Develop a mindset of ongoing change to produce meaningful results
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
Most call center owners and managers want to see innovation in their call center. They yearn for leading-edge solutions that will promote quality and drive client loyalty. These are lofty goals. And they are also equally hard to realize.
In truth, connecting call center innovation with actionable outcomes presents a challenging situation. So, instead of seeking big, revolutionary business overhauls, look for simpler ways to integrate innovation in the day-to-day operation of your call center.
Each time an innovation opportunity presents itself, don’t first seek ways you could tap it to revamp your operation. Instead look for ways call center innovation can provide incremental change to what you already have. Here are three considerations.
1. Enhance Existing Services
With each new opportunity that presents itself, consider how it can enhance what you’re already doing. This is simply looking for new ways to do what you’re currently doing better.
For example, when voicemail first came on the scene, the industry assumed automated message taking would replace people doing the same thing and would do it for less. Yet these fears were unfounded.
Yes, this did happen to a small extent, and some visionaries built new businesses around this ground-breaking technology, but most operations adapted the technology to enhance what they were already doing. The result included voicemail message retrieval, customized greetings, and personalized auto answer to list a few common innovations.
Each one expanded what the call center could do. So, look for these types of opportunities with each new solution that presents itself.
2. Offer New Services
Another consideration when call center innovation presents itself is to consider what new services you could offer because of it. This is what many outsource call centers did when voicemail came along.
They continued offering their agent voice services as they always had. And they now had a new service using voicemail technology: automated message taking and delivery.
Voicemail didn’t replace what they were doing but added to it in the form of a new service.
3. Expand into New Markets
Sometimes an innovation can allow you to expand into new markets. For example, as answering service software became more sophisticated, it allowed its users to move into telephone order taking, appointment setting, and database integration.
Call center innovation need not happen in huge, revolutionary jumps. We can better apply innovation as manageable tweaks on a consistent basis over time. This is the best and easiest way to find new opportunities for your call center.
Although I’m not trained as an industrial engineer, I think I’d make a good one. I have a knack of looking at processes and streamlining them. It gives me great satisfaction to take something overly complex and reduce it to its essential elements.
It doesn’t matter what the task is, whether setting an appointment, doing a patient intake, or making a post-discharge phone call, there’s a process to assure it’s done correctly.
Sometimes we view these steps as common sense and don’t feel a need to document them—that is until someone fails to follow common sense. Other times—be it through past failures or an overly complex process—we document the path to produce success.
Too often, however, these processes are more involved than they need to be. We need to look for ways to streamline them. Here are four considerations.
1. Remove Obsolete Elements: Any process that’s been around for a while, likely contains unnecessary steps. Though once required, they no longer are.
One healthcare call center compiled data from every call for marketing. But marketing didn’t even know the report existed. The person who requested it had left the organization two years before.
2. Eliminate Redundant Tasks: When I started Medical Call Center News, I entered data into three spreadsheets for each issue. Some numbers went on multiple sheets.
I reviewed the purpose I sought to accomplish and what I was doing. One section was a carryover from another publication and no longer applied. Another area contained information that was personally interesting but had no business relevance.
By taking away what was not essential, it was easy to see how the remaining data could smartly fit on one simplified spreadsheet. Not only did I save time with each issue, but the result was easier to use information.
A corollary that applies in many large organizations is multiple departments that want the same data. Enter it in one place and allow everyone to access it there. Don’t do something twice when once will work.
3. Combine Steps: I once toured an apple farm and watched them make cider using an old-fashioned apple press. Though I admired the employee’s diligent work, the inefficiency appalled me. They could have combined five steps into two. And a simple adjustment to the press’s set up would have eliminated all five, which took about 20 percent of the time to make each batch.
4. Cull Historical Baggage: Processes that have been around for a while often include steps that are there because of one error that happened long ago. Yes, mistakes do occur, but it’s not wise to systematize preventing the possible reoccurrence of one long ago oversight.
Streamlining a process may seem like too much work, but once simplified your staff will save time, reduce errors, and be more efficient every time they use it. A little effort now will pay huge dividends for the long-term.
Tell Your Customers What to Expect and Deliver it Every Time
Moving required finding a new place to service my car. A well-maintained auto repair business sat just down the street from our home, less than half a mile away. A neighbor, though he had never gone there, said they had a reputation for providing great service.
An Unexpected Twist
Before I could try them, however, another garage in the area mailed me a welcome-to-the-neighborhood coupon for a free oil change. This was a brilliant marketing move on their part. I figured I’d use the coupon and then try out the closer business, hopeful for them to become my provider of preference.
