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Healthcare Call Centers

The Fast-Food Factor: Does Your Call Center Have a Fast-Food Hiring Mentality?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I’ve never met anyone who felt they were overpaid. Occasionally someone will admit to being adequately compensated, but most people say their pay doesn’t reflect their work or value to the organization. This is especially true of call center agents. I’ve seen this both in running call centers and as a consultant. It matters not what the pay rate is, the universal belief is that the pay is too low.

Compensation is the single greatest expense for call centers. It accounts for anywhere from 40 percent to 85 percent of total expenses, depending on call center size. Pay too little, and turnover shoots up, training costs increase, and morale decreases. Pay too much, and the outflow of money exceeds the inflow of cash. No organization can stay in business if it loses money every month.

But what is an appropriate pay rate? Fortunately, the answer is close to home. I call it the “fast-food factor.”

Quite simply, if you hire call center agents at a fast-food wage, you’ll get a fast-food mentality and a fast-food performance. Yes, you will find the occasional star employee, but how long do you expect to retain him or her? Generally, you’ll find people with little work experience. They’ll view the job as temporary, not understand customer service, and fail to comprehend the necessity of being at work on time (much less giving two weeks’ notice before quitting). With the average agent training time exceeding the average fast-food employee tenure, you can’t afford to hire agents who might quit before they finish training. Yet when you compete with fast-food restaurants for entry-level employees, this is the likely outcome.

To succeed, call centers must pay more than fast-food restaurants, but how much more? Even fifty cents an hour can make a difference. A dollar more will have a much greater effect – if you do it right. What you must avoid when raising your starting wage is merely making it easier to find the same caliber of people; you must raise your standards, too. When you pay more, you can expect more.

As a consultant, one client’s staff kept complaining, “People working in fast food make more than we do.” After hearing five such complaints, I visited the seven fast-food restaurants within walking distance of the center. The staff’s perception was wrong, but the misinformation had gone unchallenged and been repeated enough that the lie was seen as truth.

Another client’s agents enjoyed a much higher starting wage, but they, too, complained of being under-compensated. Again, I surveyed the pay at nearby fast-food restaurants and discovered the call center’s starting wage was three dollars higher than the local fast-food benchmark. Fortunately, accompanying this higher starting wage were tighter pre-employment screening and higher performance expectations. The caliber of the staff was noticeably greater. No adjustment to their compensation was needed.

To determine the appropriate hourly rate for your call center agents, you have four options:

  1. Continue what you are doing (which probably isn’t working).
  2. Pay someone thousands of dollars to do a wage study.
  3. Refer to local wage surveys (which seldom list data for call center agents).
  4. Visit local fast-food restaurants, and then distinguish your hourly rate – and agent expectations – from theirs.

Applying the “fast-food factor” has never let me down and, I suspect, it won’t let you down either.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News, covering the healthcare call center industry.

[From the Aug/Sep 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Just Ignore It, It’s Only a False Alarm

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

If you have technology in your call center, then you’ve likely been frustrated by false alarms and erroneous error messages. I was recently reminded of this as I searched for the source of an alarm, warning me that something was awry at home. The culprit: was a carbon monoxide detector. After an hour of futile troubleshooting, I began to consider that maybe there were actually unsafe carbon dioxide levels in my home.

What a novel thought; in all my years at call centers, I never experienced a smoke, fire, or carbon monoxide alarm that actually alerted an unsafe situation. In fact, I’d been conditioned to assume that any alarm was a malfunction. Smoke detectors were high on that list, with their low battery beeps and an occasional false alarm. When I would test them, no one ever left their station or asked if there was a fire. They merely said, “Make it stop so we can hear.”

UPSs also seemed to do more harm than good. It’s confounding for a malfunctioning UPS to take down the servers and switch when perfectly good utility power is available. Yet it happens. For a while, I kept track: UPSs were actually causing more downtime then they prevented. Generators also fit that category. Regardless if there was an automatic transfer switch or a manual bypass, inevitably something would go wrong. Despite agent training and trial runs, nothing seemed to adequately prepare staff to deal with an actual power outage.

Spare parts and backup circuits were another cause for frustration. You have them in case of an emergency, periodically testing them to make sure they work. Unfortunately, it seems that efforts to do so invariably result in unexpected problems, including system crashes.

The last category of irritations involves data backups. As if making successful backups isn’t challenging enough, retrieval is fraught with peril. Attempts to do so have crashed systems and corrupted good data.

Despite these frustrations, it would be irresponsible not to do all that can be done to keep staff safe, systems functioning, lines open, and data secure. The false alarms and problems are merely side-effects of the process.

As far as my issue at home, it was a false alarm after all.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News, covering the healthcare call center industry.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Call Center Basics

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

When I ask folks if they work at an in-house or an outsource call center, I am surprised at how frequently this question is fumbled. At risk of offending knowledgeable veterans, I offer the following call center basics:

Inbound Call Centers answer calls. Their agents react, waiting for the phone to ring or for the next call in queue. Inbound call centers are equipped with ACDs (Automatic Call Distributors) to efficiently send calls to the “next available agent.” Many inbound operations are staffed 24 x 7, with their agents scheduled in anticipation of projected calls based on historical data and marketing initiatives.

