Tag Archives: agent management articles

Employee Rivalry: Five Tips for Managing Dueling Staffers

By Barbara Jaurequi

Child psychiatrist David Levy introduced the term sibling rivalry in 1941. Self-explanatory in its terminology, the concept of sibling rivalry is easy to grasp. The mechanism of employee rivalry works essentially the same way, with the employees in a competitive relationship, striving for greater approval from their employer or manager. Employee rivalry is common in call centers, where ambitious agents vie for a limited number of advancement opportunities.

Many managers, in a desperate attempt to be perceived as fair, find themselves going crazy as they try to distribute praise evenly and acknowledge hard work equally. Moreover, when they deliver criticism to one employee, they feel compelled to deliver it to the other, whether he or she deserves it or not, so they aren’t accused of playing favorites.

Employees who are constantly trying to outdo each other don’t always deliver superior work because of their competition. In fact, the animosity they feel towards one another can stifle their creativity and cause them to deliberately undermine their opponent’s efforts. Furthermore, the tension between them can corrupt the attitudes of other employees and cause managers to lose objectivity regarding the rivalry.

Managers who recognize troublesome rivalries between two or more valuable staff members should seek to resolve these rivalries before they upset otherwise harmonious workplaces. The following is a list of tips that are easy to enact. Consistent application of these suggestions is likely to eliminate or lessen the negative impact of employee rivalries.

1) Collect Data: Managers should be alert when milling among their staff. Observe the two contentious staff members as they interact with each other. Notice attitudes, body language, and temperament. Pay close attention to the things that trigger negativity. Write down your observations. See if you can identify patterns of behavior. The important thing is for managers to recognize the symptoms of the problem such as arguing, gossiping, and tattling on each other.

Total resolution of employee rivalry may not be possible in certain circumstances; that’s when symptom management becomes the goal. Effective management of the symptoms of employee rivalry can significantly improve an otherwise hostile work environment for everyone concerned.

2) Be Willing to Separate Employees to Reduce Tension: This is a good way for managers to solve their rivalry problems with minimal managerial exertion. Consider, for example, that some personalities are strong and, while not offensive to the majority of coworkers, may grate on the nerves of other employees. It is often like this with dueling employees; they just don’t like each other.

Their dislike for one another causes them to be overly observant about what the other is doing or not doing. They are too aware of the other’s responsibilities, deficiencies, and positive qualities, which are usually deeply resented. Even the most brilliant conflict resolution specialist would not be able to overcome this sort of interpersonal problem, because the problem is based on personality, and personality traits are enduring aspects of the self. They don’t change. Therefore, managers’ willingness to move people around could help reduce the kind of tension that leads to declines in productivity and employee morale. It may also reduce the number of tattletale sessions managers have to endure.

3) Know Your Limits: Managers need to decide how much energy they should spend on the problem of employee rivalry. If it has become a major disruption in the call center, managers should address the problem with a plan for resolution in mind. On the other hand, if conflict resolution meetings are nothing more than fodder for drama loving gossipers, a simple, private discussion with each of the involved employees would be a better way to go. Specifically, don’t make a big deal out of a small matter that might correct itself over time, but don’t ignore a spreading cancer either.

4) Don’t Strive for Perfect Fairness: Managers should not expect themselves to be perfectly fair, as per the opinions of conflicting employees. Rather, managers should strive to treat their employees impartially. For example, if you decide one employee should be given an extra week to complete a particular project for whatever reason you deem worthy of the extension, then do so. But, be prepared to do the same for the other employee if that employee needs extra time. However, don’t automatically extend the other employee’s deadline whether it’s needed or not just to be fair.

Make your decisions on a case-by-case basis. If one employee comes to you complaining about unfairness, simply tell the employee he or she does not have, nor is he or she privy to, all the information that went into your decision. Stick to your guns. Be unemotional, calm, deliberate, and firm. Managers should not explain certain decisions, or they will open themselves up to an inappropriate debate with a subordinate.

5) Conduct an Honest Self-Appraisal of Favoritism: It is important for managers to be aware of how their behaviors and attitudes may be perceived by those they supervise. It’s only natural for managers to have preferences when it comes to personalities and work habits. You may have a particular affinity for an employee who has, for example, a similar sense of humor as yours. Unintentionally, you may be favoring that person to a degree that is obvious and offensive to your favored employee’s rival.

Consider if your preference for one employee over another is based on personality or is that employee truly superior in terms of quality of work? If the former fuels your favoritism, it would be wise to check it. Better for you to make some behavioral changes than lose a valuable employee who legitimately views your management style as inequitable.

One final thought about conflict resolution; do some research about best practices before launching into a process with which you are unfamiliar. Better yet, get some hands on direction about how to proceed. Any money spent for training will be a good investment. Don’t be blindsided by new cases of employee rivalry; you are sure to encounter them as long as you manage people.

Barbara Jaurequi, a licensed marriage and family therapist and nationally certified master addiction counselor, speaks on a variety of personal and professional topics and is the author of A.C.E.S. – Adult-Child Entitlement Syndrome. Contact Ms. Jaurequi by email or call her office at 909-944-6611.

[From the February/March 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Tips to Reduce New Agent Turnover

By Bob Cowen

Improving retention of newly hired agents will have an immediate impact on your organizations’ viability. Reducing the ongoing cost and effort of hiring and training new agents is one benefit, but the real payoff is that key performance indicators (KPIs) go up and rookie mistakes go down.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of “the power of small wins,” it is discussed in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Small Wins” by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer. The article contains excellent examples and lessons. It’s a simple concept.

