Tag Archives: agent management articles

Remote Workforce for Medical Contact Centers

By Jeff Forbes

Not all technology promises come true, but for the medical contact center community yesterday’s promise of a “virtual office” has evolved into today’s distributed workforce. Technology has brought down the geographic borders surrounding recruitment and enabled telephone-based centers to better meet demand for health advice and information, improve services, and manage costs.

The Benefits of a Remote Workforce for Today’s Medical Contact Center: The images of a remote workforce have focused on the soft benefits for the home-based workers, such as wearing slippers while conducting conference calls. The reality is that using a distributed workforce can help medical contact centers achieve greater efficiencies in delivery by enabling more scalable work shifts, better manage costs by reducing facilities overhead, and improve morale among the workforce. But perhaps the most important benefit of using a distributed workforce in the medical call center is improved clinical recruiting.

As anyone in this field knows, the nursing shortage in our country has reached crisis proportions. According to the American Hospital Association, there are 126,000 unfilled nursing positions in hospitals today and our educational system is not filling the pipeline. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing estimates there are 21,000 fewer nursing students today than in 1995. Hospitals and healthcare facilities will continue having a hard time filling clinical positions, so they must take advantage of any differentiator.

Offering nurses home-based shifts is one way to recruit in a competitive field. Nurses burned out from 12-hour hospital shifts love the flexible hours offered by telecommuting. Nurses that are no longer willing or able to meet rigorous physical demands can extend their careers and young parents can continue to fit in shifts around busy family schedules. Without a commute, nurses no longer have to be tied to any particular physical site. Nurses can be located anywhere, as long as they have voice and data access.

In addition to improved recruiting and workforce morale, the remote workers are more flexible, a crucial factor in managing call flow. When demand spikes, remote workers can quickly log on without wasting time on commutes. They also can just as quickly log off when demand slows, without working – or having employers pay for – a full shift. Employers and workers both benefit from the flexibility. Employers spend only what is needed to cover demand and workers can take advantage of extra hours when they’re able.

Perhaps the most exciting part of building a remote medical contact center workforce is the ability to draw upon a large population to build centers of excellence. Call centers that can recruit nationwide to build virtual teams and offer best-in-class services to their clients and callers.

How Do Remote Workforces Work? The Technology Behind it All: Technology truly drives the distributed workforce and dramatic improvements in remote management and groupware-type products improve team building and management control. But traditional phone lines, called POTS (plain old telephone service), still play an important role.

Telecommunications: Just as in traditional call centers, remote nurses need to communicate with patients via phone and access data and tools via computers. While IP-telephony enables both voice and data to share one line, there may be a preference to equip nurses with both traditional voice lines for patient calls and high-speed data lines for their computers. This dual coverage provides redundancy in case of data-line outages; nurses can continue to take calls and track information manually.

Team building and relationship management: While remote workers deliver the same services as on-site nurses, avoiding a sense of isolation is a concern. A number of key technologies can help overcome issues unique to the at-home agent. With instant chat, help from a peer or supervisor is a click away. Screen sharing allows supervisors to take over an agent’s screen and teach, in real-time, how to best manage a call. Instant meetings and white-boarding allow team meetings to occur regardless of agent location. Computer-based training and distance learning permit everyone to complete training regardless of location or even time of day. Training can occur in groups, individually, or even one-on-one.

Traditional email is in the mix as well – it supports team cohesion and informal learning within a work group. Individuals can communicate with one another on a more casual basis, using the secure chat function, sharing screens, and even pushing websites to one another.

Remote agents do not need to feel alone. With the appropriate technology tools, they can get real-time help, attend meetings, and take training whenever they need and wherever they are. Technology enables the remote workforce to foster team environments and provide effective connections among peers and supervisors.

Workforce Management: Even with the best telecommunications infrastructure and call management software, a remote workforce will fail without appropriate management. Many managers’ biggest concern about leading a remote team is that they think it will be difficult to ensure that people are actually working. The solution to this dilemma is one part technology and one part recruitment: it’s vital to find people who work well on their own. Often, more mature nurses understand the level of availability required in order to be successful and can willingly contribute without excessive management.