Outbound Call Centers make calls to customers and sales prospects; it is proactive. Even if agents’ work is not “sales” per se, they still need a sales mentality. They must engage the called party, lead them towards an objective, and deal with rejection. Outbound centers rely on predictive dialers to place calls. Agents are scheduled as needed to complete a desired number of calls within a certain time, as limited by law.

In-house Call Centers are an internal department of an organization; they provide services exclusively for their own company. An in-house call center can be a cost-center or a profit-center. Cost-centers are subsidized by corporate, whereas profit-centers charge other departments for the work they do.

Outsourcing Call Centers do work for other organizations; their business is making and receiving calls. They often enjoy an economy-of-scale that is not feasible with in-house operations. Therefore, their margins allow clients to save money, while they make money. Agents at an outsource centers work for their clients, but work with their client’ customers or prospects. Outsource call centers are increasingly desirable as more organizations consider outsourcing to increase service levels and options, return to their core competencies, save money, or all three.

Offshore Call Centers are simply any call center that is located in a different country, or”offshore.” Off shoring is often erroneously considered synonymous with outsourcing, but they are not the same.

Whatever type of call center work you do, do it well — that is the critical lesson of Call Center Basics.

(For more call center basics, go to StartACall.com or StartAnAnsweringService.com.)

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News, covering the healthcare call center industry.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Are You Shrinking?

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

In retail, the term “shrinkage” euphemistically refers to stock which “disappears” before it can be sold. It is product that the retailer bought, but can’t sell because it is has been stolen or lost. In the call center, the inventory is labor and shrinkage is agents who are being paid but not working. Three metrics help track, explain, and understand agent shrinkage:

Adherence measures the time agents are scheduled compared to the time they actually work (logged in time divided by scheduled time). Since schedules are developed to match traffic projections, when the schedule is not fully followed, the result is under staffing.  Ideally,staff should adhere 100% to their schedules; in reality, this is not the case. Most call center managers are shocked to discover their adherence rates. It can represent a huge unnecessary cost,as well as contribute to lower service levels.

Several factors account for low adherence levels. The first is scheduled breaks, lunches, and training. This is the only acceptable contributor to adherence discrepancy. Depending on the length of breaks, the best resulting adherence will be around 90%. The second consideration is absences, late arrivals, and early departures. The third area is unscheduled breaks or agents leaving their positions. Typical call center adherence rates are around 75%, although well-run operations can be in the low 90s.

Availability measures how much of that time agents are ready, or “available,” to answer calls. It is calculated by dividing time available (also called “on time,” “in rotation,” or “ready”) by logged in time. Agent availability is strictly within the control of agents, determined by their willingness to be ready to answer calls. Although the ideal goal of 100% availability is achievable, 98% to 99% is more realistic.

Occupancy is the percentage of time agents spend talking to callers compared to the time they are turned on or available (talk time plus wrap-up time divided by agent “on” time). One hundred percent occupancy means agents are talking to callers the entire time they are logged in. To achieve this, calls must continuously be in queue. The resulting efficiency is great, but caller wait time can be lengthy. Therefore, 100% occupancy does not produce quality service, plus leads to agent burnout and fatigue.

Interestingly, ideal occupancy rates vary greatly with the size of the call center. Smaller centers can only achieve a low occupancy rate (perhaps around 25%) while maintaining an acceptable service level. Conversely, large call centers can realize a much higher occupancy rate (90% and higher) and reach that same service level.

Call centers with poor adherence, availability, and occupancy rates can literally spend twice as much in labor to produce the same service level as a comparably sized well-run call center. Calculate your center’s adherence, availability, and occupancy numbers– and then take steps to improve them. Don’t let agent shrinkage lead to expense explosion!

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News, covering the healthcare call center industry.

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

The Perfect Answer

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStat

How often have you called someplace and wondered if you reached the right number? All too often, calls are answered hurriedly, haphazardly, or incompletely. Or perhaps the agent seems out of breath by the time they complete a lengthy, tongue-twisting answer. It is vital that all calls be consistently answered in the same way, regardless of location or agent. Here are three parts of the ideal way to do so:

Greeting: The greeting serves to set a positive tone for the call. It is simply”Good morning,” Good afternoon,” or “Good evening.” The greeting tells the caller that the phone has been answered. These words signal that it is time for the caller to listen, but it is not critical if these words are missed.

Company Identity:This is simply the name of your organization, such as, “Acme Medical Call Center.” It lets callers know who they’ve reached, confirming that their call has gone through correctly. Say the name as it would be used by and most familiar to those outside the organization. Therefore, drop legal suffixes, such an Inc, LLC, and Ltd. Also, avoid abbreviating the company name; saying “AMCC” when everyone knows you as”Acme Medical Call Center” will only cause confusion.

Agent Identity: The final element is your first name. It adds a valuable personal touch. It is much easier for a caller to get mad at an anonymous voice, than an identifiable person.  Using your name builds rapport and establish a track record with the caller. As the last word of the answer phrase, it is also the one most easily remembered. Omitting your name implies an avoidance of personal involvement; ending with your name, signals confidence and competence, which are critical in medical call centers.

Avoid Unnecessary Addendums: It is all too common for people to tack on the inane phrase, “How may I direct your call?” A direct response to this senseless question would be “quickly and accurately.” This is a waste of time.

Putting these together, results in the perfect answer: “Good morning, Acme Medical Call Center, this is Peter.”

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and Medical Call Center News, covering the healthcare call center industry.