Brooks Mitchell, PhD, describes it as “rewarding the daily homework” in his article, “New Ways to Curb Employee Tardiness, Absenteeism, and Turnover by Using Employee Selection and Online Games.” In part of his tutorial, Dr. Mitchell suggests rewarding early tenure to better retain new hires, thus bridging the gap in the new job morale curve. The same principle applies to solving other challenges. In a call center, the consequences of newly hired employee turnover multiply. The question is how to apply the power of small wins to reduce newly hired employee turnover at call centers.

Step into Their Shoes: Spend a few hours sitting with and listening to the calls of one of your recently hired agents. It’s important that you see his or her emotional state when doing this. How many rude callers do they encounter? How many times are they sworn at or hung up on? If they are playing calls, how many “no, thanks” or similar rejections per hour do you hear?

Would you remain positive and encouraged? Your new agent most likely started the job with high expectations, only to find that much of what they hear is negativity and rejection.

Where Does This Lead? You know the answer. Many of your agents become discouraged and start down a self-fulfilling, slippery slope that leads out the door. They question their abilities and their decision to join your call center. Discouragement sets in because they are steeped in negativity and rejections throughout their shift.

It is a shock to their system, their ego. They wonder, “Am I cut out for this?” “Is this what I want to do for the next few years?” “How does someone do this day-in and day-out?” “I feel so unproductive.” The positive calls they receive can become lost in the overwhelming sea of negativity.

Small Wins to the Rescue: Most organizations don’t review their employees frequently enough, especially newly hired agents. Yes, this can be a labor-intensive process, but even more costly is replacing employees. Remember your days in grade school, high school, and college? You received continuous feedback in the form of grades, quizzes, papers, and exams.

Good feedback reinforced your study habits. You always knew where you stood long before you received your final grade. Going into your final exam, you knew exactly what you had to score in order to get a specific final grade for the course. You may not have realized it, but you were the recipient of “the power of small wins.”

What to Do: The simple answer is to amplify the incentive reward for every positive event for newly hired agents until they have accepted the fact that their day is usually going to be filled with negatives and frequent rejections. An “event” does not need to be an appointment or sale; it could simply be asking for the sale, making a referral, or some other precedent activity.

Offer constructive and positive guidance when you see that a better job can be done. Encourage and reward employees for bonding activities with more tenured agents, giving rewards to both the new and tenured agents. View examples of the new job morale curve, creating one that reflects positively on your organization.

This will be an enlightening lesson. If you measure turnover annually, reducing new hire turnover will have a compounded impact on your annual rate. However, measuring turnover quarterly or monthly results in greater accountability and responsibility for those who can affect it.

What Not to Do: Don’t just accept high turnover of newly hired agents as normal. Simple, inexpensive, cost-effective solutions are readily available when you understand the principles of “the power of small wins” or, as Brooks Mitchell says, what it means to “reward the daily homework.”

Bob Cowen is with Snowfly, provider of Internet-based employee incentives, recognition, and loyalty programs. For more information, call 877-766-9359 or email rcowen@snowfly.com.

[From the October/November 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Engage Your Workforce to Move Past “Us Versus Them”

By Pat Heydlauff

Maximizing the productivity of staff, such as call center agents, is a huge leadership challenge today. Increased efficiency and productivity means increasing razor-thin profitability. The answer lies in connecting the communication dots by tying workforce productivity to the organization’s performance, but how?

The mentality of “us versus them” is the root cause of this challenge, and it is also where you begin to find the solution. Those who seek success without regard to relational costs to the workforce may succeed at first but will lose in the long term. Focus on what brings leadership and the workforce together, not what creates a chasm of distrust, disharmony, and disregard for everyone, including the company itself.

Engaged Leadership: Leadership’s primary focus should be on improving their effectiveness in engaging their workforce. The result is that the more engaged employees are, the more invested they are in the outcome, which means improved organizational performance, increased revenues, and profitability. When you tie workforce productivity to company performance, everyone wins.

A recent Harvard Business Review study, “Connecting Workforce Analytics to Better Business Results,” rated productivity, flexibility, collaboration, and engagement as the most important workforce attributes, noting that engagement is key. The human resources director of one of their European study participants stated, “At the end of the day, the performance of our staff can mean more money or not.”

Workforce Planning: The study further stated that the biggest difference between organizational failure and success is having a formal approach to workforce planning and optimization. While there are many considerations when developing a plan, it should include the following elements.

Focus on the Outcome: In order to maximize workforce productivity and organizational performance, the plan must be developed with focus placed on the desired outcome. The desired outcome comes first and must be measurable. Leadership from all areas of the organization, whether directly affected or not, should be involved in this step.

What one department leader might believe is the desired outcome could conflict with another leader’s ongoing operations or size of the workforce. Expose all of the negative concerns, as well as the positive possible benefits. Then, the outcome must also be supported 100% by the team. Inside sabotage will easily create unnecessary slowdowns and distractions.

For now, hold off on considering how this will happen. That is best saved for the next step.

Connect Productivity to Organizational Outcomes: Communicate, communicate, communicate! It is leadership’s mandate to communicate not only the new desired outcome, but also why it is important to the workforce, how the new outcome will improve the performance of company – and, in turn, how this benefits the workforce.

