The journey ahead will be filled with excitement and intrigue.
I recently had the opportunity and pleasure to speak to a group of healthcare contact center professionals at the Healthcare Call Center Times conference in Salt Lake City. During the presentation, participants responded electronically to several questions I posed. This audience was pure healthcare and represented approximately 60 institutions across the United States. Here are a few survey results, with some added insights included!
I opened with a fun question—What Disneyland world best represents your contact center?—to break the ice and to check the promised functionality of the mQlicker application. (The application worked flawlessly!)
I was delighted to see that 44% of these professionals identified with Adventureland (see Figure 1). After all, Disney says that: “In Adventureland, embark on a bold expedition into excitement and intrigue!” Excitement and intrigue are two great words to describe the healthcare contact center journey!
With Adventureland the most popular, Frontierland was a distant second with 19%. This was followed by Tomorrowland (15%), Never Never Land (11%), and Fantasyland (11%). Those of you reading this article should have no difficulty understanding the selection of the other lands! What land would you choose for your contact center?
This next question will be of great interest to you: What are the main challenges in your contact center? The truly cool part of this question is that it often identifies the “source” associated with many “task” related challenges; this enables improvements at the source rather than at the symptom level.
The overwhelming response of 74% identified “lack of cross-departmental collaboration” as the number one challenge faced in the contact center. (See Figure 2.)
Many healthcare (and other industry) contact centers are viewed by others in the organization as “back office” where “operators” perform certain tasks. The reality is that today’s healthcare contact centers far surpass those of yesteryear’s operators. Billing, finance, transport, visiting nurse, centralized appointment scheduling and more rely on some form of contact center activity to “complete” them. Yet nearly 75% of respondents identified crossfunctional collaboration as the biggest challenge they face.
The Compliant Contact Center
I have closely examined many operations; the contact center sometimes appears to be in a subservient relationship with other departments, becoming compliant and obedient to their direction. There are several phenomena I have seen that illustrate this issue and spark some concern.
The first is the current trend toward having the contact center take on level one tech support for the website “portal.” I see this happen often when the “system” chooses NOT to contract for such support from its vendor. The mindset is that “the contact center can do it” and note how much money it will save. The flaw here is not whether the task belongs in the contact center. It is more about the process and the fact that another department is able to commit the contact center to a task WITHOUT consideration for capacity, process, training or fit. This is the real issue. It is rare, if ever, that the contact center is allocated additional staff or provided effective training to accomplish such a mission. However… they manage.
I am completely stunned by the number of times I see commitments made by other departments to have the contact center provide 24/7 coverage for an ambulatory care center or a customer service function for a “special” population” (perhaps part of a specific response time contract). The contact center, a non-24-hour operation, is simply “notified” that they must come up with a way to fulfill the promise made. And… they manage.
Contact Center as Appeaser
This next phenomenon is even more troubling to me. It is when a centralized scheduling contact center determines that relationships with the practices will “improve” if contact center agents are sent to work “remotely” in the practice location. This decision is often the result of good intentions: improve the relationship with the practice. Sadly, this case is the same as in our private relationships; no relationship is healed or healthy when only one party works on it. The party working on it tends to give more and gain less—in some cases a whole lot less. Yet… they manage.
Beyond all that, this is a dangerous idea for the entire centralization effort. The cases I know of suffer the same consequences; the remote agent is hijacked by the practice to perform tasks other than answer the phone and book appointments. Hence, practice efficiency goes up. But the contact center’s efficiency/productivity goes down because the contact center is NOT going to be able to replace the FTE! For the record… this phenomena is more likely to occur when the contact center model has dedicated representatives organized by practice (an inefficient model to start.)
The “agent in the practice” option is often taken to appease some practitioner. It has been my experience that this particular remedy is effective only temporarily and, more importantly, can spell THE END to the centralization effort. Word spreads like wildfire and every dissatisfied physician, practice manager, etc., will be lining up for the same treatment. Dispatching remote agents is a return to decentralization, just maybe with better technology. In this model, the system risks the very objectives set by centralization: to improve access, the patient experience and operational efficiency. Leaders MUST keep strategic objectives in mind.
