schmitt tapped into his years of experience and answered as many questions as time allowed.

The day’s regular sessions then began with Dr. Steven Poole’s presentation on “Selecting and Training Telephone Care Providers.” Connie Robertson, RN, addressed the sometimes overlooked segment of pediatrics, adolescents, with her frank presentation, “Adolescent Assessment: Rapport, Confidentiality, and Sexuality.” Following a morning break with the exhibitors, Dr. Poole resumed the speaker’s platform to cover “Quality Improvement and Ongoing Staff Education.” Dr. Read Sulik, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, then spoke about “Common Childhood Mental Health Problems,” focusing attention on important issues, which are also sometimes overlooked or minimized.

Following lunch, RN Kelli Massaro shared her presentation about “Clinical Excellence in Telephone Triage.” Concluding the day – and the conference – were Julie Cartwright, CEO and Thomas Reed, COO, of HMS Northwest. Their topic was “The Paradox of Telehealth Nursing Practice,” offering a fitting conclusion to an information-packed conference.

Vendors participating in the conference included LVM Systems, The MMIC Group-Technology Solutions, Merck Vaccine Division, 1Call-a division of Amtelco, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, McKesson Health Solutions, Kaiser Permanente, HMS Northwest, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, Enrica Fish Bookstore, and MedImmune.

Many attendees commented that this was the best conference on telephone triage they had ever attended. Although the dates for next year’s conference have not yet been announced, there was great anticipation for it, with several attendees already planning to attend.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

An Interview with Industry Veteran Joseph Sameh

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

AnswerStat magazine (AS): Joe, you own and operate Mediconnect, a telephone answering service for the healthcare industry. How did you get started and how long have you been in business?

Joseph Sameh (JS): I was a business/clinical practice manager beginning in 1976. Growing practices was among my primary responsibilities. Each practice did quite well but we learned at every turn that the existing patient-to-provider communications process didn’t meet our needs. Mediconnect was founded in 1985, partially as a result of these experiences.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

AS: How big has your call center become?

JS: We have hundreds of clients. However, numbers can be misleading. Several years ago, a hospital consortium consolidated all their practices and became one of our clients while increasing billing significantly. A better measure is call volume, which exceeds four million a year.

Many clients have multiple projects running simultaneously and some of our project-based work requires hundreds of seats. In order to provide this level of service we have been sharing calls with many other call centers on a project-specific basis for many years now.

AS: What are some of the changes you have seen over the years?

JS: Automation to lower labor cost has eliminated the human touch. This has not always been well planned. Many practices overuse of voice mail has resulted in unhappy patients and overburdened staff. Medical staff routinely spends hours daily retrieving their voice messages while patients experience delays in callbacks. This has given us access to daytime messaging business, which accounts for 96% of all patient communications activity. From a vendor perspective, we have recognized the value of specialization and how it can affect the marketplace. We’ve been very fortunate in this area.

AS: What are some of the challenges facing you today?

JS: Insurance and other costs represent serious internal challenges. Downward pricing pressures add to the challenge. But the greatest challenge of all will come from the Internet. The Internet has disrupted the smooth methods of every industry with which it has come in contact. We must harness it or fight it.

Another is companies entering the secure messaging marketplace. This has the potential to affect us in health care just as voice mail affected live service provision to Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioningcompanies. The greatest threat is coming from well-heeled companies that provide electronic patient record systems to major hospitals and are now making patient access to their systems a reality. These companies do not believe the role that an answering service plays is essential and have no plans to include them in the future. Other emerging technologies are also vying for our traditional piece of the pie.

AS: How will medical answering services change in the future?

JS: Physically, there will be more at-home agents taking calls and much more call sharing and load balancing between centers essentially creating on demand virtual contact centers. Organizations with integrated technologies (IVR/voice/live/Web) and convergent data base power will lead the field.

In the future, we will need to be nimble to address changing needs of clients and patients. There are increasing numbers of practice websites sprouting without patient access. The problem may not be obvious. The practices are inviting people to visit their website but when visitors arrive there, there is no access. Imagine inviting people to visit your vacation home while you are away but disregarding the need for keys or the alarm access code.

Practices could not afford to overlook after hours patient access by phone, yet their website is not considered within their communications sphere. This presents a huge opportunity for our industry.

AS: The healthcare industry has changed a great deal in recent years, how has that affected your operation?

JS: We have always been sensitive to two taskmasters: the needs of our stakeholders – patients as well as clients – and emerging technology. This has emboldened us to create products that have become industry standards. As such, we are providing a significantly expanded menu of services to meet the needs of the marketplace.

