Revolutionizing Pharmaceutical Contact Centers: Overcoming Challenges in the Pharma Call Center Industry
Kimberly Brue | June 22, 2023
Call centers live at the heart of healthcare communication. But, all call centers are probably the most disliked aspect of the business from both sides of the table. In an article by Fonolo, it was said, "Only 26 percent of patients/consumers1 responded positively when asked if they believe customer service call centers provide great support, compared to 49 percent who did not." Due to the nature of call centers, their poor experience could stem from a number of things. But, the most likely, and most common, is the wait time. Because, let's face it, no one wants to sit there listening to hold music.
In a survey that was taken in 2015, the average hold time for pharma call centers was 3.22 seconds2. After a patient was kept on hold for any longer than that, an average of 13 percent of patients/callers hung up. In any industry, call centers are meant to be the fasted form of customer support for consumers with pressing questions regarding a product or service. With that being said, call centers hold even more importance in the pharmaceutical industry. When it comes to your health, we can all agree that those questions are held at the highest of priority because it matters most to the quality of life you live, which puts more pressure on pharma call centers to function more efficiently and without error.
Here are the various ways that call centers are used in the pharmaceutical industry:
- Providing medical advice
- Collecting payments
- Sharing medical/financial information
- Scheduling laboratory tests
- Scheduling diagnostic examinations
- Scheduling doctor appointments
- Pharmaceutical purchases of services
- Patient bill inquires
When it comes to pharma call centers, the inability to address call center challenges quickly can result in a noticeable and permanent loss to your company's bottom line.33 percent of consumers3 say they consider switching companies after just one bad experience with a call center agent. 60 percent say they consider switching after 2-3 bad experiences.
So, how can we solve the 7 major call center challenges that the pharma industry faces?
In this day and age, there are lots of other digital customer support options to choose from. But, the call center is still alive and well, but not without its challenges.
Read on to learn about the 7 major challenges plaguing pharma call centers, and how the right technology can help manage or eliminate those issues.
1. Staffing and Employee Turnover
In the United States, call center turnover rates vary between 30-45% which is above the national average by 15.1%. So, why is this important? Many jobs have high turnover rates, but that doesn't necessarily mean poor results to the company. For every call center agent that has been let go, the company has lost much more than just an agent. They've lost the time and money that was invested in training, recruitment, admin costs, and the inevitable costs of finding a suitable replacement. However, when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry, there is a unique difference that makes call center staffing challenges a critical aspect of doing business: patient trust. Pharma call center agents are highly trained in a number of different compliance measures and are well-versed in product use and misuse. This training is very important because of it both sets and satisfies the customer's expectations when calling in on a health-related issue. They can rest assured that their answers will be properly and thoroughly answered. But, how do we combat pharma call center turnover?
The Solution to Call Center Staffing Challenges?
In a call center environment, an agent can be let go for any number of reasons. In this case, we'll use the reason that can be most common, they just feel undervalued. For any job and career, no matter how much money is earned doing so, the feeling of being held at high value results in better work being done. To ensure call center agents remain held at a higher value, pharma companies can invest in call analytics, call monitoring, and interactive voice responses (IVR). With the correct training on top of this, pharma call center agents can be more prepared to answer tough questions and refrain from running to management for answers. This makes call center agents feel more confident in their work and helps them set goals, which will ultimately show in the way they handle calls with patients and their questions regarding their health.
2. Call Center Agent Dissatisfaction
As noted briefly above, when employees are satisfied and taken care of, it drastically shows in the quality of work they provide. This has been a long-time challenge for pharma call center firms. Call center agents put in about 9 to 10 hours of work per day sitting down and constantly remaining on the phone with different people. A mental toll also is put on these agents when calls don't go so smoothly, and patients or customers can get out of hand. For agents with a starting salary of around $25,000, there's more than a 25 percent turnover rate within their first six months of employment. For call center agents with a starting salary of around $30,000, there's a less then 10% turnover within the same period of time.
According to a LinkedIn report4, on top of low wages, compensation remains one of the biggest challenges in recruitment for a call center. With the growing dissatisfaction of agents and the high turnover rate mentioned above, companies will need to invest more money in to recruiting and replacing those agents. On average, it costs about $2,500 to hire one new call center agent.
The Simple Solution to Unhappy Call Center Reps?
Other than the obvious solution of a wage and benefit increase, there's an alternative.
