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Creating Customers for Life through World Class Customer Service

How do you completely transform the way that customers relate to a company? By completely transforming the way that company relates to its customers.

The Context

In 2005, “Health Services, Inc.” (HSI) approached Vantage Partners for help with an ambitious goal: to serve millions of individual health plan subscribers in a way that would create “customers for life.” Previous efforts to improve the professionalism and service level provided by call center staff had yielded significant gains across a number of traditional customer service metrics, but HSI’s leadership wanted to do even better. They aspired to set themselves apart in the marketplace by consistently providing a qualitatively different experience for individual members in each and every interaction. Working with Vantage, HSI created a new paradigm for the call center, one in which every call was seen and leveraged as an opportunity to build and strengthen the enterprise’s relationship with each individual member. 

To that end, HSI partnered with Vantage to design and implement a transformational initiative called Heart of Service, a multi-pronged approach that sought to effect a fundamental change in the way front-line staff interacted with members.

The Approach

Health Services, Inc. and Vantage Partners began by carefully analyzing each and every stage in the lifecycle of call center employees to determine where and how to effect a step change in customer service capabilities. This included everything from talent acquisition, to new hire training, to professional development and coaching, to performance evaluations and incentive systems. Based on systematic diagnostic assessment, a comprehensive effort was undertaken to transform customer service operations.

Talent Acquisition
Vantage helped HSI develop behavioral interviewing techniques, including the use of role plays on hypothetical customer service scenarios, and then equipped (through training, coaching, and candidate evaluation tools) talent acquisition staff to employ the new approach. As a result, Health Services Inc. was able, for the first time, to systematically screen for candidates who displayed strong interpersonal skills in addition to technical competence. 

Training and Skill Development
Training thousands of customer service staff to be genuinely curious, empathetic, and engaged on each and every call – including those involving life and death issues, complex problems, and strong emotions – posed an even greater challenge. Internal training staff were expert at teaching technical content (e.g., product knowledge), but lacked experience training for interpersonal and relationship management competencies. Prior soft skills training efforts, while well intentioned and effective to some extent, had, over time, devolved into training customer service staff to follow scripts. In many cases, the thinking behind the scripts was sound, but once the thinking ossified into the script, it created a profound barrier between member and service rep. Service representatives became so focused on following the script, that they had a very difficult time listening to members. The very scripts which were designed to ensure a standard of service quality for factors like politeness, empathy, and competence, had the opposite effect. Members could easily perceive when service reps were following a script rather than truly listening to what they had to say or responding with authentic concern. Customer advocates felt disempowered and demoralized, and establishing a genuine interpersonal connection became increasingly difficult.

Vantage worked with HSI to develop and deliver a completely new, multi-part training curriculum focused on critical Heart of Service skills. Rather than teaching to Powerpoint slides, and following a highly scripted syllabus, training focused on creating a classroom environment that was as consistent as possible with the vision for how member calls should be handled. Objectives were clearly defined, but open dialogue was encouraged. The majority of time was spent role-playing member service scenarios, with opportunities to try out and then collectively evaluate the pros and cons of many different approaches. Over time, individuals developed the ability to self-diagnose difficult calls. Rather than simply following a script or reactively responding to difficult member behavior, customer advocates built the judgment and skills to interact with each caller as a human being, to identify and resolve complex issues, and to deal authentically and effectively with the strong emotions that often surrounded those issues.

Coaching and Performance Feedback
Recognizing that individuals’ behavior is not simply a matter of skills and training, but is shaped and constrained by their organizational environment, Vantage worked with HSI to implement a new coaching and audit structure. Vantage provided advanced training and coaching to managers and audit staff on how to provide feedback to front line staff in a way that was direct, supportive, and that itself instantiated and modeled heart of service behavior. Vantage worked side-by-side with team leaders and first line managers to provide coaching on the floor to front line staff, integrated with classroom training, to further develop and reinforce skills. Weekly team meetings were used as laboratories for front line staff and managers to continue to practice heart of service skills with each other, to reflect on what they could do as individuals to improve, and to constructively discuss what they needed from senior management and from the organization to help them offer world-class service to members.

Leadership and Organizational Culture
Diagnostic analysis and ongoing work with the executive leadership team uncovered a gap between the messages senior leaders were trying to send, and the messages that were actually being received (often filtered through many layers of management) by front line staff. Call center staff felt tremendous pressure to focus on queue time and rapid resolution of member issues. Coupled with a lack of skill for asking probing questions in a non-threatening way (as well as a lack of confidence and fear of venturing off script), this dynamic led, in fact, to longer and more frustrating calls, and more repeat calls because members’ issues were not fully understood or addressed on the initial call.
Vantage worked with HSI senior leadership to carefully evaluate all the organizational and cultural levers at their disposal to send and reinforce clear messages about their vision for customer service and expectations of front line staff. A major task was helping call center staff make sense of messages that seemed, on their face, inconsistent. For example, “Focus on the member and meet their needs, and be efficient.” The performance review process was adjusted to focus more explicitly on interpersonal and relationship management skills, in addition to technical factors (e.g., was caller identity verified? was information provided accurate? and the like.)

The Results

In the quarter following the first phase of the Heart of Service initiative, Health Services Inc. achieved a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction.

The difference was not only felt by customers. Members of the front-line customer service staff noted a profound change in the level of engagement, control, and satisfaction they felt in doing their jobs. 

“Before Heart of Service,” one customer service representative said, “when faced with an angry caller, I would just let my emotions take over; I’d react to them the same way I felt like they were treating me. But now I realize I have a choice. I try to see things from their perspective, to understand why they may feel so angry or frustrated, or maybe even scared. And that helps me remember that they’re not intentionally attacking me. That helps me stay balanced so I can take the lead and make the conversation more productive.”

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