Contact Center Series - Part 2: Getting Started

This is part two of our four part series, “The Digital Health Operators Guide to Contact Centers” – access parts onethree, and four.

In the first article of this series, we gave a rundown of the various types of contact centers in healthcare and some high-level advice on how to determine the requirements for your organization’s contact center teams. For this article, we’re taking a deep dive into the process of creating a contact center, with a focus on building your initial tech stack and team.

For most digital healthcare startups at the seed through series A stage, this phase is characterized by “defining the work.” That is, the key focus of this period is understanding what needs to be accomplished to serve your customers. What questions do they ask most frequently? What problems are they facing as they use your product or service? What workflows need to exist to address their issues?

Your goal during this period is to establish an initial organization that can learn rapidly and quickly adapt to serve your stakeholders’ needs, while building the foundation you’ll need to scale once growth takes off.

This is easier said than done. We’ve been down this road a few times, however, and have some advice to help you navigate this tricky stage. In the remainder of this article, we’ll examine three key aspects of building your call center function – your initial tech stack, hiring your first team, and how to prepare for scale.

Building your initial contact center tech stack

In the early days of building a contact center, the role of technology is to help you get started quickly, not solve every problem you might encounter as you grow.

The key here is to stay nimble. Until you have a solid understanding of your technology requirements, it’s impossible to implement a comprehensive solution — and that knowledge is only going to come as you gain experience serving your customers. Agonizing over your early tech stack is a waste of time and energy, especially because most startups end up having to augment — or, in some cases, completely replace — their underlying technology as the organization scales.

Your Contact Center Technology Starter Kit

We have a few recommendations when it comes to building your initial technology stack that allow you to get up and running quickly, while simultaneously setting you up for rapid learning and iteration.

1) Keep your CRM decision simple

Your best bet when starting out is to go with a starter version from one of the time-tested HIPAA-compliant CRM vendors (e.g., Salesforce or Zendesk). While flexible general SaaS tools like Airtable and Google Sheets can seem attractive in the short-term for their ease-of-setup, they are a nightmare to transition out of when it comes time to scale, particularly with regard to transferring the underlying contact data. As an added benefit, many of the time-tested CRMs offer free trials or monthly subscriptions at lower costs with a small number of users.

2) Prioritize measurement capabilities

As noted earlier, your contact center requirements are driven by the needs of your customers, meaning that you should start measuring those needs as early as possible. In practice, this means configuring your CRM to track key contact-related details (contact type, inquiry type, disposition, etc.) and tying CRM data to critical data that lives in other systems — such as product usage or financial data. Doing so allows you to get a handle on what technology solutions and operational improvements to prioritize to drive the greatest impact on customer satisfaction.

3) Don’t overlook intake solutions

You can drive huge efficiency gains and improve customer satisfaction by being smart about how you configure your inquiry intake (including your customer-facing forms and interactive voice response (IVR) systems). While all CRMs come with basic out-of-the-box intake capabilities, consider investing in more advanced intake solutions (such as more sophisticated forms) relatively early in the build out of your tech stack.

Hiring the initial team

Regardless of your initial technology decisions, contact centers are ultimately people-driven teams. This means the success of your contact center hinges, in large part, on the quality of people you bring into your organization — and how well you train, manage, and support them. For now, we’ll focus on hiring, but be sure to check out the next piece in this series for more on scaling your team.

Best practices for hiring contact center teams

To lay a strong foundation for your team and find the right talent, you first need an effective hiring process. Even in the early days, it pays to develop a robust process — both to ensure you’re bringing on the right people and to lay the groundwork for rapid expansion down the road.

1) Set clear expectations for the role

Contact center roles at early-stage healthcare companies can look quite different from those at mature organizations. They’re characterized by ambiguity, rather than well-defined processes.  They experience frequent change as the business rapidly evolves. And they include responsibilities that are not typical in most contact center roles, such as significant amounts of process and knowledge documentation.

Consequently, to ensure you’re bringing in the right candidates, it’s critical to set clear expectations for the role up front. This is not only important within your job description, but across all aspects of the hiring journey — including your interview and offer processes. By doing so, you dramatically increase the odds that you bring in team members who will not only be able to manage this type of environment, but also enjoy and thrive in it.

2) Identify key attributes for ideal candidates

Beyond specific skills and qualifications, there are personality types that thrive in healthcare contact centers. These key attributes vary according to the contact center’s specific needs — sales requires persistence, customer service requires service orientation, etc. — but we’ve found there are also some general qualities shared by successful hires:

  • Adaptability – To ensure your contact center team can manage the ambiguity that often accompanies early-stage companies, it’s critical to find people who thrive in rapidly evolving environments.

  • Communication skills – Contact centers are all about quality interactions, so strong verbal and written communication skills are a must.

  • Empathy – Empathy is a critical driver of customer satisfaction, particularly in the healthcare industry where the nature of the topic is often highly sensitive.

Finally, it’s equally important to know who not to hire. In particular, we often see startups make the mistake of hiring overqualified people into their first contact center roles because that person is looking for a foot in the door. Sometimes it can work, but more often than not it doesn’t. Overqualified candidates in pursuit of upward mobility tend to become frustrated if your organization’s trajectory does not align with their expectations, leading to tension and turnover.

3) Take a broad and creative approach to candidate sourcing

There’s no cheat code for candidate sourcing. In an easy hiring market, platforms like LinkedIn and Indeed can be effective channels for identifying qualified applicants. But in tougher times, you’ll need to get more creative in your approach. For example, we’ve had success with college and university career pages to identify potential employee populations with caregiving backgrounds. We’ve also seen candidates with acting backgrounds perform well given that many index highly on empathy.