This step is critical for tying workforce performance to the organizational outcome. This type of communication must be circular or orbital in nature. It cannot be a one-way street. Leadership must have the workforce play back their understanding of the outcome and how it benefits both them and the company. When you get this step right, everything else will go smoothly.

Once the orbital flow of communication has effectively been implemented, proceed with creating the “how” by involving everyone on each team in the process. This is where the best innovations are given life. This is also the step that will provide the best employee buy-in. Be sure the “how” step includes measurable results.

Develop Programs to Enhance Effectiveness: Next, it is time for the original leadership team to reconvene to determine what training and new skills the workforce might need to enhance the success of the outcome. Some evaluation should also be done at this stage to determine if certain employees need to be mentored for future leadership needs. Develop the programs necessary to nurture future leaders and upgrade the skills of the workforce. That is part of the benefits for the workforce, and it needs to be effectively communicated once the decision is made.

Conclusion: The success of this plan is determined by how well you communicate and engage your workforce. Productivity is not based on an “us versus them” mentality, but rather a more productive and profitable “we.”

Pat Heydlauff speaks from experience. She works with organizations that want to create an environment where employees are engaged, encouraged, and involved, and with people who want to be in control, anxiety-free, and confident. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Engage, How to Lead with Power, Productivity, and Promise. She can be reached at 561-799-3443 or engagetolead.com.

[From the October/November 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

The Business Case for Virtual Interviewing

By Kevin Hegebarth

Despite improvements in the desirability of contact center work, contact center turnover has changed little over the past ten years. Many companies report turnover of 100 percent or more, which means they are replacing their entire agent population every year. This is expensive in terms of customer satisfaction and the costs to recruit, train, and coach new agents. Contact center operations need to sustain a robust pipeline of qualified candidates with excellent communication skills to handle customer interactions quickly and satisfactorily.

The Hiring Process: Customer service employees form a caller’s first and lasting impression of an organization. Therefore, finding applicants with excellent communication and customer service skills are paramount. Some call centers use screener-initiated telephone interviewing to gather basic information about a potential employee’s qualifications, as well as gauge their fitness as a company representative.

This process can be time-consuming because the screener must often make several attempts to reach a candidate. It is also expensive in that screeners often spend upward of twenty minutes or more on a live telephone interview. What’s more, it is likely to capture only a small subset of quality candidates due to pressures to fill positions quickly, limited time on the part of the screener to perform such tasks, and the availability of candidates to participate in a live phone interview. Using virtual interviewing technologies cannot only reduce the cost to recruit new agents, but it can also increase the number of qualified candidates in the hiring pool and dramatically improve the quality of agent candidates.

Virtual Interviewing as a Recruiting Tool: Virtual interviewing is a simple process that is generally used in place of or to augment the live telephone interview. Hiring companies can post a link for conducting an online interview on a job board or invite candidates to participate via email. Using media-rich Web and voice-response technologies, candidates use a Web browser and their telephone to be guided through a series of text-response and voice-response questions designed to collect their basic qualifications and record their responses to a variety of scenarios they might expect to encounter.

Virtual interviews are typically conducted in two stages. The first part is generally text-based, during which the candidate may be asked a number of questions that are designed to collect his or her basic qualifications for the job. Failure to answer one or more of these questions correctly may “knock out” the candidate from the application process and prevent them from moving to the voice-response stage.

The voice-response stage is designed to allow the candidate to answer a number of questions regarding their prior experience, knowledge of the job, and response to common customer service scenarios. These open-ended, free form questions allow applicants to answer in their own words and with their own voice. Answers can be as long or as short as the candidate desires. The responses are recorded and cataloged for a recruiter to review and evaluate later. The recordings can also be shared with a hiring manager or other stakeholders, as appropriate.

Once a candidate has successfully completed both stages of the virtual interview, a recruiter can review the applicant’s responses and score the interview. This process is similar to the quality-monitoring procedure that occurs in just about every contact center – interactions are recorded, reviewed, and scored against the standards of the organization. A recruiter can greatly increase the number of interviews conducted in this manner, resulting in a larger and better quality talent pool from which to choose.

Reach More Candidates Cost-Effectively: Since recruiters need only to review successfully completed interviews, significant time and labor savings can be realized over traditional phone interviews. Consider that a screener may have to make several attempts to reach a candidate before actually conducting the interview. The interview itself may take twenty minutes or more to complete. Consider also that many interviews start with the screener asking some basic qualification questions. If a candidate is unqualified, the recruiter has wasted valuable time.

Virtual interviewing can weed out unqualified candidates through the text-based qualification stage and never expose these applicants to a recruiter. Furthermore, virtual interviews tend to be shorter in duration – as little as five or ten minutes – meaning recruiters can evaluate many more candidates. This is especially beneficial when there are many positions to be filled or they need to be filled in a short time frame.

Many exceptional candidates may already be working and are difficult to reach during the hours that most recruiters normally work. Virtual interviewing is an “always on” application, which means candidates can interview at a time that is most convenient for them. Companies using virtual interviewing can, therefore, reach many more of these potential employees, thereby increasing the overall quality of the talent pool.

