Tag Archives: Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Vital Signs

Voice AI in the Healthcare Call Center

Should We Embrace Technology in Our Medical Contact Centers or Fear It?

 By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaanThroughout the history of the call center industry we’ve looked for ways to help our agents be more effective. In the pre-computer days this often meant physical solutions and electromechanical devices that allowed staff to answer calls faster, record information easier, and organize data more effectively.

Then came rudimentary computers that provided basic call distribution and CTI (computer telephony integration). Computer databases allowed us to retrieve information and store data. Following this we experienced voicemail, IVR (interactive voice response), and automated attendant. More recently we’ve encountered speech-to-text conversion and text-to-speech applications. Then came the chatbots, computerized automatons that allow for basic text and voice communication between machine and people.

Computers are talking with us. Smart phones, too. Consider Siri, Alexa, and all their friends. Technology marches forward. What will happen next?

I just did an online search for Voice AI. Within .64 seconds I received two million results. I’m still working my way through the list (not really), but the first few matches gave me some eye-opening and thought-provoking content to read and watch.

In considering this information, it’s hard to determine what’s practical application for our near future and what’s theoretical potential that might never happen. However, my conclusion is that with advances in chatbot technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, we aren’t far from the time when computer applications will carry on full, convincing conversations with callers, who will think they’re talking with real people.

While many pieces of this puzzle are available today, I submit that we’re not yet to the point where we can have a complete, intelligent dialogue with a computer and not know it. But it will happen. Probably soon.  With AI and machine learning, the potential exists for an intelligent interface to provide the conversational bridge between patients and triage protocols. Click To Tweet

What Does Voice AI Mean for the Medical Call Center?

Voice AI in the Healthcare Call CenterJust like all technological advances since the inception of the earliest call centers, we’ll continue to free agents from basic tasks and allow them to handle more complex issues. Technology will not replace agents, but it will shift their primary responsibilities.

Or maybe not.

With the application of voice AI, might we one day have a call center staffed with computer algorithms instead of telephone agents? I don’t know. Anything I say today will likely seem laughable in the future. Either I will have overstretched technology’s potential or underestimated the speed of its advance.

I think I’m okay talking to a computer program to make an appointment with my doctor. And it wouldn’t bother me to call in the evening and converse with a computer as I leave my message for the doctor, nurse, or office staff. However, what concerns me just a tad would be calling a telephone triage number and having a computer give me medical advice.

Yet in considering the pieces of technology available to us today, this isn’t so far-fetched. Proven triage protocols are already defined and stored in a database. Giving them a computerized voice is possible now. And with AI and machine learning, the potential exists for an intelligent interface to provide the conversational bridge between me and the protocols. And this could be the solution to our growing shortage of medical practitioners.

For those of you actually doing telephone triage, you might be laughing right now. Perhaps you’re already implementing this. Or maybe you’re convinced it will never work.

Yet it’s important that we talk about technology and its application in healthcare call centers. Regardless of what happens, the future will certainly be an interesting place.

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.

Prepare Now to Make Next Year a Great One

A failure to plan is planning to fail

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Before we say goodbye to this year and welcome in the next, we should take time to envision what we want next year to be like, to plan and to prepare so that it’s a really great year. First, I recommend you do this personally, to establish a vision and set goals for the coming year.

However, the focus of AnswerStat is not on your personal life but on your work, which is likely in a healthcare call center. Though it’s possible you’ve already prepared for next year, or maybe you hope to do so in the next couple weeks. However, I wonder if in the day-to-day crunch of call center work that you’re so focused on getting through this day that you never have time to think about what’s next. I get that. I’ve been there. It’s called the tyranny of the urgent. It’s the reality that putting out fires consumes all our time, leaving no time left to pursue what is truly important. This includes planning for future success.

Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent limit what your call center, department, shift, or team accomplishes in the coming year. To inspire your thoughts and get you started, here are some ideas to help make next year the best year yet: Capitalize on your strengths, shore up your weaknesses, pursue opportunities, and guard against threats. Click To Tweet

Celebrate Areas of Excellence: Every call center has things they do well. Don’t lose sight of these items. Instead of coasting or assuming you’ll always excel in these areas, consider two options. One is looking at ways to make these even better. And the other is taking steps to ensure they don’t slip.

Identify Areas That Need Fixing: Conversely, even the best call centers can do better. We all have flaws in our operation, processes, or human resources. Start by identifying these so you can prepare to fix them next year.

