Call Center: 101

Workers at a health care call center.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: If you have health insurance and we sure hope you do, chances are you've spent some time on the phone trying to make sense of your paperwork. What's approved. What's denied. Which part is an actual bill. Well our sister program Marketplace recently featured a story about a call center in Kentucky where the Convergys Corporation trains insurance industry phone reps in how to express empathy. Our listener inbox overflowed. A typical comment went something like this: "Empathy, my... fill-in-the-blank." We asked reporter Gregory Warner to lead us through how a health insurance call center rep is created.


Gregory Warner: If you show up at this call center in Erlanger, Kentucky trying to get a job answering the phones for a large health plan, first you'll take a typing test, and a math quiz. Then you'll sit down at a computer for an empathy exam.

Christine Kowalcyzk: If the individual is lacking in that area, empathy's a very hard thing to train.

Christine Kowalcyzk is a vice president at Convergys. She oversees the whole empathy push. She's agreed to take the multiple choice test. This question begins with a simulation of a frustrated caller.

Frustrated Recorded Voice: lost in a maze in a telephone menu, been transferred to three different departments and then put on hold for a total of 30 minutes. The customer service is horrible! All I want to do is pay my bill.

Now, you have to choose the correct empathetic response. Is it answer A...

Kowalcyzk: I'm sorry you had difficulty reaching the customer service department, our phone connection can be unreliable.

OK that sounds pretty understanding.

Kowalcyzk: I can tell you right now that's probably not the right answer?

OK maybe not so much.

Kowalcyzk: Why, because what you're doing is validating the negativity of the caller.

In other words telling the caller that the company messed up. Next?

Kowalcyzk: B, I'm sorry you had difficulty reaching the customer service department I will speak to my supervisor about reducing your bill because of the hardships you've had?

Warner: Well this seems pretty empathetic. B.

Kowalcyzk: It is absolutely empathetic but not yet appropriate.

Right. You gotta sweat a lot more than that to get your bill reduced. Next?

Kowalcyzk: C, I'm sorry you had difficulty reaching the customer service department, it can be confusing, but I will make a recommendation to my supervisor about simplifying the process.

OK, I'm guessing Christine's going to say this answer is wrong too. Because the art of empathy as it's practiced here in the call center is: acknowledge the concern without validating it. Defuse the caller without actually committing yourself to any course of action. As in:

Kowalcyzk: D, I'm sorry you had difficulty reaching the customer service department, my name is David and I'm going to help you pay your bill.

There's a reason this is the answer we always end up with. Companies like Convergys get hired by your insurance company to handle its customer service calls. But Convergys's goal is to get rid of you as quickly as possible. Agents have a target to finish an average call in 3 minutes 30 seconds. It's like speed dating, 125 times a day. With people who are scared, anxious, frustrated, and confused.

Montage of Agents I care, I understand...
I understand your frustration regarding this issue, or...
I must apologize for any information or I say I'll be glad to help you with that!
I do apologize that you've had to go through this many times...
I understand. Let me help you.

All that empathy language is the sound of the call agent trying to manage our emotions and keep the phone call flowing. Agents get penalized by their supervisors if they let the call get away from them.

Danielle Witt: When the call gets away from you, that definition means to me, when the person calling in takes control. They're leading the call.

Call agent Danielle Witt answers each call with something pretty standard.

Witt: Thank you for calling customer service my name is Danielle how may I help you?

Then she waits for your next move. If you ask about your benefits, she'll offer a list of providers, if you ask about providers she'll send you a google map. Because the company has learned that the most efficient call is one where the customer says nothing except for yes, no and what's your pin number. And though we feel like we're the ones in charge when we call, Danielle says, actually, we want to be led.

Witt: It tends to be that the customer doesn't like to take control. Would rather not.

And so the Convergys Corporation spends a lot of time analyzing the one billion calls they get a year to determine what words neutralize us and make us surrender. Agents are trained to have a confident tone of voice so we don't doubt them and hang up and call back.

Kowalcyzk: It's a science and art that is just amazing.

Christine Kowalcyzk, the vice president, can watch you struggle through an automated phone maze.

Kowalcyzk: You don't know how many consumers will immediately try to find what's the one number that's gonna get me out of this box and into a live agent. Absolutely! Do you do it you're laughing because you do it aren't you! Yeah. Absolutely!

Christine says the automated phone system is cheaper than letting you talk to a human being. So if a company pays Convergys enough to staff a lot of call agents.

Kowalcyzk: You push zero you're getting right to an agent.

But if the company stints on its customer service.

Kowalcyzk: You push every single number you're never going anywhere.

The challenge for any company is to juggle their customer service and their bottom line. For health plans this is even more of a question because their customers need so much time and help on the phone. One of the call center supervisors even told me.

Angela: I believe that no one will understand their health plan. I'll never understand mine.

So Convergys is now trying to sell insurance companies on a new approach. Call it the behavioral approach. The companies will analyze so much data about their customers and customer patterns, they'll be able to tell you why you're calling even before you say hello.

Robot Voice: I see you are calling about a recent medical claim processed on October 30th.

In that not so distant future, the most empathetic voice you hear might just be a robot's.

In Erlanger, Kentucky; I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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