The Many Benefits of Virtual Interviews: Virtual interviewing is not intended to replace every step in the contact center hiring process, but it can provide significant benefits, especially for organizations that have significant hiring requirements. These benefits include:

  • Reduction in recruiter time to conduct interviews: Recruiters often have other valuable job tasks to do such as onboarding, training, coaching, and discipline. Virtual interviewing can free up the recruiter’s time to handle these higher-value activities.
  • Expanded candidate pool: With the “always on” nature of virtual interviews, a candidate can interview even when a recruiter is not available. In fact, in one case, nearly forty percent of the company’s best candidates interviewed outside of normal business hours.
  • Greater consistency: Each virtual interview is conducted in exactly the same way, using the same questions. Any inadvertent recruiter bias is removed from the interviewing process, which means that each candidate is evaluated fairly.

Kevin Hegebarth is vice president of marketing and product management for HireIQ Solutions, Inc.

[From the August/September 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Keeping Remote Employees Engaged and Productive in a Virtual Office Setting

By Helen M. Lapointe, Joann A. Somerville, and Brenda J. Glover

Remote employees are becoming the norm for many medical call centers and telehealth companies for economic reasons, as well as employee flexibility. In many instances, the employee can set their own schedule, which enables them to have a greater ability to manage work/home-life situations. This increases job satisfaction, improves productivity, and decreases burnout.

However, it can be challenging for them to not feel socially isolated, and it can be difficult for the supervisor to keep them engaged. Working from home sometimes does not appear as official as the typical workplace environment we are used to participating in our culture.

To be successful work at home employees, they must possess strong interpersonal and social skills, coupled with a balance of technical skills. They must be conscientious, self-motivated, well organized, adaptable, and flexible. Also, they must be receptive to new experiences and be creative with opportunities to socialize.

Managers of the remote employee must possess these qualities as well and be willing to spend more time than the traditional workplace manager engaging their employees in their duties. Qualities of these managers must include organization, but first they must be excellent communicators. They must be skilled at building relationships. Employees need to be kept well informed about changes that affect the virtual workplace. Short, frequent contact is necessary to keep the employee abreast of happenings within the company, and the manager, not being able to have the face-to-face contact with the employee, must deliver the information to keep the employee connected. It is important to remember that communication within the company as a whole will keep the employee feeling connected.

There are many ways remote employees can stay connected. Social networking sites are popular ways for remote employees to connect with each other, share pictures, and other personal issues that ordinarily would be shared during lunch and break times in the traditional workplace setting. Linked-In is fast becoming a popular professional connection site.

It can be difficult to maintain trusting relationships between the remote employee and manager without access to frequent, reliable communication within the virtual environment. Telephone and email communication are essential. It is easy to misinterpret communication in emails, so telephone communication is always the most reliable. Other effective means of communication within the virtual environment that prove to be effective are scheduled audio/Web conferencing and employee chat rooms for business related communication.

Remote employees many times express their own stresses and burnout from feelings of isolation and being under-valued. Communication is essential to preventing this. Recognizing accomplishments is important in keeping employees engaged and interested in improving skill sets. Offer bonuses for those employees who go “above and beyond” in an attempt to highlight the value of their work. Positive reinforcement, monthly newsletters with employee recognition and birthdays included, and sharing of photos and other important personal events can give the remote worker a sense of involvement and importance. Employers can provide a means for employees to nominate fellow employees for “exceptional employee awards,” which will recognize and encourage positive behaviors that maintain productive workflow.

These examples will increase comradery, retention, productivity, and loyalty among employees. Managing virtual teams and keeping them engaged is quite a challenge, but both the employee and employer will reap the benefits if the lines of communications are kept open using all of the technology available to today.

Contact Nurse Telephone Triage Service at 800-515-5209 or www.nursetriage.org: Helen M. Lapointe, RN, BSN, co-president; Joann A. Somerville, RN, BSN, co-president, and Brenda J. Glover, RN-BC, telehealth coordinator.

[From the June/July 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Health Insurance Call Volume Increasing: Best Practices to Achieve Success

By Sarah Hedayati

Did you notice an increase in call volume during your last open enrollment period? Most health insurance call centers did. In fact, some received such a high call volume, their IVRs couldn’t handle the load and needed to be upgraded on the spot. Based on everyone we talk to, call centers need to be prepared for an increase in call volume each year for the next few years.

Why is Call Volume Increasing? Call centers in the health insurance industry will see an increase in call volume because of several shifts currently taking place:

Baby Boomers: Since January 1, 2011, more than 10,000 baby boomers have reached the age of 65 every day; this will continue through 2030. More baby boomers will contact your call center with questions about the coordination of Medicare and supplemental coverage. They may have concerns about being able to afford coverage. They may need advice about the best plan to cover their medical needs.

Healthcare Reform: With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, more people will have questions about how this act will affect them. They may want to know how their coverage will change or which plan is best for their needs. They may want information on the best and most cost-effective plan.

What is the Impact of Increasing Call Volume? The increase in call volume has the potential to increase costs, reduce customer satisfaction, and increase the number of callbacks.

Increased Costs: As more calls come in, call centers need to make adjustments by hiring more agents, purchasing more equipment, and either finding more facilities, outsourcing agents, or transitioning agents to work from home.

Reduced Customer Satisfaction: With call volume going up, wait times may go up as well. Insufficiently trained call center agents won’t know how to effectively question callers to guide and control the call. Without the proper skills to get to the root of the customer’s problem or question, the number of callers in the queue will stack up.