Look for Growth Potential: Though no one can predict the future with any certainty, we can look at trends and consider areas where we can grow our call center to offer new services or expand existing ones. This gives us a chance to dream. And less you consider this exercise self-serving, remember that everyone likes to be part of a growing operation. Make sure your call center is expanding and not shrinking.

Consider Pressures to Your Call Center: While there’s the potential for growth, there’s also the potential for contraction. This isn’t as exciting to think about, but it’s important to give it attention nonetheless. What issues does your call center face that could have a detrimental effect on it in the coming year? Theorize the top three pressures that could have a negative effect on your call center. Then plan to counteract them, offset them, or negate their power.

These four items are often summarized as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (also known as SWOT). Yes, I just encouraged you to conduct a SWOT analysis for your healthcare call center. But don’t look at this with foreboding; embrace it with excitement.

Then use your SWOT analysis to plan appropriately for the coming year: capitalize on your strengths, shore up your weaknesses, pursue opportunities, and guard against threats. Turn this into an action plan, establish a vision, and set goals. If you do this, I guarantee you’ll have a much better year than if you skip this critical exercise.

May this next year be your best year ever.

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.

It’s Hard to Plan When You Don’t Know What to Expect

With the state of Obamacare still unknown, forecasting the future of healthcare remains a challenge

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Regardless of what you think about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the fact that it’s future remains in limbo means that planning in the healthcare industry is challenging at best. Last week, what initially appeared as a final effort to repeal and replace Obamacare turned into another failure. Then opponents quickly pledged to try again. The result is that no one in the healthcare industry has a clue about what rules we’ll be playing under in the months and years to come. This makes strategic planning next to impossible.

As politicians play politics and posture themselves in the name of political expediency, the rest of us are left to wonder what the future holds.

If the Affordable Care Act remains in place and unscathed, the industry will continue its current trajectory. While the slope of that trajectory remains open to conjecture, at least the general direction is known.

Alternately, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, then we’re left scrambling to find a reliable basis on which to move forward. If this occurs the winners, from a business standpoint, will be those who can adapt the quickest and fill the vacuum that results. Being nimble, flexible, and quick will be the surest path to success.

However, rather than a straight-out repeal, a more likely scenario will be to tweak what is already there. The only sure thing about this path is knowing that things will change, but no one knows what will change or how much. What’s likely is that there will be winners and losers, those who gain from the changes and those who give up some of what they currently enjoy. Again, organizations that can adjust the quickest will be the ones that have the best chance of coming out ahead.

Specifically for the healthcare contact center this means being prepared to take several actions. One is being ready to quickly scale a workforce to take advantage of new opportunities and meet increased patient demand. Coupled with this is the need to train new agents quickly, as well as to teach new skills—perhaps not yet identified—to existing contact center staff. Last will be determining creative ways to meet patient needs and be appropriately compensated for doing so.No matter what happens with Obamacare, healthcare contact centers can be the hero. Click To Tweet

Contact centers with an entrepreneurial-minded leadership will emerge as the ones who can best navigate these changes to meet critical needs among patients and serve the healthcare industry.

The one thing I am sure of, no matter what happens, is that the healthcare contact center has the potential to be the hero.

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.

Do You Provide Contact Options For Your Patients?

A successful omnichannel strategy requires intentional implementation

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Have you ever had a company ask how you wanted them to contact you? Options might include phone, email, text, fax, mail, or social media private messaging.

How well did they do at complying with your request?

With one company I asked for email communications, but they called me. When I reminded them I preferred email, they switched to that channel. But after too many emails failed to make progress, I switched to the telephone, which confused them. In the end, I accomplished my objective and gained something to write about in the process.

Another organization asked the same question. Text messaging seemed the way to go, since I envisioned short, succinct communications with them. Though I opted for text, they emailed me instead. In fact, they always email. Once when I called and left a message, they emailed me back. Another time I specifically asked for a text to confirm an appointment, but they emailed me. Email is their preferred contact method, even if it isn’t mine.

I applaud these organizations for asking my preference and criticize them even more for not following through. If you can’t comply, you shouldn’t ask. That way you don’t establish false expectations or cause frustration with your patient or customer.Providing excellent customer service relies on excellent communication. Click To Tweet

In considering these two experiences, a few thoughts come to mind, which apply to any contact center that truly has a customer-focused perspective.

Offering Channel Options Is Good: Letting patients and their caregivers select their preferred contact method is a customer-friendly move. It’s also a great idea, given that patients often have options for healthcare providers and are quick to exercise those options if you disappoint or disrespect them.

