Tag Archives: agent management articles

Develop an Ideal Agent Schedule to Maximize Call Center Efficiency and Effectiveness

For Optimum Results Schedule Agents to Meet Projected Call Traffic

 By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Call centers rely on people—that is, agents—to meet the needs of callers. This requires developing an ideal agent schedule.

Having too many agents results in idle time, with staff on the clock but without enough work to do. This bloats operational costs. From a theoretical standpoint, an overstaffed call center should provide a high level of service, but this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes an overstaffed call center grows lackadaisical and provides poor service.

The opposite of overstaffing is not having enough agents. Not only does this cause agent burnout, but it also lengthens hold times and lowers service levels.

The key is to schedule the appropriate number of agents throughout the day to provide a suitable level of service at an acceptable cost. This minimizes complaints from both callers and agents.

Consider these key points when developing an optimum agent schedule.

Balance Staff Needs with Patient Needs

If your call center agents work eight-hour shifts, I guarantee your schedule needs work. Though their average workload and service level may be acceptable, most of the day they will swing from either working too hard to not having enough to do.

This means moving away from eight-hour shifts and scheduling staff to work when you need them. This may result in shorter shifts or longer shifts. To accomplish this, you’ll need a mixture of full-time and part-time employees, with part timers usually being predominant. This could be a huge culture shift.

Analyze Small Time Increments

If you track call traffic by the day, your scope is too large. One hour is the longest increment you should consider, but quarter hour segments are better, and some call centers look at six-minute increments (a tenth of an hour), or even less. When you analyze traffic in this granular fashion, you’ll see predictable rises and dips throughout the day. Overlay your shifts to cover these peaks and miss the valleys.

Consider Historical Data

In most cases the call traffic from one week will approximate the traffic for the following week. Averaging several consecutive weeks produces a more accurate projection. You can also look at traffic from one year ago if you have seasonal fluctuations. Last, to staff for a holiday, consider the historical traffic from that holiday last year or other comparable days. This lets you project traffic demands and develop an accurate agent schedule.

Pursue Incremental Improvement

Hoping to develop one agent schedule that you can copy each week isn’t realistic. Even if traffic doesn’t change much, you’ll still need to fine-tune it to best align your agents’ availability with your patients’ calling patterns. Also, most call center traffic trends up or down from one season to the next. Be sure to adjust for that.


Finding your ideal agent schedule is part art and part science. It’s a time-consuming task, but the results of having an ideally staffed call center are worth the effort.

 Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

Improve the Way You Manage Patient Calls


By Charu Raheja, Ph.D.

As a practice manager or doctor, managing patient calls effectively is critical in ensuring high-quality, well-coordinated care for every patient. The first step is to make sure the people answering your phones triage patients efficiently and effectively. Establishing a consistent nurse triage system will improve the way you manage patient calls, improve patient satisfaction, and decrease unnecessary medical expenses. Triage nurses can direct patients to the appropriate care for their symptoms and give patients the peace of mind that their questions and concerns are being answered.

The benefits of nurse triage include better patient access, coordinated care, and cost savings. In addition, it gives patients better access to providers even if they are not seeking emergency care. This can improve patient satisfaction, prevent future complications, and allow providers to educate patients.

With the evolution of new technology there are several cost-effective options available for nurse triage services. We will detail three options available for setting up a nurse advice line:

1. Do it Yourself In-house: Start Your Own Call Center: Starting your own call center involves setting up the call center infrastructure. The requirements depend on the scale and number of calls received. For daytime calls, many practices choose to have their own staff nurses take calls using daytime triage protocols.

These protocols are available in book form or in electronic format. For night calls, the requirements include hiring an experienced call center manager, purchasing triage software for night-time protocols, and hiring clinical and non-clinical staff to answer the phones and handle patient calls.

Pro: Having your own system gives your staff the flexibility to perform multiple tasks in addition to triage, such as physician referrals, scheduling, disease management, class registration, and surveys.

Con: Setting up a call center requires a high initial investment. It is labor intensive for the nursing department, and it requires human resources and IT involvement. Moreover, there are significant differences in terms of hardware requirements and capabilities with various software programs, so it is important to do your research and speak with a variety of vendors. This is a long-term project with a slow return on investment.