The solution is an application called "Gamification". Gamification is the process of turning work into a competition among co-workers. It often includes keeping score and offering a reward for the highest earner in the department. Not only will it make working at the call center more fun, but it would also result in your employees being more patient-centric and more confident in the solutions that they are providing. After implementing gamification, the focus is shifted from the personal dissatisfaction and the low amount of confidence your agents feel, to being super confident and satisfied which will result in better engagement with patients that are calling. Especially when dealing with patient healthcare, the knowledge and ability to help quickly before the patient decides they can find more answers themselves online is what makes or breaks pharma call centers. No one likes a WebMD educated patient. This gamification application also helps trains agents to better provide useful information to patients with even the hardest questions.
3. Call Center Agent Health
As we mentioned earlier, call center agents are sedentary for HOURS, which can take a toll on their physical, emotional, and mental health. This challenge plays an essential role in how they go about their work and represent your company. It has been proven in many different studies that physical fitness and maintain health can result in higher employee productivity. On top of sitting at a desk for 9-10 hours of the day, call center agents are at risk of a lot more health issues while on the job. Sitting for an extended period of time, being yelled at over the phone, feeling undervalued, eating unhealthy working lunches, and massive amounts of stress are all different issues call center agents can undergo. Now, when dealing with patients over the phone, you want your call center agents to be confident, friendly and prepared to help the patient in every way possible. So, why does the health of call center agents constitute a major challenge call centers face?
The Solution to Sedentary Call Center Life?
Unfortunately, you can't exactly make call centers mobile. However, there are a few simple changes that you can implement to help improve the physical health of your call center agents. Aside from including a gym membership in the employee benefits package and allowing ample break time for off-campus lunches, technology plays a huge part in how their physical fitness can improve while on the job. This can be done by implementing digital health monitoring devices or standing desks in the workplace. Whether it's equipping agents with smartwatches, apps, or software on the computer, their health can be tracked and monitored. The simple knowledge of their personal health can result in healthier agents with a clearer mind when going back to work and more productive conversations with patients. This is opposed to dry, stressed, and underachieved conversations that will only hurt your pharma call center reputation and business.
4. Underutilized Call Center Metrics
In such a crowded and complex industry as pharma is, metrics and analyzing analytics are a huge part of what can boost pharma call centers performance or hurt it, if done incorrectly. Traditionally, call centers have analyzed metrics such as speed to answer and the average handling times. There's no doubt that these are very important, but they only give a view of the agent's performance, not the caller's experience.
In a pharma 3.0 environment, the patient experience is paramount to try any other metric.
Remember, patients are taking it in their own hands to control their health and have even less patience than many other industries with customer service lines. If you don't have the answer they are looking for fast enough, they will Google or WebMD the answer. Which, unfortunately, may be detrimental to their health. So, while speed to answer is essential, the quality of experience and validity of the answer is more important. Another caveat to the underutilization of call center data is the poor management and organization of that data. Traditionally, data would be entered into an Excel spreadsheet, and then a call center manager would have to spend an extensive amount of time going through the scattered data. Fortunately, there's a simple way to avoid the stress of managing rows upon rows of data!
The Solution to Scattered Call Center Data?
The solution to this challenge that call centers have traditionally faced is cloud computing. Cloud-based call center solutions offer the ability to analyze large amounts of data in one location so that actionable and comprehensible 5 insights can be produced. Also, cloud-based call center solutions can offer results in real-time. This may be the biggest factor when addressing problems with metrics.
Optimization is essential for pharma call centers to grow and improve, so the availability of real-time data and results offers a huge advantage. The cloud allows for agile management, meaning that changes can be addressed in a matter of seconds rather than weeks. The pharmaceutical industry is more crowded than ever, and every aspect of the industry tends to move very fast and doing things the "old" way can be more of a liability than anything. The transition to a cloud-based call center can help management and individual agents gain actionable insights from each call, which in turn helps them better serve the customers immediately and in the future.
5. Patient Self-Reliance
As we've been covering throughout the point above, the digital age has caused patients to be more and more self-reliant when it comes to finding a solution to the problem that they're facing. This ends up putting more pressure on the pharma industry, and specifically, the call centers, to do their job more quickly and efficiently. Traditionally, when patients had questions or concerns with their health, they would go directly to their healthcare provider or go through call centers. There was less pressure on call centers with speed to answer and handling time because the wait was worth the result for the patient. Now, times have changed. 50 percent of patients prefer to avoid traditional service channels and seek out solutions on their own. Additionally, 70 percent of patients expect a company to provide self-service features.