Increased Callbacks: Callbacks may increase due to the complexity of informa­tion. The changes that come with the Affordable Care Act will take time for agents and members to understand. If an agent doesn’t adequately answer a member’s question, the member will call back, which will increase costs and stretch your resources even further

What is the Best Way to Prepare for Call Volume Increases? Now that you understand why call volume is increasing and what the impact is, what can you do to prepare and respond? Training. Customer service agents need to understand products available and be instructed on how to control the call, be patient, express empathy, and communicate in a simple and clear manner:

Control the Call: Customer service representatives (CSRs) need to learn good questioning techniques. Customer service training will teach agents the difference between open and closed questions and when to use each method. The examples below show the difference between open and closed questions.

Caller: “I’m retiring next year, and I’m concerned about healthcare reform. What do these changes mean to me?”

Open Question: “I’m happy to help with that. What concerns do you have?”

Open questions are ones that solicit more than a “yes” or “no” or other one word response.

Closed Question: “We have a great package of benefits for you now that you’ll be retiring. Why don’t you tell me what health services you use most, and I’ll let you know how our plan will work for you next year?”

Closed questions are useful when you want a “yes” or “no” response or when you need spe­cific information from a customer.

Good questioning skills will help the agent hone in on what members are calling about and answer their questions in an efficient manner.

Be Patient and Express Empathy: Health insurance call center agents need to be prepared to serve these diverse groups:

  • Older callers who may be ill or hard of hearing
  • New entrants into the insurance market unfamiliar with insurance terminology
  • Members confused by more complex benefits and changes due to healthcare reform

Being patient and conveying empathy for the member’s questions and concerns will help CSRs achieve customer satisfaction.

Communicate Clearly: The changes brought on by healthcare reform will take time for members to grasp. CSRs need to be skilled at explaining benefits in a clear and concise manner and without the use of jargon. CSRs also need to learn how to confirm that callers understand the information and explain what callers can expect next so they don’t have to callback.

Increases in call volume will require some adjustments for your call center. Plan, staff your center appropriately, and train agents so you’re prepared to respond. Keep agents informed and up-to-date on the latest healthcare news so your center becomes a knowledgeable resource for members.

[From the October/November 2012 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

The 3 R’s for Dealing with Workplace Bullying

By Danita Johnson Hughes

We’ve heard a lot recently about bullying in the classroom, but what about bullying in the office, the boardroom – and even the call center? Yes, workplace bullying is a pressing problem in today’s offices. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 35 percent of the U.S. workforce report being bullied at work. That’s an estimated 53.5 million Americans being bullied right now! An additional 15 percent of people have witnessed workplace bullying. In all, half of all Americans have firsthand experience with workplace bullying in some way.

At first glance, it’s easy to brush off workplace bullying as just the way business is done. After all, haven’t we all heard such phrases as “It’s a dog eat dog world” and “Only the strong survive?” But being driven to succeed and being a bully are two completely different things.

The fact is that workplace bullying is often harmful to an organization because it impedes the organization’s growth and success. It also costs organizations dearly in terms of lost productivity, increased use of sick days, and time for management’s intervention. For example, WBI estimates that between turnovers and lost productivity alone, workplace bullying could cost a Fortune 500 company $24 million each year. Add another $1.4 million for litigation and settlement costs, and this is one problem no company can afford to ignore.

Since everyone has the right to work in a safe, healthy, and bully-free workplace, what can employees and leaders do to stop workplace bullying? The key is to follow the three R’s.

Recognize It: Say the word “bully” and most people envision a playground thug threatening the weakest kid around. In the workplace, bullying often looks much different. While screaming, yelling, and cursing at someone certainly constitutes bullying, other lesser-recognized forms of bullying include:

  • Belittling employees
  • Excluding people from meetings and other activities
  • Denying employees the resources or assistance needed to get the job done
  • Spreading nasty rumors about people
  • Ignoring the employee
  • Making dismissive remarks
  • Dishing out unwarranted blame or criticism

Ultimately, anything that can be construed as an act of intimidation is really a form a bullying. And when people feel intimidated, they can’t get their job done effectively. Interestingly, both men and women bully. But the majority of bullying is same-gender harassment, which is a loophole often overlooked in anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies.

Refuse It: If you feel you’re being bullied in any way, simply refuse the attack. In other words, don’t engage the person who is bullying you. Walk away, ignore it, or don’t acknowledge the behavior. Yes, sometimes this is very difficult, especially if someone is yelling at you or pushing your buttons. But engaging with the person in the same manner he or she is attacking you will only spiral the situation out of control. Usually, not engaging the bully and showing that his or her words or actions have no effect will make the person go away.

If the bullying action includes you being ignored or ostracized, you need to take the lead and initiate a conversation with the person. State that you feel you are being ignored and why this behavior is impeding your ability to get the job done. Make sure you focus on the behavior rather than the person. This significantly reduces the chances of the person becoming defensive.

Report It: If you cannot handle the bullying situation yourself, you need to talk to someone who can make a difference. Depending on the situation, this could mean talking with your boss, HR manager, or even a manager in another department. Keep going up the chain of command until you find someone who can intervene on your behalf. If no one within your organization seems willing or able to help, you may want to file a complaint against the bully with your industry’s professional organization (if you have one). Fortunately, almost anything can be worked out if both parties are open to it. You simply need to find someone to act as a moderator if talking one-on-one with the bully isn’t an option.

A Bully-Free Future: With all this said, realize that a leader who is tough or demanding is not necessarily a bully. All bosses have the right and obligation to set and uphold high standards of performance as long as they exercise fairness, respect, and objectivity in their dealings with subordinates and others. Therefore, to differentiate whether your boss is being a bully or simply being tough, check if you or your co-workers are being singled out in a negative or demeaning way. Bullying is often a personal attack; leading in a firm and focused way is not.

