Healthcare Uncertainty and Optimism


LVM Systems

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

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatThe 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.

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 L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

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

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatWe 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.

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 L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

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Prepare for Change in 2017

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatI 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.

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 L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

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Capitalize on Small Wins



By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatI 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.

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 L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

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Call Center Lessons From an ISP



By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatWhen 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 L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

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When Human Errors Cost Call Centers More Work



By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatI have a love/hate attitude toward downloading monthly statements and invoices. I love receiving the information faster and storing it electronically. I hate the problems that come up, such as down websites, login frustrations, redesigned pages that seem to hide my information, and unavailable statements. And this doesn’t just apply to healthcare; all industries seem equally guilty.

Once I received an email to download my monthly statement. I logged in but couldn’t find the document. I searched and I clicked and I logged in again. Nothing helped. At the bottom of the page was a link to email them with questions. I concisely shared my frustration and clicked “send.”

To my surprise, I received a response within minutes. The agent explained that someone sent the email notice prematurely. “The problem has been corrected and your statement is now available for download.”

Excited I logged in again, but the document was still not available. This time I spotted a toll-free number and called customer support.

The recording said to expect an eighteen-minute wait. I opted to receive a call back when it was my turn. Eleven minutes later, my phone rang, but instead of talking to a rep I heard a recording followed by music on hold. When the agent eventually answered, I explained the situation, making little effort to hide my frustration.

After doing some checking and consulting with someone else, the agent confirmed the initial email went out in error, the rep who handled my follow-up email gave me incorrect information, and my statement still wasn’t online.

“When will it be available?”

“I don’t know, but legally we have six more days before it has to be posted. Just keep checking.”

The next day, on my fourth try, my statement was available, I downloaded it, having invested about an hour in total to accomplish this simple task.

The company sent me a brief customer service survey. My snarky comment was, “Don’t email me to download my statement before it’s actually available.” I never received a response.

So, this company sent an email in error, which resulted in me contacting their customer support center and causing them one needless activity. To compound the problem, the rep provided me with wrong information. This caused the company a second needless activity. And assuming someone actually looked at my customer service survey, this caused a third needless activity.

Thousands of others received this errant email message, too. If only a small percentage contacted the company, how many more needless activities took place?

I’m sure the contact center agents had a difficult, busy day – all courtesy of one person who prematurely sent a mass email message. Sometimes we cause our own problems. And the contact center often pays for it.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.


Working with a Health Coach



By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatA friend recently switched his healthcare insurance. His new provider declared that his weight was an issue and charged him a premium as a result. His former insurer had done so too, along with the two before that. Each time he’d shrug his shoulders with an “Oh, well” attitude.

This time was different. In addition to the premium bump they assigned him a health coach to help him bring his weight down to a not unacceptable level. This irritated my friend, who groused about the intrusion, the indignity of being forced to work with a coach.

Though he says his health coach is nice enough, he doesn’t like her. I doubt he would like anyone in that roll. They talk once a month. If my friend dodges the call, his mentor is persistent. Now he just answers her call when it comes and fulfills his once-a-month obligation.

The health coach offers suggestions, and my friend dismisses them: “Now here’s what I’m going to do” is his response.

I asked if his coach offers encouragement. With a dismissive attitude he admitted that might be the case. “Isn’t that what she’s supposed to do?”

Then I asked, “Do you find her encouragement irritating? Perhaps she is over-the-top perky?”

“No,” he answers. “She’s okay. She’s just doing what she’s supposed to do. It’s her job.”

He claims to have ignored every suggestion offered. Yet, he’s losing weight. After six months he is almost to his goal. I can see the difference, both in his appearance and in his actions.

“So she must be helping,” I counter.

“Nope,” he insists. “I just increased my physical activity and decreased my portion size. I figured that out on my own.”

Once he hits the weight target they assigned to him, the premium drops to normal and the health coach will stop calling. I wonder if he’ll keep the weight off.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

Welcome to the New AnswerStat



By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatWe open 2016 with a new approach to AnswerStat. This occurred after consultation with our key advertisers and while keeping your needs in mind.

First, what stays the same: We will continue to serve you, our loyal readers, with six issues a year. We will continue to have industry relevant content to help you and your organization grow and succeed. We will continue to email you when each new issue is available.

New is a streamlined website that is easier to navigate, a faster cloud-based platform for more reliable access, and an expanded email notification that highlights the contents of each issue. We also have a new tag line: “The information hub for healthcare contact center news and resources” to fine-tune our vision. And we have a new online Marketplace, too.

There is also one change. To save money, streamline our operation, and focus on our online content, we will no longer mail the magazine. This step insures we will be able to continue to meet the needs of you, our readers, well into the future.

We thank our key supporters, our sponsors, for making AnswerStat possible. They are LVM Systems, Telephone Triage, 1Call, Echo, and TeamHealth. We expect more organizations to join them. You will notice their ads and coverage on this website.

We also receive vital support from Ameridial, Call4Health, SironaHealth, Ambs Call Center, Startel, Professional Teledata, and AAACN (American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing).

Please thank these fine companies for their advertising support of AnswerStat magazine, and please enjoy this issue.

Peter L. DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

Should We Switch Our Mindset From Calls to Contacts?

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatThe first issue of AnswerStat magazine rolled off the presses over a dozen years ago. Since then much has changed. Call center technology has advanced, customer expectations have expanded, hiring and training practices have evolved, and new service opportunities have emerged. The Internet exploded into a global phenomenon that altered everything.