Real-time call monitoring technology helps managers measure and monitor all of the statistics they track in brick-and-mortar call centers such as call handle time, ready-to-assist availability, post-call follow-up time, and other traditional metrics. Because the statistics are available in real time, it’s easy for a manager at any location to see who is working, who is on break, and the rate at which they are working.

Making it Work: Our experience with building a distributed workforce model for our medical contact center services shows that the concept works. It saves money, improves services, and vastly increases what has become a too small labor pool. The contact center business is all about scalability and the flexibility of a remote workforce meets that need perfectly. The telehealth business is also about appropriately managing demand – getting patients access to the right care, at the right place, at the right time. With the ability to build virtual centers of excellence, the distributed model is the optimum choice. Technology has enabled telecommuting to be a viable choice for telehealth, which is terrific for healthcare facilities, nurses, and patients alike.

Jeff Forbes is CIO for IntelliCare, a Portland, ME-based company that operates the largest network of medical contact centers in the United States, and develops technology that improves delivery of quality healthcare. IntelliCare blends physical centers with remote capabilities to provide a range of coverage for their clients. They have physical centers in ME, TX, MD, NY, MO, and TN, but 80 percent of their nurses are home-based throughout the country. Reach Jeff at jforbes@intellicare.com.

[From the Fall 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Call Center Agent Benchmarking

By Carin Shulusky

Advances in call center equipment have opened new opportunities to “benchmark” agent efficiencies and effectiveness. Answerphone, a telephone answering service located in Albany, NY is one example. Answerphone is owned and operated by Doug and Sherry Lindsey. The company was founded by Sherry’s grandmother 40 years ago. Since then, it has grown from two telephones on a desk to its current 26 agent workstations. Today, they use advanced computer technology to maximize agent efficiency, manage staffing levels, and assist with agent training.

“We expect a typical agent to handle about 40 inbound calls per hour, with an average call lasting between 48 and 50 seconds,” Doug Lindsey said. “Experience tells us this is the most cost-efficient level for our company. Our Telescan equipment gives us hourly and even quarter-hourly reports that help us determine when this level has fallen. We can then provide coaching for an agent who is not meeting our standards.” Doug said.

Answerphone also uses benchmarking to make sure team staffing levels are appropriate for the anticipated call demand. “When the phone rings,” Doug said, “you have to have a body there to answer it. Finding the right balance between operators waiting for the next call and callers waiting on hold is the secret to our success. We constantly monitor call levels, including call activity, operator talk time, and total hold and ring times, to make sure we always have the appropriate staffing level. We prefer to have extra staff to make sure there is always an operator ready to answer every call. We don’t want our operators to sound rushed,” he added.

“We also use benchmarking to assist with operator training,” Doug added, “Since our Telescan system is so easy to learn, we normally have an operator answering calls after only two hours of training, with a trainer supervising. They can usually answer calls on their own in 10 hours, but we continue to carefully benchmark their progress. If we don’t see substantial progress in a week, we will send the trainer back to continue coaching to improve call time.”

The new technology that has become available in recent years has changed the way Answerphone and many call centers monitor their business. It provides many new tools to manage their business more professionally and improve profitability.

[From the Fall 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Improve Your Return on Your Recruiting Investment

By Jeff Dahltorp

Call centers traditionally leverage four recruitment channels for their staffing needs: the Internet, third party recruiters, print advertisements, and referrals. Using all four of these targeted approaches in the right mix and for the right reasons ensures that you are recruiting good employees while minimizing costs. Let’s briefly look at each of these approaches and then examine how they all work together.

Referrals: A well-managed referral program can be the most cost-effective way to hire new, quality employees. The majority of call centers have some sort of employee referral program in place that pays a current employee a “finder’s fee” for referring someone that is hired and ultimately stays with the company for 90 days, six months, or a year. These fees generally start at $50 and go up from there, depending upon the types of individuals someone is looking for and the size of the company.