At this early stage, it’s important not to fixate on prior experience, unless for highly specialized roles requiring specific expertise. Some of the best hires come from non-traditional backgrounds. In most cases, as long as the underlying capabilities and the interest level are there, the skills can be taught.

4) Develop an effective candidate evaluation process

Once you’ve amassed a qualified talent pool, it’s time to begin the evaluation process. The key is to be effective but efficient. You want your evaluation process to provide a clear picture of the candidate’s capabilities, but you also want to move fast. Ideally, the end-to-end hiring process — from resume drop to hire — should last no more than two weeks‍

Having hired hundreds of people into various sales, customer service, and care team roles, here are our recommendations for designing a fast, effective evaluation process:

  • Keep the application accessible and efficient – These days most contact center candidates are applying to many different jobs, so you don’t want to dissuade them by making the application difficult, inaccessible, or too long. Avoid any required questions or forms that prohibit a candidate from simply dropping their resume.

  • Screen on aptitude, not prior experience in the role – As noted earlier, just because a candidate hasn’t done the exact type of work before doesn’t mean they’re a poor fit. If they’ve worked in a service-related role, chances are they can become an effective member of a customer service team. Likewise, competitive backgrounds often translate well to sales careers, while those experienced in working with senior populations can successfully transfer their skills to care management teams.

  • Use written questions post resume screen – We recommend following the initial resume screen with a series of targeted written questions. Not only do written responses cut back on interview time, they also reveal some important details about the candidate. Questions requiring written responses demand a degree of attention and thoughtfulness, indicating more than a cursory interest in the position. They also test communication skills, which are especially critical in inbound contact center teams where written responses are often required. Here are two types of questions we’ve found to be effective in the evaluation process:‍Hypothetical scenarios the candidate might deal with in the role – Asking the candidate to describe their response to a real-life scenario tests their ability to do the job, and gives them an idea of what the job entails. For example, anonymize a common email request the team might receive from an upset patient and ask them to draft a response.Why they’re interested in this area of healthcare, company, and/or role – This question ensures candidates have thought critically about why the opportunity is interesting to them, and gives you a chance to assess their understanding of your organization and the role. ‍

  • Standardize interviews to ensure consistent assessments – Once a candidate has passed the resume screen and written question components, we recommend running a single interview day with multiple interviews conducted back-to-back. It’s important to ensure the evaluation process is standardized for effective comparison and to prevent bias. Our approach is to line up interviews by key dimensions of the role (for example, one interview tests for empathy, another for service orientation, and so on). Standardizing interviews in this way also enables less experienced interviewers to participate, which is important as you frequently will need to draw on team members without prior interviewing experience.

  • Structure the decision-making process – To ensure efficiency and eliminate bias, we like to have each interviewer score the candidate independently. Scores are then consolidated and reviewed as a group. Most of the time it will be clear which candidates pass the interview and which do not, leading to faster decisions.

Laying the foundation to scale rapidly

In our experience, most first-time contact center leaders don’t sufficiently ready their organization for rapid growth when the time comes. As a consequence, they struggle to effectively navigate these challenging periods, with both their customers and their team members suffering as a result. Additionally, they are forced to reactively request additional resources from their leadership team, which is often a frustrating conversation for all involved.

Instead, aim to proactively prepare your team with a plan for future growth. Help your company leadership and finance teams understand in advance what to expect as contact volumes increase. And make sure to clearly show how the contact center team adds value to the business over time, so you’re seen as an asset instead of purely a cost center.

Developing a plan for future growth

Preparing to scale starts by setting realistic expectations with company leadership. This typically includes:

  • Expected hires based on standard staffing ratios – For example, hiring one manager for every ten agents, with the first manager joining once the fifth agent is hired

  • Expected operations support required over time – When the team is smaller, multiple operations responsibilities will live with a single person. As you scale, you’ll need more specialized support as the volume increases, including:‍

    • Agent onboarding and training

    • Workforce management

    • Process development and product team partnership

    • Knowledge management and team communications

    • Quality assurance

    • Analytics and reporting‍

  • Technology changes and additions – Potential changes to core technology can include the CRM and/or CCaaS system. It also may include more specialized technology to support additional needs, such as:‍

    • Quality assurance

    • Customer satisfaction (CSAT) and net promoter score (NPS) measurement

    • Knowledge management

    • Workforce management

The importance of good documentation

If you thoroughly document the “defining the work” phase, you’ll be rewarded with a foundation to support future growth. Early documentation plays several critical functions as your team begins to scale:

  1. It forms the basis of your training materials and process guides

  2. It dramatically speeds up your ability to onboard new hires

  3. It ensures standardization and supports quality

Make documentation a key responsibility for your early team members — that way you can ensure critical knowledge and processes are disseminated across the team and not simply living in your early team members’ heads (and thus at risk of walking out the door at any time).

A note on setting precedents

One of the more esoteric — but no less important — things to consider when preparing a healthcare contact center for scale are the precedents you set. We’ve seen multiple companies struggle due to restrictive decisions made in the early days. Hardware is a common culprit. If you choose technology that only works for a five-person team (such as expensive Apple laptops), you’re going to be in trouble when the team inevitably grows to one hundred plus.

At the end of the day, scaling is a good problem to have. If you build thoughtfully, establishing a solid foundational team and developing a clear plan to manage rapid growth, you’ll be well-positioned to navigate these periods when they inevitably come.

In the next piece in our contact centers series, we dive into perhaps the most challenging phase of building a successful contact center: scaling the team.

Read nextContact Center Series – Part 3: From Startup to Growth