By Nina Fernandes
Some years ago, I called the answering service for our medical practice. I was resigning as practice manager for a thriving internal medicine group and wanted the advice the TAS of my replacement’s name. Speaking with a supervisor, I advised her of my pending resignation and new manager’s name for their records. She asked where I was going and I responded that I hadn’t decided. I had several opportunities and would decide in the coming weeks. To my surprise, what came next was an excited “Why don’t you come here? We need a good manager and I’m sure the owners would love to have you!” Taken aback, I politely declined and thanked her for the thought.
Little did I know that that brief conversation would be the beginning of a major career change. The owners of this TAS called the next day, and the next. Admittedly, the idea of having my own answering service to play with was entertaining. After almost 20 years in healthcare, I couldn’t count the number of times I thought “Can’t anyone get it right? How hard can this be? Answer the phone and follow the instructions. Sheesh! Why can’t they get it right!”
After several conversations we agreed to meet and discuss the opportunities available. Telling myself I was motivated by curiosity, and contacts weren’t bad to have, I walked into the most amazing place. Modems firing, lights blinking, a room full of operators wearing headsets and typing like the wind as they moved from caller to caller–I was fascinated.
Where were the boxes of Bonbons and women in curlers and slippers and and…what a contrast this was with the image I had in my mind for all this time! The frightening part was that I knew I wasn’t alone. Most healthcare managers have never seen a TAS and many share similar images. The answering service was often a topic in manager’s meetings or even over lunch.
On my way home I realized I was hooked. My mind was racing with the possibilities. The image of the TAS staff at work was vivid. Who knows about these people? Why didn’t I know about them? Is it a wonder “they can’t get it right” when we don’t know about them and they don’t know about us? Visions of growth and change, bridging the gap between the medical community and the answering service flooded my thoughts.
There was so much to be done, and someone had to do it. Why not pioneer? That was almost six years ago. Since that first day in the first TAS, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most knowledgeable and innovative people in the industry, sharing tips and tricks and tools. This is a dynamic industry in constant motion, yet probably one of the most undervalued, unrecognized and misunderstood of all the integral support services available to the clients we serve. You’re “Just the answering service…You must be understaffed…I want my phone answered by the 3rd ring!” (What?! Does he think we answer phones?!) “What’s wrong with you people? You know that I don’t wear my pager to bed! Are you stupid?” Sound familiar? If it does, change it. At least reduce the occurrence.
An integrated plan to elevate the professional presentation, product quality and profitability can change your TAS. Successfully done, not only can a TAS become more profitable, but it can also open the door to securing a higher level staff with compensation comparable to skilled clerical employees in other industries. The cost savings for retaining vs. replacing operators would provide a handsome savings. It’s possible. An aggressive approach to positive change involves tackling several focuses at once.
- Improved individual operator performance via training and incentives.
- Improved quality of message presentation (brevity and format changes).
- Development of cost effective staffing model.
- Review and transition all low or no profit accounts to an acceptable status. Long term impact includes:
- Increased professional presentation.
- Higher service level with less staff.
- Improved product.
- Improved gross margin.
Performance may vary greatly among the operators. Effective hiring, training and the initiation of a performance incentive program will enhance individual performance, ultimately allowing better traffic management and higher service levels. Does your TAS have a “standard format” for messages? Is it followed? Standardized abbreviations?
Defining message and abbreviation standards will provide an improved product and reduce operator errors. Establishing norms for operator performance, aggressive implementation of call control techniques, and continued “customer care” training will enable your TAS to meet or exceed industry staffing/call volume standards. These changes will increase overall profitability.
Is your TAS operating in “response mode”? This “fire fighting” position too often becomes the mode of a TAS and results in decreased service levels and customer satisfaction. Effective traffic management requires that the clients be setup and managed in ways appropriate and achievable within the confines of a TAS operation. A TAS is not the office and shouldn’t be expected to perform as one. How often has your TAS been surprised by offices that come in late or leave early, resulting in increased hold times and decreased service levels that generate client complaints?
Operating in “response mode” can negatively impact the ability to insure adequate training and development of staff. Lack of available time and energy for effective training and monitoring of performance standards insures ongoing service issues. Service issues generate complaints. Resolution of client complaints requires time and energy from key staff. Key staff is needed to insure training and monitor performance. It’s necessary to break the cycle.
Time based billing is a key tool. Failure to engage clients as partners in the management of their services will leave you at their mercy. How to get their participation? When clients pay for all time used by the TAS, whether voice mail or live operator, they become partners in this process.
It’s in their interest to assist in streamlining their individual accounts. They are less inclined to come in late and leave early on a whim. They become more receptive to auto-attendants and clear guidelines for routing their calls. Now you can develop a lean staffing model that allows you to provide consistent quality service. You can manage your TAS traffic. Many TAS operations are challenged by the impact of low or no profit accounts and the activities associated with those accounts on a daily basis.
Transitioning those accounts to a profitable status may prompt some short term client loss. This volume loss can provide a temporary advantage as the decreased call volume will allow training, procedural and staffing issues to be addressed more effectively. This approach can allow time and opportunity to improve service levels and increase professional presentation, while increasing gross margin. Transitioning clients to time based billing also allows opportunity to enhance their understanding of the capabilities of a TAS vs. their private staff. Education and understanding begin to build the bridge that will serve as a foundation for future discussions and problem resolution.
You can streamline your TAS. You can make it more profitable while increasing your service level and decreasing staffing turnover. You can take the “Driver’s Seat” on your TAS Business. An aggressive approach, accepting short term client loss in lieu of a profitable center producing a higher quality product is the bold alternative.
[From Connection Magazine – March 2001]