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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

An Eye For Customer Service

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

It was an emergency run to the eye doctor. Being far-sighted and using a computer all day makes my glasses an indispensable tool – one that I treat with the utmost care. Imagine my dismay when in the midst of my morning cleaning routine, I heard the frame snap and a lens landed in my hand. I was panic-stricken. How would I be able to get any work done?

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I arrived at my optometrist’s office, practically as the doors opened, glad that they would take a “walk-in.” I explained the situation and although they treated my disaster with matter-of-fact routine, I was comforted that they were willing to help. “We’ll need to order new frames,” the man concluded.

“Can’t you simply fix them?” I inquired.

“We could,” he droned, “but there is no guarantee…it might hold a day, maybe a few months. Don’t worry,” he added, “we’ll get you some loaner frames to use while you wait for your new ones.” Trusting his advice, I assented.

He disappeared into a back room and returned several minutes later. The look on his face braced me for bad news. “Your frames have been discontinued. We’ll have to fix your old ones…they can be soldered.” Now I have done my share of soldering over the years: in electronics to make an electrical connection and in plumbing to seal a joint. I was highly skeptical that solder would repair my damaged frames for more than a few minutes. I began to voice my apprehension. He smiled assuredly and clarified. “Actually, it’s more like welding.” Now I knew he was off base. During a stint working at a machine shop, I did more types of welding than most people know exist. I did not see any of those methods successfully repairing my delicate wire-rims. But I was out of options and reluctantly consented. He quickly outlined the details: the broken frames would need to be sent out for repair…they’ll be back in a few days, maybe by Saturday…it would cost twenty dollars.

He then set about finding a loaner frame. After half an hour with no success, he finally uncovered one old demo pair that, although not the right dimensions, would at least hold my lenses in place and keep them approximately positioned in front of my eyes – the temple pieces were much too short, which tipped the lenses forward, throwing off the bifocals. I would need to adapt. Grateful for a solution, albeit uncomfortable and less than ideal, I reminded myself that it was only for a few days and gratefully thanked him. His parting promise was clear; “We’ll call you when your frames come back – let’s hope for Saturday.”

As I left, I confirmed the plan at the front desk, “Yes,” she affirmed, “We’ll call you when they come in.” I believed her.

Saturday came but without a call. Monday they were closed. I called them on Tuesday. I got an answering machine. Dismayed that they did not answer their phone in the middle of the day, I left a message imploring them to call. No one called. Wednesday I called again. “Sure, they’re here,” she said cheerfully. “You can stop in any time,” she added, as though getting my frames back and returning my life to normal was a trivial and incidental matter.

By now, the tops of my ears were inflamed and the bridge of my nose tender because of the ill-fitting frames. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” was my firm and somewhat terse reply.

The man greeted me soon after I arrived. “It will only take a few minutes to switch lenses,” he said with a smile. I reminded him that the screws holding my lenses in my frames have a tendency to loosen and fall out. “Don’t worry,” he assured, “I’ll put in special screws with ‘lock-tight’ on them.”

“No,” I responded firmly, “you’ve done that before and they fall out too. Last time you said that you ‘glued them’.” I was dismayed that this critical information was not in my file, as he had re-installed my lenses four times in the past three years. He said nothing, but gave me a slight look of comprehension, retreating into his work area. A few minutes later, he returned and I donned my restored glasses; what a great feeling, it was just like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes!

I thanked him and segued to my next goal. “Will you please put my old lenses in another frame – any frame,” I inquired, “so that I can have a back-up pair?”

“Your frames have been discontinued,” he said, telling me what I already knew.

“Surely someone makes a frame that will fit my lenses,” I prodded.

“I already looked, remember?” Now he was becoming irritated with me. “You’ll need to order new frames and get new lenses, and before we’ll do that, you’ll need an eye exam.”

“That will be almost five hundred dollars,” I said in dismay, recalling the cost of my initial introduction to glasses. “I can only afford to buy a second frame,” I embellished.

“You really should have an eye exam every year,” he lectured. “And it’s been fourteen months for you.”

“I just want to buy a back-up frame,” I pleaded.

His reply was curt, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” He turned and walked away.