AS: The recent trend has been for doctors to leave private practice become employees of health organizations. How has that changed the doctor-answering service relationship?

JS: The relationship was more of a one-on-one relationship with the doctor. We once had over 1,000 clients and represented far fewer physicians than we do currently. Today, the office managers are often our primary contact point. They have a much more sophisticated level of service expectation and consistency as well as understanding of the communications process. That has become a big boost to our business. As a result, we are occasionally recognized as a profit center rather than a cost center, which dims the aura of cost cutting as the main driver. Of course, cost cutting is always part of “the back of the mind” conversation.

AS: In addition to telephone answering service, what are some of the supporting and complementary services that you offer?

JS: We offer a large and growing menu of client services. Through Phone Screen we provide patient recruitment and retention services to the pharmaceutical clinical trials and medical device industry. In January 2003 we introduced NeedMyDoctor®, an Internet patient-to-provider communications tool.

AS: Joe, tell us more about PhoneScreen.

JS: Our services are used by many pharmaceutical companies to screen volunteers for clinical trials. We developed a model for screening and found that as we evolved there was a huge need for centralized call center services for clinical trials. We founded our PhoneScreen division to provide services to aid recruitment and retention of subjects for the pharmaceutical industry. It has since become its own company.

AS: And what about NeedMyDoctor?

JS: NeedMyDoctor® is our vision of the future. Patients overwhelmingly want to use the Internet to make requests of their doctors. However, doctors don’t want to adopt the Internet for patient communications for a number of excellent reasons. Most telling and according to Providence Health System is that 50% of those patients would consider switching providers to those that accept alternative communications methodology.

We believe NeedMyDoctor® is a communication tool that meets the needs of both patient and doctor. Patients get to leave their request on the Internet while doctors don’t need any Internet access at all. This HIPAA compliant tool integrates the Web with the practices existing call center provider without any changes to the practice protocol. Since this is not email, there is never any spam.

AS: What else would you like to share with readers?

JS: Our attitude towards our competitors has become one of co-opetition. It has allowed us to do more than we ever could on our own – and for that we are very appreciative. I know I’m speaking for the industry at large since so many people we’ve never worked with described similar experiences.

AS: Thank you for your time and willingness to share with the readers of AnswerStat magazine.

JS: Thank you!

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Shoot the Puck

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

It’s only been a few years that I have been following the sport of hockey. Before that, a myriad of other athletic diversions captured my attention. As a youngster, I did what many of my peers did and played Little League baseball.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Not that I was good at it or particularly enjoyed it. In fact, after four years of mostly sitting on the bench or chasing an occasional stray ball in right field, I realized that I wasn’t having much fun. I was merely playing the game because I assumed that was what a kid was supposed to do.

My attempts to play baseball did, however, lead to watching the big leagues on TV. In fifth grade, my teacher, a fanatic fan of the Detroit Tigers, planned our school day around the playoff schedule so that she – I mean “we” – could listen to the games during study time. The Tigers won the series and I was won over, becoming a devotee. I faithfully followed the Tigers until their next World Series in 1984.

Shortly thereafter, I moved to Wisconsin. It was hard to be a Tiger fan in Wisconsin; in fact, in was hard to be a baseball fan in the shadow of the state’s beloved Green Bay Packers. In a place where being a “cheese head” is a compliment (note to the uninformed: “cheese head” is the proudly self-proclaimed moniker of the die-hard Packer fanatic) I soon adopted the Packers as “my” team. Although my tenure in the dairy state was short-lived, I continued to be a loyal Packer backer after returning to Michigan.

But it was hard for me to get back into baseball. The player strikes, lockouts, excessive hype, and salary escalations distanced me from the game and left me increasingly ambivalent. Disenfranchised with baseball, I segued to basketball. Although I closely followed the college tournament during March Madness, it was not the defensive prowess of college hoops to which I was endeared, but the faster-paced, higher-scoring professional games. But then, as the showmanship became excessive, I began to seek alternatives.

Throughout these meanderings as an athletic couch potato, hockey was a sport that I viewed as anomalous. I treated it with disdain. It seemed to me that the only activity was skating back and forth, with few scoring opportunities and even fewer goals. I just didn’t get it.

When my son, Dan, began following hockey, I didn’t immediately share in his interest and enthusiasm. To my dismay, he one day asked me to watch the game with him. Inwardly I groaned, but outwardly I agreed, because that’s what parents do for their kids.