The organizations most likely to succeed with this approach are larger organizations with high call volumes, who expect to handle over 50,000 triage calls a year. These companies are the right fit because they already have some call center infrastructure and they just need to add to it. The high call volume also allows the center to use nurses’ time efficiently.

2. Outsource to a Nurse Triage Center: If the thought of setting up your own call center seems too daunting, you could use an outside vendor for your patient calls. The vendor provides access to a call center infrastructure that patients can call to access a nurse when they have clinical questions or concerns.

Pro: This option has a relatively low start-up cost. Your practice would not need to train nursing staff, and there is no need for human resources and IT staff. Since the outside vendor is already taking calls, startup is quick, and there is an immediate return on investment (ROI). In addition, vendors may have more experience and expertise in the niche area of triage, resulting in better care for your patients.

Con: When outsourcing your patient calls, you will have less direct control over the nurses and some nurse triage vendors cannot integrate with electronic medical records (EMR).

For the best outcome, be careful about interviewing vendors and make sure you are comfortable with them. In addition, costs may vary significantly depending on the vendor and while you “get what you pay for” you get less from some than others. Still, assuming you have done your homework in interviewing and discussing costs, outsourcing can be a good option for small to medium size practices.

3. Use a Combination of In-house and Outsourced Services: In this model an organization uses its own nurse triage software and nurses during high call volumes and outsources the triage to a service during low call volumes. This combination can be accomplished seamlessly with the call center technology, integration engines, and communication platforms available today.

Pro: A combined model can prove to be a way to improve services and decrease costs. Most triage centers lose money when the call volume is low because nurses are sitting idle waiting for phone calls. By outsourcing during those low volume times, the call center can continue to provide service at a reduced cost.

Your organization can continue to provide the same level or increased levels of service and at the same time decrease your operating costs to work within a given budget. It also allows organizations to keep their current infrastructure and resources. Under this option, your practice may also be able to expand into other areas of call center work to increase revenues.

Con: Just as in the previous option, it is important to take time to find the right partner with the technology and service-level knowledge to implement a combined model. There can be an interruption in patient care if their system does not align with yours.

This model is best for organizations that have some existing nurse triage infrastructure and face budget cuts. Physicians also have their own practice-specific needs, and those requests must be followed by both parties consistently. Therefore, it is crucial to select your partner carefully. Make sure you interview and discuss your software and services with your partner before making a commitment.

Each patient encounter starts with a phone call. Make sure your nurse triage service, whether in-house, outsourced, or a combination, is a seamless experience for your patient.

It is important to examine options for managing patient calls and find the solution and product that aligns with your needs.


Charu Raheja, Ph.D., is the CEO of TriageLogic a leading provider of quality, affordable triage solutions, including comprehensive after-hours medical call center software, day time triage protocol software, and nurse triage on call. Customers include both institutional and private practices. If your hospital or practice is looking for information on setting up a nurse triage service, contact TriageLogic to get a quote or set up a demo.


Seven Guidelines for Engaging and Accommodating Older Staff

By Ruth W. Crocker

Mary loved her job as a recreational therapist in a skilled nursing facility. Her co-workers marveled at her ability to assess the needs of residents and propose exactly the right activity for a patient recovering from a brain injury, stroke, or other trauma. Her thirty years of experience in all manner of expressive arts therapies helped her serve her patients well. She worked efficiently and effectively with quiet compassion.

And then came the inevitable hours of paperwork. For Mary, writing long detailed notes on medical charts was a normal part of her day. But she wasn’t as speedy as she once was, and documentation requirements were increasing. While physicians’ notes are usually transcribed from a dictated recording, medical support staff still struggle through pages of writing by hand in many facilities.

Her immediate supervisor, fifteen years her junior, pushed her to speed up. Mary felt stressed and unable to cope with the continuing pressure. After starting to dread her job and feeling like she was getting worse instead of better, she applied for and received a medical leave of absence. Was this the best solution for Mary and her employer? Probably not.