The only way to curb workplace bullying is to tackle the issue head on. The more awareness people have of the topic and the more prepared they are to deal with it, the more progress companies will make to end the problem.

Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D. is a healthcare industry executive, public speaker, and author of the forthcoming Turnaround. Through her work, she inspires people to dream big and understand the role personal responsibility has in personal and professional success. In her first book, Power from Within, Hughes shares her “Power Principles for Success” that helped her overcome meager beginnings and achieve professional, community, and personal success. For more information, email danitahughes@edgewatersystems.org.

[From the December 2011/January 2012 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

The At-Home Agent: Drive to Security, Arrive at Flexibility

By Trent Larson

Some companies – especially those that deal with sensitive customer data such as health information or financial data – have shied away from outsourcing their customer contact needs to providers that employ home-based agents. This is despite both the adaptability and cost benefits the model enables. That’s too bad since companies that use home-based agents can gain up to 100 percent more staffing flexibility, as well as reduce the average cost per call by 10 to 15 percent.

Hesitations about adopting this approach typically revolve around companies’ concerns that their data and internal applications may not be safe when home agents operate far from the watchful eyes of call center supervisors. This is a legitimate concern, but trying to run a home-based agent setup without the help of an experienced outsourcer should raise some security concerns as well. Companies have fine-honed their security for brick-and-mortar call centers, but that expertise doesn’t always translate into the virtual agent model. New tools and processes are required that go well beyond shipping out a scrubbed-clean PC to tenured call center staffers whose exemplary service rewards them with the opportunity to do their jobs from home.

Whether by accident – such as when a home-based agent’s unchallenged Web surfing unwittingly opens the door to a virus – or on purpose, PCs unfortunately have a way of not staying in the pure state they start out with. In addition, there have been cases in the past where seemingly trustworthy employees can’t resist the temptation to commit fraud by taking advantage of systems that haven’t been optimally secured.

Keeping It Secure: Making the home agent model work effectively and without risk is something that outsourcers of these services should be very familiar with. It starts with making sure candidates for working at home in customer service positions pass a strict screening process and meet specific home office requirements. The next step is locking down their systems during their working hours, and the final step is being able to immediately remove their access rights if they leave their jobs.

Background checks, of course, are required to ensure that remote agents are trustworthy prospects, but it’s equally important to regularly confirm that those hired actually are the ones who log into the system from the place where they say they’ll be working. To that end, a two-factor authentication is a requirement, and in some cases – especially the most sensitive ones – make that three. Voice biometrics, for example, is an emerging and unique way that those of us at West at Home are adding to our protection, which also include unique log-ins and passwords for home agents.

The heart of securing home agent installations, however, is at the level of the desktop itself. Significant technical applications are available to protect sensitive data, notes CB Richard Ellis in its spring 2009 report, Exploring the Virtual Workplace with Home Agents. Adding layers of security at the desktop is one of them, taking protection to a completely new level that is far beyond what is generally required in brick-and-mortar call center sites.

The PC Lockdown: In an intelligently crafted home-based agent solution, agents shouldn’t be allowed access to the tools required to do their job unless they are specifically scheduled to be on the job. Once their shift ends, home agents must be automatically logged off the system.

In a recent report on outsourced home agents, Datamonitor noted that security would remain a key differentiator for determining the success of a vendor’s home agent business. Some providers of work-at-home solutions feel that it’s enough to simply restrict access to specific sites or processes.

However, we think the smarter approach is to give access only to what agents require to do their jobs efficiently. That’s why we’ve developed a program that can be downloaded and executed to run at the start of each agent session. It checks first to ensure it is operating in an approved environment and then loads a new desktop image that removes agent access to everything from icons and right-click menus to the Windows task manager and various hotkeys that can start and stop nonauthorized programs. The start menu in Windows is replaced with our own proprietary menu, and we block all but the ports that the home agents require to connect to the applications they need to use. Any attempts to circumvent the firewalls are also blocked.

As a result of this software, home-based agents can access the programs and websites that are authorized for use on our customers’ programs. At the same time, the risk that they might accidentally or with intent go somewhere or do something they shouldn’t is removed for the duration of their work session. They have zero rights on the new desktop. For example, they are not allowed to save information, they are not allowed to copy and paste, print a screen, or plug an external device into a USB port. Rogue applications can’t attack while home agents are in call-taking mode either, as we’re constantly checking for the presence of these programs. Once agents come out of call-taking mode, the program self-deletes, leaving no footprint.

Additionally, we think it’s important that security processes be transparent to home agents. It’s a productivity bust if they have to spend their time working through a maze of log-ins or other procedures in order to be able to do their jobs.

It’s completely normal to have concerns about how to secure something (the PC) – and someone (the home-based agent) – you can’t see, but that shouldn’t keep you from exploring your options for sourcing a home-based agent workforce that has the ability to scale up or down to your needs and to do it in a cost-efficient way. The only thing you should fear is going with a provider that can’t satisfy your security concerns.

Trent Larson is vice president of product development for West at Home, a service from West Corporation, provider of outsourced communication solutions.

[From the October/November 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

You Can’t Always Get What You Want… or Can You?

By Jim Ball

A recent Accenture survey found that nearly 50 percent of healthcare customers are willing to pay more for quality customer service. Yes, you heard it right. Consumers are looking for and demanding quality customer service from their healthcare insurers. Quality and service are fast becoming the criteria that determine success.