Not Honoring Channel Requests Is Bad: Not using the channel a patient requests is worse than not offering the option in the first place. If you can’t (or won’t) contact patients and prospective patients by the method they request, then don’t bother to ask.

Not Responding On Any Channel Is Even Worse: Making no effort to contact patients or customers when they request it is the worst possible error to make. And this mistake happens too often.

Knowing When to Switch Channels is Key: Sometimes a preferred channel bogs down communication. When emails or texts go back and forth without resolution, it’s time to pick up the phone, but before doing so, make that suggestion through the patient’s channel of choice. And if the patient opts to switch channels, make sure their contact history follows them to the new channel.

Asking people how they want you to contact them is great, providing you follow through. But if you don’t do as they request, you’re better off not offering it as an option. Conversely know when it’s appropriate to switch channels. And most importantly, always, always follow through.

Providing excellent customer service relies on excellent communication, whether it’s within the requested channel or if there’s a need to move outside of it. Just don’t arbitrarily jump channels. The only thing that will accomplish is patient frustration.

If your contact center has an omnichannel strategy be smart about the implementation.

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.

Is Your Contact Center Effective?

Meeting the two essential elements of a contact is just the first step

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

It doesn’t matter if a call is answered in a modern contact center staffed with a team of trained professionals or by one weary person in a single-phone department. In both cases patients and callers evaluate their phone interactions in the same way, and they expect the same outcomes. Regardless of the circumstances, they compare each call with every other call and judge it accordingly. It matters not who took the call or the technology behind it.

Contact Essentials: At a basic level, patients look for two things when they contact you.

First, they want to accomplish their objective, the reason for their call. This may be to schedule an appointment, follow up on test results, or clarify discharge instructions. Or they might be calling because of a medical concern, hoping to talk to a triage nurse or find out if they should head to the ER. In short, they have a need, call you, and expect to accomplish their objective.

Second, though they may not realize it, they subconsciously want a positive feeling about the call. Do they perceive their need was met? Are they satisfied with the outcome? Do they sense they were treated with respect?Too often contact centers meet callers’ objectives but leave them frustrated in the process. Click To Tweet

Together these two characteristics combine to result in effectiveness. An effective call is a phone interaction where the patient’s purpose is accomplished, and they hang up pleased with the interaction. However, too often contact centers meet callers’ objectives but leave them frustrated in the process.

Effective Call: Being effective means the caller’s reason for calling is addressed, and the customer is pleased. A rating of effective sets the minimum expectations for a contact center. This establishes the center’s service baseline.

Ineffective Call: Calls that aren’t effective are failures. This means the callers’ objectives weren’t accomplished, or they weren’t satisfied with the results. Too many organizations run contact centers that are not effective. Wrong information is given; errors are not corrected; callbacks don’t happen; and repeated calls occur, with no movement toward resolution.

Beyond Effective: However, other contact centers offer the other extreme. They start with effective and then offer more. Their staff is professional, accurate, and consistent. They excel at being empathetic with callers, and they aim for first call resolution.

Whether you have one phone or hundreds of agents, first ensure you are effective in handling calls. Then strive to become more than effective. Become everything your callers hope for when they contact you. Then everyone wins.

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.

Healthcare Uncertainty and Optimism

LVM Systems

Whatever the future throws at us, the healthcare contact center industry will respond with excellence

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The healthcare industry in the United States exists in uncertain times. What does the future hold?

  • Will the status quo prevail, along with its current problems, trending issues, and looming concerns?
  • Will we experience a mere tweak in our present situation? And if so, will the adjustments make healthcare provision easier or harder?
  • Will we witness a 180-degree turn? And if so, will we have a white-knuckle, breath-taking adventure or a controlled U-turn?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, but what I do know is that healthcare contact centers are the solution.

  • If it’s the status quo, we’re ready to elevate our game.
  • If it’s tweaking the current path, we’re ready and will adjust.
  • If it’s a great reversal, we’re poised to embrace what happens.

In any of these scenarios, I’m optimistic that healthcare contact centers are in a prime position to be part of the healthcare industry’s solution. As a group, we’ll improve the overall level of patient care, expand affordable solutions to more people, and be a key resource to all stakeholders.Whatever the future, the healthcare contact center industry will respond with excellence. Click To Tweet

Whether healthcare contacts occur via the phone, text messaging, webchat, email, mobile app, or video, healthcare contact centers have the experience, the staff, and the infrastructure to take innovation to a higher level. In addition we have the vision needed to capitalize on whatever may come.