Mary is one of many valuable older workers who could have stayed productive on the job with some modifications in her work environment. Employers today are facing the fact that we need to keep our older workforce in place longer, and we need to help them stay healthy. Baby boomers make up about one-third of the U.S. workforce, and for the first time in several generations, there are not enough younger workers to replace them. Key industries, especially those that rely on workers with proven performance, knowledge, skills, and self-confidence, will be forced by labor shortages to rethink employee retention and how best to ensure health and safety by adjusting equipment and the work environment.

There are many fears and myths about getting old in our culture, but the reality is that people are living longer and healthier and can remain robust contributors to the workforce much longer than any previous generation. While age does not determine fitness, there are predictable changes that occur with age and can be accommodated.

The following are guidelines for employers who want to maximize the working environment for their most valuable asset: the reliable, responsible, loyal, conscientious, co-operative, collaborative, and wise older worker.

  1. Move Around: Maintaining a stationary position for a long time is tiring – especially standing, which puts pressure on blood vessels. Repeated and prolonged static work can be harder on the body than dynamic work. Provide opportunities to change posture or position during the workday. Adjust work surfaces to encourage position changes.
  2. Sit Smart: Sitting is generally good if chairs are well designed and adjustable. To avoid the dangers of prolonged sitting (weakened abdominal muscles, digestion and breathing problems, and damage to spinal discs), provide training on sitting properly and permit opportunities to walk about and stretch.
  3. Lift Properly: Provide appropriate equipment for assisting in any type of lifting. Workers of all ages are vulnerable to injury by improper lifting techniques and lifting objects that are too heavy. Teach them to decrease the need to twist the trunk of the body during lifting, using leg strength rather than leaning over and placing the load as close to the body as possible.
  4. Provide Right-Sized Tools: Because handgrip strength gradually decreases as we get older, the right grip or handle becomes important. Smaller handles become more difficult to use. Provide tools and controls with user-friendly handles.
  5. Add Light: Light reaching the retina of the eye declines by as much as 75 percent from age twenty to fifty. Improved lighting helps all workers. Problems with adjusting to lighting contrasts can be improved by ensuring that the level of lighting in the room is similar to the light level on computer screens in the environment. Reduce glare by using low or non-glare computer screens.
  6. Reduce Noise: Gradual, age-related hearing loss and decreased ability to hear high-pitched sounds can be addressed by installing sound-absorbing material to neutralize sound and minimizing air-conditioning noise.
  7. Encourage Fitness: Offer incentives to encourage people to take part in fitness classes and quit-smoking campaigns. Older workers are more vulnerable to the possibility of sudden-onset and lasting health problems, especially if they are unfit and overweight.

Conclusion: The previous tradition of older supervisors and younger workers has changed, especially where workers are opting to stay on the job longer. It is important that younger supervisors be aware of different generational values and attitudes; they must avoid adopting a “child-to-parent” attitude toward an older worker. At the same time, treat older workers with the same requirements for performance and safety issues.

Whether older or younger, each individual is different. In Mary’s case, her facility eventually adopted a voice-activated recording system, which helped staff at all levels of the organization to get their notes written in a timely manner.

Businesses can improve their employee practices by having supervisors attend workshops on aging and the workforce. Talk to other employers who have successful experiences with hiring older employees and encourage employee feedback on aging issues by surveying your employees and listening to their concerns and suggestions. Hiring and retaining older workers can help your organization thrive.

Ruth W Crocker

Ruth W. Crocker, PhD, is an author, writing consultant, and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. She is writer-in-residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, Connecticut, where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories.

[From the Dec 2014/Jan 2015 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Ten Traits Employees Want in Their Bosses

By DeEtta Jones

Do you ever feel overwhelmed as a manager? Being overburdened by the responsibility of having to figure out what others want and need of you is a feeling shared among leaders. Fortunately, there is a best practice for obtaining just the kind of information needed to increase your leadership effectiveness – ask those who report to you what they want.

The following ten traits have emerged when frontline staff, supervisors, and middle managers have been asked to describe the traits they look for in a boss. As you read through this wish list, think about the kind of boss you are, the kind of boss you want to be, and what you look for in a good boss.