Though the second facility wasn’t as near, they were still only a couple miles away. They, too, had a nice facility—newer, larger, and more impressive than the one down the street.
I called for my free oil change, and everything proceeded as expected. New filter, fresh oil, and no bill. As a bonus, they performed a courtesy check of my car and offered a few suggestions for recommended maintenance. Their explanation of the additional work sounded reasonable.
I later dropped my car off for part two. It cost me a couple hundred dollars this time, but I accepted it as normal for an aging car.
They impressed me with how they integrated technology into their operation, not only to service my car but also to interact with me. Despite having paid them over $200 for what I had planned to be a free oil change, I left pleased with their service and the outcome. In short, they delighted me.
When our other car needed work, it was easy to return there—albeit not as convenient as going down the street. Again, they did their work as promised and met my expectations. Again, they had a list—this time longer—of additional work that they deemed urgent. This time the estimate was much higher. The explanation seemed less convincing. I walked away, not as happy, with the bill of several hundred dollars and only half the recommended work done.
Yet I returned the next time I had an auto-repair need.
They allowed me to schedule my appointments online, an option I appreciated given that I seldom remember to make my car repair appointments during business hours. Each time I booked my appointment, they asked for my preferred contact method: phone, text message, or email.
The first time I selected text message, but they called me instead. I figured it was an error on their part and overlooked it—mostly. From then on, I always selected email, but they persisted in calling. Once, when I didn’t answer, they followed up with a text. Never once did they email me as requested.
Another time I dropped my car off for repair and, not needing it back for at least a month (and causing me to wonder if my family really needed a second car), I told them there was no rush. “Just email me when you’re finished.”
A week went by and then two with no email (or phone call or text). Then a third week with no communication. Then a tersely worded letter arrived. If I didn’t pick up my car within 24 hours, they would charge me for storage. I went in, paid my bill, and retrieved my car.
I asked why they never contacted me about the completed repair. Their aloof customer service person offered no explanation, only a shoulder shrug.
I grew tired of going there. My first concern was that they always found something else to do. Too often I questioned the validity of their recommendations. Though they delighted me at first, they never repeated that feat. Instead, they provided mediocre service. This produced disappointment, such as not calling me in the manner requested or threatening to charge me to store the car I didn’t know was ready for pickup.
Aside from aggressive recommendations for additional work on my cars, their actual repairs were good. But the inconsistent nature of our interactions led me to seek a different alternative. Not knowing what to expect each time I interacted with them led me to disappointment most of the time. I knew they could delight me because they did once. Why couldn’t they accomplish that every time?
I gave up on them and, after much too long, contacted the garage down the street for my next oil change.
Upon arriving, the customer service manager greeted me with an engaging smile. She entered my information in the computer and made my appointment. I dropped the car off as planned, picked it up when promised, and paid the bill I expected.
Though nothing was exceptional with our interaction, it was decidedly better than average. After my recent experiences with the other garage, above average excited me. I returned. Again and again.
Every time I had an above average experience. Each time I looked forward to my next visit. They were that good. They provided me with consistently above average interactions. I appreciated knowing what to expect and receiving it every time.
Their predictable service pleased me. They didn’t delight me just once and then disappoint. They thrilled me on every visit.
I still take my vehicles there. I know that each time I take my car in I’ll receive quality work, a fair bill with no surprises, and reasonable recommendations for possible additional work. I rate my interaction with them as consistently above average—and that’s high praise.
I don’t recall another auto repair facility ever being this predictable. With certainty, none were consistently above average. Even a garage consistently average would surpass most of my combined experiences at other service facilities, where they seldom followed one good encounter with a second.
Too often my auto-repair experiences were like a roller coaster: up and down. I never knew what to expect. And unlike roller coasters where surprises thrill riders, being surprised doesn’t bode well for car repair.
Consistency is the key for ongoing success. This will earn you repeat business, time after time, year after year.
Customer Service Success Tip
Before you strive to improve your customer service, first aim to be consistent. This means uncovering the experiences that disappoint and eliminating them. Continue to address the low outliers to increase consistency in the remaining interactions.
Read more in Peter’s new book, Sticky Customer Service, to uncover helpful customer service tips, encouraging you to do better and celebrating what you do best.
Align Sales and Marketing Strategy with Client Geographic Distribution
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Since you can target online ads to specific markets, conduct a geographic analysis of where your customers are located. Let the results inform future ad targeting.
Here are some considerations:
Local Market: Though there’s no longer a technical reason to go with a local answering service, some businesses prefer to work with nearby vendors. Their reasons for doing so vary, but the main factor in your favor is that their preference to buy local gives you an automatic advantage over everyone else who’s marketing to them from a distant location. Use this fact to your advantage when targeting your local market.