Later, I casually mentioned my ordeal – and desire for a back up pair of glasses – to my mother. Mom took this on as a personal challenge and the next day surprised me with a list of businesses willing to assist. Two days later, I visited the top one on her list.  Their office was closer, easier to get to, and had free parking at the door. I walked in, explained my plight to the receptionist, and shared my goal. I waited a few minutes and was greeted by a kind and empathetic young lady. She listened to my tale of woe, acknowledging that it, too, would have been their preference for an exam, new frames, and new lenses. Nevertheless, she said she would do her best to help me. She began to look for suitable frames and I realized her intent was to handle my request immediately. She came back with a frame that she thought would work with some adjustments or by grinding my lenses. I had not expected an immediate resolution and since there were several other customers waiting at the time, I told her that I would be more than happy to come back later. She thanked me and promised to work on my glasses first thing the next day; I could stop by any time. I believed her.

I returned the next afternoon. She recognized me and immediately approached me, smiling broadly. “I have your glasses done,” she beamed with the pride of an artist. “I am really pleased with how they turned out.” Because of her genuine sincerity, I knew that I would be pleased as well. She had not had to grind my lenses down after all. I was only charged for the frames, there was no labor fee, and I got a free case and a discount, too. I thanked her profusely. She said that she was glad she was able to help me.

On my prior visit, I had noticed a sign that gave their repair rates. To solder frames was only five dollars. My old optometrist had charged four times as much!  I realized that five dollars would not even cover shipping, so I reasoned that repairs were done in-house; I suspected I would not have to wait eight days either. I had already decided that they would be my new optometrist, but took one more step to confirm my decision. “By the way,” I inquired, “how much is an eye exam?” It was fifty dollars less than what I had been paying!  I promised her that I would be back.

By giving poor customer service, my eye doctor had lost a loyal patient; by going the extra mile, someone else had gained one.

How to Lose Patients, Clients, or Callers:

  • Act apathetic toward their situation
  • Make promises you don’t keep
  • Don’t listen to them
  • Lose credibility by making recommendations that are self-serving
  • Fail to keep good records of previous interactions
  • Give them a reason to check out your competition

How to Gain Patients, Clients, or Callers:

  • Be genuinely sympathetic, even if it is a routine matter for you
  • Only make promises you can keep
  • Take time to really listen to what they say
  • Gain credibility by going the extra mile
  • Make sure their interaction with you is pleasant and memorable
  • Give them a reason to never return to their old provider

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

Voice Logging Overview

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Voice logging is an important and valuable call center technology, considered by many to be an indispensable support tool. Voice logging allows calls to be recorded for quality assurance, training, self-evaluations, verification purposes, and dispute resolution.

Because of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 there has been a surge of interest in voice logging. Although voice logging cannot be viewed as a detriment to terrorism, it is deemed as an essential part of everyone’s overall goal of increased security and safety.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

Some centers record calls at random, many record all calls, and some continuously record all headset audio – both during and between calls. Past forms of voice logging equipment have ranged from reel-to-reel tape machines, to specialized audiocassette recorders, to modified VCR units, to today’s state-of-the-art computer-based implementations.

How Loggers Work: Voice loggers can be either external stand-alone systems or internal integrated software. Many of today’s CTI-enabled switches and call-processing platforms have voice logging as a built-in option, inherent in the system’s design and architecture. This provides for optimal performance and often allows the call record or captured data – be it a patient call, a telephone triage session, or a doctor’s instruction – to be directly linked to the voice file. This allows for a holistic review of all components of a particular call, as both the audio interaction and the information gathered can be easily accessed and reviewed congruently and simultaneously.

For other situations, stand-alone voice loggers can be interfaced to the switch or call-processing platform, tapping into audio paths at the agent headset, the switch destination port, or the source port. These later two configurations provide the ability to record voice mail calls as well. The advisability and desirability of doing so, however, is questionable and should be pursued only after careful thought and consideration of the ramifications and legal consequences.

Often vendors of stand-alone systems have designed universal interface adapters that allow audio to be easily tapped into at the handset or headset connection without affecting or degrading the audio level. For these external systems, a typical method includes tapping into the headset audio at the agent station and feeding it into the PC’s sound card.

For both internal and external voice loggers, the speech is digitized and often stored on the agent station hard drive, usually as wave files. At some point (either immediately or at a preset time or condition), the wave files are sent over the network to a central voice logging server where they are indexed and stored.

Indexes are commonly applied to all header field data, such as time, date, station number, agent login, source port, destination port, call completion code, and project ID. If needed, queries can be established to fine-tune the search even further. Searching by agent or time are the most common parameters. However, in the course of troubleshooting system problems, searching by specific ports, completion codes, or station numbers can be most informative.

The retrieval interface is a database, such as Access or SQL. As such, records of calls can be quickly sorted, filtered, and presented. Wave file access is then fast and efficient. If needed, archiving of voice files can be accomplished easily and quickly to CD-ROM or DVD.