Employees want bosses who are:

  1. Innovative: Good bosses have good ideas, but their role in innovation is more as a facilitator than a consummate mastermind. They are not threatened by their employees’ talent, and they cultivate a working environment that allows each person’s creativity to come forward. They facilitate innovation.
  2. Coaches: Good bosses provide important guidance that helps employees see how their work is contributing to the larger goals of the organization. They help employees build confidence by giving stretch assignments that require demonstration of new skills and right-sized risk. Then they provide feedback that allows needed course corrections to be made early enough to avoid a major failure. When employees do fail, good bosses encourage reflection of what was learned that can be applied to future endeavors.
  3. Caring: Good bosses listen to their employees and show an interest in their opinions. They provide opportunities to talk openly, showing interest in their employees’ feedback. They encourage personal and professional growth, sometimes by giving access to resources and sometimes by removing barriers.
  4. Strategic: Good bosses can make hard choices and have the finesse needed to get people behind even unpopular decisions. They are able to secure resources for important initiatives that are worth pursuing. They use analytical frameworks for guiding change, promoting transparent processes, and enhancing communication. Strategic bosses are decisive but not closed-minded or dogmatic. Once a decision has been made, they stick with it and avoid changing directions quickly or sending mixed messages.
  5. Visionary: Good bosses are also visionary managers, able to clearly see and build a commitment toward a compelling future state. They articulate a sense of direction, map out the path, and shepherd the process.
  6. Demonstrate Trustworthiness: A good boss is genuine, has integrity, and behaves with consistency according to his or her word and values. Employees trust bosses they know to be intelligent, capable, and having a record of acting in their best interests. They give, receive, and invite feedback that is affirmative and constructive. They are fully aware of their scope of power in the organization and in their relationship with employees. They know how an off-handed comment or unpleasant glance may ruin someone’s entire weekend.
  7. Accessible and Adaptable: Good bosses are able to balance how they give support and direction with the freedom employees need to do their work, acknowledging the level of experience and expertise over his or her domain. They understand that each employee comes to the workplace with unique experiences, needs, and cultural lenses that require individualized attention and support; they can adapt their own style to ensure effective communication and levels of productivity.
  8. Passionate: A good boss is zealous, particularly about the vision and mission of the organization, the people they work with, and the customers who use their products and services. They are the first to roll up their sleeves to contribute, and they model the level of motivation and quality required for the achievement of organizational goals. They help employees stay connected to their own passion by encouraging the sharing of ideas and then helping to shape them to fit within and be supported by the larger organization.
  9. Champions: People want to know that the person they report to is on their side, even when mistakes are made. Champions look for opportunities to catch their employees doing a good job and go out of their way to point it out. They don’t take the credit for their employees’ work, and they don’t blame them when things go wrong. They “influence up” by being a conduit between their employees and higher-level decision makers, often helping their employees develop the strategies needed to take an idea to the top of the organization.
  10. Fun: Good bosses are willing to laugh, and they value a work environment that encourages meaningful relationships between colleagues. They inspire employees by making the connection between head and heart about the importance of their work and value to the company.

Reflect on this list and identify the qualities you are modeling. Think about where there is room for growth in your leadership practice – growth that will lead to increased levels of motivation and engagement. Finally, begin today by encouraging your employees to share their own needs, allowing for timely adjustments.

Remember, leadership is a journey. Bon voyage!

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is a leadership strategist, social justice advocate, and author. She has more than twenty years of experience working with leaders and teams in some of the world’s most prominent universities and corporations. Her multidimensional background and fresh perspective leaves clients feeling empowered to take on some of the major organizational and workforce challenges of our times. For more information, visit www.deettajones.com.

[From the Dec 2014/Jan 2015 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

A Dozen Reasons Why Employee Training Fails

By John Tschohl

Most of the time and money companies spend on training is wasted; this includes call centers. This is because the majority of organizations use outdated training ideas and boring training methods. Training that is poorly presented goes in one ear and out the other. It is no wonder employees do not change their attitudes or behaviors after they attend a badly presented training session.