What Customers Are Looking For: For most traditional call centers, the only option to reduce overhead is to minimize the one-to-one customer experience by increasing the use of technology. However, the Accenture survey shows that increased use of IVRs, driving members to use Web self-service platforms, and other non-voice options result in increased customer dissatisfaction.

Customers are frustrated with long hold times, unfriendly or unhelpful representatives, and having to repeat information. New technologies, like automated phone attendants and live online chat help, have made it faster and simpler for customers to resolve issues. But, 44 percent don’t believe these advances have improved the level of service within the past five years.

According to the survey, health insurers are failing at the most critical task, providing the personalized experience that customers crave. The gap between customer expectations and insurer performance measured as much as 50 percentage points. Respondents said it is critical that representatives are knowledgeable and well-informed, available outside of standard business hours, quick to reach and solve problems, and able to deal with issues independently. Unfortunately, less than half of customers are satisfied with their insurers’ current ability to meet these expectations.

Reality Collides with Service: Today’s reality is based on slashed budgets and increased service demands, which seem like a no-win scenario. The expectation is “do more with less.” The question is, how? The time is ripe for innovative “out of the box” or “out of the center” solutions that meet or exceed quality, service, performance, and cost. In response, healthcare companies are turning to outsourced employee-based virtual work at -home solutions to provide everything they and their customers need and expect.

The Virtual Solution: Market research from Frost & Sullivan and Datamonitor shows that healthcare organizations currently outsource more than 30,000 (or 20 percent) of their call center agent positions. By 2013, the outsourced figure is expected to exceed 42,000 positions. Due to privacy concerns and regulatory barriers, nearly 75 percent of these outsourced positions will be based in the U.S.

Historically, large brick-and-mortar facilities have been used, but more companies are looking outside of that box for a solution that provides higher quality and performance. More than one-half of healthcare organizations plan to dramatically increase their deployment of home-based professionals because the virtual model offers benefits not available inside their current “brick-and-mortar box,” such as:

  • Recruiting without boundaries: Recruiting from a large nationwide talent pool enables access to the top two or three percent of customer service professionals.
  • More experienced and qualified workforce: The typical work at-home employee has 15 to 20 years of experience, which decreases time to competency and significantly improves customer satisfaction and performance metrics.
  • Lower operating costs: A scalable virtual workforce offers the ability to ramp up and launch approximately 75 percent faster. Sophisticated virtual workforce management tools allow scheduling in 15-minute intervals, allowing for real-time staffing adjustments to accurately match changing call volumes.
  • Improved operational efficiency: Virtual work at-home solutions have proven to be 30 to 40 percent more efficient. Call metrics consistently perform within the top two metrics.

Case Study: How the virtual employee-based at-home solution is solving one organization’s needs:

The Company:The company is a multi-billion dollar global health services organization dedicated to helping people improve their health, well-being, and sense of security. Its subsidiaries provide an integrated suite of health services, including medical, dental, behavioral health, pharmacy, and vision care. Additionally, they provide group life, accident, and disability insurance. The company employs over 30,000 individuals, maintains sales capability in 30 countries, and has approximately 66 million customer relationships worldwide.

Business Challenge:The company was extremely interested in the employee-based virtual at-home model as an alternative to their current brick-and-mortar approach. They wanted to see how it worked and whether or not it could be a viable alternative for their business. “To get their feet wet,” the program started small to see how the virtual work at-home employee model compared to its own centers.

Originally, the project encompassed voice only calls with 50 full-time employees beginning in March 2010. The sole purpose was to handle overflow volume for their existing traditional call center facilities with inquiries about dental claims. There were two call types and two types of callers. The pilot group took calls from providers, and members split 50/50 for eligibility and claims inquiries.

Success Strategy: The employee-based virtual work at-home model won – without trouble. Service exceeded all expectations. The ability to recruit, hire, train, launch, and manage the program in a 100 percent virtual environment provided a more educated, mature workforce. Employees were experienced in the healthcare industry, which reduced time to competency and increasing first call resolution.

By developing the philosophy of “next call resolution,” focus is placed on answering all of the caller’s immediate questions, as well as anticipating any additional questions. This resulted in fewer repeat calls, as well as reduced costs for the company and less frustration for the caller. Because of this quality experience, the client restructured the way they handle calls.

Originally the client only wanted to meet their unrealized customer satisfaction goal of 3.75 (based on a scale of 1 to 5) they had set for their own brick-and-mortar operation. Instead, they were able to increase satisfaction to 4.57 within the first month, delivering a one-to-one personal experience. Because of this effective solution, the program rapidly expanded to handle the majority of calls for eligibility and dental claims from both members and providers. By the end of the year, the program expects to handle 50 percent of their calls for medical claims, in addition to the existing calls for dental claims from both members and providers. The program will employ over 200 full-time virtual at-home employees.

Will an Employee-Based Virtual At-Home Model Work for You? As more companies are looking for innovative solutions to reduce operating costs, they are moving toward the virtual home-based employee model. These professionals handle more complex call types and focus on productive customer interactions. The entire employee lifecycle can all be conducted within the virtual environment. It is because of this seamless integration that allows these professionals to be an invisible extension of the organization, and it shows in performance results. As you are evaluating next year’s budget and expenses, you might want to take a closer look at the virtual at-home employee model to see if it can help you do the “impossible.” Experience shows that you can get what you want and what your customers expect.