The problem that some call centers face is a rising cost where there is no tracking done on the referrals that come through the system. Employees may refer someone after they see that a position has been posted online, placed in the newspaper, or turned over to a third party recruiter. If you end up hiring a person that was referred by an employee, your cost is not just the finder’s fee, but the cost of all the other advertisements as well. Use your referral program before you enter the market.

Print: This is the most traditional method used for locating employee candidates, but has become one of the least efficient in today’s economy. Ten years ago, placing an ad in the classified section of your local newspaper for an open position was really the only way to reach a large pool of candidates. Usually these people lived in the area and they were more likely to stay long term with your organization. At the same time, placing that advertisement could cost in the thousands of dollars in a highly visible publication and you may have only received a handful of qualified candidates or you just settled for the best of the bunch.

Today, the Internet has really taken a toll on the value of a print advertisement for recruiting. But the fact is that there still is a place for print advertisements depending upon the goals of your staffing organization. Certain people still prefer to look at the classifieds for new jobs, especially part time and entry-level positions. People who may not have direct access to the Internet may still read their local paper everyday. Reaching them through print can be very effective. Evaluate your objectives for filling a position to determine if there is value in a print advertisement.

Third Party Recruiters: The third party recruiter does serve an important function in any company’s recruiting effort, especially when locating a corporate-level executive or the hard to find specialist in a medical, engineering, or financial field. Often the network that these companies have to generate qualified, passive candidates is very impressive. As with print, think about the type of person you are trying to hire or the position you are trying to fill and determine if you can handle it through a referral, print or the Internet. If not, then it might be best to start with a third party recruiter.

Internet: Ten years ago, no one even knew what the Internet was. Five years ago there were a few career sites online but none of them were well recognized. At that time, employers wondered, “Why would you place a job online when there are very few people who have access to those job postings?” Today, utilization of the Internet and the thousands of career sites that cover all job specialties and industries is the norm. For a very low cost relative to print and third party recruiters, a company can have access to thousands of candidates from all over the world in just days. However, this can be a double-edged sword.

When you have thousands of applicants, you want to make sure that you are interviewing the best candidates. New technologies are on the market today that can prescreen, test, and rank your candidates before a recruiter even sees the resume. These technologies can also be used for those candidates you receive from referrals, print advertisements, and third party recruiter.

Combining These Four Methods: In reality, no call center can meet its staffing needs using only one of these four approaches on its own. A mix of two or more of these methods is truly effective in finding and retaining the best candidates. Start with the referral process. If you don’t currently have a referral program, then get one set up. There are a number of good companies in the market that have the technology to manage referrals and payment of finder’s fees. If you do have a referral program, make sure that your employees know about it and how it works. Having them refer people through an internal system allows you to track those candidates and referrals before you post a job online or with a third party recruiter.

After you have a functional referral process, look at the types of positions you have open. Would these open positions be best filled by an Internet posting, a third party recruiter, or an ad in the newspaper? Just about any position can be filled using the Internet but you can’t expect one general job board to meet all your needs. There is a reason why there are hundreds of successful career sites on the Internet; they all have a place for attracting qualified candidates. You simply need to know which ones to use for your company hires. Third party recruiters can be incredibly efficient, but they can be costly. Make sure that you are not relying on them for all your hires. Reallocating some of the print and third party recruiter budget to the Internet or to new generation recruiters and technology can help you reach the same results at a lower overall cost per hire.

Your decisions should be based on your company, your technology, and your budget. Creating a recruiting process that incorporates an employee referral program and a strong Internet presence supplemented by third party recruiters and print advertising will generate candidates that will make you and your management proud by optimizing your workforce while minimizing costs.

Jeff Dahltorp is the Director of Global Marketing and Business Development for TruStar Solutions, which helps organizations create exceptional hiring strategies.

[From the Summer 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]