Improving service quality and performance is a never-ending quest for contact centers. The quality management process, once mostly carried out post-call for management and agents, has evolved into a real-time activity that is a vital part of a proactive strategy for continuous improvement.
Ideally, training and quality assurance should work hand-in-hand to ensure that frontline agents deliver a consistent, efficient and superior experience. Quality veterans like Randal Hiester have been leading the charge toward integrating training and coaching with the QA process to make it more transparent and impactful for agents and center leaders.
Hiester is Director of Quality, Training and Knowledge Management at Health First, a not-for-profit community healthcare system covering Brevard County, Florida. His experience overseeing quality management programs spans more than 26 years—from managing quality for a print production facility that included five plants, 16 departments and 2,000 employees, to administering the quality programs at the Pennsylvania Department of Health and at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Pennsylvania. In his current role, Hiester oversees a team of 15 auditors who perform close to 12,000 audits each month for 11 different departments, including the call center.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Hiester about some of the QM improvement lessons learned throughout his career. The following are a few of the best practices that he shared.
Use Independent Auditors to Ensure Integrity
Some call centers still rely on their frontline supervisors to conduct quality monitoring, but internal auditing is never an ideal situation. Why? “When things get busy, contact centers tend not to audit as much, or they may pull some of the auditors to take calls,” Hiester explains.
Audit integrity also may be brought into question should your contact center be required to undergo a formal compliance audit by a third party. “When an external auditor comes in, they won’t have as much confidence in the compliance protocols that you’ve audited yourself versus an independent department auditing internal customers,” he says.
Provide Agents with Immediate Feedback
Hiester favors giving agents immediate feedback after an audit rather than providing delayed results, such as with a monthly scorecard. At Health First, audits are performed using a live system. Immediately following every audit, the agents receive their results via email (i.e., a PDF of the audit template along with their score), and management also has instant access to audits through the QA system.
Importantly, Hiester adds, agents are sent their passed audits as well as failed ones. “We feed them everything immediately,” he says. “When employees receive only failed audits, it’s not taken well. It’s easier to handle and accept a failed audit if you also receive all of the good ones.”
Upgrade from Manual Processes
Many call centers still take a do-it-yourself approach to performance management, as Strategic Contact’s Lori Bocklund pointed out in her recent Tech Corner column (“How to Excel with Performance Management Tools and Processes,” February 2019). “Too often, the dominant ‘tool’ is Excel, and that is not cutting it for quality monitoring feedback, performance scorecards, weekly reports or anything else the typical center needs to manage resources effectively,” she noted.
Hiester would agree that QM requires more robust tools. He should know; he has a track record for improving contact center performance with enhanced processes and tools. In his current and previous organizations, Hiester spearheaded projects to replace manual processes with a customized system he calls PAT—the Plan Assessment Tool. PAT consolidates enterprisewide audit information and protocols into one tool. Audit templates are customized for each department and auditors can be crosstrained to audit other functions outside of their primary area.
In the Health First contact center, PAT has replaced the previous process in which multiple spreadsheets were used to track who to audit and when, how often individuals were audited and their results. The manual approach held limited value for management. “They didn’t have reports that were queryable. They didn’t have information that was easily historically validated,” Hiester recalls. “They didn’t have information that the management could get on their own, and they didn’t have information that would roll up to an executive summary report.”
PAT gives managers access to real-time information at their fingertips and the ability to quickly and easily access information on individual agents, for instance, to dispute an agent’s audit or pull individual reports to see which areas an agent has struggled with or needs to improve.
Collaborate Across Teams
Hiester noted that change management requires buy-in from everyone involved. Transparency and collaboration among leadership teams are key.
At Health First, department leaders held weekly meetings to discuss quality and training challenges. To secure department leaders’ support for change, Hiester identified the performance needs of each area. Helping them to achieve it became his team’s main goal. “We will do whatever it takes to get people the information, audits and training to make them successful,” he states. “It’s not a one-person show. It’s not us versus them. It’s all of us doing what’s right for the members. That’s the approach we take.”
Involve QA in New-hire Onboarding and Training
Call centers typically rely on quality monitoring to identify skills gaps and opportunities for additional coaching and training once agents are on the floor. But Hiester believes that the quality process has more impact when it is introduced early on—during the onboarding stage.
At Health First, quality auditors are actively involved in new-hire training. About three-quarters of the way through classroom training, auditors will provide an overview of the role of the quality department and the auditing process. New-hires are presented with a detailed explanation of the audit template and how each line item is rated.
Toward the end of classroom training, auditors are brought in again for three full days of on-the-job training. Agents take calls, one at a time, as auditors assess their performance on a screen displayed for the class. At the end of the call, auditors discuss the evaluation, areas where the agent performed well along with opportunities to improve their score.
Using this “hot seat” approach during training with members of the quality team helps new-hires to transition more smoothly to the call center floor, Hiester says. It’s not a new experience, so it alleviates much of the fear of taking lives calls on their own, he adds.
Track Coaching to Ensure Accountability
Once an agent’s audit is completed, contact center management is responsible for coaching that individual. In a hectic call center environment, it can be difficult for supervisors to find the time to coach or to ensure that agents have sufficient off-phone or off-channel time for coaching. To ensure effective follow-through, the PAT system includes a sign-off on coaching.
“Not only do we monitor the associates, but we report on how well and how much coaching was conducted—because if we don’t coach our staff, we can’t expect them to get better,” Hiester says.
Higher Quality Out of the Gate
The contact center often acts as the hiring portal for an organization. Employees start their careers on the center floor, spending time interacting with customers before moving into higher positions elsewhere.
It’s a great benefit to the organization to have employees in positions across departments who have had first-hand experience working with its customers. For the contact center, it means a continuous cycle of hiring and training, and often a dip in service quality as new-hires find their footing.
At Health First, the integrated approach to training and quality assurance has ensured that new associates are better prepared for the transition to the call center floor. Quality scores have consistently risen year over year, and there is no significant drop in quality between a new associate taking a call and a more experienced one. Those are results that Hiester and his team can be proud of.
“The call center is the most important part of the health plan because the associates are the only people who have direct contact with the members,” he says. “Our new associates are better prepared today than they’ve ever been, and the quality scores show that.”