How do I know this? It’s easy.

Just read the articles in this issue of AnswerStat. They make me giddy. And beyond this, our editorial advisory board has laid out a great vision for the rest of the year and into 2018. Already I’m hearing ideas from our insightful industry writers and I’ve already seen a couple articles for our next issue.

I can hardly wait.

Though we, in the healthcare industry, live in uncertain times, I’m full of optimism for our future and the future of healthcare.

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.





Should You Use an On-Site System or Internet-Delivered Solution?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

We understand a computer room full of equipment. It’s tangible. We can see it, touch it, and kick it (but don’t do that). It’s how we’ve done things for decades, since the beginning of computers and telephony switches.

Contrast this to internet-delivered solutions, which go by a myriad of names, such as SaaS (software as a service), cloud-based solutions, hosted services, and a few more labels that have come and gone. The oldest I can remember is provided by ASPs (application service providers), but I haven’t heard that in years. For the sake of discussion, let’s call all variations of this offsite provisioning concept as internet-delivered solutions.

An on-site system allows for greater control. But with control comes responsibility: maintenance, database backups, software updates, spare parts inventory, disaster recovery, backup power, and technical staff. Financially, an on-site system (hardware and software) represents a tangible asset, which is a capitalized purchase and a depreciated line item on your balance sheet.

While there are usually some ongoing costs for an on-site system, these are minor in comparison to the onetime purchase price. An on-site system doesn’t require internet access to operate, but with the increased need to access information and remote systems through the internet, this advantage is rapidly diminishing.

Although vendor stability is a concern for both options, with on-site systems, there is at least the potential for the call center to continue operating if the vendor fails; this is not so with the alternative.

Internet delivered solutions represent a newer way of provisioning a call center. With it the responsibility to install, maintain, and update equipment is removed, but along with it goes the associated control. Financially, an internet-delivered solution is a service, which shows up on the income statement as an expense. It is not a capital expenditure and there is nothing to depreciate. The only costs are a predictable, ongoing monthly expense, which is generally proportionate to usage.Cloud-based solutions offer the flexibility to quickly ramp up and ramp down capacity as needed. Click To Tweet

Internet delivered solutions also offer the flexibility to quickly ramp up and ramp down capacity as needed. Operations may be deployed anywhere in the world where there is reliable internet access, easily accommodating remote agents.

However, there are two chief concerns with cloud-based solutions. One is the requirement of a stable internet connection for the call center or remote agents. Without internet access, the call center is effectively down. The other concern is with the vendor. Do they provide always-on, fully redundant, carrier-grade stability, with 24/7 tech support? Are they financially viable to offer cloud-based service for the long-term? If they stumble or fail, the call center immediately suffers the same fate.

For much of the call center industry’s history, on-site systems was the only option. Some call centers continue to pursue this approach, not because they’ve examined the alternative, but because that’s how it’s always been; they see no point in changing. This is shortsighted. Equally unwise are call centers that race headlong into internet-delivered solutions, wanting merely to follow the current trend. They dismiss the alternative without consideration simply because it’s the old way of doing things. An unexamined strategy is really no strategy at all.

Neither approach is universally right. Both have advantages; both have disadvantages. Take a careful look at the pros and cons of each approach. Then make a strategic decision on which one is the best for you and your call center. Your organization’s future may be at stake.

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.



Prepare for Change in 2017

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I don’t want to write about the US presidential elections, but I need to. Here’s why: Because of the election, expect changes in healthcare for 2017 and beyond.

There are two scenarios:

Scenario one will produce a backpedaling of existing laws and regulations as it relates to healthcare, which will spill over to the healthcare contact centers that support the industry. This could range from a complete repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act, to congressional tweaks that make adjustments, to executive orders that alter the status quo. This all adds up to change. The only variables are the degree and speed of the modifications required. Healthcare contact centers need to prepare for this possibility and be ready to adapt as these transformations occur.Healthcare contact centers need to prepare for 2017 and be ready to adapt as change occurs. Click To Tweet

Scenario two (which I think is unlikely) is that no laws are repealed, no new laws are passed, and no executive orders take place that effect healthcare. In this option everything continues as is. However, the current trajectory of this is still change as the existing laws and regulations continue to play out. (An object in motion will continue to stay in motion.) It’s just that in this outcome we have a decent idea of what the adjustments will entail. Healthcare contact centers need to prepare for this possibility and be ready to adapt as these transformations occur.

