In healthcare, individuals are navigating a highly emotional – potentially even uncertain – journey. Which is all the more reason that their experience with your organization’s contact center should be considered as a high-stakes touchpoint.
I sat down with three of our strategists to explore this challenge and the opportunity that it creates for consumer satisfaction and for agent retention. Lora-Lee Thomas (call center), Colleen Eager (management consulting), and Marlana Voerster (healthcare) together offered holistic tips for improving the contact center experience and delivering better care.
How does a patient or member experience with the contact center influence overall satisfaction with a healthcare brand?
Lora-Lee Thomas, Contact Center Strategist: As an organization, leaders tend to think of the contact center as an operational expense, when the reality is, it’s the beginning of the customer experience. Organizations dedicate significant resources to building a brand – a brand with a promise. All of that messaging and brand building can be lost instantly when a customer reaches out to the contact center and does not experience that brand promise in real life.
Colleen Eager, Management Consulting Strategist: This is especially important for healthcare insurers where the contact center experience is often the only human interaction a member will have with the brand. If you think about it, most of a member’s time is spent setting appointments, dealing with claims, getting or managing prescriptions, understanding coverage – there’s very little direct contact with a brand representative.
Organizations should also remember that they spend so much time broadcasting to customers – advertising, email communication, snail mail, text messaging – and the contact center is where the customer initiates communication. They’re calling, texting, or using your app because they need help. Your organization needs to be responsive immediately and in a relevant way so the customer experiences what you’ve promised to deliver.
Marlana Voerster, Healthcare Strategist: If a customer is reaching out, it’s probably not to gush about your superior service and their ever-lasting love for your brand. They are contacting you because they have a question, issue, concern or need about a topic that is incredibly scary and stressful – their health or the health of a loved one. Speaking to an agent that understands this and can show empathy immediately puts that caller at ease.
Contact center agents are the faces of the brand for healthcare consumers, right along with doctors, nurses, and front desk staff. Their experience with agents needs to be in lock step with the mission and values of the organization, and must show the same empathy, care, and support as other parts of the brand.
What contact center agent knowledge area(s) are often overlooked, but have the potential to greatly impact satisfaction scores?
LT: Technical Navigation. Most organizations have bolted together legacy “Frankenstack” contact center systems that create a complex, un-user-friendly experience for the agent. How is an agent supposed to handle customer needs when they are navigating through dozens of internal systems, bookmarked pages, and tribal knowledge workarounds? The customer perceives that the agent is sloppy or doesn’t know what they are doing.
There is so much more technology can do to assist agents and lower overall frustrations, but some companies feel tethered to the expensive legacy systems they are familiar with. Change is not only possible, it is necessary.
CE: Content Navigation. Healthcare organizations all offer a unique set of highly complex, highly regulated services to their consumers. When a patient or member calls, they want the agent to know ALL of the details on referrals, claims, coverage, status, escalation, deductibles, out of pocket max, etc.
An agent can’t master all that content, and they don’t have to. We have incredible technologies today that enable robust, automated content navigation that equips agents to quickly locate information relevant to the customer, and THAT makes the customer perceive that the agent is knowledgeable.
MV: Soft Skills. Deeply understanding the consumer, and being able to forge a connection with them is the quickest way to boost scores. And one size does not fit all.
“When we label things ‘soft skills,’ that’s the first thing that gets removed from the curriculum.” – Contact Center Trainer
Knowing the unique needs, goals, life stages, and challenges that each type of consumer is calling with helps agents more effectively tailor conversations, find relevant solutions, and build strong relationships. And those relationships go a long way to building loyalty, advocacy, and satisfaction.
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What are some tangible ways contact center agents can demonstrate greater empathy?
LT: Stick with the basics – greet the customer by name, “Hello Ms. Brown, may I call you Tanya or do you prefer Ms. Brown? Am I pronouncing that correctly?” Human connection is how empathy is conveyed and it’s very simple.
In my work with contact center training through the years, I always drive home the importance of connecting on a personal level. What if this was your mom, dad, or sister calling in? What if you were calling in to understand your coverage for chemo? Connect to what that would feel like and what you’d need in that moment. Information about the caller can be delivered to the agent; this insight should be used by agents to connect with callers, not just for statistics on the back end.