After working in the training field for forty years on six continents, I have seen twelve reasons why group training fails:

1) Large groups: You can’t have a good group discussion if too many people are in the room. Try to limit training sessions so everyone has a chance to participate. If the group size is too large, most people will not participate and will not change their behaviors or learn new skills.

2) A small number of people dominate the conversation: It is natural for three people to speak up while everyone else stays silent in a group. Facilitators must call on everyone in the room to participate. If people don’t talk, they won’t buy into the training goals.

3) Stupid games: People don’t like role-playing games. Games and exercises have to correlate with something that builds success as a team. People need to be actively involved in the exercise.

4) Complicated training materials: If the material is not easily understood, it will not be implemented. Make sure the information is easily comprehended. Test the material on several small groups. Make adjustments and then roll out the final version to the entire organization.

5) Facilitator dominated: Facilitators should be seen and seldom heard. They should steer the conversation, but they should not dominate the discussion. They should ask leading questions of the participants and make sure everyone talks at some time. The facilitator is a juggler. He or she needs to keep the conversation going. The more discussion there is, the more likely attitudes and behaviors will improve.

6) Lectures: Remember how you fell asleep when boring professors spoke in college? Your agents are no different. Lectures are not an effective way to get people to change their attitudes and beliefs.

7) Irrelevant information: If the material is not relevant to their jobs, people will not accept the information. They want ideas they can use immediately.

8) Bad physical environment: Learning can’t take place if people are not comfortable. Invest in a room that looks pleasant and professional. It sounds basic, but make sure the room is well heated, or cooled, and has comfortable seats. Offer refreshments. Add audio and video presentation equipment. Make sure there aren’t any outside distractions, such as noise.

9) Not offering enough training sessions: If training isn’t offered regularly, skills won’t be learned, and attitudes will not change. Consider offering training every four months. Companies need to reinforce and refresh training every few months with something new. A one-shot program will have one-shot results.

10) Repeating the same training programs and materials: A child can watch the same program fifty times, but an adult can’t watch the same training materials twice. Companies need to bring in new trainers who have new information and different teaching styles. Companies should also invest in new training materials to spice things up.

11) Not having supplemental training materials: People learn by using a variety of techniques. Good training techniques require that discussions be supplemented with videos and reading materials that can reinforce the message. The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is even more relevant in today’s video age.

12) Not addressing younger people’s learning styles: The vast majority of workers are young people, especially at entry-level positions. They learn differently than previous generations, and they get bored easily. Look at the games they play on their phones. They want to be entertained. If the training isn’t entertaining, you lose the participation.

Training costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. Labor is your single biggest cost. If the listening switch for participants is off, you waste all your money. If you do it right, then training is a wise investment. If you make mistakes, it will hurt your organization and staff.

It’s unlikely your call center training makes all of these mistakes, but committing even one or two of these errors will hamper results. Pick one of these twelve items to fix in your training program – and start today.

John Tschohl, president, Service Quality Institute – described by Time and Entrepreneur magazines as a customer service guru and service strategist – presents strategic keynote speeches to companies worldwide. He is the author of Empowerment, A Way of Life. Contact him at john@servicequality.com or www.customer-service.com.

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

Continuing Education for Nurse Triage Professionals and Their Patients

By Charu G. Raheja, PhD, and Ravi Raheja, MD

Healthcare is constantly changing, and advances in telemedicine are a prime example of how far healthcare has evolved over the last decade. Research findings, new laws and regulations, and emerging technologies all mean that continuing education is important in the nurse triage field.

Nurse triage and call center professionals recognize the importance of education and staying current on healthcare policies and protocols. Conferences are a great way to learn and network, but financial and time constraints limit the number of people who can attend these events. Publications such as AnswerStat are a great way to get information on current trends in call centers as well as information about call center products and services. In addition, clinical protocol writers Dr. Bart Schmitt and Dr. David Thompson provide periodic clinical updates on nurse triage, which are also a great resource.

Advances in technology have made learning more accessible. In addition to print material and in-class learning, online education is becoming more prominent. Many medical call centers, healthcare facilities, hospitals, and clinics allow their employees to utilize online learning resources during downtime. Online learning resources provide flexibility in continuing education because, rather than being restricted to the confines of a classroom or attending a conference, healthcare professionals can access learning material according to their own schedules. Many of the online learning resources are affordable or free. Another convenient feature is the ability to work at your own pace or pause the course as needed.