Jim Ball is one of the pioneers of the work at-home employee-based virtual call center model and served as co-founder of Alpine Access in 1998. He currently serves as a consultant and works with the senior management team as the company expands to offer services in new lines of business.

[From the October/November 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

A Return to Civility

By Danita Johnson Hughes

Sometimes you might wonder if we truly live in a civilized society. It seems that rude and discourteous behavior is on the rise. The modern workplace can be an incubator for such incivility if left unchecked.

Inside and outside the workplace – including the healthcare industry in which I work – we see a rash of disrespectful, discourteous, and rude behavior. Angry commuters use their vehicles to take out their aggressions and deliberately cut others off in traffic. Customer service has diminished to the point where most would prefer to use the impersonal ATM machine than face an unhappy bank teller. Malicious political campaigns and tactics draw out the worst in even the most respected individuals. Children face tremendous fear and stress from bullies at school. The examples of an uncivilized society are too numerous to recount, and the workplace is a microcosm of society.

The effect of such destructive behavior can be more psychologically damaging than open forms of abuse, such as harassment and violence. From a business and leadership perspective, the negative behavior happening outside of the workplace is trickling in – affecting employee loyalty, organizational commitment, and overall productivity. The pressures of everyday life can take their toll on employees who are already working under a great deal of stress. Consequently, tempers get frayed, and patience and tolerance are thrown out the window.

It’s time for a change. But, understanding precedes change. What typically leads to uncivil behavior is a disagreement. Someone wants to be right, better, or stronger. Someone wants to be heard. Sadly, that attitude often leads to a win-lose outcome.

As a leader, the best first step is to realize that conflict is a vital and necessary part of organizational success. Properly facilitated, disagreements lead to healthy, constructive conversations that translate into creativity, innovation, and a shared sense of accomplishment.

Encouraging civility in the workplace promotes a low stress work environment and improves employee morale. It also helps to mitigate employee dissatisfaction that often results in such things as civil rights complaints and lawsuits. The economic impact related to litigation, turnover, productivity, and customer dissatisfaction can be devastating to an organization.

Some signs of an organization infected with incivility include:

  • Higher than normal employee turnover
  • A large number of employee grievances and complaints
  • Lost work time by employees calling in sick
  • Increased consumer complaints
  • Diminished productivity in terms of quality and quantity of work
  • Cultural and communications barriers
  • Lack of confidence in leadership
  • Inability to adapt effectively to change
  • Lack of individual accountability

Civility is essential to defining the culture and establishing a foundation of proper business behavior. It is a value that successful organizations strive to achieve.

To be able to build and maintain itself as a viable entity capable of reaching its full potential, an organization must be able to manage its interpersonal relationships in a manner that promotes positive interactions that are civil and respectful. This is not an easy task considering the myriad personalities and individual circumstance that affect workplace interactions. However, it can be accomplished with leadership commitment to fostering positive and meaningful interactions among employees.

Creating a civil workplace boils down to three basic principles: respect, restraint, and refinement.

  • Respect is inherent in the belief that although another person’s beliefs may be different from yours, you should still honor their viewpoint and accord the other person due consideration. Taking someone’s feelings, ideas, and preferences into consideration indicates that you take them seriously and that their position has worth and value, even if contrary to your own. In so doing, you validate the other person’s individuality and right to a differing opinion. Respect is the most important step in building a relationship and reducing the potential for conflict. In an atmosphere of mutual respect, goals and concessions become easier to attain.
  • Restraint is simply a matter of exercising personal self-control at all times. Therefore, you should know your triggers. Be aware of how your words and actions affect other people. Being aware of the things that make you angry or upset helps you to monitor and manage your reaction. Think before you act. Remember, you may not be able to control the things others say or do, but you can control your response.
  • Refinement is the quest for continual cultivation and improvement of relationships in the workplace. Just as the process of continual quality improvement (CQI) has come to be known as a means to improve performance and increase efficiency in an organization, refinement of thought, ways of expressing those thoughts, and the practice of continuously exercising appropriate decorum when relating to others can go a long way towards enhancing workplace civility. Improving and strengthening relationships requires effort and commitment.

Achieving civility in the workplace requires the involvement of every employee from the top down. Going to work in an environment with backbiting, rude employee behavior, and the constant complaining that many are subjected to everyday is certainly not ideal. However, making the commitment to achieving and sustaining civility can be the key to a successful and thriving organization with high employee morale.

As a leader, you can and should make workplace civility a priority in your business by insisting that all employees exercise these practical ideas:

  • Pursue understanding first.
  • Listen and respect other opinions.
  • Seek common ground, even if it’s to agree to disagree.
  • Tune into what’s happening around you; observe the climate.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions and the consequences of those actions.
  • Offer and willingly accept constructive feedback.

Leaders are called to promote a safe and respectful workplace. That means insisting on the practice of civility and common courtesy. It starts with you. Take time to assess your own behaviors. Do you gossip or spread rumors? Have you ever raised your voice to make a point? Are you communicating important information to your team or withholding information they need? Set an expectation of workplace civility by “walking the talk” and being the change you want to see.

Danita Johnson Hughes, Ph.D. is a healthcare industry executive, public speaker, and author of the forthcoming Turnaround. Through her work, she inspires people to dream big and understand the role of personal responsibility in personal and professional success. In her first book, Power from Within, Danita shares her “Power Principles for Success” that helped her overcome meager beginnings and achieve professional, community, and personal success.

[From the February/March 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]