The Merits of a Charter
The fix for the crossfunctional challenges cited above is that healthcare contact centers craft a charter or business plan sanctioned by the C-level suite, including the chief medical officer. The plan outlines why the contact center exists, including: mission and vision, whom the contact center serves (e.g., patients, families, providers), services (and non-services), who is responsible for what, hours of operation, technology used and supported, the onboarding process, contact types handled, available reports, etc. A “sanctioned” plan represents cross-departmental dependencies and responsibilities; this eliminates the freedom of others to offer up the contact center without going through proper channels. In this model, practices and physicians are required to identify solutions together rather than complain up the chain of command until their former private practice model is restored. Keep in mind that the actions between the practice and the contact center are not handoffs. Rather, they are hands extended to achieve a hand-in-hand approach to making the new model work!
How Smart Is Your Desktop?
Fifty percent of survey respondents identified the “lack of/poor desk top tools” as a particular challenge in the contact center. Far too many agents navigate and work around a complicated array of applications with varying time outs and password resets. Business leaders need to find ways to streamline processes and remove and simplify steps. Too many steps are often due to a gross lack of system integration (e.g., systems too old, too proprietary); perhaps it is time to explore “smart desk top” technology.
Keep in mind, complicated tools and processes are blocks to digital access and will eventually be streamlined out of pure digital necessitation. Choose to be part of that process and represent your contact center business needs. Many contact center leaders fail to recognize and promote the fact that improvements in tools, process and technology in the contact center contribute to an overall infrastructure of organizational digital readiness… a requirement for future digital access. Removal of process challenges from the contact center also removes process obstacles to digital access. The world demands streamlined, online, multimedia access. These channels don’t do “workarounds.”
Other challenges identified from the survey are “agent tardiness/absenteeism” (50%) and attrition (41%). Tardiness and absenteeism are early indicators of agent attrition; you must take action at the first sign of losing your good people. Attrition is generally the loss of human assets that have options and it is best to take contributing factors very seriously. There are many business dangers associated with attrition: puts overall success at risk, distracts from the mission, reduces productivity, increases errors, lowers customer satisfaction, risks the customer experience AND costs a fortune! Leaders need to determine what makes people leave.
One reason is that staffing does not keep up with growth. Increases in demand without a corresponding staffing plan may send agent occupancy through the roof and into the burnout range. This yields a sense in the agent population that “nobody cares about me/us.”
When supervisor-to-staff ratio is too high (more than 15:1), the supervisor may focus more on administrative tasks than on coaching. There is no time to effectively coach and build staff; agents feel ignored or only receive feedback when something is wrong. What a morale buster!
Insufficient training is often a factor in both job satisfaction and performance. Contact centers that provide limited training create an environment where smart people feel stupid. People are blamed for poor performance when in reality they received poor or little training. Memos, emails and word-of-mouth are no substitutes for well-planned and ongoing training.
Finally, job dissatisfaction and a flawed work culture may lead assets to the exit door. Take those contact center environments in which a rigid and rules-based “search for the guilty” environment exists. This is simply another morale buster. If agents are bored, angry, or feel like they are being lied to, the contact center job can become intolerable. This leads to loss whether it is tardiness, absenteeism, or resignation. In each case, the operation must deal with the impact.
Uncover Challenges; Identify Solutions
The challenges cited in this article are very real. Contact center leaders need to identify not only task-related issues, but also the bigger picture issues that uncover the source! Fix the source issues and many of the associated task issues evaporate. What are the biggest challenges your contact center faces? What actions will you take to find the source and identify solutions? Determine when your leadership team is crafting “work-arounds” and feeling like one way or another you… manage because it’s all you can do. This is not a scalable leadership model, uncover your challenges and do more than make do.
Please stay tuned… more survey results to come in my next installment. And of course, there will be insights!