CE: I have to say that it starts with the organizational leadership and contact center management leading their contact center agents with empathy. Understand that it’s a very hard job that you’re asking these agents to do. When you give them the training and the tools to actually serve customers and give them the answers they need, the job feels good and meaningful. When the agent has a good working experience, they give better care to your customers and the organization will have lower agent attrition.
MV: Listening is a great way to show empathy, and skilled agents will often repeat a request back to the caller to ensure they understood the request and goal of the caller. Sometimes, just a simple acknowledgement of the reason for the call, especially if the caller has a concern or issue, helps to set the tone for the call and build that caller-agent connection.
Taking responsibility for solving the caller’s problem goes a long way to building trust and showing empathy. When a customer sees that you understand and care about them and their issue, and that you are making it your mission to find a solution (even if you need to involve others), it is an instant loyalty builder and a great demonstration of empathy at work.
How can healthcare organizations operationalize empathy in the contact center?
MV: The first step is helping agents to understand what empathy is and to help them sharpen this skill through practice. Some people are more naturally empathetic, but it is a skill and one we can all learn and grow.
Organizations provide tools that help agents, especially new ones, understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the various customers they will speak to. These consumers may look the same on paper (see the Prince and Ozzy for a great example of this). But when you dig deeper you’ll find differences that can be used to enhance the customers’ experience and show a deep empathy and understanding. The more you can help agents get into the shoes of their customers, the easier it will be for them to connect with their callers.
LT: The nice thing about contact center technologies today is they allow the agent to see personal call history immediately. If they have called multiple times for an issue, they are probably starting out frustrated – know where to go to get answers and FAST. Use your intuition. If they’re calling about prescriptions, someone is sick. That means that this is likely a stressful, scary time for them or their loved one. This reduces frustration and call handle times and can even boost efficiencies. Deploying common sense practices and modern technologies enhances customer experience and agent experience.
CE: Building on what LoraLee said, I hope that healthcare organizations feel empowered by technology that enables them to better serve their customers with omni-channel automation, last agent routing, and intelligent call funneling. These technologies support agents to deliver empathy through sentiment analysis, serve efficiently with call routing, and meet customers with a relevant omni-channel response. Those are all the drivers of customer satisfaction.
What do organizations that partner with third-party contact center centers need to be concerned about?
MV: Making sure that customers have a consistent experience across in-house and third-party contact centers is critical. Ensuring that your training provides every agent, regardless of location, with the same depth of knowledge of policies, regulations, coverage, customer needs, systems, and technology should be a huge priority.
LT: I’ll keep pounding my drum here – delivering on a brand promise is all about consistency. When a customer calls, they are calling your brand. They do not know – or care – where that contact center is located and who owns it. If you are using third-party contact centers, you should be up at night worrying that they are delivering agent training, performance. and customer experience at the same high level that you require for your brand.
CE: Most organizations do use third-party contact centers in some way or another. If you do, and you are in leadership, I challenge you to look critically at the metrics you use to measure the performance of those vendors and the contractual metrics you use to incentivize/de-incentivize them. For example, if vendors are not paid for agent training time, do you think they’re motivated to take the time to ensure that new agents really know the material, process, and technologies to serve customers? On that note, do you have a performance metric specific to agent training at partner sites?
Any additional thoughts on the healthcare contact center experience?
MV: Taking the time to create customer personas and journey maps are great ways to understand audiences and how to communicate with them across their journey with your organization. These tools act as soft skill roadmaps for your customer care teams to identify with callers, anticipate their needs, and proactively solve problems. Customers want to be understood and supported, and these tools help your agents do just that!
A Boston University, Harvard University, and University of Michigan study found that training in self-awareness and soft skills, like interpersonal communication and problem-solving, produces a 256% return on investment, based on an average rate of 12% higher team productivity and retention.
LT: It’s a new era in so many ways, and the contact center experience needs to evolve. Since the start of the pandemic, which is three years ago now, contact center call volume is up 20%, and 58% of customers say that they want another way to get support without calling. If you’ve been telling your customers how important they are, how much you care and that you offer the best service out there, your contact center better be ready to deliver on that promise.
CE: It often goes unnoticed, but we use call center and contact center interchangeably. They are not the same. Call centers are what we had 20 years ago. Organizations should be running omni-channel contact centers that meet customers where they are, reduce overhead expenses and deliver powerful data for improved decision making. That said, 83% of contact centers are operating on on-premises technology – if they aren’t up at night worrying about this, they should be.
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