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Work Friction: The Sleeper Crisis Plaguing Healthcare Contact Centers

How work friction takes shape, how it costs organizations, and how leaders can uncover long-term solutions

Maybe a patient has a billing issue. Or a question about the pre-authorization process. Or perhaps they just have to schedule an appointment. No matter their need, patients rely on healthcare contact centers as a crucial avenue for both provider and insurer communications. And each call can have a huge impact on patient satisfaction. If patients don’t feel respect for their time or particular needs, they’ll quickly grow frustrated.

The problem: many healthcare contact centers are rife with work friction – the people, processes, and technology that make it harder for employees to do their jobs. And the more roadblocks employees face, the more the patient experience suffers.

To combat work friction, it’s important to understand what it looks like at healthcare contact centers. Here, I’ll explain how work friction takes shape, how it costs organizations, and how leaders can uncover long-term solutions. 

What work friction looks like in healthcare contact centers

Healthcare contact centers have various touchpoints that can cause work friction. Picture…

  • An old or faulty headset. 
  • Software that’s hard to navigate.
  • Data entry fields that don’t auto-populate. 
  • Complex approval workflows. 
  • Managers who are too overstretched to support frontline workers.

In the age of AI, we’re also seeing generative AI chatbots emerge as a common friction point

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That might seem counterintuitive; after all, AI has been touted as a way to guide contact center workers through complex support interactions. But new employees often lack the training and expertise to identify the most effective AI-generated suggestions. So a decision that might be easy for a seasoned employee can be stressful for a new hire. And in the process, AI can become a major source of work friction.

The high cost: Inefficiency, employee turnover, and customer frustration 

In healthcare contact centers, work friction points rarely exist in a vacuum. In fact, they often combine in specific work moments, like solving a complex billing issue or supporting an emotional patient. And the costs can quickly snowball – for employees, patients, and the organization. Let’s look at a scenario to illustrate.

Consider a patient who’s just gotten test results back from a liver panel and is calling to schedule an ultrasound. They have 10 minutes left in their lunch break, and they’re already stressed about whatever condition they might have – not to mention the need to take time off work for their appointment.

When a contact center employee picks up, they start by confirming the patient’s contact information. Except the information doesn’t populate in the system. So the employee has to re-enter it field by field, eating up the patient’s valuable time.

When it’s time to schedule the ultrasound, the scheduling software takes a couple of minutes to load. The patient grows frustrated and lashes out: “I don’t have time for this. Can’t you all do anything right?”

The ultrasound does eventually get scheduled. But by this point, the call has dragged on far longer than expected. The employee now has a backed-up call queue to work through. And the patient has resolved to steer friends and family away from this provider.

Moments like this one aren’t just limited to provider-side contact centers. At a health insurance contact center, for instance, a new employee might struggle to answer a complex question about a claim. Maybe they can’t make sense of their AI chatbot’s guidance – and there’s no manager available for support. 

Regardless of the scenario, the outcome is the same: a hit to productivity and patient satisfaction. With multiple high-friction moments day in and day out, workers can quickly become overwhelmed and quit – worsening contact centers’ employee turnover crisis. That’s terrible for the bottom line.

The way forward depends on work friction data

It’s clear that many healthcare contact centers suffer from work friction. But it’s important not to assume where work friction exists. One contact center might struggle with repeat tech breakdowns, while another might have more of an issue with managerial support.

It’s also risky to assume how employees experience work friction – it often varies depending on the source. Employees are often more willing to forgive friction when it’s out of their employer’s control (like a rude customer). But they tend to resent friction that they know leadership can fix (like faulty software). The latter kind of friction is more likely to drive workers away.

So how can you uncover the highest-friction moments at your contact center? Start by talking to your employees.

That can seem like an unnecessary step in a world that privileges fast-paced decision making. The reality, though, is that workers are the best source of work friction data. Without their perspective, you risk pursuing solutions that don’t actually improve workers’ day-to-day experience. And you’ll waste time backtracking to find better alternatives. 

With targeted surveys – aimed at no more than a handful of employees – you can learn where work friction rears its head. What’s more, you can compare friction across key work moments to prioritize your friction-fighting efforts.

Once you know where work friction is at its worst, you can test solutions with employees and measure how much it improves their experience over time. For instance, consider our ultrasound scheduling scenario: the contact center might test out faster, more integrated software and track the number of reported tech issues over a six-week period. Leaders can use that data to assess whether their solution is meeting the mark or if it’s time to pivot.

The bottom line? Work friction data helps you learn which obstacles affect workers most so you can design high-impact solutions. 

Solving work friction has a huge ROI

There’s no overnight fix for work friction. But the time you invest in understanding it will have a huge ROI. 

Contact center workers will power through call queues. They’ll be less likely to quit in their first year. And they’ll deliver the high-quality support that patients expect when interacting with their provider or insurer. The long-term benefit: a more efficient and sustainable contact center operation.

Photo: AnnaStills, Getty Images

Christophe Martel is the cofounder and CEO of FOUNT, a platform that helps companies identify and remove work friction. He has 30 years of experience helping organizations improve the way their people work. He was formerly Chief Human Resources Officer at talent management and employee experience consulting firm CEB, which sold to Gartner for $2.7 billion in 2017. FOUNT’s clients are some of the world’s leading organizations including Adidas, Siemens, Baloise, Northwell Health and TEKsystems.

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