While education is important for medical professionals, it is also beneficial for patients. In telehealth, callers are usually under stress, especially if they are calling for a loved one. The caller may be distracted and worried when speaking to a nurse on the telephone and may not remember the information provided by the nurse once the call has ended.

Call centers need to consider ways to provide care advice and instructions to ensure that patients have access to the correct follow-up information after they talk to a triage nurse. By default, many patients resort to publicly available information through a Web search. However, the information they find is unfiltered and not always from reliable sources. Patients can be told where to find the information, but that requires a certain degree of sophistication and motivation from them, in addition to a database of resources for the nurses in the call center.

This year, Schmitt and Thompson made a new valuable resource available to call centers that use their protocols: the Schmitt-Thompson After Care Instructions. There are 147 pediatric and 100 adult symptom-based care instructions to send to patients just after talking to a nurse. This resource can be faxed or emailed, and it provides patients with focused and reliable instructions based on the reason for their call. Rather than struggling to remember or write down every detail the nurse offers over the phone, the patient can refer to documented instructions provided through email.

Healthcare is a part of our rapidly evolving digital world, and continuing education is beneficial for both medical professionals and patients. It has become increasingly important to use these technological advances to our advantage, and the newest electronic education resources help make the nurse triage professional’s job more effective and efficient.

Charu G. Raheja, PhD, is the CEO and chair of TriageLogic; Ravi Raheja, MD, is the COO and medical director of TriageLogic. TriageLogic is a URAC-accredited company offering Web-based telephone triage software and nurse triage services. With almost ten years of service, TriageLogic has provided triage solutions to over 7,000 doctors. Triage logic recently started an online Triage Learning Center, which covers some of the features discussed in this article. Please visit triagelogic.com for more information.

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

Four Tips to Fast-Track Agent Onboarding

By Anna Convery

Healthcare companies are transitioning from a “let’s wait and see what happens” mindset to the definitive reality of and associated preparations for the new healthcare system brought forth by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Organizations are evaluating and assimilating these changes as new laws come into effect. There is an enormous amount of complexity surrounding the ACA from all perspectives – government, business, and citizens.

With all of the confusion and misinformation surrounding the ACA, the contact center is taking on an increasingly important role as the primary knowledge resource for many healthcare organizations. There are millions of people being added to the system, many of them previously uninsured with little to no knowledge of how the system works.

Pharmaceutical, hospital, health insurance, and medical services companies that span this massive industry are relying on the contact center to serve as the front line for the many questions related to the ACA, its many complexities, and its evolving policies and laws. While a number of these companies have been able to set up self-service channels such as Web and online portals to handle the tremendous influx of inquiries, the number of calls into many contact centers has skyrocketed. In response, healthcare organizations are rapidly increasing staffing levels to handle the high volume of calls to their service centers.

As healthcare companies add significant numbers of new contact center agents, it is critical that they have a strategic plan for fast-tracking these new employees so they are trained in the most efficient and effective way possible. Though this is not easily done, here are four ideas to consider for fast-tracking agents so that they have the training and tools available to deliver a gold-standard service experience.

1) Optimize the Desktop: Even before the ACA emerged, healthcare organizations struggled with agent onboarding. Much of this was attributed to desktop complexity. Most healthcare contact center agents are required to work in multiple disparate applications and systems to perform basic functions, like locating policy information, state regulations, or other mission-critical data. From a training perspective, requiring agents to learn numerous different back-end systems that are disconnected and non-intuitive drives up training time. As a result, the agent spends more time in training on each system and is not on the floor answering calls.

How can you simplify the desktop and make the interaction between the agent and member a more pleasant and efficient experience? Consider an agile desktop solution that aggregates all of the key policy information into a single view. This allows you to continue to use your legacy systems, while simplifying the user interface and information presented to the agent. Agents can spend less time navigating systems and more time answering callers’ questions. Eliminating system complexity and simplifying worker processes enables agents to work smarter, engage more effectively, and have the right information at the right time, transforming the customer interaction and transaction at the desktop.