So scenario one, the likely outcome, will require us to make quick and informed adjustments to how we work in the healthcare contact center industry. Scenario two, the less likely outcome, will also require altering our contact center practices; it’s just that the volatility of change will be less.

In either case, expect the people who contact us to be confused or angry, possibly both. We will need to be ready with answers for them, or at least have the ability to sooth their angst in a time of unknown. Now is the time to prepare for both scenarios.

This coming year, 2017, should be an interesting one for the healthcare contact center industry. Change, it seems, is the new normal.

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.



Capitalize on Small Wins

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I haven’t followed baseball much in recent years, but I still periodically check how my state’s Detroit Tigers are doing. This past Sunday, going into their final scheduled game of the regular season they still contended for one remaining wildcard slot in this year’s playoffs, but a 0 to 1 loss eliminated them from further play, with one win too few for the season. Though this final game in a 162-game season made the difference, any additional win throughout the season would have resulted in a different outcome.

I have to wonder if during the long, grueling season, they might have given up on one or two games, more content to finish it then win. Or how many innings were there when an errant play allowed the other team to score a few unearned runs or turn a couple of potential runs for themselves into an out that squelched a rally and notched a loss. I’m sure it happens for every team now and again.

The same applies in the contact center, with the grueling pace of call after call, agents sometimes may be tempted to end the call quickly instead of end it with a win. In the big scheme of things one call seems inconsequential, yet each call is a potential tipping point that can result in a patient win or a patient loss. Too many losses and our contact center will miss the playoffs. No one wants that.Each call to a healthcare contact center can make a difference. Click To Tweet

While a healthcare contact center doesn’t have million-dollar player salaries and millions of eyeballs watching every move, it has more at stake: people’s lives. Each call can make a difference in the future of the caller, the success of the agent, and the trustworthiness of the contact center. Strive for each call to be a win; anything less is unacceptable.

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.

Call Center Lessons From an ISP

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

When searching for an Internet service provider (ISP) I entered my address into the website of the most likely supplier. Four service options came up. I clicked the first, and it said, “Service not available.” I clicked the second, and it said, “Service available.” They appeared to be the same service, but the second had more features. The third was likewise not available, while the fourth one was.

I called the support number, and the rep said, “I’m sorry, but we do not serve your area.” I explained what I found online. He checked again and then a third time, verifying the address with each attempt and muttering as he did. Finally, he said, “I guess my system’s not up-to-date. Let me transfer you to customer service. Even though you’re not a customer, they can help.”

The person in customer service didn’t appreciate me being connected to her. Full of snarky disdain she assured me all four options were available. She needed to transfer me to another department, but I never heard what they had to say. She disconnected me instead.

I intended to start all over, but then I considered the company I called. I had a frustrating encounter with them before, a relative had a string of bad experiences, and several friends complained. I couldn’t recall anyone ever sharing a positive experience about this corporation. I selected a different provider.

Here are some call center lessons we can learn from this hapless ISP:

Synchronize Data: Make sure the information available to customers (patient bills, hours of operation, appointment availability, room numbers, and so forth) aligns with what the agents see. Don’t send patients to one online resource and agents to a different one that is off line. Although it’s appropriate to provide more information to agents, make sure that what the caller can access doesn’t contradict what the agent sees.

Avoid Transfers: Aim to resolve calls the first time, by the first rep. Each time a call is transferred risks occur. (See “train thoroughly.”) At a minimum the caller needs to repeat information they already shared once, maybe twice if they had to also enter data into an IVR (such as a patient ID or invoice number) before talking with the first rep. By personal experience, the person I am transferred to is often not able, or is unwilling, to help me. At worst, they are irritated I interrupted them and treat me poorly, which brings us to…

Be Nice: The purpose of call center agents is to help patients and callers find answers and solve problems. There is no rule that you have to be nice in order to assist people, but it sure helps. Agents who are pleasant with callers are more likely to leave those callers with a favorable opinion of the transaction. Giving accurate information with a negative attitude is an example of “winning the battle but losing the war.” Plus, part of being nice is to not disconnect callers…

Train Thoroughly: Make sure agents know how to access all of the databases and resources they need to do their job – and that they have the proper login credentials. Train them in product knowledge (classes, promotions, and every new initiative) and processes (such as admissions, discharge, invoicing, and so forth). If you have a new marketing program, make sure they know about it before the campaign starts. And last, make sure they excel at operating their computer and console, including how to properly transfer callers to the right party without disconnecting them.

Apply these four principles to your healthcare call center and you will serve them well – and isn’t that the point?

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.