Uses of Voice Logging: As mentioned, there are several possible reasons to record calls. These include quality assurance, training, self-evaluations, verification, and dispute resolution. Any one of these options often justifies the expense of implementing voice logger technology. The other features then become pleasant bonuses.

  • Quality assurance is the most often cited use of voice logging. With voice logging, supervisors and managers can easily and quickly retrieve, review, and evaluate agent calls. By integrating a program of silent monitoring, with side-by-side coaching and statistical measurements, an agent’s overall effectiveness can be evaluated and verified. Voice logging allows areas of deficiency to be discovered and items of excellence to be celebrated.
  • Training can be greatly facilitated using voice logging. One application is to capture examples of exemplary calls by seasoned representatives for trainees to review and emulate. Conversely, less than ideal calls can also be showcased for discussion and critique. Although both of these scenarios could be accomplished using fictitious examples or staged calls, there is great benefit in being able to demonstrate real-world examples.
  • Self-evaluation is a powerful tool of introspection whereby agents use voice loggers to retrieve their own calls and through a process of self-discovery learn how they can handle calls or situations more effectively. Although this is valuable during the training phase, it is also beneficial for seasoned representatives, as it allows them to keep their skills sharp and helps sloppy actions from becoming bad habits. Even more importantly, agents may specifically seek and review a specific call that had a less than ideal result so that a more desirable outcome can be determined and implemented.
  • Verification is another worthwhile use of voice logging, especially in an environment where critical information is shared and communicated, such as in telephone triage. By recording all conversations, the symptoms and nurse’s instruction to the patient is captured and verified that proper information was conveyed. Normally, the recording is never listened to unless there is an argument about the transaction.
  • Dispute resolution then comes into play. Whether it is a message, a medical emergency, or an accusation of improper phone behavior, the voice recording of that call essentially becomes an independent third party account of what happened and avoids the “he-said/she-said” disputes in which neither party can corroborate their own account of what happened. Though the agent is sometimes found to be in error in such situations, the consensus is that in the vast majority of cases the agent is vindicated; once the aggrieved party hears the recording, the problem resolves itself quickly and with little further effort.

User Input: It is rare to find a voice logger user who is not overwhelmingly positive about the benefits and value of the technology and what it means to their call center. “I wish I had a logger years ago,” is a sentiment commonly made within weeks of a new voice logger installation.

Others see how voice logging allows call centers to improver customer service. Interestingly, call center staff often initially view the recording of calls as a negative development, threatening the work they do and attacking their competency. It is only after voice logging technology is implemented that the agents begin to see it as a tool to protect their work and validate their quality. The reality is that only representatives with something to hide have a legitimate reason to fear voice logging.

Accounts abound from call centers that have increased the quality of their service, improved their training, and avoided a potentially costly lawsuit or a lost patient all because of voice logging. Although it may seem difficult to cost-justify a voice logger before it is bought, a high percentage of users indicate that it is one of the most important pieces of technology in their call center.

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

It’s all Virtual: A Virtual Publishing Company

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

When I started publishing AnswerStat’s sister magazine, Connections Magazine, it operated as a virtual company. This wasn’t intentional. It just worked out that way and continues to be the case. Not only am I the only one working in the “corporate office,” there are no local suppliers either. Indeed everyone who takes part in the production of this magazine is from out of state – different states!

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Dave, our graphics designer and creative genius, is in Pennsylvania. Articles and ads get mailed or emailed to him and his staff. His work gets sent via the Internet to our printer in Ohio. They work up the proofs and put them on an FTP site for Dave and me to approve. For each issue, I output the mailing list to a file and email it to our list processor. They massage the data, sort the list, and forward it to our printer. The printer inkjets the addresses on the magazines and delivers them to the post office, which happens to be next door to them.

Another important team member is Valerie Port, our New York-based media representative. She handles the advertising sales that generate the revenue to produce this magazine. As editor, I plan, solicit, collect, and edit the articles and press releases. A team of proofwriters in North Dakota review each article, performing the final edits, correcting grammar, checking punctuation, and ensuring that each piece is clear and understandable. Finally, our website (AnswerStat.com) is hosted by a company in Arizona but I update content remotely from Michigan.

I have never met any of these people in person, except for Valerie who, after a year and a half, I recently had the privilege of meeting. We maintain contact via the telephone and make frequent use of email. Each issue is produced without any face-to-face interaction. At first this was somewhat disarming and disconcerting, but I am convinced that the results are better than if we all worked together in the same office. True, we miss out on some synergy, incidental communication, and camaraderie, but we are also each free to do what he or she does best and to do so with minimal outside distraction and interruption. For us, it is all virtual.

