In the complex world of Medicare administration, no one understands the need to deliver quick, accurate and up-to-date information to program providers better than Jerri Pigg-Shoemake. A 35-year veteran of contracted Medicare administration, Pigg-Shoemake has expertise in various aspects of the program having worked in claims adjustment, customer service and appeals management. In August 2017, she stepped into her current position as customer service manager overseeing the contact center for WPS Government Health Administrators, a Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) which provides claims processing and customer service to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).
Running a contact center is not a new role for Pigg-Shoemake. She is an accomplished leader and was recently recognized by ICMI with its 2019 Global Contact Center Award for Best Contact Center Manager. The WPS Government Health Administrators contact center also received ICMI’s Best Small Contact Center Award. I had the honor of speaking with Pigg-Shoemake to learn more about her approach to contact center leadership.
A Continuous Cycle of Improvement
Pigg-Shoemake is passionate about the practice of continuous improvement. Her tenure in Medicare administration has endowed her with deep insights into the daily challenges faced by program providers, as well as how to leverage technology, training and the power of innovative thinking to optimize processes.
“When I came back to the contact center in August, I found that a lot of things had changed over the years, but our mission remained the same,” she says. “First and foremost, our role is to reduce the burden on the Medicare providers that we service so that they can get the information they need about the program.”
Identifying sources of burden and coming up with solutions to simplify, streamline and improve processes is a perpetual topic of discussion for Pigg-Shoemake, her management team and frontline staff. “I want us to be forward-thinking as a Medicare administrative contractor. We continually ask our team to consider how our actions impact our customers. For instance, we may have certain performance goals, but how do those translate to the provider’s needs? We have to look beyond the day-to-day issues, identify the problems that exist and be innovative to come up with new ideas to solve them,” she explains. “We always emphasize to our staff that the providers are more than just a voice on the other end of the phone. They are the crux of our business, and it’s up to us to see how we can serve them better. That’s why we’re here.”
It’s a continuous cycle, she says, adding that it doesn’t end when you’ve achieved your goal—there is always room for improvement.
Leading by Example
Pigg-Shoemake is a proponent of innovation and team engagement—two key themes that are intertwined and woven into the contact center culture. To promote innovation, she regularly engages one-on-one with individual agents and encourages them to apply creative thinking to process improvement. At the same time, she strives to maintain a strong team-based environment in which everyone is in sync, driving toward the same goals and working together for the team’s success. It can be challenging, she says, to find the right balance.
Not surprisingly, Pigg-Shoemake is a firm believer in leading by example. “I’m not the type of manager who sits from afar and delegates—I’m closely involved in the work. You have to know how the work is performed before you can make good decisions about it,” she notes. “I want to be able to demonstrate to my staff what needs to be done and how to take action.”
In addition to modeling the types of behaviors she expects from her team, Pigg-Shoemake strives to ensure an upward and downward flow of communication. “I have an open-door policy with my staff. They can come talk to me anytime with any questions, or if they feel like they want to share an idea or just get to know me better,” she says. In addition to informal communication, Pigg-Shoemake often holds skip-level meetings with frontline staff. “I don’t just interact with the supervisors that report to me. I will have meetings with their staff so that they can feel comfortable sharing information directly with me, and they feel like they’re being heard,” she says.
Building an Environment of Trust and Transparency
Making sure that everyone stays focused on the same goals requires a conscious effort when team members are distributed across multiple offices located in different states. Pigg-Shoemake stresses that it’s vital to foster an environment of trust and transparency. Doing so means ensuring that data and information are accessible and available to all team members when they need it. “Whether it’s work instructions, updates or process changes, we make sure that the information is clear and in a place where they can access it,” she states. “We don’t want our frontline staff to have to wait for someone else to give it to them.”
Daily huddles also help to keep the management team up to date on center performance, current issues and progress toward goals. “Every morning, we meet for 30 minutes to go over all of our data, our metrics, the things that happened the day before, and where we’re going today. It sets the pace for the day. Everyone knows where our metrics are, what our hot topics are and what needs to be addressed. If there are questions or urgent issues, that is the time to bring them up,” Pigg-Shoemake explains. “Our daily huddles contribute a lot toward bringing together a diverse group at different locations. You’ve got to have that daily touchpoint to keep everyone on the same page.”
Creating Opportunities for Team Engagement
With a widely distributed team, you might think that it would be challenging to maintain a positive work environment. At WPS, individual responsibility forms the basis of a healthy culture. “People own their actions,” Pigg-Shoemake says. “We are customer-focused so we know that our actions impact our customers. We are also driven and passionate about the work that we do and are committed to it.”
Frequent feedback is also crucial, she says. “When you have staff in different locations, you have to look for opportunities for engagement.”
One such opportunity is ongoing training. Once a month, WPS closes the contact center so that all staff members can attend training. As part of the day-long event, Pigg-Shoemake holds an open communications session via a conference bridge or Skype. Team members are encouraged to pose their questions about work- or policy-related issues, soft skills, or anything else that may be distracting them from their work—for instance, how to handle different call types.
“Everyone gets to hear the questions and answers and to provide feedback, so they build upon each other’s input,” she says. “It really fosters a great team environment—especially when discussing the issues that people are struggling with, whether it’s certain types of calls or parts of the work instructions. Their teammates will jump in and offer suggestions or shortcuts. Even though they may not be face-to-face, they build team relationships by helping each other out and keeping that open communication going.”
A Rewarding Role
The benefits of building a strong team became evident over the past year as the WPS contact center rolled out new systems and tools to streamline processes and its training program. Although the project required considerable adaptability, staff training and change, the center was able to implement the technology on time and exceed the project goals. Pigg-Shoemake is appreciative of her team’s effort in making it happen. “It took all of us working together to be successful,” she notes.
Overall, Pigg-Shoemake feels privileged to be part of the Medicare program. She is proud of the work that her team does every day to provide services to beneficiaries and providers, and of the opportunity to be a resource for her staff. “The contact center is not always an easy job. Being on the phones every day talking with customers who may be upset or who need information quickly can be stressful. My job is to make sure that our frontline team has the tools and the training to be able to perform their jobs well. If I can help my staff to do that with a sense of pride and with quality, it makes me very happy.”
As a leader, Pigg-Shoemake feels that it is important to recognize individuals and support their development. “We need to coach our staff and hold them accountable for the work they do, but at the same time, it’s essential to recognize them for their individual contributions. We need to give people room to grow and projects that expand their experiences,” she says. “The more that we invest in our staff, encourage innovation and provide positive feedback, the more they will help our organization to improve and succeed. Every organization is founded on its people. Working with them and celebrating successes with them is key because you learn from each other, and you depend on each other.”