Highly Reached Markets: Is there another state or city where you already have a lot of clients? Explore the reasons why this is the case. Look for ways to capitalize on these reasons in future online marketing initiatives. Another benefit is that when it comes to closing the sale, some prospects will be impressed if you can list other businesses in their area that you already serve.
Under Reached Markets: Now consider other states or regions where you have few customers or none. Is there a reason for this? Let this explanation inform your decision about targeting these areas. Maybe you never marketed to that area. Or perhaps you did, but the results disappointed you. If so, see the next item.
Conduct a Test: Your current geographic distribution of clients is a culmination of past factors. This may not be indicative of future success. Therefore, some periodic wide-scale testing is in order.
Conduct an online ad campaign targeting your ideal client, but don’t specify any geographic area. Then look at the results.
If you receive a greater click through rate in a particular geographic market, this area may be positively predisposed—for whatever reason—to be interested in switching answering services at this time. It doesn’t matter why; not really. The key is that your message resonates with them right now. So target that area. Continue to do so for as long as you see results.
Time Zone Targeting: I once mused about having an answering service with 25 percent of my client base in each major US time zone. This, I reasoned, would smooth out each day’s traffic peaks and valleys that occur when most all clients are on the same schedule. Now, with geographic online ad targeting its feasible and practical to pursue this specific time zone mix—assuming you see reason a to do so.
Answering service sales and marketing tactics change over time. A current marketing favorite is online advertising. But this is only half of the equation. The other half is the sales part. More on that next time. Until then, happy marketing.
Now Is an Ideal Time to Enhance the Skill Level of Your Telephone Staff
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
We live in interesting times, to say the least. Too often the healthcare call center industry spends much time focusing on the crisis of today that it squashes all thought about planning for tomorrow. Once we slip into crisis mode out of necessity, it’s too easy to stay there out of habit—even if there is no longer any justification for it.
We may stand at that juncture now. This means it’s time to balance our work for today with taking initiative to prepare for the future. If we don’t, we won’t make forward progress; we’ll merely survive. Though survival is necessary, we need more if we hope to find success and enjoy fulfillment. I’m talking about ourselves, our staff, and our organization.
One aspect of future preparation is education. This can be formal or informal, structured or ad hoc, and mandated or self-determined. Though the application relates to everyone in the call center from new hire to director, let’s—by way of example—consider this for your telephone representatives. I’ll leave it to you to extend this throughout all staff in your operation.
When we think of our call center staff going back to school, consider refresher training for the first initiative. It never hurts to revisit the basics. Though it may feel as though our existing staff has moved beyond this elementary teaching, the basics can atrophy over time.
Agents will forget some of this instruction. Or maybe they never fully grasped other skills to begin with, even though they seem to be doing well in their jobs overall. The problem is the specifics of what teaching to refresh varies from one person to another. Therefore, it’s good to review everything.
Yes, I already hear your staff complaining. But this refresher initiative doesn’t—and shouldn’t—take as long as the first iteration. It should go much faster. Perhaps you can condense a day’s worth of training into an hour—or even less. The important thing is to make sure these basic skills don’t slip away over time.
A second option for going back to school is to look at application instruction. When new software or an app enters your call center, agents need to receive instruction to know how to use it. Too often the urgency of the moment cuts this training short; it’s sometimes even omitted. This forces your phone representatives to figure it out on the fly. Though this may seem pragmatic or feel necessary, on-the-job-training frustrates employees who want to provide excellent service, and it’s disrespectful to callers who expect to receive it.
Go back and provide complete training on new software applications, as well as for major updates. Everyone will appreciate receiving this much-needed instruction.
After reviewing the basics and mastering call center software apps, we can go back to school to enhance our skills. Your telephone staff receives initial onboarding training when they’re hired.
As they go about their daily work, they apply that training and build upon it to increase their skill level. But this isn’t enough to ensure excellence, let alone produce successful outcomes. Your seasoned staff is ready for more. They need more. And you can provide it for them by teaching advanced call center service techniques.
This may relate to customer service skills, problem resolution techniques, or de-escalating angry callers. It could also cover the seldom-used but much-appreciated advanced options available on your software platforms and databases. Staff won’t use these skills often, but when the situation arises possessing the knowledge of these advanced techniques can make the difference between an unsuccessful interaction and a positive outcome.
As students everywhere return to the classroom this fall, do the same thing for your call center staff: send them back to school. Providing refresher training, application instruction, and skill enhancement will help them do their jobs with greater efficiency and produce higher quality outcomes.
Don’t let another year go by without giving your staff this much-needed support. The result will be happier employees and better served customers—in addition to a more effective call center operation.