2) Use Intelligent Cross-Training: Everyone has to start somewhere, and most agents start by handling the most basic types of inquiries. However, there are often opportunities to expand the skill set of these tier-one agents by implementing process automations that intelligently guide newer agents through more complex processes. The alternative is to have tier-one agents handle only the most basic of inquiries and then transfer everything else to an escalated, tier-two group or a back office. This common practice increases transaction volumes and significantly increases the elapsed time for transactions. Instead, cross-train tier-one agents and use intelligent guidance to usher them step-by-step through the more complex processes.

One related point is that as new ACA regulations are mandated, contact centers must be compliant to these standards. Intelligent guidance can be used to help healthcare insurance contact centers maintain compliance with new ACA regulations by enforcing adherence to new processes immediately after they are introduced.

3) Be Agile When Change Occurs: Regardless of the amount of planning and preparation, there are still many uncertainties related to the ACA that force companies to be alert for change at all times. With each new regulation, contact centers must be prepared adapt their systems to provide agents with the tools they need to either communicate or capture accurate information. The key to success is providing agents with the resources and information needed to accurately and quickly respond to inquiries. Using intelligent taskbars that integrate to back-end systems to capture contact information or automating copy-and-paste tasks from system to system make agents more efficient during the call, as well as automating post-call notes to eliminate time-consuming wrap-up.

When changes need to be made to the back-end systems, the intelligent taskbar can still maintain its familiar look and feel for the agent. In this manner, new regulations and procedures can be easily assimilated without requiring wholesale changes to existing technology infrastructure or additional agent retraining.  

4) Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Onboarding new agents is time-consuming and costly, so once you have trained them, you want to keep them. Unfortunately, most contact centers generally run at a 35 percent per annum attrition rate. The key to minimizing attrition is to focus on agent satisfaction and engagement; therefore, it is important to establish a collaborative culture at the start of onboarding so agents know their feedback is important.

Of course, this means that there really must be a collaborative culture in the first place, and agent engagement must be a critical part of your service strategy. Consider these questions:

  • Is the agent empowered to act on behalf of the company to solve the caller’s issue?
  • Does the agent have the tools necessary to perform all of the work activities required?
  • Are these tools optimized for maximum performance?
  • Does the company ask for agent feedback on a regular basis?
  • Is there a system for communicating the success of new programs and publicly praising the employees that suggested them?

These are all critical questions when considering agent engagement as part of an overall contact center strategy.

Studies show that as agent engagement increases, so does service quality. Therefore, establishing and encouraging a strong dialogue with contact center agents should be an important part of the training and onboarding experience.

As the fog lifts and the ACA becomes clearer, organizations will have to adjust and adapt as policies and laws evolve in this new system of healthcare. While this evolution plays out, healthcare contact centers must continue to strive for operational and service level excellence. Creating strategic agent training and onboarding programs to successfully ramp up agents to staff these contact centers is a mission-critical corporate initiative.

By implementing these four aspects of the onboarding experience, healthcare contact center agents can spend less time navigating complex systems, paperwork, and bureaucracy; this will allow them to spend more time helping callers and giving excellent service. The companies that embrace these changes and figure out how to manage all of these new customers – while lowering overhead costs and maintaining high levels of service and satisfaction – are going to be the clear market winners.

As EVP, strategy, Anna Convery oversees global market development and strategic initiatives for OpenSpan, a provider of desktop automation and desktop analytics solutions that improve performance, drive revenue, and increase efficiencies in contact center, back office, and retail storefront environments. An industry expert in customer service technologies and solutions, Anna has been named a “Woman of the Year in Technology” by WIT and has received numerous awards and recognition for her business leadership and vision.

[From the April/May 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Five Critical Success Factors for Work-at-Home Agents

By Michele Rowan

Technology and employee demographic shifts are changing the way work is done in America, and some of the most compelling evidence can be found within the work-at-home arena. When we compare highly utilized telework business processes and practices today with those of even three years ago, little remains constant. Five critical success factors for working at home deserve serious consideration for organizations that are starting such a program or moving to the next level of expansion.