What hasn’t changed much is the telephone call. Call centers still answer calls, make calls, and transfer calls; we give and receive information over the phone. The telephone is the ubiquitous communication medium, and it is central to the call center.

During these years of technological transformation, there was also faxing and paging, but both were insignificant compared to the widespread practice of simply picking up the phone and calling someone to have a two-way conversation in real-time. Not too many people fax anymore, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen a pager. Yet the telephone remains.

But now we also have email, text, and social media. Some call centers have fully embraced these technologies and integrated them in to their operations. Others have persisted in focusing on phone calls. Yet the pressure remains for such centers to add these newer forms of communication and connection into their call center mix. As a result the call center becomes the contact center. To embrace this multi-channel paradigm, your call center mind-set must be about contacts, not calls.

Consider these forms of contact:

Calls: Phone calls represent the majority of contacts in almost every contact center. We excel at calls.

Fax: Some healthcare communication still occurs by fax. Though this channel is small, someone needs to oversee it. Why not the contact center?

Pager: Pagers have gone away in most industries, but they still have value in healthcare where reliability, speed, and disaster-adverseness are vital. Contact centers have always done a great job at sending pages, and some even manage pager inventory. There’s no reason to stop now.

Email: Processing secure email is a natural fit for contact centers. They have the network, the Internet connection, the computers, and the staff – and the ability to send, receive, forward, and screen email, just as with calls.

Text: Text is growing in most sectors. This is one more channel for the healthcare contact center to add to their arsenal.

Social Media: A growing preference for people of all ages is to interact online with others through social media. Healthcare organizations require someone to monitor all those comments, tweets, and contacts, responding in a timely manner that is professional and accurate. With the plethora of social media platforms, no organization can utilize them all, yet they must be where their patients are. The task of interacting with these social media-minded customers is ideal for contact centers.

Self-Service: A final consideration is self-service, the preferred option for most people when they have a question or problem. How, you may ask, does self-service become a contact center opportunity? Doesn’t self-service subtract from the contact center? Yes, every interaction handled via self-service is one less interaction handled by the contact center. Yet forward-thinking contact center managers see two opportunities.

The first is that contact centers are in the best position to know what issues self-service should address. Poll a group of agents, and the top ten needs for self-service will quickly emerge. The contact center should serve as the advisor for self-service topics. Better yet, the contact center could take the lead role and actually produce and administer the self-service content.

The second opportunity is providing backup for self-service. Self-service cannot help everyone, every time. The contact center should catch those that self-service drops. As a bonus, these calls, taken in aggregate, then provide fodder for additional self-service content.

Whatever channels your contact center covers, keep in mind that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the contact.

AnswerStat is here to help you maximize every contact, and our annual Buyers Guide is a great place to start.

Peter L DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From AnswerStat December 2015/January 2016]

Four Types of Surveys and the Only One That Truly Matters

By Peter DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatAs a consumer, I have a love-hate response to surveys. Often I dismiss them and feel guilty. Other times I take them and feel I’ve wasted my time.

I group surveys into four categories:

Market Research: The first type of survey is market research. Those who complete the survey have a chance to win some appealing prize. Though enticed by the possible reward, most of the time I can’t complete the survey because I fall outside their target demographic or the survey ends prematurely when I give an unacceptable answer. Because of this I’ve stopped taking market research surveys. Besides, I wonder if anyone actually wins the prize.

The Sales Call: This ploy is a sales pitch disguised as a survey, which is illegal. If you answer their questions correctly – that is, identify yourself as a prospect – you receive a sales pitch. These surveys, often presented as research, appeal to one’s sense of civic duty or the opportunity to influence some important decision. They’ve duped me too many times, so I skip these surveys, too.

Skewed by Employees: After completing a transaction, the salesperson or customer service rep implores me to take their survey, usually in a most emphatic manner. Often they imply that they could get in trouble if I don’t. Once I agree they tell me how to answer. “Make sure you give me all fives,” they say. “Anything less – even a four – is a failure.” Their bonus or even their job is at stake. Will I help them?

Masterful at stating their plea, it’s hard not to comply. But their effort to game the system disgusts me. My wish is to respond with all ones. My wife says that’s a terrible thing to do; I say it’s terrible for employees to mislead their employer by steering the results.

Company Centric: The final type of survey is also a customer service evaluation, but when considering the questions, it seldom truly addresses the customer and actually focuses on the company.

Many common questions – such as hold time, speed to answer, first call resolution, agent courtesy, and so forth – appear to address customer service issues but miss doing so. In reality, these feed into some corporate metric assumed to measure customer service. Call centers can achieve statistical goals yet still provide poor service.

If I care about the organization, I sometimes complete these last two types of surveys. I want to help them become better. However, don’t ask if I was placed on hold, had to wait too long, needed to make multiple calls, or am willing to recommend them. Simply ask if they fully addressed the reason for my call. The next item should inquire if I’m happy with how they served me. Don’t assume that certain metrics address this; just ask if I’m pleased. For the final item, provide an option for additional comments. Surveys imply a desire to hear what customers think, so they should provide an opportunity to share.

So here’s the survey I’d like to take but haven’t seen yet:

1) Did we accomplish the reason for your call?

2) Are you pleased with how we did?

3) Do you have anything to add?

Thanks for asking.

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his blogs, social media, and newsletter, all accessible at www.authorpeterdehaan.com.

[From AnswerStat October/November 2015]