McKesson benefits from call center strategy

McKesson Health Solutions runs two fewer brick-and-mortar call centers than it did three years ago, and the company is set to shut down a third facility by year-end. McKesson's business isn't shrinking; its call center staff is relocating - to their homes.

Over the past three years, McKesson has increased its at-home worker population from 13 to 500 agents. Most are registered nurses who provide over-the-phone triage and disease management services to health plan members. Clients call in with questions about health concerns, and McKesson nurses call patients with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes.

Getting the company's distributed call center staff up and running wasn't easy, but the payoff is worth it, according to Linda Casey, a senior manager of operations at McKesson. The company is saving US$2 million each year in building leases alone, she told attendees at the recent International Contact Center Management conference in Chicago.

Hiring managers can choose from among a wider pool of candidates, because they aren't limited by the location of a call center facility. The at-home jobs are sought after, so McKesson typically can hire at-home agents for about 16 percent lower wages, Casey said. Agents tend to keep the jobs longer, too: Attrition rates have dropped from 37 percent before the work-at-home program matured to 20 percent today across McKesson's virtual and brick-and-mortar call centers.

At the same time, McKesson is benefiting from greater staffing flexibility. About 20 percent of its at-home staff voluntarily work split schedules, which lets managers better allocate their hours around peak call periods. The company shifts 1,500 agent hours each month from overstaffed times to understaffed times - the equivalent of eight full-time employees, Casey said. The pool of at-home agents is "the easiest to manage, and it's the easiest to schedule," she said.

While the payoff is satisfying, getting to this point required considerable effort. "We ran up against a lot of brick walls," Casey said.

For companies that are considering a work-at-home program, she suggests forming a steering committee with representatives from departments including human resources, finance, operations, IT and training. Getting buy-in from each of the departments is critical, so resolve any differences, she said. IT, in particular, needs to be on board for a work-at-home initiative to succeed. "They are probably the most important - and they will be the most resistant," she said.

A key first step in winning over naysayers is providing a compelling ROI. "That's the ammunition you're going to take to the executives," she said.

McKesson started with a pilot project involving 13 employees. As the program grew, managers refined the associated systems and processes.

For example, McKesson has had to increase its IT budget to support the work-at-home program. The company hired a new pool of IT people to support remote agents, Casey said. Remotely diagnosing an IT problem and talking an agent through its repair can be challenging. In some cases it pays to have IT make a house call, Casey has found. "It can be less expensive for us to send an IT person out to Pennsylvania to visit with three work-at-home nurses than it is for us to replace and retrain those three agents."

Technology plays a big role in McKesson's work-at-home program. The nurses deal with confidential information, and legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act demands provisions be in place to maintain security and patient privacy.

The company deployed a central Citrix server farm and thin clients to provide remote nurses with secure access to applications and centralized data resources. Nurses like to take notes, so each is outfitted with a paper shredder so that sensitive notes can be destroyed, Casey said.

For real-time communications, McKesson uses enterprise instant messaging (IM) technology from Jabber. With Jabber XCP, all of McKesson's IM communications are encrypted so that no personally identifiable information is sent in clear text, and the system archives message traffic for auditing purposes.

IM technology lets distributed agents stay in touch and get assistance when they need it. For example, some clients calling the nurse line are in a life-or-death situation. In the past, an agent working in a brick-and-mortar facility could wave a flag if a call came in that required help from a supervisor or an ambulance dispatch. With IM, a McKesson nurse who receives a critical call can message a supervisor and start the process of dispatching emergency services without interrupting the patient call.

Another technology tool that keeps things running smoothly is IEX's TotalView workforce management software, which gives agents and supervisors access to schedules and performance statistics via a Web browser. Agents working from home can see where staff is needed based on anticipated call volumes and adjust their schedules to fit gaps, Casey said.

Web collaboration tools also play a role, Casey said. McKesson does training via Webcasts and online modules, and the company conducts annual performance reviews with its at-home employees virtually as well.

After three years, McKesson continues to refine its work-at-home program and reap the benefits. But for newly launched programs, don't expect instant returns, she cautioned attendees. "There's a lot of upfront costs," she said. "It took us two years before we realized any savings."