1. Understand what is possible. Companies that are just now implementing their work-at-home programs have an advantage over more mature models. Newcomers have the benefit of using the latest technology and can often bring innovative processes to market that reflect their employee and customer preferences. These processes are more efficient and economical.

For example, with one-on-one coaching sessions, the responsibility shifts from the coach to the employee. The employee drives the process, starting with choosing the channel for the meeting, scheduling it, and leading the performance discussion with a shared view of calls and scorecards.

Once or twice a year, organizations should benchmark against others within and without their business segment. Sending new team members for external education and exposure is an effective conduit for collecting best practices and broadening individual and corporate thinking.

2. Create an online community for employee collaboration and peer recognition. Cultural connectivity in an office environment is unavoidable simply through physical locale. To foster this connectivity, organizations make concerted efforts to project their values and beliefs via face-to-face meetings, town hall meetings, collaboration, recognition programs, and rewards.

Work-at-home scenarios duplicate this, except that face-to-face visual access is limited. Many contact center organizations frequently use video in virtual meetings, but others are not able to due to the size of the contact center and the impact on bandwidth.

Established, published, two-way virtual meetings starting with tactical daily huddles and continuing through executive forums should be frequently scheduled throughout the contact center organization as a baseline for establishing cultural connectivity.

Innovative organizations are creating forums for recognition and knowledge transfer in the form of an online virtual help desk –a community comprised of team members who log in and share inquiries and knowledge during their shift. Peers share knowledge, acknowledge contributions, and network with each other, creating a stronger community than the previous policy of one-to-one assistance. Monitored by subject matter experts, escalated issues are picked up quickly and then shared.

3. Hire the right people. Whether hiring new people for home-based positions or moving in-house employees home, identifying the right fit is critical. Attributes distinctive to the work-at-home model include technical aptitude, problem-solving skills, and the ability to work in an isolated environment.

Working with an established assessment company – one with a work-at-home assessment tool – is a best practice. Extensive job simulation is required for external applicants who don’t have an understanding of the role.

When moving in-house employees home, the best practice is to post the job with the distinctive competencies required. Ask employees who are interested to assess themselves against the criteria. Developing a self-assessment tool is extremely useful for employees to self-qualify (or not) before HR begins their process.

4. Train and communicate effectively. My company recently conducted two surveys about communications and training. In both studies, nearly three-fourths of the organizations polled reported that employees lacked time to dedicate to daily reading and training updates. Given this, it is no surprise that CSAT scores are less than expected.

Here’s the catch – off-phone time for training is expensive. It’s shrinkage. It’s the valve that is closed first with business downticks.

Today’s technologies automate the delivery of communications to contact center employees (email, bulletins, training, and off-phone work) and organize the content based on business rules customized by work group. Integration with the ACD and WFM systems reduces shrinkage by aggregating small amounts of unproductive time across the network and redistributing it. The cost of automation is minor compared to the improvement in productivity and is one of the easiest business cases to construct.

5. Prepare your support staff. Coaching and training in the absence of a face-to-face presence is a necessity, requiring different competencies. Running a team meeting in a conference room, offering training in a physical classroom, or holding a one-on-one exchange with an employee virtually versus in-person demands different skills. Verbal communication, the ability to invite interactions, and measuring engagement and understanding all shift to alternate platforms in the virtual world.

Mastering technologies that frontline staff can utilize, along with honed skills utilizing technologies that coaches and trainers use, are core competencies. Platform skills, operating in a paperless environment, and strong multitasking skills are required.

Many businesses skip this step, assuming support staff will somehow adapt without preparation. It’s a costly mistake.

Investing the time at the beginning – in terms of business-process mapping, competency requirements, skills inventory, and professional development – will drive staff confidence and satisfaction while mitigating the risks of poorly executed training and support.

Michele Rowan is president of At Home Customer Contacts Strategies and former VP of performance management for Hilton Hotels, where she led the strategy and implementation for the company’s 1000-plus home workers program. Through workshops, Web training, and customized on-site consulting, Michele has worked with over 500 companies on work-at-home implementations.

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

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]