The Solution to Impatient Patients?
No matter which way you look at it, patients, and people, in general, are always going to need advice when dealing with their health or service they may not fully understand. We've always thought of call centers as just over-the-phone service, obviously because of the name "call" centers. But, the service doesn't have to stop there! Pharma call center services can extend to other digital platforms in an effort to better provide patients/callers with the information that they need, in full and as fast as possible. There are many more self-serve resources that you can implement, but these kind of services are a great addition to traditional call centers. They provide convenient 24/7 service for patients and act as the first point of contact for patients so that they are more informed and can better articulate their needs when they do use the call centers.
While Artificial Intelligence is a rather new and celebrated aspect of pharma call centers, we all need to be honest. Nobody really likes dealing with automated responses for too long. The problem with artificial intelligence is not the technology itself, but how call centers tend to use it. Traditionally, pharma AI has been used to streamline call center experiences and call routing. But, this often turns into a maze of questions that leads the caller off track and takes far too long to speak to an actual person. Unlike the challenges above, the solution isn't to replace this with new technology. The solution is to simply use pharma AI correctly.
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The Solution to Bad Call Center AI?
AI can be extremely beneficial for pharma call centers when being used in chatbots on websites. However, the problems begin to arise when call centers leverage AI for automated voice answering. When it comes to critical answers about their health, patients have an innate NEED to speak to a live human being. Robot voices just don't cut it. A better use for pharma AI in call centers is to leverage it for online chatbots. When using chatbots, patients will be redirected and satisfied more smoothly, and it will also keep the stress off employees to answer those chatbots. For call centers with implemented AI, the solution to using it correctly is determined by how much it's used. Health is complex, and the answers that are given are important, just as the speed it takes to answer them. Using AI sparingly will result in patients speaking to the right human representative for the problem fast enough where the patient feels satisfied with the customer service. For pharma call centers, AI should act as a simple and short bridge to speak to a human call center agent, rather than a solution of its own.
7. More Ways of Communicating
The methods of communication have changed drastically over the years. In addition to traditional phone calls and emails, communication has opened up to chatbots, video tutorials, social media, texting, and so much more! Although the pie chart above shows that 74 percent of customers still would rather communicate with call center reps over the phone when dealing with complex issues, that preference is expected to drop by about 50 percent by 2019. The problem with having so many communication platforms available is that call centers are then required to invest in expensive hardware, software, and training for agents for each platform. Having so many different platforms at hand can also make tracking the patient experience more difficult, as many people will often bounce between platforms during their interaction.
The Solution to Having Excessive Amounts of Communication Types?
So, how can pharma call centers successfully manage all of the different communication platforms?
By using a solution that places the accessibility of all of the platforms into one location for the user. This can be done through Cloud Computing. With one central location to manage various platforms, it's much easier for pharma call centers to track patients on any platform and provide them with quick and high-quality solutions.
Pharma call centers have been and will continue being a vital part of the pharmaceutical industry. Whether you're working with a partner business or speaking directly to the patients, pharma call centers are important to the overall experience. As we see the digital era improving how patients control their health, some may see it as a dampener on the importance of pharma call centers. But, in reality, it creates more room for growth and the necessity of pharma call centers.
In this article we've covered 7 challenges that pharma call centers currently undergo and paired them with new technology that solves them, they are:
- Staffing: Pharma companies can invest in call analytics, call monitoring, and Interactive Voice Responses (IVR).
- Call Center Agent Dissatisfaction: Gamification application to improve training for pharma call center agents.
- Call Center Agent Health: Digital health monitoring devices for pharma call center agents to track their own health and for firms to stay on top of their agent's health.
- Metrics: Cloud Computing where pharma call center managers can analyze and store large amounts of data in one secure location.
- Patient Self-Reliance: Extend communication services to those such as an FAQ page, IVR, Youtube instructional videos, etc.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI): Don't overuse AI, instead, use it in a way that creates a bridge from the patient to the correct call center agent in a quick and easy process.
- More Ways of Communicating: Use cloud technology to have access to all the different communication services in one location. Thus, being there for patients at all times through their journey looking up their own health.
If you have anything you'd like to add that wasn't said or would just like to start some conversation with us, please do so below in the comments!
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