He made popcorn (okay, so maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all) and we plopped down in front of the tube. I watched the play move back and forth, right to left and then left to right. Soon the popcorn was gone, but the players kept up their incomprehensible dance with the puck. My eyes grew weary as one more journey up the ice began.

Suddenly, Dan became excited. He jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “Watch this!” as the puck was guided past the blue line. To me it looked like the same play I had already seen a hundred times during that game. “They’re going to score!” he gleefully and confidently predicted.

The announcers, too, amplified the tone of their play-by-play as they sensed that something important was about to happen. Play proceeded across the red line, then a pass and a slap shot, followed by total bedlam and an energetic high-five from my son.

On the second replay, I, too, saw the puck go in the net.

I stared at my son in disbelief. “How did you know?” I stammered in amazement. “Come on, Dad, you could tell it was going to happen as soon as he got the puck,” Dan replied with incredulity. Obviously, there was more to this game than I could see.

I began asking questions and for the first time in our relationship, the roles reversed and my son became the teacher. I was astonished with how much he knew and the subtleties he comprehended.

Under his tutelage, my understanding of the sport grew and with it, my interest and appreciation followed. Over time, I learned about a one-timer, the five hole, power plays, a two-pad slide, and the poke check.

Soon, watching the Red Wings become one of our favorite father-son activities. During one game, we watched an uncharacteristically unproductive power play wind down. “Shoot the puck,” I earnestly implored the Detroit offense.

“They didn’t have any good scoring opportunities,” Dan responded with matter-of-fact calmness.

“But they can’t score if they don’t shoot the puck,” I said.

Dan paused and gave me a quick glance, followed by a brief look of comprehension before his attention was recaptured by the game. Perhaps I had blurted something profound. After all, it did make sense that if you don’t take a shot, you can’t score.

Regardless whether the sport is hockey, baseball, football, or basketball, playing it safe isn’t going to win too many games and is certainly not what championship teams are made of.

How many times have you watched a team build a commanding lead, only to lose the game as a result of becoming tentative and mechanical as they tried to protect their lead rather than build upon it?

This example extends to business. While extreme, make-or-break risk taking is generally not advisable, tentatively protecting what you have built up will not position you to take advantage of new opportunities that present themselves.

You could even squander what you have. Yes, many of your shots may miss the mark, but some will be on target. And those that are will keep you moving forward and propel you to the next level.

The same is true in life. If you expect to coast through your time on this earth, hoping that everything will work out, you will end up sad and disappointed.

Intentional and deliberate action is what is needed to reach your potential and become the person you are capable of being. I once saw a poster of a large turtle. The caption read, “Behold the turtle; he only makes progress when he sticks out his neck.”

Whether it’s hockey, business, or life, you can’t score if you don’t shoot the puck.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

PBX Attendant Consoles

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

PBXs (and ACDs) are generally configured with an attendant console. Though a console can take on different forms and appearances, at its most basic, it is a fancy telephone which is given “permissions” to do advanced features that cannot be accomplished by other phones and users on the system.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

Traditional Attendant Consoles: Historically, consoles were electro-mechanical devices, with a dizzying array of buttons that took up considerable space on a desk. Over time, these consoles have become less mechanical and more electronic, nevertheless they still function as an expanded telephone.

Many readers, no doubt, still have and use these types of consoles in their hospitals and call centers. Designed for efficient and effective answer-transfer activity, these phones have additional buttons – sometimes a hundred or more – to minimize the number of actions required per call. Additionally, some buttons are “smart keys,” processing multiple actions with a single push (such as “hold” current call and “connect” to new call) or changing function depending on the situation (such as “answer” if not connected to a call, but “hook-flash” if connected).

PC Attendant Consoles: Although these standard, entry-level consoles are vastly superior to the functionality and efficiency of a standard PBX phone set, they pale in comparison to the ease-of-use and feature-rich effectiveness of a PC attendant console. As the name implies, PC attendant consoles are computer-based call-processing units with a familiar Windows interface.

A basic PC attendant console is available from virtually all PBX vendors. There are several benefits provided by PC attendants. First and foremost is that calls can be processed faster, requiring less arm movement and with touch-typing speed. This implies labor savings and cost reduction. If even one FTE (full-time equivalent) is saved per year by using a PC attendant, then it has more than paid for itself. However, the labor-saving effect is often greater than one FTE – and occurs year after year.