A Virtual Call Center: A call center (or contact center, if you prefer) is by definition, a centralized operation. Although the concept of a decentralized call center initially seems oxymoronic, technology has brought us to the place where virtual call centers are not only feasible, but also exist with increasing frequency. Although most decentralized call centers have a mix of local and remote agents, a few have gone completely virtual and have no agents in their call center. Indeed, their “office” may merely house a switch and network servers. But before someone takes issue with this statement, let me assert that these functions can be outsourced, completely fulfilling the vision of a virtual call center, one with no office, no location, no real estate, and no equipment.

The completely virtual call center, however, may be too futuristic for many to seriously consider. Nonetheless, aspects of a virtual call center are concepts that every manager who desires job security should be contemplating and investigating.

Distributed Agents: The first and foremost consideration for a virtual call center is a distributed staff, be it home-based agents, a satellite office, or outsourcing. Because of advances in computer and telephony technology, coupled with the ubiquitous Internet, all of these options are readily available.

As the name implies, a home-based agent is one who works from his or her own home. There are many reasons to consider home-based agents.

  • Expand your labor pool: Many capable and qualified workers are not part of the workforce because by choice or circumstance they do not leave home. Why let positions go unfilled or under-filled, when quality, albeit nontraditional, staff is readily available?
  • Expand your labor market: Home-based agents are viable wherever the Internet is. Therefore you can hire and employ call center staff in other cities and states. Plus you will never lose an employee to relocation again!
  • Respond to overcrowding: What happens when there is an agent station squeezed into every inch of your call center and every station is in use during peak times? How can you grow and expand without moving or remodeling? Quite simply, begin hiring home-based staff. A remote agent does not take up any space in your office, allowing you to process more calls without incurring a capital expense.
  • Eliminate commuting: In areas where commute times are long or the infrastructure congested, using home-based representatives is an ideal response. In some areas there are even mandates and incentives for organizations to take steps to minimize commuter traffic.
  • Facilitate split-shifts: Call center traffic demands never correspond to eight-hour work shifts. Unless you are prepared to be overstaffed part of the day and understaffed much of the rest, an eight-hour shift is a rare commodity in a call center. This means shorter shifts and even split-shifts to optimize labor to traffic. Unfortunately there is often resistance to split-shifts. However, when the employee is home-based, many of the objections (commute time and dress code) evaporate. In fact, some employees would enjoy split-shifts if they could do so from the comfort of their home.

A satellite office is a great option to tap into a labor market in another area while maintaining on-site supervision and control. In this case, a mini-call center is set-up, but it runs off of the switch and network at the main location. Although real estate and supervision is duplicated, hardware and software is not. This is also an option when the physical space in a call center is maxed out.

Outsourcing: A parallel consideration is call outsourcing. This can be manifested in four ways: all calls, overflow traffic, certain call types, or by time-of-day/day-of-week. Some of the types of calls that can be outsourced include telephone triage, medical answering service, physician referral, class registrations, and PBX/console calls.

Conventional wisdom says that you don’t outsource your “core competencies.” However, there are those who advocate that you can farm out your core competencies, too. What if someone else can do it better or cheaper? What if your labor market has low unemployment or if you’re just plain tired of the staffing ramifications of running a call center? All of these are prime reasons to consider outsourcing your calls. Since no one can master everything, it is pragmatic and wise to consider outsourcing the less strong areas or unmet demand.

Certainly, no outsourcing agreement should be entered into lightly or without due diligence. You should scrutinize an outsourcing partner just as you would any other vendor. “Look before you leap.” Referrals are valuable; check references. Unless they come highly recommended, visit them in person. What does their facility look like? Are they big enough to handle your traffic? Are they small enough to care about your account and your calls? Do you have a good rapport with and respect for the key people in their company? Is there the potential for a long-term business relationship? Lastly, find out who will be your primary contact on a day-to-day basis. How well do you mesh with that individual? What is their anticipated future tenure with the call center? If this contact leaves, will your satisfaction with the outsourcer’s service disappear as well, or will someone else be able to take over without negatively affecting your organization?

Conclusion: All of this is discussion is not to advocate that everyone needs to go virtual or to outsource, but there are some intriguing opportunities worth considering as you plan and consider how to make your call center better. Lastly, be aware that every outsource consideration is a dual opportunity. For some it is an option to off-load work (or costs) to another call center, while for others it is an occasion to pick up work (and hence revenue) from other sources. When properly structured, both perspectives can be beneficial.

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.