Does Your Call Center Deliver Death By A Thousand Calls?

A few weeks ago, five miles into my run, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had passed seven runners, had a nice comfortable rhythm, no insurmountable aches, and Crosby Stills & Nash banging away on my phone. I don’t like being passed—never have. Some people say I’m competitive. They say other things too, but this is a family show.

I’m a mile away from my car when I see a slight blurring movement out of the corner of my left eye. A second later I am passed by a young woman wearing a blue and yellow, midriff-revealing spandex contraption. Her abs are tight enough that I could have bounced a quarter off of them. She is pushing twins in an ergonomic stroller that looked like it was designed by the same people who designed the Big Wheel. I stared at her long enough to notice that not only was she not sweating, she didn’t even appear winded. She returned my glance with a smile that seemed to suggest that someone my age should consider doing something less strenuous—like chess. Game, set, match.

Having recovered nicely from that ego deflation,  today at the gym I decide to work out on the Stairmaster, the one built like a step escalator. I place my book on the reading stand, slip on my readers—so much for the Lasik surgery, and start to climb.

Five minutes into my climb, a spandex-clad woman chipper enough to be the Stepford twin of the girl I encountered on my run mounts the adjoining Stairmaster. We exchange pleasantries, she asks what I’m reading, and we return to our respective workouts. The first thing I do is to toss my readers into my running bag. I steal a glance at the settings on her machine and am encouraged that my METS reading is higher than hers, even though I have no idea whether that is good or bad.

Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. I am thirsty, and water is dripping off me like I had just showered with one of Kohler’s full body shower fixtures. I want to take a drink and I want to towel off, but I will not be the first to show weakness. Sooner or later she will need a drink. I can hold out, I tell myself. Twenty-five minutes—she breaks. I wait another two minutes before drinking, just to show her I really didn’t need it.
She eyeballs me. Game on. She cranks up her steps per minute to equal mine. Our steps are in sync. I remove my hands from the support bars as a sign that I don’t need the support. Without turning my head, I see she’s noticed. She makes a call from her cell to demonstrate that she has the stamina to exercise and talk.

When she hangs up I ask her how long she usually does this machine—we are approaching forty minutes and I have lost all feeling in my legs. She casually replies that she does it until she tires, indicating she’s got a lot left in her. I tell her I lifted for an hour before I started; she gives me a look to suggest she’s not buying that. I add another ten steps a minute to my pace. She matches me step for step.

Fifty minutes. I’m done toying with her. I tell Spandex I’m not stopping until she does. She simply smiles. Her phone rings and she pauses her machine—be still my heart—and talks for a few minutes. I secretly scale down my pace, placing my towel over the readout hoping she won’t notice. She steps down from the machine. My muscles are screaming for me to quit, but I don’t until I see that she’s left the gym.

Victory at any cost. What’s the point? For what was lost, for what was gained. Men versus women. Customers versus call centers. Most groups deny that animus exists; yet neither will yield. Customers want help; agents are forced to follow rules that hurt the business. The customer is always right; or not. Turns out the phrase makes a better bumper sticker than it does a business philosophy. Nobody’s business policies reflect that attitude. Listen to how call center agents are instructed to respond to callers. Compare that with what they are instructed not to do for the callers.

Agents are never told, ‘Do whatever it takes to please the caller.’ Most agents are mandated to minimize the negative impact of the call to the firm, without regard to the negative impact to the customer. Remember the last time you tried to dispute a health insurance claim? Death by a thousand cuts—or a thousand calls. As it turns out, death occurs usually by the seventh call. If your organization can manage to continue to deny the claim seven times, there is almost no chance that the person will ever call again.

And that is why, given the choice, over fifty percent of the people who have to interact with your company, always go to your website first. They do not want to talk to you—not you personally, but someone from your organization. They’ve already been there, done that, and the experience has never been pleasant. If you doubt me, call your payer just for fun. While the experience may bring on several feelings, the one word that will not come to mind is ‘fun.’

This has been the case since way back when Al Gore invented the telephone. Nobody ever calls just to pass the time. In fact, prior attempts to call have left them with a bad experience. And so people delay calling until they have no other choice. Ask your customers, they will confirm that.

May I leave you with a question? What would happen to health systems and payers if their call centers agents were given one simple rule to follow? Do whatever it takes to do what the caller is asking of you.


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