Categories
Telephone Answering Service

Conduct a Year-End Review

To Know Where You’re Headed You Must First Determine Where You Are

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Year end is an especially busy time at most telephone answering services, but that’s not an excuse to focus strictly on the present and stop thinking about the future. In fact, December is an ideal time to give some thought to where you are and to what lies ahead so that you can prepare for next year. It starts when you conduct a year end review.

If you don’t know where you are, it’s impossible to get to where you want to be. Take some time now to evaluate your current situation. This will form the basis to move forward with intentionality next year. Here are some things to assess.

Staff

Let’s start your year end review with a look at the backbone of your answering service, your employees. They make you shine, but they can also produce problems, affecting your clients, the schedule, and overall profitability. In short, they can make or break your business. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Telephone Staff: Do you have enough frontline employees to answer phone calls? Don’t worry (too much) if your answer is no; you’re in good company. This fact, however, provides you with an opportunity for improvement.
  • Staffing Model: Do you have a centralized workforce, a distributed one, or a hybrid plan? What elements of this works for you? Which ones do not? What needs to change?
  • Turnover Rate: Do you struggle to achieve an acceptable turnover rate? Regardless of where you’re at now, what steps do you need to take to lower it?
  • Operator Quality: Are you producing the quality service you aspire to offer and that your clients expect? Can you quantify your answer, or is it wishful thinking?
  • Non-Operations Staff: Do you have adequate management and support personnel? In addition to operations, look at accounting, sales, marketing, and technical roles, as well as administration. Consider your strongest areas and weakest. How can you keep your top employees? How can you best help those who struggle?
  • Yourself: Do you have adequate time to address what’s most essential for your answering service’s long-term viability? Or do you spend too much time putting out fires and handling day-to-day minutia? What steps can you take to be the leader your answering service needs?

Vendors

Your software and equipment provider is a critical element of your operation’s success. Leading vendors strive to enhance their offerings every year, providing new capabilities and value-added opportunities.

Look at your annual expenses to use their products. This includes one-time charges, ongoing costs, and leases. Is the vendor easy to work with? Do they provide you with what you need to achieve your goals? How is their tech support?

And if your vendor isn’t providing what you need or keeping pace with the industry, consider what you can do to help them achieve the results you want. Work with them, not against them. Changing vendors is the last thing anyone wants to do, so your first goal should be to make the best of what you have.

Industry Developments

Here are some common answering service industry trends to consider:

  • Consolidation: The industry continues to consolidate. This produces an opportunity to sell. It also provides niche markets that nimble, smaller players can capture.
  • Competition: At the same time, the remaining operations encounter increased competition in a national and even international marketplace. How can you make your service stand out?
  • Labor Market: Coupled with these two items is that most services have recently experienced an unprecedented challenge in hiring qualified employees and keeping them. Successfully addressing this dilemma could provide the biggest boost to your operation.
  • Technology: The next consideration is technology, which allows you to do more and to do it more easily, but it comes at the cost of a greater investment, coupled with increased configuration complexities.

What else would you add to this list of industry trends?

Marketplace Opportunities

You compete in a national market, but you exist in a local one. What can you do to rise above other providers around the country? What can you do to distinguish yourself in your local marketplace?

Financial Situation

For the final element of your year end review, look at the money side of your answering service. Two common items to address are increasing the money coming in and decreasing the money going out. Another item is access to capital, along with building up reserve fund.

Moving Forward

Don’t attempt to tackle this lengthy list of a year end review all at once. Work on it over time, adding to it and fine-tuning it as you go. As you move toward the completion of this effort, a strategy to move forward will emerge.

Use this as your plan for next year. May it be your best one yet.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TAS Trader, covering the telephone answering service industry. Check out his books How to Start a Telephone Answering Service and Sticky Customer Service.

Categories
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. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

[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. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.