A second benefit is the Windows interface. Trainers generally concur that training is easier and faster on a familiar-looking computer screen with intuitive actions, than on a intimidating and foreboding traditional console. In fact, unless advanced functions are repeated frequently on a traditional console, they tend to be forgotten, performed incorrectly, or done without confidence. With the user interface of a PC attendant, these concerns are greatly minimized.

A third benefit is added functionality. Even at its most basic, a PC attendant includes a directory feature, allowing for instantaneous access to hospital extensions and room numbers. This speeds answer-transfer functions and greatly increases accuracy. Therefore, for the one-time cost of purchasing a PC attendant, there are ongoing labor savings, training efficiencies, and additional functionality.

Advanced PC Attendant Consoles: More sophisticated PC attendants are available from third-party providers. These include both software-centric solutions and hardware implementations. Whereas a PC attendant is an adjunct offering from a PBX vendor, it is a core competency and primary focus of third-party providers. Although the details vary, along with their respective labels, here are some features you can expect from a third-party PC attendant:

  • CTI (Computer-Telephony Integration) directly links a call with the information needed for that call or that is gathered from the caller. There are various levels of sophistication with CTI, but most third-party providers have implemented this at its most optimum level. (See Information Transfer and ANI.)
  • Directory Services which are available enterprise-wide, assist agents in quickly and accurately locating members of the organization.
  • Agent Greeting goes by many different names such as Operator Saver, Perfect Answer, Answer-with-a-Smile, and Personalized Auto-Answer. It provides automated greetings in the attendant’s voice. This allows an agent to record a “perfect” greeting and then use it repeatedly throughout the day, guaranteeing that every call is optimally answered. Other benefits are less agent fatigue and a stronger voice at the end of the shift. This is a requirement in hospital and call center environments.
  • Messaging Options enable operators to type messages into their computer and to send them, at the touch of a keystroke or two, to any destination including voice mail, email, fax, printer, pager, or text-enabled cell phone. Third-party PC attendant providers put great emphasis on the messaging aspects of their systems, providing a powerful array of message processing features and options. This also provides the platform on which to offer telephone answering service.
  • ANI (Automatic Number Identification) displays the caller’s number (when it is available) and copies it into the call record or message form. This streamlines message taking and reduces errors.
  • On-Call Scheduling enables agents to reach the right people no matter how often their schedules and availability may change.
  • Call Recording lets agents selectively record a phone conversation.
  • Call Logging (Voice Logging) digitally records all calls, of all agents, 24 x 7. Recordings are available as needed for training, verification, and problem resolution. (Without corroboration, the agent is always blamed for errors and quality concerns, but amazingly when a recording of the call can be accessed, the agent is vindicated over 90 percent of the time.)
  • Information Transfer allows information and data that an operator enters into the computer to be retained with and accompany the call if it needs to be transferred to another agent or supervisor for call completion or resolution. This keeps callers from needing to restate pertinent information, such as their name, PIN, account, address, call-back number, and so forth.
  • Administrative Monitoring and Reporting provides real-time monitoring of call center activity and reporting procedures, including call statistics and messaging activity.
  • Database Functions helps administrators maintain internal, up-to-date information that is available to all agents, as well as accessing external databases, which can be displayed on the agents’ computer station. Databases can be either read-only or allow updating and data-entry capabilities.
  • Speech Recognition streamlines various functions and can automate repetitive tasks.
  • Text-To-Speech allows callers to automatically listen to database information without an operator needing to read it. One prime example is an employee or client automatically retrieving messages without operator involvement.

Healthcare Applications that have been designed and implemented specifically for a medical or hospital environment include

  • On-Call Calendars
  • Patient Directory
  • Physician’s Referral
  • Physician Registry/Locator
  • Physician’s Consult
  • Class Registration>
  • Wake-Up Calls

This is a summary of the key features available today. Other items are also available and the list is growing as vendors make their products more robust, powerful, and feature-laden.

Integrating Third-Party PC Attendant Consoles: PBX vendors may be apprehensive about third-party PC attendants. Obviously, most sales staff would rather sell something they will make a commission on, as opposed to recommend another company’s product. From a pragmatic standpoint, however, concerns do exist about working with another vendor to make a solution function as expected and the inevitable finger pointing that occurs should something not work.

As such, third-party vendors go to great lengths to minimize this concern and to ensure that the installation and interface goes as planned and works as represented. Even so, many purchasers insert a clause into the contract or purchase order to address this very issue. Vendors who are confident in their product and their capabilities are open to accept any reasonably worded clause relating to equipment interfaces and inoperability.

Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News covering the healthcare call center industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.